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Hunza Valley: Lost Whispers

By Amir Hussain

September 29, 2017

There are fairies, demons, witches and flying saucers in the valleys surrounded by the gigantic mountains and snowy peaks of Hunza. This is how grandmothers used to narrate stories to their grandchildren in Hunza valley not very long ago.

But this practice has now slowly faded, leaving an unquenchable thirst in the inquisitive mind to explore the mysteries of nature. A child cannot tell what mysteries keep him/her embroiled in an uncanny sense of remorselessness. Why is this darkness so sombre, melancholic and scary and why is there no one to give it a meaning? The roses of gardens were once the abodes of butterflies – the incarnation of fairies that descended to these valleys during the night to illuminate them when demons were conspiring to roam around. The demons and witches had their own schemes to haunt the valleys at night in collusion with evil spirits to cast deadly spells on helpless humans. The fairies and flying saucers would thwart the transgressions of demons into human abodes through their mysterious powers of beauty and illumination.

All these stories appear to be little more than superstitions to the modern mind. But these narrations had a deeper meaning. The imagination of a parallel world of light and darkness, the existence of good and bad spirits, the ingrained psychological fear of the magnanimity of nature and the human curiosity to give meaning to a surreal world were all elements that were full of life.

Now this beautiful valley has undergone tremendous changes within a span of 30 years. There are no fairies to illuminate the night, no demons to grope in the darkness and no witches to cast deadly spells. Grandmothers no longer hold the charm to mesmerise curious kids with their magical words that crafted meaning out of an unfathomable darkness. The context of that imagination has been lost to a simulated yet equally unreal world for the educated and tech-savvy youth of Hunza. The grandmother’s role is now irrelevant and her wrinkled, grim and emaciated face tells the story of her agony and loneliness. There is no one to listen to her beautifully crafted tales of the valour, bravery and knighthood of those powerful men who overpowered demons and witches. In her stories, there was little or no mention of women. They only featured in the stories as witches and creatures that were inferior to men.

The traditional society of Hunza has seen tremendous changes, with millions of resources being poured in to transform the socioeconomic and cultural life. The development agencies provided resources to build social, physical, human and economic capital and improve the quality of life of these impoverished and marginalised communities. This journey of almost four decades has transformed Hunza’s traditional patriarchal society into an educated and entrepreneurial one. This process of accelerated modernisation has its own flipside, which most of us tend to condone in our daily discussion on development. We refrain from entering a critical debate about development because this may cause dismay to some exalted spirits who are behind this transformation.

Who would like to be seen as a non-conformist in an era of the increasing homogenising of development discourses and an unflinching faith in the institutions of social development? Nonetheless, a true development worker must rise above the silly compromises of short-term gains. The discourse of development has evolved not through compromises but through critical reflection, long-term thinking and the ability and will to build a better world for the poor and the marginalised.

The rupture in the world of imagination crafted through a grandmother’s heart-throbbing stories of fairies, demons and witches has created an emptiness. The process of accelerated development played an important role to make a dent on patriarchy. But it could not provide an equally powerful force of imagination. The googled wisdom of most of the development practitioners does not provide substantive material for a new imagination and that is exactly why society in Hunza is relapsing into a patriarchal system.

The phenomenon of the unemployed and dejected youth roaming about in the streets of Hunza to tame young girls tells the whole story of an emerging system of patriarchy. These literate but unemployed youth see development as a game to provoke women into promiscuity. They take it upon themselves the task to rectify this immoral society of development where, according to them, women are exposed to ‘vulgar’ activities. They consider it their moral duty to resist – at times with bellicosity – the liberation of women as a dishonour to their tribes. The changing Hunza does not exist in isolation to its surroundings where the public appearance of a woman is still considered to be a sin in most cases. The witch-hunt is not over yet and women have to go a long way to win their freedom – even in a relatively literate society of Hunza.

The much-avowed claims of social transformation by development institutions means little to Sunana whose drunken father still holds sway when it comes to determining her course of life. There are no demons, fairies and witches of imagination. Instead, there are those helpless girls like Sunana who have been ‘bewitched’ in real life. In modern Hunza, the patriarchal system is well-entrenched and more visible today than ever before as women strive for the liberation of their body and soul.  

Sunana has been gifted with an amazing voice and she attends the music sessions in Altit village at a facility provided by the Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP). This facility provides a platform for young boys and girls to express their talent through music. The initiative of the AKCSP is buttressed by a committed professional staff and brave women like Aqeela Bano who have the courage to question the foundations of patriarchy. These brave women have been able to sustain their activities despite being harassed by the tribesmen who consider singing to be an immoral act among women. The institutions – created over four decades ago to fuel development – have not been able to transform Hunza into an equitable and egalitarian society from Sunana’s perspective.

This is not to discount the efforts of these institutions whose role has proved to be vital in improving the quality of life in Hunza. Various programmes of integrated rural development – such as improving the access to quality education and healthcare as well as the cultural and inclusive financial services – have been key in the development of Hunza. Despite the long-term investment in human development, the miseries of women continue unabated in Hunza, according to development experts.

The lost whispers of grandmothers still haunt the collective imagination of the people of Hunza. The valour and bravery with which man overpowers witches is still a reality for many, including Sunana and her comrades who are struggling to defy the socio-cultural patterns defined by men.

We have yet to witness new whispers through which the bravery of Sunana is shown as a force to tame the demons and evil spirits that still haunt the streets of Hunza – albeit in daylight. This would be the real day of transformation for Sunana, Aqeela and other women whose human ideals have been trampled under the burden of patriarchy. These brave women have not lost the battle and their defiance is more impactful than the role of development agencies as a whole in liberating the women. Their struggle must not go unsung. The self-proclaimed custodians of an equalitarian faith must also come forward to support the cause of Sunana. Will we see Sunana as a grandmother narrating the stories of a woman’s bravery or will those whispers be lost forever? No one other than the women themselves is capable of their emancipation . Let’s support them.

Amir Hussain is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.