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Of women on pink bicycles

By: Zahrah Nasir

When a group of people with peace in mind gather together for two days of presentations, poetry, music and dance, issues such as cast, colour and creed completely cease to exist: love and harmony becomes the rule, rather than the exception and the goodwill and positive intentions. Thus, generated is a prime illustration of how our world can be, if we cast aside differences and work together for the benefit of all.

Actively participating in one such event – ‘The International Sufi Peace Festival’ held in Amritsar, India, recently was a pleasurable honour. The honour multiplied manifold by being a member of the official Pakistani delegation of writers, poets, musicians and dancers, who were invited to represent our country on this auspicious occasion.

Held under the banner of ‘South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’ (SAARC) and jointly organised by the ‘Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature’ (FOSWAL) and ‘Punjab Heritage and Tourism Promotion Board’ India, this groundbreaking event was held in Khalsa College, a historic building of overpowering grandeur and glory and attended by participants from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

“So…….what’s the big deal?” I hear some of you wonder and why is the event being written about in this column, rather than under a general news heading?

The answer is this: living here in Pakistan, many of us have simply gone with the flow of repression – cultural, religious and otherwise – that has increasingly manifested ever since the Zia era when freedom of action and interaction, on a multitude of levels, began to, slowly but surely, be taken away. On the whole, this happened in such a manner that a large percentage of the population failed to recognise it for what it was and so did nothing at all to prevent this steady erosion of the human right to ‘be’.

This erosion, deplorable as it is, speeded up over the last decade and, in the recent past, gained astronomically destructive proportions to the point, admit it or not, that we all, on a certain level, now live in fear: a fear that many fail to recognise until, as with the writer, one is lucky enough to spend even a little time in a place where such ingrained fear does not exist.

That I am writing about India will, this is also ingrained now, aggravate a certain segment of the population here but I make no excuses, other than that I happened to have been invited there, for using this example which, I have no doubt, is equally applicable to the majority of other countries around the world too. So read this in the spirit in which it is intended and do not go off at an anti-Indian tangent, please!

Once across the Wagah border and on the highway to nearby Amritsar, it is a revelation to see a mosque, a church and a temple all in close proximity and, Amritsar being the holy city of the Sikhs, then Sikh places of worship abound too and, life being as laid back as it once was here in Pakistan, then adherents of these and of other religions, happily intermingle in their daily life with absolutely no evidence of tension between them.

Smiling faces abound, people laugh and chat on the streets, schoolgirls in white uniforms with a pink dupatta draped around their shoulders ride pink bicycles to school and back, college girls and women, some with children in tow, ride scooters and motorcycles, navigating through dense downtown traffic with practiced ease and without, or so it appears, a care in the world and the atmosphere is one of total freedom. There is no need of security at hotels, in shopping centers, at office buildings or educational institutes; no one objects if, after sundown, young men gather around music playing cars parked by the side of the road to sing along and generally chill and teenage girls are both comfortable and safe to jog quiet streets. Couples amble along hand in hand and strangers call out greetings, and, frankly speaking, the atmosphere of freedom hits the newly arrived Pakistani with the impact of a ton of bricks!

Delegates and performers attending ‘The International Sufi Peace Festival’ were of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other denominations too. Yet, all shared words, thoughts, literature, art forms and general bonhomie without the slightest trace of hesitation or tension, generating a beautiful atmosphere of peace in the process and were a living, breathing demonstration of how wonderful a place this world can be in the absence of war and fear and of how, working together in tolerance and peace, we can all lead harmonious lives to the benefit of every single life form on this badly beleaguered planet.

Being a very patriotic Pakistani, it is painful to admit that things here are worse than I had previously realised and I returned with a large amount of trepidation, recognising that we are severely and increasingly repressed on each and every single level of existence and that, unless we the people, put all perceived differences aside and actively work together for change, we are set to plunge further into fear and misery than ever.

The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

The Nation