Most middle-class urban households in Pakistan are typical: the man works and provides for his family while the woman looks after the house, expenses and children.
Gilgit-Baltistan, a relatively less developed area compared to Punjab and Sindh, would be expected by some (like myself) to follow the same domestic pattern. However, during my 15-day trip in the summer to the picturesque mountains of GB, my assumptions were pleasantly proven incorrect.
We took a flight from Islamabad to Skardu and from thereon we went to Shangrila. On our drive from Shangrila to the Khaplu Fort we passed many fields and small bazaars where women appeared to be actively involved in physical labour. The women were the ones who sat beside the water hand-washing their laundry, walking the animals and doing all other chores whereas the men were usually found sitting near their shops chit-chatting. Seeing this dynamic was different and yet so refreshing.
To my delight, Khaplu was not the only area in Gilgit-Baltistan where this trend was prevalent. While hiking in Shigar, we came across women who were carrying crops in baskets on their backs, hiking to and from the fields with the heavy baskets weighing them down.
To us, as a family it was an unusual site, but our driver, a native, told us that women working and visibly so was a common occurrence. It would be odd if a woman spent all her time in the house.
I also had the opportunity to interact with some trailblazing women, most memorably Aqeela Bano. A woman who in collaboration with CIQAM (with help from the Embassies of Norway, France and New Zealand as well as AKRSP) had started a wood work factory focused on employing under privileged women. She told me that she wanted to provide a workplace to help women provide for their families. These women are either divorced or married to husbands who are not earning. They are the only source of income and it is because of their job at the wood shop that they can pay the tuition for their children’s education.
They have done some extraordinary work, including building the new guest house inside the Altit Fort from the ground up. Along with the woodwork factory that focuses on infrastructure and furniture, they are also the ones who make instruments for the music school inside the Altit Fort guest houses. Bano was extremely accommodating and personally gave us a tour of the guest house and her workshop.
By chance, our hostess at Marco Polo (one of the most popular rest houses in/near Hunza) was also another inspirational female. She was working as the manager at the rest house for her summer job, and during the rest of the year she studies in the University of Punjab.
Luckily, the honour of meeting such wonderful women was not limited to just the vicinity of Gilgit-Baltistan. On our flight from Gilgit to Islamabad, my mother ended up seated next to a mother and her child. When the two got to conversing, it was revealed that she was flying back after visiting her family. She worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, while her husband was still waiting for the paperwork to come through so that he could join her there. She was one of seven sisters, all of whom were educated and working. She spoke many languages and told us that all the women in her district were working and that there was not a single house wife.
Before going on this trip, I had a disappointing picture of women in Pakistan painted in my head. But after meeting these women, I felt inspired and driven, with a rejuvenated faith in our people and realised that we are often unaware of all the progress happening in the background.