Maybe I should be fearful. Heck, I was born and raised in Pakistan. To some, that’s reason enough to be afraid, but I accept that in a post 9/11 America, my country conjures up all kinds of misconceptions and contradictions. To be fair though, what country is without them? What if I told you that Pakistan the most urbanized country in Asia? Or that English is the official language of business? Would you still be fearful of Pakistan or me for that matter?
I am a walking contradiction, but isn’t the globalized world all about turning old notions upside down? I credit much of my fearlessness to being educated at a boarding school where I was exposed to the Western value of independence. If independence is one of the key dimensions of the Western mindset, then fearlessness is the byproduct. I am also the result of an utter yin-yang upbringing that was both rich in traditional Eastern values and progressive optimism, thanks to my parents, who were visionaries, despite their generation and beliefs. They believed I would benefit from a Western-style education. So in 1974, I was sent to St. Deny’s all-girls Christian boarding school run by the British Missionary Group of Himalayan Schools. In 2010 it was burnt down by Islamic militants because it was smack dab in the perilous area of Murree; and, it shared a nearby border with the equally dangerous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which lacked any strong check posts.
Call me an optimist, but if history is any indication about the fearlessness of my people, then positive change is on the horizon, if not happening right now. Peshawar was once a major center of enlightened Buddhist learning in the 2nd century CE. It was also a central trading center at the busy intersection of the Silk Road; where East met, bought, sold and traded with the West. Despite current events, not only does nothing stay the same, but thanks to globalization, it doesn’t stay the same for long. Right now, a deep historical legacy of progressive ideas is drilling through these hard scrabble mountain villages with democracy with the likes of Imran Khan. The youth support him and that he said, was his victory, despite losing the election on 14 May 2013. His party swept the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the elections, I think, with a little help from the area’s enlightened history.
Passionate, loyal, hospitable, and proud: American or Pakistani traits?
The Western ways are tantamount to my Eastern ones, even if that fiercely independent American mindset may seem to run counter to my Pakistani one (if not to human nature!). But then again, there’s been a certain kind of love-hate relationship with West and Pakistanis have always trouble reconciling it. I read somewhere that because people are born dependent and connected to others, American independence may be hard to understand. I understand that it’s not only desirable, but necessary. I get it. Their independence may be perceived as “selfish” to others, but I know from experience from an immigrant family that it’s rooted in self-reliance. Ironically, it is precisely this unlikely aspect of the American mindset that glues such a big country together. It’s what unites them.
Still, you’ve got to understand that Pakistanis — who are like 85 percent of the rest of the world — because they are relationship-oriented, or Collectivists. Not Individualists, or like Americans. Social networking doesn’t count. If you want to know what makes them tick, you’ve got to really, really understand our strong need to form personal relationships. For example, when it comes to business, a Pakistani seeks to build trust in order to do business. For Americans, this is frustrating because this takes time. And for them, it’s the other way around. Trust happens later, as a consequence of business, or what we call a track record.
Margaret Mead said (with irony I’m sure) that because of their age-long training in human relations, women have a special contribution to make to any group enterprise. When my father joined the World Bank in 1982, we immigrated to the United States and settled of course in Washington, D.C. Finally, I thought, I will have the freedom of choice and speech I need. As much as I love my culture, let’s face it, the gender gap is huge. Men are in charge, so speaking your mind as a woman is just not done. The Peshawar province does not mean the “city of men” in Sanskrit for nothing. Little did I know that’s I would have to be fearless and make life or death decisions, despite what I knew about eastern ways.
I refused to accept an arranged marriage and I married for love. Although my husband is Indian, he is neither from Pakistan, nor was he from the same religion which caused problems, but we overcame them. Since 1988, I have raised our four beautiful children and fearlessly followed my dream to have my own business. In 2007, an opportunity came along, and within a year, I established IKG Global Consultants in four countries including the U.S., UK, Canada and Singapore. My company provides international and domestic relocation services, destination services, human resource services, global payroll management and supply chain management, as well as supplier assessment and sourcing.
Since I worked with people from different backgrounds and cultures, traveling was never been an issue, but in June 2010 my father fell very ill and my courage was tested. Looking back, I feel proud of the strength God granted me to handle and accomplish something my father felt so proud about, not that he wasn’t already proud of my accomplishments or my fearless personality.
In 2010 my dad was working in Yemen on a project for GOPA, a German development consulting firm that was developing and building a secondary education system for the young girls of tribal Yemen in coordination with the Yemini Ministry of Education. If these girls had access to education they could avoid the traditional practice of early childhood marriage. This work would have wide-ranging effects, not only on their health and welfare, but on that of their community and beyond. This has been an ongoing global problem that I am very concerned about because 10 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year, many as young as eight. In developing countries, one in every three girls marries before they are 18. Economically, an increase of only 1 percent in girls secondary education attendance, adds 0.3 percent to a country’s GDP.
According to the World Health Organization complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women. Young girls who marry later and delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence have more chances to stay healthier, to better their education and build a better life for themselves and their families. So for me, since women’s rights are a constant matter of discussion in Pakistan, it was important to contribute something positive to the emancipation of disadvantaged women, no matter where they are from.
Women do not always experience equality with men in Pakistan, but this is changing. Women’s education has not been a priority in the past, but many more women are entering the labor force even though the majority of their jobs is often below the “threshold of decency.” The situation is better in urban areas. Of course, I was the exception and I was able to work in what is considered the most coveted kind of position for an ambitious Pakistani woman — with a multinational company where there is a chance for progression. Pakistan did, of course, have a female prime minister in Benazir Bhutto, and has had four other prominent female politicians, but each of these inherited their political career from their husbands/fathers and later became politicians in their own right.
Fear may be scary, but it’s a powerful motivator
In June 2010, I got a call from Yemen that my dad was in the hospital on the project with a serious lung infection. I flew there in couple of days and my dad was not only relieved to see me but his condition had improved and he was released from the hospital. We made arrangements that he would rest at home and recover. Meanwhile, I planned to go back to the states and return soon to be with him. As soon as I landed in New York, I got a call from his wife that he was being taken back to the hospital. He had a heart attack. His kidneys were failing. I immediately had to get on the next flight back to Dubai and then on to Yemen. My dad was in the ICU at a Yemen hospital, a very male dominated society where people accept a hierarchical order. Everybody accepts their place and this behavior needs no further justification. Power is also very centralized and subordinates — meaning women and children — expect to be told what to do by the “benevolent dictator.” A man.
By all accounts, I was Pakistani looking on the outside, but I am all American on the inside. Needless to say I had to dial back the I-am-women thing. I had to dress more modestly, headscarf and all according to tradition because I had to assert myself and become the decision maker for when it came to the health and welfare of my dad.
I spent hours at the ICU with my dad who was hardly conscious. I had to use various meditative and musical therapies to help me maintain my hope and buffer me against this chauvinistic Middle Eastern culture of doctors as my father’s advocate. Fearlessly, I persuaded them not to do any surgeries or procedures because I wanted him to be treated in a hospital in the west. I made arrangements with the help of my dad’s employers and health insurance agency in Germany to airlift my father from Yemen to Frankfurt. It took me five days to make it all happen and finally, on July 1, my Dad’s birthday, I gave him the good news that we were flying out of Yemen in an air ambulance with a doctor on board to boot. We went through the required procedures and after ten days he was able to fly back to the U.S. on a commercial flight.
This experience gave me such a sense of accomplishment and triumph because I was able to help save my dad’s life. I was brave and fearless in a country where women have to work so hard to earn their place and prove their worth; where their health and welfare is rarely considered. I was not only heard, but I spoke for a male elder in a position of authority.
Being fearless means not only stepping out of my comfort zone, but also persuading others to step out of theirs too. It means advocating for my rights and that of others, like my dad and for the human right of girls. It’s about having a voice. It’s about being heard and respected. It means having the courage to do what I have to, especially for the sake of justice, decency, and human rights.
By Iram Ganju