The Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program invited eight youth visionaries from Pakistan to the United States from March 31 to April 18, 2014. The program, dubbed “Young Leaders: Activism Through Social Media – A Project for Pakistan,” was arranged by Graduate School USA, located in Washington, DC.
Hammad Anwar represented Rabtt.org as Social Media Manager; Blogger Fatima Arif was there on her own accord; Sahib Khan Bhand represented the Information and Archives Department in the Government of Sindh; Iftikhar Hussain attended for Piclome, Inc.; Zoya Ishaq represented Terminology Production Private (TRP); Syed Faraz Liaquat rallied for Young Social Reformers; and editor and activist Rab Nawaz was there to support Khudi Paistan. One attendee did not show up for the U.S. visit, and another refused to be identified for fear of his safety.
The group was accompanied by Tasnim Rizvi and Ms. Gaitee Hussain, Simultaneous Urdu Interpreters, and Syed Hussain, Administrative Interpreter.
For all of the visitors, this U.S. sponsored trip was their first time stepping foot on American soil.
On Thursday, April 10, the World Affairs Council – Seattle held a panel discussion at the Mayflower Park Hotel on E. Olive Way. Approximately 50 attendees from various media sources filled the downstairs room. An overflow of guests lined the walls.
A topic of contention occurred immediately in regard to Pakistan’s lack of 3G services. Pakistan is the only major country in the region that still does not offer the modern connection to the outside world. Neighboring Afghanistan obtained 3G in 2012.
Pakistan is preparing to hold auctions for 3G and 4G network licences on April 23. An estimated $2 billion is expected to result, boosting the country’s foreign reserves.
Then, during a scheduled Q&A section of the evening, the topic of blasphemy surfaced. An audible stir in the audience occurred. Would discussing homosexuality on social media networks in Pakistan be considered blasphemy?
“There is not anybody who is open about this kind of thing,” Ishaq told The Seattle Lesbian.
“But there is one actor who dresses up as a woman and hosts shows like that. He is quite popular,” added Arif.
Regarding the fight for gay rights in Pakistan, one panelist didn’t see it being an issue.
“Islam does not allow it. We don’t have this issue,” said Hussain.
Nawaz had a slightly different response.
“There is not an organized group that speaks about this,” Nawaz said. “But there are underground groups in the bigger cities that have formed, but they are not well-known. My newspaper, in fact, published an article about homosexuality and saying Islam should accept a person, who is this, and we were basically told to leave it alone and that we shouldn’t have this kind of view.”
Still, for others the answer was placed squarely on the country’s religious convictions.
“One of things for Muslim people is that we are taught to care for others who are not Muslim first. So our religion does not allow for a Muslims to be gay, [and] it is our duty to help others,” said the panelist whose name we cannot print for safety reasons.
“But there is no law for people to marry, and there is no law to discriminate in Pakistan either. The third gender is recognized in Pakistan and can vote,” Nawaz chimed in.
“The third gender, however, is recognized now and has a separate identity on the National Identity Cards (unlike previously in Pakistan) and can now vote and also contribute to the economy as tax collectors,” added Ishaq.
Ishaq added that progressive Pakistani people looked to the U.S. as an example of the separation of church and state.
“Pakistan needs to understand that culture and religion are two separate things and there needs to be a clear line drawn between them,” Ishaq said.
Anwar didn’t think that would occur in the near future or, perhaps, ever.
“As Pakistan being one of the very ideological states religion forming the very basis of that ideology, personally I don’t see the separation between Church and State happening in near future or perhaps ever,” Anwar said. “But what is important is that everyone should be treated equally and given same rights and opportunities. This is something which is totally non controversial and not harming the basically sensitive ideological basis.”
Panelist biographies are located below this story for reference. One participant chose not to have his biography printed for security concerns.
Anwar is a blogger and activist, and is responsible for managing the social media platforms of Rabtt, a youth social initiative that promotes critical and independent thinking through educational camps. He oversees the group’s public relations, online marketing and networking. His work centers on current political and social issues affecting both Pakistan and its youth.
Arif, a marketing consultant and freelance blogger working in Lahore, uses her educational background and professional experience to inform others on social issues. She blogs on social and environmental issues, as well as photography. She is also involved with the Pakistan Sustainability Network, contributing regularly on environment-related issues. Arif wishes to take her work further in environmental protection.
As District Information Officer for the government of Sindh, Bhand disseminates information of official events through print, social media, and electronic media; organizes press conferences and media briefings for government officials to ensure flow of information between public and government; and liaises with the media. He has created pages on Facebook and Twitter, conducting outreach on behalf of the local government and promoting tourism in his rural district of Khairpur. Bhand strives to engage citizens, especially the youth of Sindh, in conversation about good governance. He also actively participates in social welfare and community development programs through media advocacy and community awareness programs on local radio channels. In addition to his official duties, he is also an active blogger.
Hussain is the Co-Founder of Piclome Inc., a leading mobile and web-application development company based in Lahore. He is also the lead trainer at Avinons, a youth development organization that aims to bridge the gap between academia and business. Hussain is also actively involved with many youth initiatives as a mobilizer and trainer. He has closely worked with private institutions and the government, promoting the use of social media to further causes like literacy and human rights. In his current position, Hussain interacts with government and emerging startups, helping with the incubation of internet-based ideas. He is an entrepreneur, trainer, motivator and dynamic youth leader, recently organizing a large social media conference about utilizing social media for development and activism. On his own initiative, he reached out to major companies like Google to seek sponsorship and participation.
Ishaq is responsible for production, marketing, advertisement, and event management at TRP, an event management company created by Lahore university students. She develops linkages with the corporate sector and business firms, develops media campaigns, conducts talk shows, produces dramas to highlight social issues, and undertakes marketing for profitable and non-profit organizations in Pakistan. Ishaq is a youth activist who has adopted social media and acting as a medium for social education and activism. She has experience as a public speaker, a trainer, youth activist, actor, director, producer, radio show host, debater, young entrepreneur, and event manager. She recently produced a play called Dengue which highlighted issues related to the disease and linked the theme with social issues such as ignorance and the role of a good citizen. She is also running a motivational speaker program which relates legends and folk stories through Sufi music. She has planned programs for charity and recently organized the first ever digital musical contest that was broadcast on TV to raise funds for thalassemia patients.
Liaquat is very active as a volunteer in numerous non-governmental organizations. He is currently serving as the Vice President of Young Social Reformers, an organization dedicated to the improvement of civil society and sustainable development through the engagement of young people. Within YSR, he runs a social media group with over 10,000 members and nearly 5,000 members in various sub-groups. Liaquat understands the need to provide Pakistan’s youth with a platform to engage in meaningful dialogues, and hence he uses his social media groups to engage students from various universities of Karachi in discussion of social issues through the use of social media.
Nawaz is an editor and head of training and mobilization for Khudi Pakistan, a counter-extremism social movement that works through youth to promote democratic culture in Pakistan. Nawaz also writes for the organization’s newsletter and produces anti-extremism narratives on the organization’s website, which he maintains himself.