Discovering the country behind the headlines

Last week, Mayur: South Asian Student Alliance (MayurSASA) hosted Pakistan Awareness Week, a compilation of events aimed at increasing knowledge about Pakistani issues, politics, and culture on campus. The tagline for the event, “Experience the country behind the headlines,” stemmed from recent news, like articles in The Economist and Newsweek declaring Pakistan one of the most dangerous places to be today. MayurSASA aimed to move past the negative publicity and bring forward the rich traditions and culture that make the Islamic Republic of Pakistan the interesting country it is.

“Recently, Pakistan has been in the news for a lot of reasons, mainly concerning the danger behind [the country], and the students on this campus are going to see the covers of these articles and not realize that there’s a lot more behind the country. There is a culture, a religion, people, families, and stories,” said Sarah Sheikh, a sophomore business administration major, who spearheaded the project.

The week, which began on March 31 and ran through April 4, saw different Pakistan-related events each day. It began with “Pakistan Today: Islamism, Activism, Performance,” a lecture by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, an accomplished author, professor, and singer. Afzal-Khan spoke broadly about her childhood experiences, the books she has written, and the current state of Pakistan.

On Tuesday, an event called “Fashion With a Story” focused on the burqa, the traditional garment of Pakistani women. For the event, volunteers gathered on the Cut wearing colorful burqas, holding up signs with messages like “Underneath this Veil is a Philanthropist” to send a message.

“This isn’t saying that in the modern cities of Pakistan, women are all wearing colorful burqas. People in America tend to think that these women are forced into [wearing burqas], but in some cases — I’m not saying all — it is a personal choice,” Sheikh said. “We wanted to show that there are women who choose to [wear them] because they like to go out in public and not be judged. They like to be hidden and known for what they do instead of how they look.”

Sruthi Reddy, a first-year electrical and computer engineering major who volunteered at the event, also had strong views. “We always see these women [who wear burqas] from the outside, and wonder why they don’t go against wearing it, but I think it takes great amount of courage to wear a burqa, as all you have is a net to see the world through,” Reddy said. “It takes a great amount of courage to remove the burqa and go against your traditions, but I think it takes an even greater amount of courage to abide by the traditions and norms and wear it. People need to understand how hard it is for a woman to wear a burqa and respect her for her actions.”

On Wednesday, a Pakistani movie titled Khuda ke liye (meaning “In the Name of God” in Urdu) was screened in Giant Eagle Auditorium. The film is internationally acclaimed, having won an award for Best Picture at the 31st Cairo International Film Festival, and focuses on how the lives of Muslims have been altered in the post-9/11 world. An eye-opening film, Khuda ke liye depicts educated, modern Muslims encountering difficulties both internationally and within their Muslim communities. In the film, fundamentalist Muslims criticize and harass them for their views and ways of living, while in the United States they are met with suspicion just because they bear Muslim names.

The next day showcased Pakistani culture through music, featuring performances by Pakistani students at Carnegie Mellon. The event featured a new kind of music, strengthened by strong voices and musical instruments to audience’s delight.

At the week’s close, a debate called “PAKISTAN: The Future” provided a forum for participants to discuss the current state of Pakistan, including the necessity of a democratic government and possible restrictions on U.S. intervention. Amid strong words and bold statements, both listeners and speakers attempted to draw conclusions on how the situation in Pakistan can be improved, resulting in a fulfilling and educational debate.

In whole, Pakistan Awareness Week proved a truly enlightening experience for participants and attendees alike. “Even if two people had taken something from this entire week about Pakistan, it would have been successful. And the fact that such a large number of students did makes it even better,” Sheikh said.

The week’s events were filmed by Voice of America, a multimedia service broadcasting in 45 different languages, and will be aired in Pakistan.