Two Pakistans coexist side by side

To witness two realities in one country, one needs go no further than a suburban coffee shop in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. Among the fashionably dressed men and women sitting there, the news that some radical Muslim has shot a young girl named Malala Yousafzai for the sin of attending school sounds incomprehensible, as if from another world. The dissonance between the two Pakistans is even more dramatic as the world reports more on Malala than media do in the stable, educated part of Pakistan.

Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Pakistan has evolved into one country with two disparate cultures. Former President Pervez Musharraf deregulated state control over media, and ever since thousands of local and international channels have opened up, exposing Pakistanis to a plethora of issues, new cultures and hip urban lifestyles of global cities.

Urban middle class youth are quick to adapt their lifestyles to those of peers in Western cities. Yet the Islamic revivalism wave has not left Pakistan untouched, and various traditional and religious organizations have resisted influence of foreign cultures, often in unfortunate and violent ways that get much coverage in international media.

The young urban middle class of Pakistan, mostly neglected by international media outlets, are well wired into the world of Internet and satellite channels. Managers at multinational corporations, software engineers or customer relation officers by profession, a good number ultimately work for clients and bosses sitting in London, New York and other global hubs. An even larger number of Pakistani professionals maintain active profiles on international freelancing websites, offering services ranging from content writing to iPhone applications development. As a result, Pakistan has been consistently ranked among the top Asian contractors on oDesk, a freelancing website that pays hired workers by the hour. Thousands of young adults who have studied or worked abroad in the Middle East and the United Kingdom returned home to join companies in Pakistan.

Financially independent, the young Pakistani professionals aspire to a modern lifestyle seen on television or experienced abroad. Until a few years ago, the workday’s end would mean changing into baggy shalwar kameez, traditional dress for men and women, catching an hourlong episode of a family-centric sitcom like Alpha Bravo Charlie on national television and eating a roti dinner before heading to bed. Nowadays a night out could entail going out, dressed in famous Spanish Mango styles, catching Salman Khan in a Bollywood action thriller and eating a hamburger at Hardee’s followed by a frozen yogurt at Tutti Frutti.

The impact of foreign channels has altered the very fabric of traditional society, challenging the norm of gender segregation and the institution of marriage. “Having watched Bollywood love stories, everyone wants to date and find their own soul mate,” says Mobeen Khan, a native of Lahore and a supply-chain manager at a grocery chain in Saudi Arabia. Most young professionals have studied in coeducational institutions where they end up dating and later marrying classmates. Dating, long considered immoral, has become the norm among the urban middle class, and liberal parents accept it. “Most of my friends in college were dating each other, and are now happily married with their parental consent,” observed a student of Lahore School of Economics, a top coeducation university.

Changing values of a younger generation, in turn, make it feasible for media to display themes that wouldn’t have been discussed in general public a few years ago. For instance, Turkish soap operas, with Western lifestyles and dating norms, have found immense traction in the country. “I doubt there’s anyone in Lahore who has not watched at least one episode of the Turkish drama,” commented a photographer named Mahrukh, referring to “Ishq-e-mamnoo,” or “Forbidden Love,” dubbed in Urdu. Explaining the popularity of the show, she continued, “the fact that an Islamic culture was depicted full of adultery and ample eye-candy for both genders gave quite a shock to the viewers who do not have exposure to such mediums.”

Although many Pakistanis were shocked by the sitcom’s themes, it sparked a debate about whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, envisioned a Turkey-like country at the onset. “If Pakistan were to adopt a culture as depicted in the drama, it would inevitably also have to adopt the values of tolerance and openness in line with the ideals of ‘secularism’ and ‘tolerance’ held by its founding father,” Mahruk concluded.

Of course, not all sections of the society are pleased by cultural transformation in Pakistan’s cities. Conservatives, both purists and radicals, are opposed to foreign influences for a range of reasons and resist change. Purists expect strict Islamic values, along the lines of Saudi Arabian society, and would prefer an end to cultural accretions.

Whether religious schools or high-end schools like Al-Huda, conservative education programs attract diverse students ranging from laborers to upper class women. Pakistani observers attribute some of the success of madrassas to the absence of regular schools for Pakistan’s poor. But the success of Al-Huda – an institute that disapproves of photography, festivals, birthday celebrations and other local customs – with urban middle-class women is difficult to explain. Founded by a Scotland-educated woman in the mid-1990s in Islamabad, the school has expanded to 70 locations in urban centers in Pakistan, developed a presence among the Pakistani diaspora in Europe and North America, and produced some 15,000 graduates.

Sadaf Ahmad, an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, has conducted research on Al-Huda and describes its graduates as “very intolerant and judgmental toward people different from them.” Still, the institute helps women define their role and identity in a strict Islamic society and in doing so attracts a growing crowd.

Radicals go further in their goal of quashing the trends of globalization. Attributing all social ills to rampant Westernization, they’re willing to incite violence to establish a Taliban-style rule for Pakistan. “Western culture, not abuse, is why women seek divorces,” Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan recently told Reuters in response to a question about rising divorce rates in Pakistan. But radicals do not stop at denouncing Western culture with hate-ridden rhetoric that helps recruit young men into their ranks. They’re urged to destroy property: “Burn a KFC!” “Burn a cinema!” “Erase billboards!” All foreign influences are fair game in pursuit of an ideal Islamic state.

Despite the spread of both liberal and conservative values in society, a large majority of Pakistanis continue to be moderate in views and behavior. Their culture stems from an amalgamation of Islamic values and subcontinental traditions that evolved over centuries in a multiethnic India under Mogul and British rules. Whereas educating women is a natural choice, letting them marry without parental consent is unacceptable to many. Watching Indian cinema is acceptable, but many support censorship of any show of skin or sexuality. Easily aroused by religious sentiments, the majority are like conservatives in denouncing un-Islamic practices but act more like liberals in day-to-day activities. A comfortable majority, these moderates so far shrink in silence.

Pakistan and a majority of its population have been in search of a cultural identity since separation from India in 1947. Since 9/11, both liberals and conservatives have intensified efforts to win over the silent, moderate majority. If either side succeeds, Pakistan may become stable, without internal cultural conflict, mirroring either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Siddiq studied grand strategy at Yale College and is a former investment banker. He is the founder of Lahore-based Hillhouse Tech that provides outsourcing services to clients worldwide. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (, Copyright © 2013, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2013, on page 7.




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