Pakistan: The lost voices of the middle class

By Tom Hussein

In early June, four of Lahore’s leading medical professionals congregated at the Punjab Club, a recreational retreat for the city’s educated elite, to discuss the future with a former colleague visiting from Australia.

The discussion, held over tea and sandwiches served by waiters in turbans and colonial-style white uniforms, centred on the visitor’s experience of his transition from being one of Lahore’s most fêted doctors, to a respected, but otherwise ordinary member of the Melbourne medical community.

“All of those at the discussion were highly successful doctors who are being compelled to rethink their life plans because terrorist attacks have deprived their children of a secure environment and economic opportunity,” says Dr Aftab Mohsin, one of Pakistan’s leading liver and gastroenterology physicians.

He, in fact, was the only member of the gathering not seriously considering emigration to escape the tide of terrorist violence that has killed dozens in Pakistan’s major cities in the past two years.

The elite Lahore Grammar School, where Dr Mohsin’s daughter Ayten studies, has lost four of its top teachers to the West in the past year, a process accelerated by telephoned bomb threats made to the school earlier this year. The threat was one of several received by upscale private schools and although it proved to be a hoax it succeeded in panicking teachers, pupils and parents.

“We were evacuated to a adjacent plot of land, but we knew that we weren’t safe there. If a bomb had exploded, we would have been buried under the rubble of the school,” Ayten says, visibly unnerved by the recollection.

The following month, while at home in the upmarket disctrict of Gulberg, she listened to a sustained symphony of automatic gunfire as militants attempted to hijack a bus carrying the touring Sri Lankan cricket team. It was just 300 metres from the home of her grandparents.

While working at Lahore’s Services Hospital, Dr Mohsin has seen dozens of terrorism victims brought for treatment. After the initial shock, then fears that the violence would spread, he says that his colleagues have become unhealthily desensitised by what they witnessed “as if it were an everyday occurrence”.

He worries for the future of the medical profession in Pakistan, with senior consultants migrating and opportunities for study for junior doctors becoming increasingly restricted.

Earlier this year, Dr Mohsin and his colleagues tried to address the problem by organising an international conference, where young Pakistanic medics could be exposed to the seasoned minds of the world’s leading practioners.

Days before it was to be staged, the attack on the Sri Lankan team took place and the foreign participants were advised to stay away.

“The new generation of doctors has thus been deprived of this important exposure, and their patients will be the worse off for it,” says Dr Mohsin, although he does retain some optimism. Things will improve. They won’t be fixed – this is a developing country, after all. But things can’t get any worse.”

His wife, Sabina Riaz, thinks very differently. “You’ve been saying that for years,” she retorts, “but they have just got worse.”

For some 30 years, Pakistan’s upwardly mobile professionals have lived in denial of the threat posed to their ambitions by religious radicalisation. Yes, the militants existed, but as shadowy figures – “America’s war” – in somebody else’s neighbourhood, far away from the villas of suburbia. They were too preoccupied with aspiring to the “best” and “latest” (popular words for Lahore’s upwardly mobile) of everything money could buy and, thanks to bouts of international aid that accompanied successive wars in neighbouring Afghanistan, there was plenty of easy money to go around – for those with the right connections.

The compromise demanded of the educated elite was the turning of the proverbial blind eye to the strategic agenda of the state, drawn up and zealously enforced by a religiously conservative military junta, led by General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in a 1977 coup d’état, overthrowing the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The educated elite were attuned to serving previous beneficent dictators, from the British prior to independence in 1947, to the military regimes that had since succeeded them (Zia’s was the third in as many decades). In any case, they had viewed Bhutto’s flawed attempts at democracy as a threat to their preferred “social order” in which the economically less fortunate were “illiterates” expected to gratefully accept their station in life, and not challenge the educated “brown sahibs” whose station it was to maintain the status quo. They supported the regime change expecting that the military would restore the pre-democracy balance of power, leaving them in charge of day-to-day government. Instead, they found their anglicised way of living under attack.

The transformation of educated Pakistani society under Zia was radical in its conservatism.

“It was a very repressed society where even the news was doctored,”says Michelle Khalid Butt, a 30-year-old fashion designer who splits her time between running a boutique and making costumes for the theatre company run by her brother, 23-year-old Osman.

The flamboyant suits of the 1970s, with flared trousers and wing collars, were replaced by austere white shalwar kameez and black band-collared achkan, the knee-length garment favoured by the Muslim aristocrat-politicians whose lobbying persuaded the British to partition India.

But the change in attire was merely window dressing for a change in culture that was being enforced by the state. Pursuing parallel goals of consolidating his grip on power within Pakistan and, on the pretext of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, international support for his regime, Zia sought to change the aspirations of the nation.

Ishtiaq Arif, a 62-year-old businessman and former army officer from Lahore, remembers how the military’s officer cadre, most of whom were graduates of the British military academy Sandhurst, suddenly found themselves deprived of after-hours entertainment. Arif had earned his army commission under General Yahya Khan, the military ruler from 1969-71, and a man renowned for his hard drinking and love of women.

“While I was stationed at Malir [an army compound in Karachi], a huge function was arranged in honour of Yahya,” Arif recalls. “Just about every skimpily dressed cabaret performer in the city turned up to perform.

“Then Zia came, closed all the garrison bars and banned performances by female artistes – with the exception of Abida Parveen, a folk singer renowned for her spiritual laments,” he adds with a laugh.

Next, the gates of the civil service, another bastion of the educated elite, were thrown open to the religious political activists whose protests against rigged election results provided the pretext for the coup against Mr Bhutto. The same activists would also become key players in the secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The judiciary, previously dominated by barristers of London’s Inns of Court and proudly steeped in the associated traditions, was stripped of its wigs and use of terms such as “m’lud”, on the grounds that they constituted heresy. It soon became a repository for puritans bearing religious titles; with gusto, they deprived women of the rights of inheritance and to bear witness.

While most women of the educated class were spared such tribulations by dint of social position, none was spared the change in public attitudes.

At their sumptuous home, filled with mock-Buddhist and Greek statues, ornate modern furniture and hand-woven rugs, Arif’s wife, Naila Ishtiaq, a sought-after interior designer, recalls what happened.

“In the 1970s, we would go to school unaccompanied, on foot or by bus, dressed in whatever we liked, and were never harassed. Suddenly, we had to travel with a male escort, and even then had to carefully consider our attire, depending on the destination. I had dreams of becoming a movie star, but I had to give them up because of Zia’s edicts.”

By the mid-1980s, Pakistan and its institutions were becoming alien to the class that had long considered itself the guardians of society. The Zia administration changed the official language of the state, and medium of education at government schools and colleges, from English to Urdu, effectively snatching social leadership from urban elite and handing it to the conservative right, whose world view was rooted in rural tradition and unquestioning faith in the clergy.

The sahibs, now sahibs in name only, had policy dictated by a puritanical military dictatorship and spent much of their time at their government workplaces following their newly inducted conservative subordinates in mandatory congregational prayer.

Meanwhile, their children’s minds were being stuffed with a radically revised curriculum, including doctored versions of Indian history, entitled Pakistan Studies, in which the Muslim was the good guy and everybody else an infidel – even the country’s secular founding fathers, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mohammed Iqbal, were reinvented as religious campaigners and anointed as saints. Similarly, religious studies were laced with romanticised visions of holy war in which martyrdom was the ultimate achievement

Both were made mandatory, ensuring that all fresh graduates and civil and military service recruits were suitably indoctrinated.

“It was the end to an age of innocence,” declares Dr Mohsin, whose father was a senior civil servant during the 1970s and 80s. “Zia’s acts were deplorable. It was he who pushed Pakistan on to the slippery slope. In return for a little American aid, he and his intelligence chiefs turned the beautiful country in which I had grown up, accustomed to the simple joys and freedoms of a normal childhood, into a breeding ground for extremists.”

The educated elite responded but by going into a shell. They turned their back on the traditional professions of the military and civil service because they no longer accorded the power and social position they were used to. Zia’s rule was marked by mass migration of educated urbanites from manicured military garrisons and civil service compounds to posh new suburbs. There they ensconced themselves in their five-bedroom villas, reinventing their social lives watching illegal but tolerated pirate copies of Bollywood blockbusters. With no seasonal balls to attend, weddings became hugely anticipated events where, within the confines of private homes, young men and the odd female cousin would strut their stuff to the hits of Abba and the Bee Gees.

Even showpiece state schools and universities could not be relied on any longer to provide a desirable level of education for the emerging generation; instead, they had been taken over by religious activists who brutally enforced their conservative agenda on campus, often with the aid of firearms. The educated elite’s response was to pull their children out of government schools and place them in private schools that, with the exception of Pakistan and religious studies, taught the British secondary school syllabus in flawless English.

Successful ‘O’-level candidates either made the lateral shift into domestic colleges where, armed with superior knowledge, they trounced their Urdu-schooled counterparts in exams that determined entrance in the country’s handful of medical and engineering colleges; or those who could afford it continued their anglicised education until ‘A’ levels and sought admission in British universities, or sat the Scholastic Aptitude Test in anticipation of an Ivy League MBA.

In either case, the goal of educated elders was now to groom their scions for a lucrative career in the private sector, preferably overseas; the Gulf economy was emerging and needed as many professionals as it could get, providing a convenient stepping stone to the West for those without relatives able to support an emigration application.

In August 1988, just a year before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, General Zia was killed in August 1988 in a plane crash. Despite his death and the election victory of Benazir Bhutto, the military showed little inclination to administration.

The educated elite, rather than seeing the Oxford and Harvard-educated Bhutto as a reflection of their aspirations, viewed her with the same disdain that it had once held for her father. When she attempted to revive peace talks with India, she was branded a traitor. Then religious party activists attacked the American Centre in Islamabad while she was on her first official overseas visit. Next, the right-wing opposition plotted a no-confidence motion against her; when it failed, they used the opposition majority in the upper house of parliament to pass a bill demanding the enforcement of an Islamist form of government.

Meanwhile, veterans of the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan were returning in droves, bringing with them weapons and a virulently sectarian mindset, both of which were brought to bear against Pakistan’s sizable Shiite minority which comprised a disproportionately large percentage of the educated elite.

In fact, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and many other prominent members of the movement that led to the creation of Pakistan were Shiite; Jinnah had actually been born an Ismaili, or follower of the Aga Khan, and converted later. But that fact had conveniently been deleted from official syllabuses and Jinnah transformed from the anglicised, cucumber-sandwich-eating barrister that he really was into the icon of a state where the seeds of Talibanisation were sprouting en masse.

Prominent Shiite professionals became favoured targets for assassination, creating an enormous sense of insecurity among educated Shiites.

“The moral decline was horrible,” says Sabina Riaz. “For the first time ever, we were forced to make special security arrangements for our religious rituals. They still took place, but no longer in public view. We had never imagined that such a situation could ever arise in our country,”

She is glad that her elder child, Yousuf, who was sent to Australia for graduate studies as sectarian violence flared during the 1990s, had decided to stay put down under, where he now works as a banker.

“We are thankful that he went at the right time,” she says, although she mourns the emotional vacuum created by time and distance, and would much rather spend time with her grandchild rather than the platoon of servants who work in her home.

Benazir Bhutto was sacked on grounds of poor governance and corruption in 1990. Nawaz Sharif, groomed as her successor by the military, also grew democratic teeth and was kicked out in 1993.The prime ministerial merry-go-round rotated twice more until 1999 when Pervez Musharraf, the new army chief, put an end to the charade and imposed direct military rule.

Again, the educated elite, many of whom considered it beneath them to queue up to vote, demonstrated incredible apathy towards the loss of democracy, hoping Mr Musharraf would prove his credentials as “one of them” (his father was a prominent civil servant, who educated his son at St Patrick’s High School in Karachi) and would live up to the public image he was perpetuating, notably a photo session with his family, including unveiled wife and daughter, and the family dogs.

Despite Mr Musharraf’s many apparent charms, he was as neck-deep in collusion with the Afghan Taliban and domestic militants as any of his predecessors. He had ordered army troops to support militants of the now notorious Lashkar-i-Taiba in their occupation of Indian military posts along the disputed border in Kashmir – without seeking authorisation for the covert operation from Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister.

To perpetuate his rule, he was compelled to make compromises with the generals, who had facilitated his takeover from a civil passenger plane that Mr Sharif had tried to prevent from landing, despite a fuel shortage.

“Musharraf might have been happy to pose with his dogs, but most of the people around him were Zia’s fundamentalist leftovers,” said Mr Ishtiaq Arif, who graduated from the military academy with men who went on to form the bulwark of the Musharraf junta in its latter years.

The contradiction between Mr Musharraf the individual and post September 11 statesman, and Mr Musharraf the general, came to symbolise the societal schizophrenia that took hold in Pakistan during his eight-and-a-half-year rule.

He was able to gradually offload the conservative hard core within the military, but the obsession with nurturing militants as strategic assets in Afghanistan and Kashmir, as recently described by Asif Ali Zardari, the president and Ms Bhutto’s widower, remained.

Yet Mr Musharraf was able to convince the domestic educated elite that he was the man to take Pakistan forward. Post 9/11 debt write-offs and financial aid packages combined with newfound confidence in the economy to fuel an economic growth spurt.

For the urban elite, in particular, the good times reigned. Resident and expatriate Pakistanis, many of who felt victimised by the wave of Islamophobia that swept the world, pumped their money into real estate developments, spurring a trade in title deeds that reflected the boom in the Gulf.

Foreign investment poured into the liberalised banking and telecommunication sectors, generating jobs for the new generation of finance and information technology graduates, and luring thousands of expatriates home into management positions.

Television was the first time opened up to the private sector, as Mr Musharraf wooed the media and, through it, the general public, particularly the educated elite, for whom the channels became a favoured means of blowing off political steam.

For the first time in two generations, women were encouraged back into public life, taking up career positions away from home and living alone in rented accommodation, something that would have been thought scandalous only years earlier.

“Under Musharraf, young women emerged to show their talents, as bankers, entrepreneurs and media professionals. It gave their generation a lot of confidence,” says Naila Ishtiaq.

Gourmet restaurants, coffee shops and designer boutiques abounded, as did the domestic entertainment industry, while Canadian rocker Bryan Adams thrilled Karachi residents with a one-off concert that sparked hopes that Michael Jackson might follow.

But beneath the façade, trouble was brewing, not just in the shape of terrorists, but in a hardening of conservative attitudes in less fortunate segments of society that were soon made apparent to the yuppies.

Faruk Lania, the 32-year-old creative director of Dunya News, a popular Urdu channel, says he realized that he and other liberal Muslims were targets when, during a Friday prayer sermon at a mosque in the upmarket Defence suburb.

“I was given a public ultimatum for my Sufi practices, which the mullah said made me an ally of the Shiites and, therefore, an infidel. I don’t know how he knew me or why he chose me, but I have not prayed at a mosque since,” he says.

The point was brought home to his wife, Girzeen, a fashion designer popular among Karachi’s young women because of her empowering symbolism, such as Superman and pirate insignia emblazoned on hip length blouses known as kurti.

“My seven-year-old niece was visiting from Canada and went to play in the park, wearing a sleeveless frock that would have been part of the scenery anywhere else. Instead, she was confronted by a nine-year-old girl who said her bare arms and legs were haraam (forbidden),” she relates.

“Now, we won’t let out two boys out of the door without somebody supervising them.”

Their sons, four-year-old Hassan and two-year-old are devilishly handsome boys whose best friend is the formidable gaming set up in the family lounge.


Terrorists hit Pakistan’s streets with a vengeance in the latter half of 2007 after Mr Musharraf ordered army commandoes to put a decisive, bloody end to the siege of a militant seminary in Islamabad.

Suddenly, the militants that had largely confined their activities to the tribal north turned up on the doorstep of the educated elite, targeting favoured restaurants and hotels with suicide bombings.

The capital, in particular, was hit because of the concentration of civilian and military installations and the diplomatic community.

“I was at the Marriott a couple of hours before it was hit (in October 2008),” recalls Michelle Butt.

“Islamabad is (socially) such a small place that everybody knew somebody who had been killed, injured or affected by loss of a friend or relative in the blast.”

Affluent neighbourhoods were turned into “red zones” cut off from the rest of the country by police and paramilitary check posts.

The buzz of Islamabad under Mr Musharraf dwindled along with his regime as international investors and development agencies fled, taking the treasured jobs and optimism of young urbanites with them.

“Growing up, Islamabad was called the dead city. Now it is the city of the dead,” quips Michelle Khalid Butt.

However, her generation, unlike their elders who are preoccupied with parental responsibility, is no mood to hit the chicken switch.

“We felt that life could not be allowed to stop, and that there was a desperate need for Islamabad to smile and laugh, and to be completely removed from the danger around them and see it as a farce,” says brother Osman.

Defiantly, and having been denied the use of usual venues by nervous managers, he has worked with high school and college students to produce lively productions of Western stage at the National Council of Arts, all of which have played to appreciative capacity audiences.

The defiant mood of the educated elite has been infectious, with young people packing out favoured restaurants and cinemas, despite continuing terrorist attacks.

Like their counterparts elsewhere in metropolitan Pakistan, their spirits have been hugely lifted by the national cricket team’s recent world cup triumph, and have taken that enthusiasm across societal lines.

“The win rejuvenated the city. Young men and women were dancing together in the streets without the usual class differences. I saw a brand new Hummer and a beat-up Suzuki cruising side-by-side, the occupants all singing a national song,” says Osman.

“I admit that it is tantamount to grasping at straws, but it has made such a difference.”

2 responses to “Pakistan: The lost voices of the middle class

  1. The turn of events in Lahore, had it mpact in Kashmir.Insted of middle class moving on market lines took referent from Pakistan and was on primordial track,creating new history, imagining notons of pure and leaving minorities to persish.Kashmir was acivil sosiety, where majority would love minority.All ended witht he turn of event in pakistan afterthe fall ofGeneral Ayub.We were luckey that our democracy ad struck its roots.India depite having eighty percent Hindu papulation after partition refused to be a confessional state.Similarlybeing one fifth in its working power potenial,it did not become a marxist counter.Hardly left could not go beyond Kerala and West bengal.Pakistan on the other hand crated nationlism on hate India content, which never could sustain.And in that stuggle it has been shrinking its space ,whomsoever it feels the other to that pure.We cpould have livid like canada and America,different but friends .We livid like estranged cousins, dailyon blame game allowing small countries to laugh at us.We were luckey we had Nehru for couple decades to prove that diversity was beauty and worth preserving, you had military junta to makew believe that diversity was ugliness.And process of cohesion unnaturally created all those problems , which we too face.Times have come to restart fresh.We now live in multicyultural world with social geographies.No body has aright to dictate terms on history.

  2. Pingback: The lost voices of the middle class - Lookup Lahore

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