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What dreams may come

A look at the life of a young woman, born and raised in Gilgit-Baltistan and the future she hopes for

What dreams may come

This evening our neighbour’s daughter, Nausheen walks into my Gilgit garden, a lovely, aquiline profiled, slender young woman studying at the Karakoram International University. She is deep into her environmental chemistry course, in love with her new learning. Rattled off the tip of her tongue, she has us in stitches with her bookish definitions, her quotations of Einstein, her renditions of Rumi translations. We are proud of the woman she is becoming. Strong, handsome, educated, her mind is full of dreams of her future.

Karakoram International University is the only public university in Gilgit-Baltistan and has transformed the culture of higher learning in the region since its establishment in 2002. Every morning, Nausheen walks out of her family farm, neatly dressed in one of her collection of seven university cotton suits. She walks down our sloping lane and catches the university bus to the campus. It is some fifteen minutes drive down the Karakoram Highway across the Gilgit river to the university. Her parents are farmers but she is a graduate student preparing for the life of a professional woman.

In the evenings when she returns from her academic work, she works on the farm, helping harvest ripe figs, cherries up on ladders or weeding the beds of vegetables and wheat, grown for sale and family consumption.

Among the Ismaili community of Pakistan, the pursuit of education is sometimes described as a crusade waged across generations. They are determined to educate their young, but the farms in my village rely on family labour all year round. So in this in-between stage until everybody is educated, I see that a double identity of farm and closeness to nature continues in a unique combination not seen in the city. In the morning in our village, professors from the university load up their car with seasonal produce to carry from farm to market where they are sold. In this way, a healthy and delightful busy-ness is everywhere.

It is evening in front of the glacial stream that flows through our garden. I am perched on a bench which I pat so Nausheen joins me. I appreciate her flawless skin, her sprightly frame and fine nose.

“Aunty I feel so depressed….my exams are tomorrow”. Never one to be afraid of mere exams, I help her peel back layers of anxiety. And out pops a story that is troubling her in layer two of her being, beneath the exams. Her cousin, Waris, working and studying in Karachi, has been taken under the wing by a wealthy Sindhi lady who happened to be impressed with him during a work encounter. “The Sindhi aunty arrived with him in our village, and announced to Waris’s father, this young boy is now my son! He is so honest and trustworthy…I’m taking him under my wing”. Nausheen relates how the cousin now resides in a house in Karachi’s DHA, waking when he pleases and doing what he likes as a guest of Sindhi aunty. An inexplicable stroke of fortune, spelling only comfort and ease.

“Some people get everything for nothing” Nausheen comments. Taken aback, I retort, “zero is what I give this story – why would anyone become dependent on someone else’s whims and wishes. Sindhi aunty will drop him like a hot brick one day, you’ll see… Now you – you must become a woman who stands on her feet, respected for her knowledge and profession.”

Nausheen laughs as she relates her cousin’s rags to riches story, but I know she is only wondering about her own fortunes. She sees my sceptical face, and breaking the dialogue walks to my blossoming roses, bending to smell them. I burst out, “if you were my daughter, I’d give you a good smack, and forbid you from coming to visit me if pies in the sky are what you dream about – and – don’t smell my roses!”.

Also read: The eternal and the mortal

Behind my embarrassing outburst of censure, is a third layer of young anxiety in Nausheen’s heart I know. She only confided it to me days ago. She is in love with a Shina boy from Gilgit, and hers are Burusho parents from Hunza. A star crossed love that she doesn’t know what to do with. Will she move on from this boy, dreaming the dreams of youth, will she challenge this taboo with her farmer mother and her father working hard at a petrol station in Chilas?

I can only see the promise of this beautiful young person, of the possibilities that are waiting to emerge in this bright mind and her joy of life. In my heart, I fear what the world might do to these bright possibilities, and I promise myself to watch over her; nurture her dreams and never again tell her not to smell my beautiful roses.

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib

Mehjabeen is an ecologist and writer who lives in Lahore.She holds a PhD in Social Ecology.


  • Another wonderful gentle anecdote that brings a whiff of crisp mountain air from the Karakorams, the subtle scent of the roses and the sound of water and a lesson in it all. Good luck to this young visitor and may she prove her true worth.

  • Bravo Karakoram University. May the females of this valley be the first educated cohort of this place and teach everyone else a lesson!

    • KIU is slowly transforming Gilgit-Baltistan. Long may it thrive in peaceful and increasingly engaging ways with our unique GB. I dream of a day when the students of that university will use their very own villages and cultures and mountains and wildlife as a living classroom.

      • May your dream come true and may it not remzin a dream!

  • All the best to nausheen. May she flourish and follow her dreams and also continue supporting her family in their farming business.
    I fear that many from the community would leave for the brighter lights of big cities and abandon the vast opportunities for growth and development Thier region promises.
    I hope the university also offers programmes and research in enhancing farming practices so the local graduates can implement new farming innovations and techniques in their family businesses.

    • Thank you Saima for your close and empathetic reading. There is much to be proud of in educating the girls of Pakistan. Do you know that educating girls is one of the top actions that the world can take for climate change?

      It is so exciting to see the change for girls’ education that have happened in our lifetime – and yes as you say it opens fears and hopes about the choices and mistakes that they might make.

      • Indeed. I’m amazed by the brilliant potential our girls have and their determination and grit in making their dreams come true despite cultural and social constraints. More power to the nausheens of this world!

  • Beautiful. Simple with a human touch with symbolic significance

    • Thank you Mr. Adil for sensing the symbolism. May our girls flourish, grow and remain safe all at the same time.

      • Amazingly beautiful read. Very well expressed

  • I love to all of your sympathetic attitude towards Nausheen which I know since about two decades your unforgetable love to the communities of Northern areas like shimshal valley to lifting up their poverty and their self confidence on education and adopting all the ways to live as per harmony of nature. Nauseen is one fom those and there will be many young girls and boys coming acoss every day by the only one Dr. Mehjabeen whom I know is very polite and humble. Please advise me what we can do for this examplary girl who has already fulfilled her dreams choosing her love fom there. I wish her every success. My wish to find my second daughter in law like this self made and confident girl. We do not belong to a rich family but have soft heart to wish and think. Photo of Nausheen is missing at the end. Whenever I go through your book or article its give me feel I am there.

    • Thank you very much Mr. Younas. Rural development in GB is a wonderful story of participatory development and an increased sense of self respect and dignity for the local communities – this is what real development work should do.

  • Beautifully written. I am still in Gilgit though my body is stuck in Lahore. We need universities in every town let alone city- hope things work out for Nausheen

    • I’m so glad you had a morning joining me (mentally) in my Gilgit garden. Nausheen is a pseudonym for a real young woman with a real life. She has made an extraordinary choice and called me on the phone to tell me about it. She’s finished a part of her degree and has qualified to work in an international airport through sitting for a regional competitive exam. Now she’s going to go out into the world on her own – but assures me she will never forget to care for her homeland and her family.

  • Such a sweet yet scary story of today’s world , and what a blessing, people like you, helping our youth there , hang on to the righ pardigm May you always be blessed with unseen help & courage Aameen♥️

    • Thank you Rabia. I love your encouragement to write these little tales of daily life. I hope you will join me in going outside to be informed, connected and inspired.

      • In Sha’ Allah ,with pleasure jee. It’s always a treat♥️

  • I have read you through years, as a wonderful, calm and a gentle woman.
    In this beautiful and symbolic writeup, I see your dreams unfold.
    As you were narrating the story, I felt as if I was also somewhere near you and Nausheen watching over.
    I really appreciate your insight, expression and understanding on the importance of female literacy which is no doubt, the key to making our planet a better and a safer place.
    The mental, physical, social and environmental well-being are all linked, none but the strong and steady hands holding the cradle can bring out the true harmony amongst all.
    KIH has really opened up a highway to endless opportunities for our future generations of GB to follow their dreams.

    • Thank you Soubia for your thoughtful reaction. I couldn’t agree with you more! The key to making our planet a better and safer place is women’s education and strength. It is also one of the key actions to reversing climate change – Greta Thunberg is Sweden’s example of such a girl. So we are witnessing a sea change.

  • What an amazing experience to be in your Gilgit garden with the scent of roses and mountain air.!

    Nausheen is obivously a bright young woman who is well rooted in the culture and life of her region but at the same time is aware of the importance of education
    Wonderful that you support her.
    Girls are to be treasured and are the way forward to helping our wounded world heal.

    • A garden is indeed a good place to treasure each other and the natural world. In that act, as you say we help to heal a wounded world. Thank you for sharing the experience with me from your arm chair.

  • Thanks for your wonderful articles Mehjabeen. KIU provides an opportunity for local students, especially women, to truly transform their lives and surroundings and also launch into the world beyond as Nausheen is doing. Best of luck to her and others

    • Thank you for reading the columns Masooma. Yes education is transforming women’s lives, and just as in Nausheen’s life, we will have to make way for their learning, faltering and triumphs. Imagine a Pakistan where we could commit to allowing our girls to grow and keep them safe too…certain to lead to transformation!

  • This is beautifully written. It gives a perfect glimpse into the area, its people, thier challenges, and their aspirations. And in a subtle way, it inspires the reader to look after the bright talent that is fast emerging from that region. No doubt the people of Gilgit Baltistan are full of promise and resolve; they just need to be nurtured a bit. I hope they get all the oppprtunities they deserve.

    • You are right Zeeshan, there really is bright talent and and I too hope that we will value it as a nation.

  • I came across this wonderfully written heartwarming article by chance or perhaps unseen guidance as I sat browsing the internet.I love the imagery and genuine concern you feel for the people and the environment that you reside in. As I continued reading there was an eerie feeling that the author was familiar and somehow known to me. Hello Mehjabeen this is Farhat ,Aunty Ashrafs daughterinlaw from Moncton ,Canada. Normally have never responded to articles but felt compelled this time to let you know how much I appreciate and envy the wonderful work you are doing. Regards.

    • Wow I am amazed by your eerie feeling of familiarity through the writing! Thank you so much for reading and then writing back too, especially when you don’t normally do so. I hope you find the forthcoming article this coming Sunday interesting too.

  • Lovely read, the way you beautifully pictured Gilgat (one can actually imagine being there  ) and the struggle of a young hard working women with high dreams ready to fly. Her struggle and mingle with social setup. The way she admires her cousin who lives in Khi and her emotional attachments. I remember a similar struggle of a young women in muzaffargrah, her journey through enlightenment and education. Feel inspired to see such beautiful hardworking souls accomplish great. With best wishes for Nausheen and young women like her. I really hope such young talented women find avenues where they can link outside world and their beautiful homeland in the path of fulfilling their dreams.

    • As you rightly point out Sadia, there are hard working young women with big dreams all over Pakistan. Even in Muzaffargarh, one of the poorest districts of Pakistan.

  • This is an excellent article which captures the the travails, hopes and aspirations of a people, especially of young women unfettered from centuries of physical isolation and living under tough tribal codes. The article provides a lot to ponder- lately we have seen a spike in suicides committed by young women across the region and many of the reasons are attributable to these social, cultural, and sectarian boundaries that disable the people to find love, exercise their freedom and choose a life befitting contemporary needs for social mobility and progress in life.

  • Sultan Abbas thank you for framing the story in its proper context of a history of high mountains, isolation and tough codes. All of those constrains are coming loose in the modern world, and the tragedy and loss of young lives is indeed a reality that we need to pay close attention to. Your comment reminds us that a balanced whole of human possibility is a saving grace, provided there is space to develop it. I agree with you: love, study, work, dreams, health all counterbalance each other to form the complete human who over a lifetime can contribute to the well being of others also – in addition to saving herself from the perils of an unpredictable world.

  • …this manner or mature reflection fills an important gap in our society’s readership: what hurdles await a young woman? My senses are by now inundated by demotivating and familiar rants of hackneyed statistics … instead, here I find deep texture that cuts into a future woman’s fragile aspirations…

    • Thank you Ali for your reflections on a real woman in the making. I agree, this is a deep and textured process full of peril and joy. Our daughters, wives and women on the street all represent these fragile aspirations as you so rightly observe. Yes the gender statistics forget to include the human qualities that go into a real education.

      • Full of peril and joy… may the first be attenuated by full ownership

  • This fills a gap for our readership: what hurdles await a woman in the becoming? I find here for the first time a genuine education… reflections on her fragile aspirations, those of her family, and I find my statistics (as an economist) transform into an Aunty so I may never think of them the same way again…

    Besides the readership, our leadership has only to re-imagine the garden and ask what they would do were they tending to the soil and revisiting her along the seasons that lie ahead.

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