Identity and Aspiration Among Youth in Gilgit-Baltistan

Identity and Aspiration Among Youth in Gilgit-Baltistan-banner

Access to emerging transportation and communication networks has enabled tourists from all over the world to explore previously isolated rural areas of Pakistan, especially in the Karakoram mountains. Amid globalization, young people are witnessing advancements happening all over the globe on their smartphones, but how do these ideas translate into everyday life for young people from the very north? In 2020, we undertook fieldwork in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, to explore the scope and nature of changing youth aspirations within this context. This piece shares important insights into youth transition that we gained over that summer. 


Locating an Identity ‘Rupture’


Young people start their educational journey in their teens from isolated villages in Hunza to urban centres, whether in GB or further onwards towards cities like Islamabad and Lahore. They live in hostels, meet multiple categories of ‘new’ people, and experience a life almost entirely alien to them. Their language, culture, exposure to the world, and socio-economic class frequently appear in stark contrast to their urban counterparts. They witness many of these new realities for the first time, and predominantly on their own. 

Although they lack the conventional socio-cultural capital of students raised in Pakistan’s main cities (such as articulate familiarity with English-medium literary, arts, and/or cultural references), our participants’ social capital (ancestral heritage and networks) proves both unique and resilient. It becomes a fundamental element in how they navigate an impressionable part of their lives in unchartered territories. It also explains the identity ‘rupture’ that results from this abrupt exposure to markedly different world(view)s. We conceptualize this ‘rupture’ as a sudden and intense split in a young person’s sense of self that results from modern life’s demands to continually redefine identity and aspiration in, and according to, a persistent state of uncertainty and changing beliefs.


The close-knit community in Hunza, comprised of returning graduates, inspires new entrants into Pakistan’s higher education system by regularly updating younger students about different educational opportunities and career counseling. Often, this happens through youth camps bringing together successful people (local and global) from around the globe in one place, creating spaces where exchange of knowledge and experiences unfold in the village. 


Nestled in the far-flung mountains of Pakistan (and the world), listening to stories of development and prosperity from around the globe, students come to associate important life outcomes with education opportunity. Straddling this glocal realm (where the local meets the global), education for them is the road to that ‘better life’, which older students in the community bring home with themselves. ‘Better life’ is inspired by exposure opportunities in the cities (whether to books, jobs, money, people or ideas), and the perceived living standards of a world very different to the mountain life of Hunza, which are visually accessed through social media. During our fieldwork, we observed expressions of these ‘better life’ elements through youth choice of clothing, behavior and even language. Young girls and boys were (and can increasingly be) seen in westernized clothing items (jeans; jackets), donning unique hairstyles, following new trends in fashion - all in stark contrast to the indigenous culture of their parents and forefathers. 


Reconfiguring Aspiration


Success as an educated young person remains ambiguously defined. Is it just a step towards better paying jobs and upward social mobility or does one’s education define a different cultural notion of prestige? On this, too, educated youth and parents appear to have completely opposite expectations. A few decades back, parents could see the transformation in people’s lives spurred by education, leading to a good job in either the government sector or the non-governmental organizations deployed in the area. This helped in alleviating poverty, and was the major driving force behind parents investing in their children’s education despite their meager resources. 


This trend is changing now. The pace of development in the region fails to keep up with the pace of educational acquisition (the frequency with which young people are acquiring bachelor's and master's degrees). In this respect, education fails to ensure upward social mobility. However, parents still want their children to acquire education because it has the attributes of prestige and respect attached to it. Community members value those who excel in education and gives them respect at par with community elders, which is apparent in different communal gatherings. Likewise, those who do not gain education are looked down upon.


Undoubtedly, it is the prestige attached to education that differentiates the educated from the uneducated, the better educated from the ones who do not perform well in studies, and the professionals from those who work in the fields to earn a living. One of the very first teachers in the region explained the importance of education as it helps people reach a ‘muqaam’ (social position or status). This causes young people to question their identity as they need to stand out to gain the respect and recognition that education carries. 


Students who are unable to gain the recognition and respect in the community via the education route strive to excel in sports, music and arts, activities that were not pursued professionally before. Icons like Samina Baig (the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest) and Diana Baig (member of the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Team) are gaining recognition and respect, thus motivating the youth to pursue new paths. The prestige associated with education is now slowly beginning to be associated with sports and music. However, success in such endeavors seems more difficult since it requires a certain socio-economic capital that majority of students lack, whether in the form of relevant connections or even the pitches and studios needed to grow. These struggles and new realities have altered previous assumptions about a linear transition from childhood to adulthood. The pursuit of education seems to prolong the period associated with youth, a new source of frustration among youth and parents, but simultaneously an indication of Pakistan’s rural north transitioning into the dynamics of the national youth bulge


How Does the ‘Rupture’ Happen? 


Economic activity in the region is primarily agrarian, with modest presence of public sector employment opportunity. Therefore, educated youth prefer to settle in Pakistan’s bigger towns/cities or migrate abroad to earn a living after completion of their degrees. Staying away from home for so long is one of the biggest contributors to the identity rupture that young people of Hunza experience. Living outside of their parent social and cultural networks, often during formative years of young life, they find themselves unable to fit ‘back’ into their original community context. Their ideals about, or for, life contradict their parents’ aspirations. 


The pursuit of ‘becoming someone,’ an amalgamated influence of city-life middle-class experience and the effects of globalization, contrasts with the reality in which parents exist. Their life in the mountain is dependent on an agrarian economy, which requires hard manual work. With limited mechanization and advancements in agricultural practices, the new generation does not want to work in the fields. They are now a misfit in their own homeland. 


Rapid change in Hunza is driven by multiple factors such as the construction of the Karakorum Highway, tourism, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and more recently globalization, fueled by the internet. The inter-generation gap is become wider with passing years even though the region is not resistant to change, and welcomes the birth of new ideas. Commitment to education began as early as the ‘60s in few regions of Gilgit Baltistan, and today the literacy rate is almost 95%. This particular quality of embracing change has been a unique trait of Hunza people, and is a major contributor to its development. However, this change has caused the social structure to transform as well. People are continuously trying to make sense of the reality they live in as it changes abruptly. 


Where to, for Hunza’s Youth? 


In contexts similar to Pakistan, where pronounced distinctions still exist between urban and rural geographies, rural youth is more likely to be associated with low life aspirations. But this is not the case in Hunza. Despite economic disadvantage and difficult terrain relative to other parts of Pakistan, young people have very high aspirations. They believe they can become anyone if they work hard, be it a doctor, engineer, musician, painter, sports coach, or a chef in a restaurant in England. One of the reasons that can be attributed to this is the homogenous structure of society and lower income inequality as compared to that of rural areas in the outskirts of major cities like Lahore. However, as young people grow up and reach college, especially in more ‘urban’ parts of the country, their dreams start to crumble as they do not have the systemic support to help them realize those dreams. The resulting lack of employment opportunities is now leading to educational disappointment in the region. 


Is the current education system or society setting goals that the youth of Hunza cannot achieve and sustain? Why is there a dearth of vocational streams of education offering skills that have demand in the local market, such as agriculture, eco-tourism, hospitality, and entrepreneurship? Why is it that young people have now turned to selling fruits on the roadside, opened restaurants/camping sites, and turned their homes into guest houses? It is evident that the income from these ventures is used to sustain the lifestyle that reflects their inspiration from different cultures and societies. In the meantime, the difference between contemporary youth and older generations continues to widen in the north, as the social fabric of the region changes. Parents who have not set foot outside the village have allowed both their sons and daughters to do so for the sake of education. If the passion for education is to be continued, educational systems and employment-related opportunities need to evolve at the same pace as the ensuing transitions into new realities. 


Shanila Parveen is an MPP Candidate at the University of Chicago.

Mehreen Hussain is an MPhil Alum at School of Education in LUMS.


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