Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pakistan – Land of the Pure

“What is your good name?” So starts a conversation as I wait for the bus to take me from Islamabad to Lahore. By now I have dropped my suspicions that naturally guard me as a Westerner in a foreign land I know little about besides the one word that the media have echoed in my mind: terrorism. People are simply curious to know what has brought me to Pakistan and eager to hear my impressions of their homeland.

I have arrived two weeks prior from India. Though the two countries were once joined, they have clearly evolved into two distinct cultures and I am surprised to discover Pakistani cities that are cleaner and somewhat better organized than Delhi is. In terms of infrastructure even, it seems electricity is more widespread and is already back on in some villages that were just a few weeks ago still under 8 feet of water - though many houses remain destroyed.

My first night in Karachi is a surprising welcome to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I am picked up by a friend of a friend...of a friend – I would soon get to know these extended relationships are enough to serve as an entry card in any city – friends, cousins, or distant relatives are always happy to offer a place to stay, a warm cup of chai, or a nice meal. (The hotel industry is doomed).

My host has had to fly to another city at the last minute but is graciously letting me stay at her place- though we’ve never met- and has assigned her best friend to take care of me. The friend in question has recently returned from residency in the US and acquired quite a liking to alcohol. Just as teenagers in the West get thrilled by the forbidden aspect of it, my 25-year-old new friend is certainly no exception and I find myself waiting in his car for his bootlegger. The “dealer” arrives 20 minutes later on a motorbike and the exchange is over in a matter of seconds- I am clearly dealing with pros. Though I do not particularly fancy vodka with dinner, I feel I have just gone through an exciting story to tell, but can’t help to be a little disappointed when I realize we are far from being the only ones braving the law. I notice at the posh restaurant I am taken to, that most tables are similarly holding a bottle wrapped up in a napkin that barely hides its content. A week later I would be served wine at the private residence of prominent member of the ministry, surprised by what I first assume to be apple juice. Needless to say, just like everywhere else, rules are meant to be broken, and the elite is always the first in line to do so.

After just one night in Karachi, I head to Lahore, which has been recommended as a safer base and where I have yet more friends of friends to host me and take good care of me. I board the plane and find myself surrounded by a couple hundred of men, while I can count the women on my flight on the fingers of one hand. It soon becomes apparent that it’s not just on the planes that women are missing… it’s from the streets themselves. (Another – this time more negative- contrast with India where there is a clear emancipation of women).

It’s not that the women here are hiding, but they are clearly outnumbered in the public space – and when night falls they become even rarer. It’s subtle at first, but this lack of feminine presence does get to me. Though I believe it is slowly starting to change, as more women do enter the workforce and become independent – from their parents or from their husbands- it is a society where women’s mobility is limited and not necessarily welcomed. During my time in Pakistan, I often get the feeling it’s not so much being a foreigner (ie: white in a sea of browns) that gets me the most stares but in many contexts, being the sole woman in a world of men (but I suppose it is a mix of both).

Though women get educated, many – even among the well-traveled elite - give up any aspirations to a career as soon as they are pronounced married. It’s not the lack of help to raise the children (there's always family or servants for that), it’s simply that there is no need or interest. Husbands provide, and status/agency is not so much associated with a career - the way it has become for women in the West or in neighboring India - as much as it is with a good marriage and the bearing of children (boys preferably). A telling example: 70% of students in medical school are women, but only 20% end up practicing. (This has severe repercussions, among them, lack of medical staff in isolated areas).

That said, the women who do work and have careers are amongst the feistiest and most strong will-powered women I have ever met. They are ambitious and hard working and stand-up for themselves with their heads held high. And while many men do not want their wives to work, there does not seem to be much obstruction at the macro/societal level for women to do so. Pakistan was after all the first Muslim state to elect a woman leader – Benazir Bhutto in 1988– something that many countries in the West have yet to accomplish.

I never had any problems interacting with Pakistani men, despite my initial concerns. I’m ashamed to admit it, but Muslim bearded men used to scare me. Or at least they made me feel uncomfortable as I boarded the plane to take me to Pakistan, surrounded by hundreds of them. Like myself though, the two other white people on my flight from Kathmandu had been upgraded to business class (a way to ease our way in?). I could see through the closed curtains men taking turns to pray in the small space between our cabin and the cockpit and thought to myself how ironic it was to be a minority in a plane full of men who no doubt would have been questioned at any Western airport. But I have now had enough experience to know that these men are kinder to a foreigner than we would ever be to them in our own country.

A couple weeks into my stay, I am invited to film at a madrassa. I meet up with two Imams the day before who insist I am welcomed in their country as family. I ask through my interpreter to make sure they are comfortable having me – a foreign woman- film. The Imam answers me directly, in English, “we feel very comfortable, as long as you are”. I smile and nod but they continue to stare at me, waiting for a proper answer. I finally provide, which gets me a deserved “that took you a long time to think about!”. Everyone laughs.

The next morning, as I walk through the madrassa’s courtyard, passing surprised students, I realize my red kurta was probably not the best wardrobe choice considering the discreet white uniforms worn by all students. But despite 2000 pair of eyes on me, I feel at ease. This is also despite the fact that this particular madrassa was the site of a suicide bombing barely a year prior, that killed the current principle’s father, who had taken a hard stance against the Taliban.

Indeed, while Pakistan defines itself an Islamic Republic, it is a liberal Islam that in no way resembles that of the extremist position taken by a very small group of young men in the country, more likely guided by their marginalization by the government than any real religious conviction. The religious political party remains a minority. The media have complete freedom and take full advantage of it – their favorite pastime: bashing President Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s widower).

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s reputation has been overshadowed by terrorism. True, there are terrorist attacks in or originating from Pakistan. But it is deeply unfair to reduce an entire society of welcoming people, a country with a rich history and culture - to a sensational headline. On November 11, when another bomb blast hit Karachi, I was enjoying being pampered with my friends at a beauty parlour in Lahore. A mundane activity maybe, but another story to Pakistan.

Every week-end, in Lahore, a group of people get together as a Critical Mass, cycling around the city. Every day, dads bring their daughters to school all crowded on one bike; modern teenagers get their ice-cream sundaes fix at a Hot Spot joint, where walls are covered with B-movies posters, while slum kids run around barefoot by the train tracks, owning nothing but the smile on their face. Meanwhile hijras collect unpaid taxes for city officials or stand at streetlights, hoping for charity.

Around Pakistan, ordinary people are taking it upon themselves to make their country a better place. From young men and women uniting to launch a green movement, to retired army men organizing food and clothes drives to deliver hundreds of care packages to victims of the flood. There are many stories to Pakistan. Though I’ve barely had a chance to scratch the surface, I look forward to the opportunity to be back, InshAllah.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eat Local vs. Eat global: are "food miles" misleading?

I recently came across a short article in Ode Magazine that has made me rethink what I assumed to be a no-brainer in best practices for the environment: buying local food - the idea being that by limiting how much travel food takes to get to me, I shrink my carbon footprint.

The article defies that assumption, suggesting that looking at "food miles" alone is misleading. Based on research from the UK-based Africa Research Institute, it argues that it's actually better for the planet to buy food from African small holders than from local farms.

Indeed, the carbon footprint of most of our food in the West comes overwhelmingly from production (85%) rather than from transportation (15%). Considering that old-fashioned, labor-intensive African agriculture is much less carbon-intensive than mechanized farming of the West, it is gentler on the environment even if you have to fly the food in, especially as food flown in from Africa is transported via passenger aircrafts that would be making the trip anyways, carrying tourists back home.

A further argument favoring the African farmer is that it is also morally right, allowing smaller African farmers access to Western markets, where they have been unable to compete because of agricultural subsidies in Europe and the US.

Two-thirds of Africans rely on agriculture for their livelihood and may remain in poverty as long as subsidies are in place. Mark Malloch Brown, former head of UNDP, estimated that farm subsidies cost poor countries about $50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports:

"It is the extraordinary distortion of global trade, where the West spends $360 billion a year on protecting its agriculture with a network of subsidies and tariffs that costs developing countries about US$50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports. Fifty billion dollars is the equivalent of today's level of development assistance."

After reading that first article, I also came across this one, written in the New York Times, a few years ago which gives concrete examples and concludes that:

"We must be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating. While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts".

While I still believe supporting local farmers using sustainable practices is a good thing, I am no longer going to stop myself from buying foreign-born food under the pretense that it's wrong. That said, I look forward to the day where we finally invest in alternative energies, making food miles even more irrelevant.

Photos by James Reynolds, illustrating the distance some food travels to get to us..

Monday, June 7, 2010

Women Deliver 2010

Arianna Huffington, Ashley Judd, Helen Clark, Michelle Bachelet, Valerie Jarrett
Women Deliver 2010

I'm currently in Washington D.C., attending the Women Deliver conference, bringing together leaders from around the world to discuss issues pertaining to women's reproductive and sexual rights, family planning and gender equality.

The first day has set the bar high, with one powerful woman after another taking to the stage to talk about the importance of meeting the MDG 5 and reducing maternal deaths.
Hillary Clinton was even present via recorded video, while on stage Christiane Amanpour led the first panel which South African singer Yvonne Chaca Chaca concluded with her powerful voice.
Lunch was in company of Melinda Gates, who announced the Gates Foundation's commitment of $1.5 billion over the next five years on maternal and children's health.
The afternoon's Women & Power panel was composed of Hollywood actress and PSI ambassador Ashley Judd, former Chile President and Women Deliver co-chair Michelle Bachelet, UNDP Director Helen Clark, Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett - and moderated by Arianna Huffington.
Some fun quotes included Valerie Jarrett insisting President Obama "is as close to a woman president we've ever gotten"; Ashley Judd demonstrating Jessica's Daily Affirmation; Arianna Huffington declaring "I can speak on behalf of all on the panel that we LOVE men" (after a woman in the audience felt offended that men had been left out of the discussion); and Michelle Bachelet sharing the anecdote from Finland's female president Tarja Halonen who went to visit a school and asked a little boy if he would like to be president one day, to which he replied "well you know, in this country, men can't be president"!

The conference is inspiring and feels like an international sisterhood of sorts. That said, men have been invited to join in on the conversation (we can't do it without them!) and are proving to be just as passionate in the fight for women's equality. Highlights on the men's side today included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who has been committed to moving women to higher positions within the UN, and Women Deliver co-chair Fred Sai who was introduced as "the godfather of the women's health movement".

To watch the live webcast and archives online:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Amazing documentary film

Exit Through the Gift Shop - Go see it!!!
Brilliant social commentary on street art and art business and just a great film all around!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sex, drugs and HIV - let's get rational

Been meaning to write for a long time about a fascinating book by Elizabeth Pisani, "The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, brothels and the business of AIDS", which, as its title indicates, is a fascinating look at the world of AIDS, and is as educational as it is profoundly engaging.

Pisani was recently a speaker at TED talks and is just as captivating in front of a live audience as she is on the pages of her book:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Who killed the electric car?

Just watch this great documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car, by Chris Paine about the electric car and big (oil and car) corporations as well as the US government buried it alive before it stood a chance.
We could have been driving them for the past 15 years, in fact they were on the roads for a few years though most consumers never knew about it because car makers didn't promote them.

They worked just as great as any car, except they cost less to run, they cause less pollution and they don't make us dependent on foreign oil and Middle eastern dictatorships. Seems like a no-brainer, except for the fact that they don't make money for the oil companies and their corporate friends..

To find out more about the rise and fall of the electric car, watch the film!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chris Jordan's photography

From the photographer Chris Jordan:

These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.

Five tons of garbage end up in the bodies of albatrosses each year, in one of the most remote islands on Earth... something to think about..

Check out more on Chris Jordan's site.