Pakistan Calling: Still hope at the end of the line

DFID and British Council reports underline the existential crisis Pakistan is facing, but its people are rallying to save the nation. Salman Shaheen looks at Pakistan Calling, a new RSA project seeking to galvanise the British Pakistani community and the

Squashed beneath the seat of a train bound for Karachi, a frightened young boy hides in the hot dark from armed men searching for people who pray to a different god. Leaving behind his Mysore home that day in 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated and India was aflame with anti-Muslim violence, my father, like so many fathers and mothers of British Pakistanis, was looking to find hope, freedom and safety in the world’s newest nation.

Today that dream rests on a knife-edge. A British Council study on Wednesday found that 96% of young Pakistanis believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. They are pessimistic about the economy and the state of democracy and 40% would like to see sharia law introduced. A DFID report on the same day found that British aid to Pakistan is being undermined by widespread tax avoidance and corruption. It isn’t hard to see why the reports are gloomy. 

Whilst not a failed state, Pakistan faces mounting challenges which threaten to turn it into one. The country sees weekly suicide bombings and escalating sectarian violence against its Shia, Hazara, Hindu, Ahmadi and Christian minorities. Some 60 million people (one in three) live in poverty. Half of adults, and two out of three women, are illiterate. One in 11 children die before their fifth birthday, and 12,000 women die in childbirth every year. Almost half of children under five suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development and their ability to learn. And this situation won’t necessarily improve. Pakistan’s booming population – set to double over the next couple of generations to more than 300 million people – will put an ever greater strain on housing, education, water, transport and healthcare as the country struggling to survive.

Yet despite these challenges, Pakistan stands on the cusp of achieving its first democratic transition of power between two elected governments unmarred by the military coups that have plagued the nation in its past. Pakistan’s ability to survive its convergent crises owes much to the resilience of its people and their determination to save the nation they, like my father, journeyed over a thousand miles to create. From the furnace of partition, new institutions like the Edhi Foundation were forged. What began as one man in a van providing medical aid to the poor has now grown into hundreds of hospitals and a fleet of ground and air ambulances. It’s an example that has inspired many others.

The wealth of progressive initiatives and programmes in Pakistan, however, rarely make the front pages. A new partnership Pakistan Calling – set up between the Samosa’s Anwar Akhtar and the RSA think tank – now aims to showcase some of this work.

The project provides a forum for young filmmakers in Pakistan (and the UK), in which they can challenge perceptions of today's Pakistan and provide the basis for constructive cross-cultural dialogue between Britain and Pakistan. With approximately 1.2 million people of Pakistani heritage in the UK - part of a global diaspora stretching back many decades, Pakistan Calling aims to serve as a conduit to nourish their links with the diaspora community in Britain to aid development.

Akhtar wants to draw attention to the wider crises Pakistan is facing, not only by engaging the British Pakistani community, but by aligning the Department for International Development (DFID) with its interests and the interests of Pakistani civil society. He believes DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have not had strong access to networks within the British Pakistani community. But with the help of the RSA, he wants to set up a new model for cultural discourse to support education and development.

Despite the problems of tax collection – a fundamental aspect of any successful nation state – Britain must not turn its back on Pakistan. Tackling poverty and building a prosperous democratic Pakistan will help not only millions of poor Pakistanis, but also improve stability in the country, the region, and beyond. We must not forget that Pakistan is a nation of great potential. In Karachi and Lahore, it has two bustling metropolises that could rise to become global cities. It is rich in resources and arable land, has a highly skilled professional class and an ancient history. In many respects, it has all the raw ingredients to make the kind of successful global nation state that India is fast becoming. But it also has all the toxic elements in violence, corruption, poverty and religious extremism that could lead to its undoing if its strained civil institutions are not given the urgent help they need.

Like my father hiding beneath that train seat 65 years ago, Pakistan is perilously close to danger. But in the end, my family made it to Karachi where they flourished and my grandmother, Mumtaz Shirin, went on to become one of the nation’s pioneering authors and the kind of cultural producer for whom Akhtar wants to provide a platform. Because at the end of the line there was hope. There still is.

Salman Shaheen is a freelance journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward. Films from the Pakistan Calling project can be viewed here 

 

Celebrating Pakistan's Independence Day on the seafront in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.