Hunzai tourist guide Aziza, left, with a foreign traveler in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley. Female-run businesses are on the rise in the South Asian country
Hunzai tourist guide Aziza, left, with a foreign traveller in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley. Female-run businesses are on the rise in the south Asian country © Courtesy of Root Network

Seated on a set of intricate woven rugs covering the floor of a traditional home in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan’s northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, I cannot help but feel surprised.

After weeks of travelling in a country where men dominate public spaces, I am sharing a meal with my host, his mother and her sister — something unthinkable in many areas of Pakistan, where most women still live secluded from outsiders. Sexual violence toward women is common, and a recent rape case in Lahore ignited street protests after a top police official partly blamed the victim for being out alone at night.

“Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index report published by the World Economic Forum in 2020. In this patriarchal society, women get access to minimal economic opportunities, and the ones who do usually opt for career choices like teaching and medicine,” says Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali, chief executive of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017. “Those women who are rebellious enough to challenge the status quo have to face many setbacks and challenges.”

In the Hunza Valley, though, most of the population are Ismaili, a sect of Shia Islam in which women are relatively visible in everyday life — notably in the tourism industry, Hunza’s major source of income. “Hunza people are quite open-minded and liberal due to higher literacy rates and exposure to international tourists,” Ms Ali says.

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Against this background, tourism — which started in the 1970s, when tourists started to visit this picturesque alpine valley along the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to China’s Xinjiang Province — has provided a route out of the home and into employment for many local women.

In Karimabad, the capital of Hunza District, local women have been learning male-dominated skills such as carpentry and stone masonry since 2003, when CIQAM, a local non-governmental organisation formerly known as Women Social Enterprise, started operating with support from the Aga Khan Foundation, a not-for-profit development agency founded in 1967 by the hereditary head of the Ismaili sect. The organisation currently employs more than 90 women in heritage development activities.

Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali is the CEO of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017
Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali is the chief executive of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017 © Courtesy of Root Network

Gulmit, a scenic village in Upper Hunza, is home to two other female-led initiatives: Bozlanj, a restaurant that opened in 2016 to cater to foreign visitors to a nearby glacier, and the Korgah Carpet Center, opened in 2005, which employs local women to weave handmade rugs and embroidered purses and wallets for sale to tourists.

These small-scale projects represent significant steps toward establishing a role for women in the local business community. Much remains to be done, however. “Hunza’s tourism industry is [still] largely occupied by the men of the region,” says Mehnaz Parveen, the first female Hunzai chief exeucitve of the 23-year-old Karakorum Area Development Organization (KADO), a local NGO, in Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town.

Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town
Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town © Kit Yeng Chan
A schoolgirl in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley
A schoolgirl in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley © Kit Yeng Chan

Ms Parveen, a Hunza native who returned to the area in 2019 after 16 years in relatively cosmopolitan Islamabad, describes her work as “bittersweet” because of the difficulties involved in achieving the goal of social progress for women. “I believe my success will pave the way for other local young women to aspire for such positions, which is why I feel it’s worth taking the pain,” she says.

The subsidiary role of women in Pakistan conflicts sharply with the image presented by the mainstream tourism industry in recent years, which has relied on foreign female influencers such as Polish-born vlogger Eva zu Beck and Canadian Muslim convert Rosie Gabriel to present the country as a safe and friendly destination, including for women. Ms Gabriel dramatised this image by travelling across Pakistan by motorcycle.

Helped by a relaxation of visa procedures, Pakistan earned Rs2.3tn ($14bn) from tourism in 2019, according to a March 2020 World Travel and Tourism Council Report, welcoming 24,487 foreign arrivals, compared with just 5,575 in 2014.

A close-up visit to the Passu Glacier. The Karakoram Highway brings visitors within striking distance of some of the Hunza Valley’s most spectacular natural sights
A close-up visit to the Passu Glacier. The Karakoram Highway brings visitors within striking distance of some of the Hunza Valley’s most spectacular natural sights © Kit Yeng Chan
Laila Rajani walks in the Chitral District’s Ramboor Valley with local Kalasha women
Laila Rajani walks in the Chitral District’s Ramboor Valley with local Kalasha women © Courtesy of Root Network

After a four-month lockdown prompted by Covid-19, Pakistan reopened its borders and ended domestic tourism controls on August 15, prompting fears in Hunza about coronavirus risks from domestic tourists, many of whom are said by locals to be ignoring health requirements such as negative tests results. Pakistan had suffered 319,317 coronavirus cases and 6,580 recorded deaths as of October 12.

The pandemic has provided fresh business opportunities for female artisans, however, including women trained by KADO who are producing reusable face masks. “We sold 19,000 pieces in four months with the help of 50 [local] women,” says Ms Parveen.

Root Network, founded by Ms Ali and four other women (Pakistani and foreign) with hands-on local tourism experience, is raising funds through a crowdfunding effort and has just completed training in 12 areas of Gilgit-Baltistan for almost 200 Hunza locals working as hotel staff, tour guides and porters in procedures to curb the spread of the virus.

A female traveller and local guide take in the beauty of the Hunza Valley
A female traveller and local guide take in the beauty of the Hunza Valley © Courtesy of Root Network
A Shiskat woman prepares food
A Shiskat woman prepares food © Kit Yeng Chan

Root Network’s long-term goal is creating a more sustainable model so that “local community members [will] not end up dealing with the detrimental consequences of wanderlust, instead of benefiting from the economic opportunities”, says Canada-based Pakistani expatriate Turfah Tabish, Root Network’s strategist.

American travel blogger Alexandra Reynolds, who is also involved in Root Network, says the group wants to work with existing organisations to amplify the impact of its attempts to help locals understand sustainable tourism and to ensure acceptance.

“We have those connections in Gilgit-Baltistan, where it is also easier to work as women than in other areas of Pakistan like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Ms Reynolds says. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which lies along the border with Afghanistan, was formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.

Turfah Tabish, a Canada-based Pakistani expatriate, is Root Network’s strategist
Turfah Tabish, a Canada-based Pakistani expatriate, is Root Network’s strategist © Courtesy of Root Network

Root Network says it hopes that its pilot project in Hunza will enable the organisation to apply for funding and support from official sources, with the goal of replicating its programme in other risk-prone tourism areas of Pakistan such as the Kalasha Valleys area of Chitral District in northern Pakistan.

An important lesson of the pandemic, says Ms Parveen, is that Hunza needs to rely less on tourism in the future, focusing instead on developing local businesses that can survive interruptions to the flow of visitors.

She says KADO has taken a step towards this goal by helping local women sell their artisanal products online when local markets were closed during the lockdown.

“We are now working to raise the capacity of both young males and females in IT-related fields,” she says. As the region’s poor internet capacity improves, she adds, the online sector beckons with “huge potential” to expand businesses in Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on October 17, 2020. ©2020 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

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