For better or worse, Pakistan today is a country that is near-constantly in the headlines. With 186 million people (the world’s sixth most populous country), an estimated 100 nuclear warheads, and in the backyard of a raging war between the United States, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the country today stands at a crossroads—its future a hotly contested matter of debate. It was fitting then, for Sarah Lawrence to play host to the Re-Envisioning Pakistan Conference, held between the 4th and 5th of April at the Heimbold Visual Arts Center. A lively debate environment characterized the conference. Panelists of differing ideological strands were locked in uncompromising verbal battles that lasted to the bitter end—each one bringing their own unique viewpoint to the table, further enriching our understanding of the country.
The panelists themselves were a diverse set. They ranged from doctoral candidates at the Universities of Texas-Austin and Syracuse, critically acclaimed journalists and academics, to the reputed jurist and human rights activist Hina Jilani, the conference’s keynote speaker. The issues discussed ranged from the nature of class divisions and land holding patterns in the country’s rural areas to the status of sexual and religious minorities (specifically, the country’s beleaguered Ahmadiyya community), and the relationship between church (mosque, more specifically) and state. The conference also featured the screening of “The Other Half of Tomorrow,” a documentary highlighting the efforts of women’s empowerment groups in Pakistan. This was followed by a panel discussion with the documentary’s director and producers.
Ms. Jilani, founder of the country’s first women’s legal aid society, and a member of the Elders (a group of retired world leaders “who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building;” members include President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa), took to the stage on Friday evening to deliver an impassioned address not just on the status of women and minority communities within the country, but on the status of the country itself. Turning the conference’s title on its head, she openly questioned whether Pakistan had been envisioned in the first place, at the time of the country’s creation in 1947 when India, then a British colony, was partitioned. In so doing, she took direct aim at the country’s founders, the Muslim League, for creating a vacuum within the state that was later filled by illiberal elements that have hindered the country’s democratic process. In highlighting the plight of religious minorities, she ironically observed that the country itself had been created on the basis of protecting the Indian Subcontinent’s Muslim minority, but had itself failed to protect its own religious minorities (Christians, Hindus, and others). She, nevertheless, offered a glimmer of hope for those who wish the country well by highlighting the successes of her movement and movements like hers in helping pass landmark legislative and legal reforms that have given many in the country a voice. Ultimately, these movements have served to protect vulnerable communities. By the end of her address, one thing was clear: for Pakistan to move beyond its current predicament, the country is in desperate need of leaders like her. It was no surprise then, that she received a unanimous standing ovation from those present in the audience.
Re-Envisioning Pakistan provided an excellent opportunity for students at Sarah Lawrence to learn not only about one of the world’s most important countries, but one its most fascinating ones too. The students present in the audience were largely appreciative of proceedings, and came away with improved understandings of what is certainly a complex society.
by Harshavardan Raghunandhan '17
For more information on the conference and those who spoke there, please visit http://re-envisioningpakistan.org