In the first light of the day each morning while staying with Ali Shafa’s uncle Safar Muhammad Malik, I would watch the women and children going to get water. It is a timeless activity and there are many stories about women who have gone to the well. It is a social task in which women and children can meet and exchange gossip, and in bad weather it is a bleak task. It is a simple activity that has gone on since time before memory. Turning on a water tap in an urban house is much easier and safer, but it cuts people off from that social connection of gathering and chatting for that little bit every day.
Tradition and custom are powerful forces in a culture. They connect the generations across time, giving an identity to the people. At the same time, they can choke the society and prevent progress that is in the people’s best interest. It is not an easy thing to determine the balance point between upholding cultural traditions and entering into needed societal change. For one thing, it’s different on every issue. For another thing, people within a society rarely agree on it. Not to mention that change in general is usually seen as threatening because it disrupts the status quo, regardless of how desirable or necessary the change is. In the face of internal and external pressures for change that exist right now in Gilgit Baltistan, we would be wise to give consideration to what changes we want, at what pace, and how put into practice in the society.
Education, social media, cell phones, and other mechanisms are opening minds to new ideas and have brought a level of domestic and international connectivity never dreamed of before. I have Skyped with friends in some far flung villages who in the past might not have ever seen me or talked to me. This level of exposure to the outside world, and by the same token, the outside world’s exposure to Gilgit Baltistan is an amazing resource. It is in fact how I came to work in and for GB. But blessings are seldom straightforward in delivering only the thing we desire; they also come loaded with unanticipated consequences.
I am a strategic planner among other aspects of my work. In that capacity, I have observed the emerging divide between the past and present cultures. I am not in GB to impose western views on the people. Ali Shafa has included cultural preservation as part of the Global Unified Syllabus concept of Himalaya Rural Development Program. It is widely desired in the society that the children be taught their mother tongue in the formal education setting, not just Urdu and English, to protect the many indigenous languages of GB from extinction. Some communities work to teach the youth their history, traditional dances, and other traditions. But we need a way to decide what else we want to keep in order to maintain the cultural identity of GB in the larger sense in addition to how GB wants to incorporate the changes it is working toward.
It would be a great loss if GB were to lose its personality to westernization because of confusing it with modernization. It is important, in my way of thinking, to engage people in dialogue to devise a path that chooses what elements of culture to keep and how to adapt them to the new paradigm. Style of dressing and language are obvious cultural attributes to protect. There are more subtle aspects that need thought, though, such as how to give women a way to gather as the dominant reality becomes tap water. As children are removed from the workforce put into education, their daily interactions and role modeling experience is going to change. It is an important consideration, because these are ways culture and values are transmitted without specific thought or effort. Now we must look at making a clear plan for how to accomplish this and what specifically is going to be taught. My own observation and experience in western society is that children lose a sense of gratitude and familial responsibility very quickly when they are no longer part of earning the family living. Parents work to give children a better life and separate the children from harsh realities, giving rise to children who have a false belief in their own entitlement to the rewards of hard work without working hard.
An item more in the political and social forefront is the gender equality and female education aimed to empower women within their own lives. Yet the society has not planned for ways to give women full expression of their empowerment. It seems to me to be a matter worthy of serious attention. It would be a tragedy to lose our women abroad as we are already losing our men because no one took the time to chart a path for inclusion over the long term. The Global Training and Research Institute initiative planned by HRDP is already seeking idea inputs to begin that conversation.
A topic that has been gaining momentum in western media is how to keep males from lagging behind females in education and employment. As females gain a foothold, they are demonstrating tremendous aptitude and outperforming males. It is no more appropriate for women to overpower a society than it is for men to do so. This is a place where GB can be a real trendsetter. Since integration of females into social power is still in its infancy, potential solutions to known problems can be generated and a watch can be placed to catch others issues early on for solution development to begin.
It is not a good idea to passively sit and wait for problems to arise during a period of major change. Neither is it necessary for GB to avoid looking at the situation and idly join into the global homogenization of culture that is going on. I look to the innovative people of Gilgit Baltistan to treasure their culture while finding ways to move boldly into the future with new ways to express traditional values. The women at the well may in some ways become a part of history, but the benefits of the practice can find new sources for the water of life.