Please may you consider for your due respect.

In between managing pre-expedition logistics like buying spare parts for our 10-kg two-burner stove and arranging for the two goats that we will be bringing to base camp, I’ve also been scratching my head and thinking about what we might un-creatively call ‘gender norms’ in this society.  I’ve been working for about eight months on a research project about girls’ education in rural Pakistan, and at some point in the future I am expected to turn in a long paper on said topic, but ultimately I am most comfortable identifying myself not as a ‘researcher’ so much as a person hanging out with other people and trying to make some sense of their world(s).  (Citation to the late Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist who famously defined ethnography as the practice of ‘deep hanging out.’)

My observations in schools, households, and everyday interactions over the past week have given me a sense that Skardu– like many semi-urban areas in this part of the world– is changing very rapidly.  Informal interviews with mothers, fathers, teachers, and school administrators have indicated dramatic changes in social norms regarding whether or not girls should go to school, get a job, choose their spouse, or inherit property. These changes are both similar and different to what I observed during a recent month of ‘deep hanging out’ in southern Pakistan.  It is difficult to determine whether girls’ education is a cause or effect of such changes — it is likely both– but either way, it is undoubtedly bound up in them.  Yet it would be dangerously naive and arrogant to think or hope that increasing girls’ education in areas like this will somehow lead towards a future that perfectly matches our own biased conceptions of ‘gender equality’ or ‘women’s empowerment.’

There has been so much written and said about the veil (or hijab or dupatta) in Islamic culture that I need not introduce the topic any further than to mention that many Americans still assume it is some symbol of women’s oppression or marginalization in this context.  The same can be said for the general practice of maintaining physical separation between men and women who are not related: outsiders might tend to think this separation is a symbol and agent of women’s subordination.  The photo and video shown above suggest a different perspective, and challenge us to think harder about how to give ‘due respect’ to different norms while still remaining committed to our own (inevitably biased) ideals about what kind of world we should work to create.

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