More than Half the Sky

By Sonya Rehman

“I can’t believe it’s over,” I said to one of my friend’s soon after our morning university graduation ceremony had wrapped up.

It was a surreal day. It’d been raining heavily the entire morning, and fresh graduates came gushing out of the campus gates like drenched smurfs in their powder blue gowns and caps with their smiling families and friends in tow.

My ironed hair was ruined and frizzed up like a hornet’s nest, and I struggled to keep my Columbia umbrella (that I’d won in a raffle draw) open while my friend hailed a cab from the curb of the road on Broadway. Jumping in as she slammed the door shut, she waved out to me. She wasn’t smiling too brightly. Neither was I.

I guess we were still trying to process the fact that we were leaving New York in a few weeks. You know those distinctive graduation pictures that feature ecstatic graduates jumping in mid-air, throwing their caps up into the sky? I hardly felt like that. I wasn’t giddy with elation. This wasn’t what it was supposed to feel like. This dull discomfort.

I’d worn heels that day. Black strapped heels. Never before could I have walked straight in a pair of heels without looking like a tipsy penguin. But I did. I’d taken long strides – while stepping into puddles of rain – feeling almost as if I was graduating from girlhood to womanhood.

I walked a block down to grab some lunch with my best friend and her daughter, who were waiting for me with a big red umbrella mushroomed over their frames. We were going to dig into styrofoam boxes of piping hot falafel and rice from the food cart across the street. And just a few hours later, I was going to walk across the stage with my other class fellows at the Journalism School’s graduation reception, to receive my degree.

Such a strange feeling. While some of my friends had internships lined up and atleast some idea of what they were going to branch out into in the field of journalism, I (along with numerous other fresh graduates) was stumped. What now? A scary thought indeed.

Funny, before I came overseas, I had it all mapped out.

I was confident, maybe too confident. Youth does that to you. You feel invincible. Until of course one day you notice your crow’s feet have gotten deeper and your first gray hair sprouts out merrily, waving  away like a noble queen, much to the chagrin of her miffed counterparts.

Ten months after living like a ragamuffin student, my insides have been re-programmed. I feel like Wall-E. It’s fun being a student – you’re so oblivious to everything outside the confines of your school/college/university gates. But the oblivion soon packs its bags and leaves you for good once you step back into the real world.

In April this year, to get a sense of career direction, I bunked one of my classes to attend a lecture by Nicholas D. Kristof, a well-known New York Times’ columnist, at the Journalism School.

Kristof had been invited to talk about his book, ‘Half The Sky’, co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

Shef, one of my batchmates holds out a copy of her book while I take a snap!

During my Master’s thesis, I’d begun taking an active interest in human interest stories. I was inspired to write about real people, and bring untold stories of substance to paper. My thesis subject had much to do with prodding me in that direction too.

Based on a patient, Srinivasan, who’d helped set up the country’s first patient-run radio station at the Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island; Srinivasan’s story had not only inspired, but changed the way I viewed the world in many, many ways.

And since Kristof’s column in The New York Times focuses on human interest stories and human rights issues, I felt compelled to attend the lecture.

In a book review by Irshad Manji for The New York Times, Manji writes that Kristof and WuDunn’s ‘Half The Sky’ “tackles atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks, and absorbing the fusillade of horrors can feel like an assault of its own. But the poignant portraits of survivors humanize the issues, divulging facts that moral outrage might otherwise eclipse.”

In the lecture hall, the rather humble Kristof spoke at length about how there’s an increasing appreciation today in the belief that the only “magic solution” vis-à-vis global poverty, civil conflict and terrorism, lies in educating women.

“Bringing those educated girls into the former labour force probably accomplishes more than any other single strategy that you can pursue,” he said.

“And I think the contrast between Pakistan and Bangladesh is an interesting one in that respect,” Kristof continued, “Bangladesh really went out of its way to educate girls in a way that Pakistan did not, and that in turn helped revitalize Bangladesh’s economy and Bangladeshi civil society. And I think that’s one reason why Bangladesh is more stable today – although I don’t want to exaggerate that too much…”

Kristof’s visits to Pakistan have been numerous. His first trip was back in ’82, where he backpacked throughout the country as a young law student. Later, he visited to report on the Taliban, healthcare and Mukhtar Mai.

“I’ve visited it [Pakistan] many times and visited everywhere from the tribal areas to Karachi,” Kristof told me over a few email exchanges a few days after his lecture at the school. “One of my main impressions is that Pakistan’s greatest failing is lack of emphasis on education, especially girls’ education. Pakistan will never achieve its potential until it perceives education as equally important to its security as fighter planes and nuclear weapons. And the elites need to ensure that there aren’t just good private schools in the cities for their own kids, but also decent village schools in rural areas.”

Nicholas Kristof at the Journalism School’s Lecture Hall (Photo by Sonya Rehman)

Stating that he loves Pakistani food, culture and the people, Kristof said that even the fundamentalists in Pakistan were very “courteous” to him on his visits. “I’d like to continue to write about education and healthcare and about women’s rights,” Kristof said when I asked him about what kind of Pakistani human interest stories he’d be keen to pen today. “Pakistan’s greatest unexploited economic resource isn’t gold or diamonds; it’s the female half of its labour force.”

At the packed lecture hall Kristof also talked about how injecting himself into his stories has raised many eyebrows. Such as, when Kristof bought two girls from a brothel in Cambodia and returned them to their villages. That was in 2004.

“I think that raised journalistic eyebrows,” Kristof said with a smile. At that point, the moderator of the lecture posed an interesting question to the journalist. The question was whether or not it bothered Kristof when he was criticized after the story for portraying the whole white man rescuing third world girls from misery and a lifetime of abuse.

To which Kristof replied point blank; “It bothered me much less than leaving them alone in the brothel to die of AIDS.”

“Are you blurring the line between advocacy and journalism,” the moderator then asked. “It’s a fine line,” Kristof answered. “And I must say people will periodically come up to me and say, ‘Nick you’re such a great crusader!’ Or something, and I will flinch at that because that suggests a notion as an advocate that one’s primary loyalty is to one cause or issue – and that one becomes less skeptical along the way. I think journalistic skepticism is incredibly important with every step.”

After the lecture and after the barrage of questions from the students were answered by Kristof, he moved to the other end of the hall where he began signing copies of ‘Half The Sky’ for eager students.

Posing for a quick photo with Kristof

Its been a little over three weeks since I returned to home turf. Assimilating myself to the life I’d left behind, a year ago, I’ve realized how easy it is to make a difference in Pakistan. And believe me, I state this without even an iota of naïve, sappy idealism.

As a Pakistani woman, and as a realist, one realization has hit me hard. And that is this; after living in the West, in the first world, enjoying its freedoms and its liberties, you carry your individualistic outlook on life back with you to your home country, on your return.

Thus, the ‘me-first lifestyle’ begins in the slow deterioration of identity – in the alienation from the self, family and eventually, society.

The intolerance for the system and the people sets in deep – like black tar in the heart – and we become complacent, narrow-minded and rigid.

What Kristof said during his lecture was correct; our greatest, unexploited economic resource – far more precious than gold or diamonds – are the Pakistani womenfolk, encompassing more than half the sky.

But before that, before we move towards reform, we must change our myopic, angst-ridden attitudes towards Pakistan first.

The Friday Times

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