“Development is about collective change,” says Safiullah Baig, a progressive development professional in Altit, Hunza. “It is not about individualistic ventures. It is about the qualitative transformation of society in favour of the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged.”
To him, “development is a process of [the] reconstruction of both the discourses of freedom and socioeconomic structures whose goal is the creation of a society without fear, poverty, oppression and exploitation. In a male-dominated society, women face more oppression and exploitation than men and, therefore, the transformational agenda must entail women-focused approaches as a primary condition of social change”.
Driven by passion, enthusiasm and empathy, Baig is engaged in groundbreaking efforts for women’s empowerment in Hunza in addition to his official obligations which are tucked into an eight-hour work day. He says: “development is not an assignment. It is a conviction, belief, commitment and a mission to transform the conditions of wretchedness into prosperity”. He continues: “development is about the political, economic and legal rights of the oppressed class and, therefore, it is political, transformational and must not be reduced to a technical subject”.
These captivating words of wisdom about development are axiomatic of the practical work carried out for the economic transformation of Hunza and the empowerment of women in the valley. Women from Hunza have been involved in carpentry, designing, upholstery, plumbing, masonry and music. They have defied the centuries-old patriarchal system.
Ciqam Ha – a phrase in the Burushaski language which means Green House – is a signature programme of the Aga Khan Cultural Services for Pakistan (AKCSP) that is managed by women from the far-flung areas of Hunza. It is facilitated by Safiullah Baig and Aqeela Bano. The outspoken Aqeela Bano is a political activist with a progressive bent and an advocate of women rights in Gilgit-Baltistan. She believes in walking the talk and has always been at the forefront in the fight against the oppression and exploitation of women in GB. Under the Ciqam initiative, she has encouraged more than 120 working class women to engage in various fields and, thereby, shatter the myth of masculinity associated with these professions.
The laptop-laden Bibi Amina is the first woman carpenter of Pakistan. She works along with dozens of other women at the Ciqam House to produce quality household decoration items and furniture for climate-friendly homes in Hunza and beyond. Bibi Amina and her ‘development comrades’ roam about the streets of Altit – in a manner that was traditionally the preserve of men in the patriarchal society of Hunza – to challenge socially-constructed roles. Bibi Amina and her co-workers are mostly from the marginalised segments of society. The Ciqam initiative provided them with social recognition, economic power and an edge in the intra-household power relations and decision-making.
The Ciqam House is a concept that revives climate-friendly wooden housing by using greenwood from the communal poplar forest under the auspices of the AKCSP. The Ciqam House initiative also ensures that more poplar trees are planted to improve local forest cover and protect natural forests. The revival of indigenous music also takes place at the Ciqam House where the educated youth – including a large number of girls – are engaged to preserve the vanishing musical forms and folk songs of Hunza Valley. A local young artisan says: ‘Music has been liberated from the royal court and has become a popular art now. Every educated young man and woman in Hunza aspires to gain mastery over traditional music”.
The women of the Ciqam House have convinced sceptics that a cultural renaissance is underway in Hunza to revive art and music as a means of achieving peace and pluralism in these tumultuous times.
As part of the Ciqam initiative, there is a women-run café that offers customers the indigenous food of Hunza. The hanging balcony of this café serves as a vantage point for a panoramic view of Hunza Valley – just below the 900-years-old Altit Fort. The Royal Garden of Altit has been purchased by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and has transformed it into a living museum of green initiatives under the Ciqam House.
“[The] revival of culture, art, music and reinstating traditional dietary habits and food is the only means to regain the longevity, happiness and [revive the] commune system of Hunza,” a local development expert says.
The people of Hunza are now exposed to multifarious problems in the wake of uneven development across GB, which has fuelled resentment and extremism. These problems are not of their own making. The growing political extremism and the trend of cultural vandalism in GB could impede the renaissance process in Hunza. The political leadership does not have the vision, means, authority and political will to support initiatives geared towards economic empowerment and social transformation.
Hunza also offers a great example of a community-based tariff for the off-grid hydel power project in Ahmadabad. The local community has created a well-functioning and sustainable power generation and distribution system – a model that will improve governance and manage electricity distribution.
Despite the locally-devised development endeavours and community-based transformational initiatives, Hunza lacks the government investments to improve its infrastructure to promote tourism. Hunza has been plunged into darkness for hours throughout the year, even though its rivers are the best source of the cheap and green energy. The government, with its meagre resources, can help accelerate the pace of prosperity by establishing off-grid hydel power projects.
Hunza, Nagar, Ghizer, Astore and Baltistan are the key tourist site. These sites can produce economic activity in the region during the summer if the government improves infrastructure and provides power supply. Meanwhile, the Shinaki region of Hunza is in a deplorable condition as it remains disconnected from the Karakoram Highway, despite repeated promises by the political leaders to help improve connectivity.
“The broadening and [paving of] road in the Shinaki region of Hunza was the top agenda of election campaign,” a local union council member says. “We voted for this one-point agenda. But the construction work was stopped after the election and it was an eyewash for getting votes.”
Despite all the hard work and enthusiasm for transformation, the people of Hunza have, so far, received no tangible support from the government. With their unflinching commitment to contribute towards a prosperous Pakistan, the people of Hunza have never allowed their sense of deprivation to divert their energies away from social development. My visit to Hunza helped broaden my own horizons of development and explore the possibilities of an alternative development paradigm.
Beneath the veneer of civility and peacefulness, Hunza is undergoing a rapid change and people have readily adapted to it. The best thing about this adaptability is that it is not a mere imitation. Instead, it is a struggle for transformation that harmonises local potential with the global knowledge. We have a lot to learn from the people of Hunza to build a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan.
Hussain, Amir. The secret of prosperity. The News, June 8, 2017.