Pakistani middle class: pulled East and West

Capt. Siraj Ul-Mulk, a senior pilot with Pakistani International Aiways, is a typical member of Pakistan's rising middle class. Living in a fashionable residential district in Karachi, the captain, his young wife, and two children lead in many respects a modern, Western-style existence not unlike most comfortably off American or European families.

But as with numerous other educated and well-traveled Pakistanis, social and religious traditions retain a firm grasp on Captain Siraj's outlook on life. A hospitable, broadminded man in his thirties with a lively curiosity about world events, he considers the trappings of certain Western values a threat to the Islamic upbringing of his two girls.

Although many middle-class Pakistani families would consider it prestigious to send their sons abroad for further education (notaly to the United States or Britain), it is another matter with the future of their daughters. Severe social pressures still prevent most young women from seeking university careers in foreign countries. Even those studying in local Pakistani universities are customarily married off beforehand.

"Single girls away from their families tend to be looked down upon by society ," Captain Siraj explained. "I would prefer my daughters to be raised in the Pakistani manner. If I allowed them to leave, they would only return confused."

Smilingly acknowledging that such attitudes might seem archaic or contradictory to Westerners, he added: "The middle class here is not a liberal one. Ours will not be the generations to change. Perhaps the next or the one after."

In a country that has never really come to terms with its British colonial past, Pakistan's primarily urban middle class, roughly 10 percent of the population, is characterized by a groping conflict between a desire to adopt Western values and a desire to remain faithful to Islamic and local traditions.

On the face of it, a host of Western influences permeates much of Pakistani middleclass society in a manner similar to that of many developing countries: idealized television commercials depicting smiling, happy children drinking milk in modern suburban kitchens; nightclubs throbbing to the sounds of American rock-and-roll; expensive Japanese automobiles ostentatiously parked outside landscaped villas; fashionably dressed women shopping in air-conditioned department stores; and loud, poolside cocktail parties where English is spoken and prohibited liquor discreetly served on the side.

At the same time, however, cultural differences between East and West continue to jar. For example, the Oxford-educated economist returns after several years in England acting more British than the British. Yet he proceeds to take a wife through an arranged marriage. Or the respectable, highly Westernized cotton mill director, who, when he has company for dinner, keeps his wife in purdah all evening, introducing her only when his guest is about to leave.

Or the cultivated ministerial administrator with overseas diplomatic experience, who unabashedly treats his subordinates with the verbal abuse normally reserved for a bazaar dog. He then explains that, as in the days of the British Empire, one must occasionally demonstrate "who wields the stick."

The contradictions become more acute as Pakistan proceeds with its increasingly fundamentalist Islamization program. By officializing various aspects of Islam, past Pakistani governments have endeavored to arouse a more pronounced feeling of "Pakistan-ness" among the five major Muslim regions -- the Punjab, Sind, Pushtunistan, Bengal, and Baluchistan -- which opted for partition in 1947.

Since President Muhammad Zia ul Haq's rise to power just over four years ago, Pakistan's Islamization program has been pointedly accelerated at the behest of sectarian religious and political groups.

Increased "Pakistan-ness" has meant seeking to throw off not only the mantle of Pakistan's colonial past but also its historical affiliations with India, which despite its often shocking ethnic, religious, and social discrepancies, appears to have achieved a distinct sense of nationhood.

Pakistan, on the other hand, remains extremely fragile and artificial in its national entity. The breakaway of Bangladesh in 1971 did little to enhance unity. Regionalist tendencies in Baluchistan and Pushtunistan continue to worry Pakistan's primarily Punjabi-dominated leadership.

Educated, middle-class Pakistanis are naturally defensive about the country in which they live. But despite efforts to disown undesired aspects of the past , thee is little to put in its place. This is of deep concern for many forward-thinking Pakistanis.

The British did a fine administrative job when they were here and are generally remembered with affection. "They obviously could not stay on, but quite frankly, we have yet to create anything that could be described as Pakistani in culture," observed a Pushtu university professor in Peshawar.

Vestiges of Britain's colonial influence abound. Both the military and administration are still basically organized along British lines. Officers continue to speak in British military jargon and eat in candle-lit dining rooms lined with traditional trophies and regimental plaques.

The civil service maintains English as its official language and uses the same administrative titles.

But the system has become aged and inefficiently overburdened with bureaucracy. "In many respects," said one longtime European resident, "society here has peaked.

"Management is disastrous, there is no real national pride, and there tends to be a sense of inferiority toward India and the West." Pakistan's defeat in three wars against India and its failure to establish institutional democracy are considered to be partially responsible for such attitudes.

Ziahs preoccupation with the Islamization of Pakistan's legal, educational, economic, and above all political way of life has been aimed not only at an attempt to gain popular support, but also at creating a more assertive feeling of national identity.

Critics, particularly among the middle class, feel that Zia has been imposing ideology for the sake of ideology. And that Islamization will not solve the country's basic economic and social problems. If anything, they maintain, it threatens to disrupt society even more.

The official enforcement of "zakat," a 2.5 percent expression of charity that traditionally had been voluntary, as well as the introduction of Islamic courts, has aroused considerable indignation among both the middle class and the largely illiterate peasant farmers.

There is fear that the imposition of a more Islamic curriculum in the schools will force Pakistan's already seriously deteriorated educational system even lower.

It is government policy, for example, to phase out English in favor of Urdu in the former Christian-run schools to which most middle-class families, including those of Army officers, prefer to send their children. Basic primary education, on the other hand, a vital instrument in combating Pakistan's 80 percent illiteracy, is criminally neglected, educators maintain.

"Present government policy makes little sense at all," maintained a Lahore lawyer. "English is a world language and anyone who wants to get anywhere in society must know it. Zia and the 'ulema' [religious scholars] seem determined to transform Pakistan into a nation of mediocrity."

The ban on alcohol, which existed prior to the Zia regime, has been tightened rigorously and has become one of the most obvious bones of contention among the middle class. Bootleg alcohol flows at private parties in the presence of senior government officials, police commissioners, and Army officers.

But Zia could face serious problems through his increased officialization of religious practices. While visiting Pakistan during Ramadan, the fast period, this correspondent found all tea shops and restaurants shut by law to Muslims from sunrise to sunset. Anyone caught selling food in public was liable to a heavy fine.

Such state enforcement of Islamic traditions has rankled many. Thousands of middle-class Pakistanis left the country on vacation throughout the Ramadan period to escape the restrictions.

Even devout Muslims and supporters of Zia are angry. "Religion is a private matter. I don't want the government to tell me how to be a Muslim," a Karachi businessman remarked.

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