Social transformation through culture

By Amir Hussain

Culture, like other key concepts of sociology, is a contested notion and therefore cannot be reduced to a homogenous set of practices. This piece will not discuss the sociological approaches of what the notion of culture entails. Instead, it is about how the popular notion of culture can be used as a force of social cohesion and economic development.

In its popular sense, culture plays an instrumental role in social cohesion across the political, religious and economic divide of society. Culture may, arguably, give rise to socio-political conservatism and impede social progress. But cultural practices manifest in a secular domain and are therefore important to promote sectarian and religious harmony. Revival of cultural practices – such as folk music, festivals and art – can play a pivotal role in bringing about peace, tolerance and harmony in a polarising society like Pakistan.

This has been demonstrated in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral where Denmark’s Center for Culture and Development (CKU) provided support to the Hashoo Foundation for the revival of cultural practices. The ongoing CKU-funded project is designed to enhance broad-based economic growth by adding value in four creative industries: leisure/festivity, stone craft, woodcraft and, traditional music and dance. Project results include reviving one main festival with new features; creating and incubating culture-based micro-enterprises; and organising craftspeople around their trade. There is also a strong emphasis on facilitating craftspeople in upgrading and marketing their skills, products and services through design support, product development and market creation.

The 18-month project is being implemented in two districts of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) and the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The cultural diversity of the regions is under threat from a variety of factors, including religious extremism, absence of interfaith dialogue, low investment in cultural domains and underdeveloped cultural markets. Through this project, the Hashoo Foundation could help upgrade skills, tools, and market access. The initiative will help renew cultural heritage and simultaneously enhance the livelihood of artisans and craftspeople.

The project opens the possibility of scaling up efforts at the national level to utilise cultural practices, promote religious harmony and empower the marginalised groups. This project has benefited 26,020 individuals, including the producers of arts and crafts, women, young people and marginalised groups.

The CKU-funded project – titled ‘Harnessing Indigenous Cultures for Economic Empowerment of Artisans and Sectarian Harmony in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral’ – adopts an impressive approach of development that links the revival of cultural practices with interfaith harmony and entrepreneurship. This serves as a sustainable model of social transformation through art and culture.

The mountainous northern parts of the country, including G-B and Chitral, are one of the most remote, politically marginalised and economically underdeveloped regions of Pakistan. Per capita income is roughly half the national average and the lack of industry and income opportunities have led to high rates of unemployment, estimated to be around 20 percent. Around 60 percent of the population is below the age of 30 years and 40 percent of people live below the poverty line on less than $2 a day. Poverty has increased among marginalised groups and many unemployed youth have started gravitating towards extremist ideologies.

The area has a history of sectarian conflict which has been formalised through public institutions in recent years. Ethnic and religious diversity has been used to foment sectarian and micro-nationalistic sentiments to divide people.

G-B and Chitral have a rich diversity of people who belong to mountain cultures. Culture has always played a pivotal role in promoting communal harmony. In the past, local rulers and colonial administrators patronised music and dance festivals and polo matches, binding people of different persuasions of Islam in a common cultural web, creating empathy and tolerance for each other. Local festivals, such as sowing, harvesting, and traditional Navroz (New Year) celebrations, provided important opportunities for people to intermingle. Tourism played a supportive role in reviving local culture through dance and music events, sponsored by tour operators for their clients. The Silk Route Festival, celebrated as an annual event in Gilgit before 1999, also attracted thousands of people.

All this, however, has lost traction. The annual Shandur Festival, where polo teams from Gilgit and Chitral play at Shandur Pass every July, is the only festival that has survived. But this festival has survived solely because it is backed by the royal family of Chitral. For many people, going to Shandur and camping there for several days is not an easy option. Still, thousands of people from Gilgit and Chitral attend the event along with many local and international tourists.

The local culture is now facing a slow but certain death, and traditional secular festivals are being replaced by exclusive religious festivals in the narrowly-defined spaces of piety and profanity. These are usually exclusive and closed occasions among separate communities where music and dance are being discouraged under the growing influence of clerics. In the recent past, it was a common practice to celebrate wedding ceremonies with music and dance parties that were open to everyone in a village. It created opportunities for social integration among people who belonged to different communities.

In terms of crafts, natural stone is an abundantly available resource in G-B and Chitral. It has been used since pre-history for a variety of purposes, such as tool-making, building houses, making ornaments, and inscribing religious and secular texts on stone. In this mountainous region, stone craft is integral to the inbuilt heritage of locals, and it has served as both an economic good as well as an adaptation tool. The main stone product that is currently used is dressed stone. But new products, such as stone pavers and slate tiles for roofing and pavements, also have a high demand in Pakistan. At present, the skills and technology used in stone masonry – especially, in the extraction, dressing and building processes – are frozen in time.

Similarly, agro-forestry is a key resource of G-B, covering about six percent of total land area (72,200 sq km), while natural forest cover is only three percent. The CKU-funded project has supported and promoted certified green wood products, such as wood flooring and ceiling panels, standard window frames, school furniture and home construction. The Aga Khan Culture Service (AKCSP) in Altit, Hunza, has already upgraded this craft through a social enterprise, which employs more than 100 women trained in agro-forestry processing. The CKU-supported project has built on these initiatives to scale them up and replicate them in other parts of G-B and Chitral through competency-based training, technology transfer and market development.

All elements of the project have been carefully designed to sustain themselves even after support for the project has ended. The festival hosted by community-based local organisations has revenue generation built into its design through entrance fees and the leasing of stalls for food and other vendors. These community-based local organisations will continue to host this event on an annual basis after support for the project has ended. The practice can be replicated in other areas with the help of local NGOs and public sector sponsorship. Individual and groups enterprises will sustain themselves through selling value-added products and services.

The real beauty of this project lies is in its ability to cement ties between diverse communities by bringing them together to celebrate their commonalities and respect their differences. This is also a great model of using art and culture to promote peace, pluralism, tolerance and economic development on a sustainable basis.

Can we learn from such initiatives to build a peaceful, tolerant and prosperous Pakistan? The answer is both yes and no – and the choice is ours.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Source: Daily The News

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