If you would ask an average person in any Western country what they think of when one mentions ‘Pakistan’, it is very likely they would utter phrases like ‘breeding ground for terrorism’ or ‘Muslim fundamentalist society’ or (in case of a slightly more knowledgeable person) ‘arch enemy of India and a major cause for the ongoing conflict in Kashmir’. In any case, the response would likely be quite negative. Pakistan’s image in much of the world is not that great. Which is a sad thing, because this big, proud country of almost 200 million people has so much more to offer than these one-sided stereotypes.
Last week ICDI organized a study visit on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for five young parliamentarians from Pakistan. “Young” should be taken with a pinch of salt: to qualify as such, one has to be under 40 at the date of first being elected. Oxfam Novib Pakistan had requested us to organize this study visit because these parliamentarians are very active in the fight for social justice in their country. From the onset it was clear that the parliamentarians did not come to The Netherlands just to learn more about SRHR, but also that they wanted to share a more positive picture of Pakistan. They did so with gusto. At every meeting we had they shared stories that showed that their beautiful country has so much more to offer than many know, such as basic health care units in every community, progressive laws on fighting child marriage, community support for LGBTI people, and initiatives that stimulate female entrepreneurship. The “young” parliamentarians represented their country well!
Gender and Sexual Identity Development
ICDI had prepared an interesting programme for the week, that consisted of training sessions with ICDI staff on topics such as ‘gender and sexual identity development’, ‘transgender identity development’, ‘SRHR in relation to the Millennium Development Goals’, and ‘Dutch policies on LGBTI rights’. Next to this we had organized exchange visits to the Netherlands parliament, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defence for Children/ECPAT and Choice for Sexuality amongst others.
We also invited several guest speakers, one of which was from the COC, the Dutch organization of and for LGBTI people (and actually the oldest organization of its kind in the world!). Especially the latter made a big impression on our guests from Pakistan. One of the parliamentarians came up to me afterwards and asked: ‘What would you do if a terrorist came in to this room?” ‘I would run’, I answered. ‘Exactly’, he said, ‘and that is the same what people in Pakistan would do if this gay man had entered a room!’ He elaborated that he had been thoroughly impressed by the COC guest speaker, how articulate he had spoken about himself and gay people in general. As far as I could tell this was probably the closest these parliamentarians had ever been to an openly gay person, and the experience had been very positive.
Pakistan: A Shining Light of Progress
For me personally and for ICDI as an organization it was a pleasure hosting these parliamentarians. They were not only enthusiastic ambassadors for their country; they were also genuinely nice people, dedicated to making Pakistan an (even) better place. For what it is worth, I think they managed to nuance the picture many people in The Netherlands have about Pakistan. That in itself is already a good thing. As ICDI we of course also hope that they will take back home the things they learned about LGBTI and girls’ rights, so that Pakistan soon will be known as a shining light of progress to all around the globe.
Radio interview with ICDI’s director about visiting Paskistani parliamentarians: