Women’s empowerment and literacy: Have we underestimated the Northern areas?

Published: August 16, 2013

Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman climber to summit the world's highest peak Mount Everest. PHOTO: AFP

The people of Northern Pakistan do not just reside on a higher altitude; in fact they are above us in many ways. They are healthier, wealthier and wiser.

The northern areas of Pakistan, in addition to being one of the most beautiful places on earth, house some of the most brilliant people in our country (some of whom I’ve had the privilege to meet). Although I have had many friends from this area, I came abreast with their true potential and capabilities about six months ago, when I attended a residential youth camp with participants from all over Pakistan.

A considerable number of participants had their roots in the northern areas. Their array of talents ranged from academics and social work to sports and even politics. If you think of them like I did – as shalwar-kameez clad, conservative people – then your view is about to change, forever.

The northern areas of Pakistan consist of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, with Hindukush, Karakoram and western Himalayas guarding it on the north and south respectively. It borders to the north with Afghanistan and China, to the south with India and Azad Kashmir and to the west with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Populated by 1,800,000 people (according to 2008 census), the territory of present-day Gilgit–Baltistan became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name of Northern Areas, formed by the amalgamation of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan District of the Ladakh Wazarat, and the states of Hunza and Nagar.

On August 29, 2009, the Pakistani cabinet passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, which was later signed by the President. The order contracted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly among other things. Gilgit–Baltistan thus gained de facto province-like status without constitutionally being a province.

When education is a national emergency, the literacy rate of the region is considerably higher than the rest of the country, and whatever the demographic facts might say, the people are sincere towards education with over 2,100 schools and educational institutions, most of them are community-based with primary and secondary schools and adult education centres.

The people have formed various community-based programs with help from NGOs and strongly believe that they can solve their problems creatively and peacefully. But sadly, Pakistan has not integrated them further in the country’s affairs on the grounds of its international obligations over the Kashmir dispute. Consequently, these enlightened people do not have the right to vote in the Senate and National Assembly.

In spite of all the stereotypes about them, the people of northern areas continue to show a rather educated, constructive and liberal face of Pakistan to the world. The most recent examples are of Natasha Baig from Hunza being selected as one of the only six participants in the show Cornetto Music Icons from all over Pakistan and Samina Baig also from Hunza who became the Pakistani woman to conquer the peak of Mount Everest.

Apart from these two in the field of sports, the northern areas have given Pakistan a female arm-wrestling champion and a few international female cricketers.

Another example is of Hina Hazrat from Chitral, a student in Karachi University, who founded The Youth Republic, a global youth network spread across 135 countries, which bagged the runner-up award in the World Youth Summit, 2012 in Canada, competing with 1224 entries from 122 UN member states who submitted their projects in the global contest.

Yet another example is of Saeeda Mirbaz Khan, who after writing a 100-page essay for an international competition, came out a winner, beating 1900 essays from 25 countries. She was honoured by the then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and was inducted as youth governor of Gilgit-Baltistan in the National Youth Assembly.

Judging from the above, women empowerment seems to be thriving in the northern areas, when it has yet to find a way even in the most educated and posh locales of urban Pakistan.

The list of their contributions is endless. But we find it easier to marginalise people instead of acknowledging their talents. Six months ago, my whole perception about these people changed forever. Now, I know that northern areas of Pakistan are synonymous with education, dedication to their country and empowerment.

Uzair Ibrahim

Uzair Ibrahim

A student who enjoys music, movies and reading. He blogs about things that, in his view, shouldn't be accepted just as they are. Uzair tweets as @UzairIbrahim_ (twitter.com/UzairIbrahim_)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Cheema

    Well the Writer Gave One Sweeping Statement and that is utterly shameful and disgusting for the Rest of Lower Pakistan. He stated that
    @The people of Northern Pakistan do not just reside on a higher altitude; in fact they are above us in many ways. They are healthier, wealthier and [email protected]

    Sometimes the articles are too much. How come you can state that someone is more healthier or Wiser than you??. How can you generalize and give sweeping statements like that.?. Kindly dont use thw word us for representing any of us as I am healtheir, Wiser and Wealthier and no i dont live in Northern Pakistan at all. Recommend

  • Khurram Awan

    It is rightly said about Karachi and now even of Lahore that everyone just take advantage of the city but never owns it. In the end it is your own Ancestral town or region that will took the whole credit.
    The urban migration in bigger cities is playing a major part in empowering women and giving you the all the right ingredients to prove your mettle and you also gave us one example of Hina Hazrat from Chitral, a student in Karachi University. Similarly I know tons of families of Northern Regions in Karachi and Lahore but you are never interested in discussing the role of the cities which gives them the platform to excel and get recognition in the first place. Rather you are like rebuking the Urban Pakistan in your analysis in my view.Recommend

  • saira

    @ Cheema
    totall agree!!
    we need to get over this pathan, punjabi, sindhi, balochi superiority complex. Its disgracefulRecommend

  • wasi ali

    While rest of Pakistan complain about and blame to other thing, the people in northern areas silently practically contribute in our society. There are just some black sheeps who damage the whole northern image, but, figuratively, Pakistanis should appreciate good things instead of sticking our attention always to wrong things. Nice effort. (y) Recommend

  • Parvez

    I liked the article and it was nice of you point out the positive side of our people especially women, irrespective of where they come from.
    The comment of @Cheema baffled me……….all the author was doing was praising people who deserve praise……….is that so hard to stomach ?

  • http://Pakistan Cheema

    @Pervez Sir Kindly read the first two lines again. The writers is stating that they are above us in many ways. My Contention is simple that Every Pakistani from Karachi to Khyber can excel and can be Healthy , Wealthy and Wise and bracketing one Community as the wise one and better among others actually undermines the importance of the Pakistanis as a whole. Already there is much Racism in our country especially of the Race and Color especially North and South divide.
    We all Pakistanis can play an active role in the progress of Pakistan and we must appreciate it but we should not undermine any part of our country at the expense of appreciating another part. Let us all play an active role in our society but one should not say for the community as a whole they are above us or below us. ALL are equal and can excel and that is all.Recommend

  • kaleembaltee

    The dedication, devotion and contribution; silent contribution to be very precise, must not be overlooked. They fought for their independence by themselves, affiliated themselves unconditionally with Pak but unfortunately it remains hitherto a constitutional limbo. Things worth appreciating must be appreciated n acknowledged.
    You know what’s happening in Baluchistan. Meanwhile, no one is superior to another, if somebody has got intelligence then the other might have persistence in his endeavours.Recommend

  • khurshid

    Cheema jee it has been scientifically proved that people living on cold and high altitude are much more intelligent as compare to warm areas.. Recommend

  • Hina

    Who were the judges of 100 page essays!!!! I feel sorry for them man for having to read so much!Recommend

  • Musa Ali Khan

    Cheema Jee Fact is fact…play your role for educating people rather than to be jealousRecommend

  • Azam Khan

    Things should be taken positive Mr. Cheema. You are making it a personal ego.. The writer has tried to wake us up. He has told his experience with the Northern Areas people and is impressed by them. So we should appreciate it. You are focusing on a single statement but he has written a history about them..Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Cheema: I completely agree with the thrust of your argument, how can one not. My contention is simply to be a little more open minded, more charitable in thought and allow the author to praise the Pakistani people who live in the north of the country, by doing so you are not getting any smaller as a matter of fact you grow in stature……….and that as the true Pakistani that you are, should make you feel good.

  • np

    @khurshid: “Cheema jee it has been scientifically proved that people living on cold and high altitude are much more intelligent as compare to warm areas”.

    Reference please?. Recommend

  • farman


    I think being a Pakistani countryman, you should,t be jealous about the narrated facts. Well, the writer has encouraged the people of that area based on existing harsh conditions. Pls be positive.Recommend

  • farman


    I believe he has,t mentioned or dis-integrated into regional races, rather you guys have chosen / assumed for yourself, be positive.Recommend

  • jamal

    Laughed, laughed and laughed a lot !!! A person (not belongs from Gilgit Baltistan) has just mentioned some facts about the people of Gilgit Baltistan but its too much hard for the ill minded people to digest because they live in polluted society. People of GB live in a fresh air society. They always depend and believe in themselves. Got independence from dogras independently, defending 4 borders for Pakistan. The greenery in the fields of Punjab and sind are due to water comes from this GB, Now, the Basha Dam of GB will provide light to people of Pakistan living in darkness. Creating links b/w china, Pakistan and Tajikistan to develop Pakistan. The youth of GB are rewarded internationally and continuously competing on their own resources. GB have no Government institutions. The people built their our own. They are more patriot than others.

    Contribution from ill minded peoples are:
    creating hate among people
    not accepting truth.
    Killing people in the mosques, churches and mandirs.
    Destroying image of Pakistan and Muslim Umma.
    last I can say:This is a game b/w Healthy minds Vs ill Minds. Recommend

  • Rameez

    I think this article is terribly disingenuous when claiming how women’s empowerment is a Northern Pakistan thing. Fact of the matter is that, burqas, Taliban, waani, swara, bombed girls schools, codes of honour; Pakhtunwali is what truly represents the North. By not mentioning Ismailism, and the tremendous work done by His Royal Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan in Hunza-Gilgit-Baltistan areas, the author is purposely hiding the reasons for this progressive change in that society. Ismailis represent the more liberal side of Islam…the Aga Khan has always been a supporter of women’s education, equal participation in public life, development, health and empowerment. Recommend

  • Saleem

    Please make a distinction b/w North Waziristan KPK and former Northern Areas and now Gilgit Baltistan where I totally disagree with Burqa Culture and Girls School Blown with bombs is not a part of GB Society and We have the Third highest education rate in the country in some districts 100 %.It is good to accept each other’s achievement and create a win win situation for all if you want to build a stronger society.Please read about Gilgit Baltistan and don’t mix it with Tribal Areas of KPK.Recommend

  • saira

    I have only referred to the very first two lines of this blog. one should refrain from such comparison. if this article was about punjab, all you northeners would have started boiling, this is called being biased. This article should not have the phrase: “The people of Northern Pakistan do not just reside on a higher altitude; in fact they are above us in many ways. They are healthier, wealthier and wiser.”
    I never considered the people of northern Pakistan any inferior before anyways so why being so defensive if that was the purpose …Recommend

  • csmann

    What possible reason could be there to deny 18 million people the right to vote?Recommend

  • @csmann

    *1.8 million. It would imply that Gilgit Baltistan is part of Pakistan and not disputed with India. Would you want that? I do, but I you won’t.Recommend

  • wakhi, our gilgit / baltistan

    @ jamal thumbs up.

    Remeber gilgit, baltistan is a far flung area

    Gilgit, baltistan got its independence from dogra, joined Pakistan on its own will.

    Gilgit , please don’t comparenus with city people they are borne crooked mentally

    We gilgit, baltistan are not given rights to vote nor we have any members in Pakistani assembly

    Gilgit, baltistan, we do not have higher schools or college, 90% is self made.

    Coming to the point from such hardships and obstacle if samina baig have conquered mountain Everest, that s big achievement, it was not funded by your fathers or by Pakistan governments to summit this peak, she did it on her own, let’s appreciate that gilgit, baltistan women’s are contributing to Pakistani society in making Pakistan proud internationaly without any support from government of Pakistan, city people must learn now we the mountain people if we have resources we are nothing less than anyone, yes mountain people are wise, intelligent and healthier reason, God has bestowed us a clean environment where we grow healthy mind not like city people, thumbs up to samina you made us all proud, gilgit, baltistan zindabad, Pakistan payeenda abadRecommend