Let’s face it, Pakistan has an image problem.
Every year we seem to make a new "worst place in the world for..." list and as luck would have it, Pakistan is consistently in the top 10.
This year alone, we’ve been named the second-worst country in the world for women; the 11th most unsafe country in the world; the fourth worst for journalists and third for overall worst reputation.
Granted, the deciding markers and selection criteria for these rankings are often arbitrary and simplistic at best but they certainly accumulate to paint a picture of Pakistan and this picture is tinted to reflect the nation’s worst attributes.
Best face forward
Whether or not we acknowledge it at the national policy level, image matters. Perhaps more than most things because a country’s image is its leverage and Pakistan is desperately lacking in leverage at present.
Recent tensions with our neighbour India serve as a perfect example to illustrate this problem. While the Indian media has adopted the loosest possible definition of journalism in the past month covering the Uri incident and what followed – doing its utmost to push the two nuclear states deeper toward a clash – much of their success in garnering international support has been due to Pakistan’s deplorable reputation as South Asia’s perpetual problem child.
The militancy tag, which follows Pakistan around the globe cannot and will not be shed by denying we have a problem. Or by failing to arrest known militants and penalising critics instead.
There are obviously varied policy measures that need to be pursued by different government and civilian bodies in this regard, but overall Pakistan needs to start focusing on a soft policy approach that at the very least, complements if not counters its standard chest thumping and foot stomping about military might to anyone who will listen.
Yes, we have a bomb – we also have a starving, illiterate population.
Now, if we could only apply the same mental gymnastics we used to convince our population that our military might trumps their basic need for food, clothing and shelter – to convince the international community about our stability regarding the use of that aforementioned bomb, we’d be all set.
Art leads the way
The concept of soft power was originally penned by Harvard academic Joseph Nye in these words:
“Power is the ability to get what you want from others and you can do it in three ways: you can do it with coercion; you can do it with payment or you can do it with attraction and persuasion. Coercion and payment I call hard power, the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion is soft power.”
Ironically, this soft-power strategy is one that our neighbours have perfected over time. So much so that India’s international "feel good yoga, land of spices, dance numbers and IT experts" image is often enough to detract from its current reality under Modi.
It takes the international community a while to wake up to Indian atrocities in Kashmir but there is little convincing needed to push the "militant Pakistan" angle on a global level.
This is perhaps because Pakistan has desperately failed in cultivating its own cultural tools at a similar scale or acknowledging and appreciating its strongest diplomats and universal ambassadors: its artists.
Art and those who wield it are perhaps Pakistan’s greatest arsenal in countering its current image crisis. This doesn’t mean pretending our problems don’t exist or scapegoating people like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy or Malala Yousufzai for shedding light on them, but recognising that Chinoy’s Oscar and Malala’s global campaign for girl’s education are a win for Pakistan and an acknowledgement of Pakistani citizens who still care about the challenges the country faces.
Chinoy’s so-called anti-nationalist film has probably done more for the cause of addressing honour crimes than most policy makers have managed over decades. It has precipitated three different types of legislation addressing gender issues in one short year.
The fact of the matter is that if one is to acknowledge artists, educationists and activists as ambassadors then that needs to be followed by the recognition that these people cannot be told how their work should manifest.
Hard places breed certain kinds of artists all over the world and their art is all the more powerful because it acknowledges the truth of its origins rather than shying away from it. This is why India’s decision to deport our actors and its ban on screening films with Pakistani actors is particularly aggressive, unprecedented and tragic.
In times of conflict, art is supposed to serve as the final avenue for peace. Cultural exchanges are the only corridors to create understanding and foster friendships between fractured peoples. Closing these doors means closing oneself off to all possibilities.
It is almost as if our governments are propelled by the fear of people meeting across these achingly similar cultural traditions that centre around shared music, poetry, language, history and food.
As if Fawad Khan being appreciated for his role in Karan Johar’s latest film will somehow be an acknowledgement that he is not so utterly alien in contrast to his Bollywood contemporaries.
A new story
For some, this contrived kinship might even translate into genuine friendship and wouldn’t that just fracture every story we have been telling ourselves about ourselves since our country’s inception.
The stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us matter. Pakistan needs to tell stories about itself that actively counter the one story the world knows it by.
This does not negate the fact that Pakistan suffers from militancy, terrorism, corruption and a host of other problems. It does. No one knows this more than Pakistanis themselves.
However, we also know that this is not all we are. In her talk, “The danger of a single story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Our story is one marked and framed solely by aggression and our response to it. For some reason, for the past few decades the world seems to collectively have bought into the idea that the definition of a super power is quite literally just that: an overt, outdated and outmoded expression of ‘masculine’ aggression.
Perhaps this is why one of our go-to insults for everything ranging from border skirmishes to wife-beating is to taunt men with the phrase “choorhiyan pehen rakheen hein" – you are wearing bangles.
This is not to say that military might is not a significant variable in the power matrix for a country like Pakistan; however we seldom stop to weigh its importance against poverty, education, healthcare or human rights. All these matrices collectively constitute identity which goes on to frame ‘power.’
Who is to say that America’s influence around the world is solely because of its military might and not also because of the sheer volume and velocity at which it exports its culture through Hollywood, fashion, fast food and its university education?
In this time of contrasts and boastful comparisons, the question arises: which identity markers does Pakistan grade itself by and how? Perhaps it is time for us to hedge our bets and work on self-improvement over whining about the hand we are being dealt.
A few years ago, when the United Kingdom was considering cutting funding for humanities education, hundreds of students took to the streets bearing the slogan “Give us back our Humanities”. Pakistan has never really cultivated its humanities and it is essential that we do so now.
In negotiating with narratives, so many problematic and intolerant elements can be countered by funding the arts. Languages, poetry, architecture, textile, and literature are our only real inroad to self-exploration beyond the status quo.
We need to invest in small businesses, embrace our artists and musicians, fund literature and art programmes to ensure that Pakistani students can represent parts of our identity that reflect our diversity, tolerance, innovation and beauty rather than the reactionary rubric of an isolated state that has no interest in being part of the world.
This article first appeared on Dawn.