For most women in Pakistan, a career in such a traditionally male-dominated field like soldiering is still a remote prospect. It’s also a tough slog, regardless of gender.
On the Front Lines of Gender Equality with Pakistan’s Lady Cadets
Lady Cadet Wardah Noor, a slim 24-year-old Pakistani with deep-set eyes and an erect bearing, has pinned all her hopes on becoming a soldier.
“I found my civilian life to be slow moving and unsatisfying,” she told me one evening in September after a full day of class and training exercises at the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). Raised in a middle-class home, Wardah had already earned a college degree in computer science but found little opportunity in her small village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where horse-driven carts were still the primary mode of transportation. She craved discipline and structure. She wanted, she realized, to join the army.
LC Wardah was one of 32 women, ages 23 to 27, who comprised the PMA’s 2013 lady cadet class. The Academy is located in the town of Kakul, just a few miles from the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs in 2011. It’s Pakistan’s answer to West Point; it’s just as hard to gain entry, and those who do, go on to lead young soldiers into battle.
Gaining admission to the academy is highly competitive. Once enrolled, male cadets spend two years of rigorous physical training and the study of war craft. Female cadets at the PMA, however, receive only six months’ training and then are assigned duties that don’t involve direct combat, serving as members of the medical and engineering corps, or analyzing tactics and logistics, or even training future officers.
“I want to be a part of protecting my country from the terrorists, and protect our borders,” LC Wardah explained. “We have both external threats as well as internal threats.”
Selling Safe Sex to the Developing World
Population growth is slowing in most of the world, but not in Pakistan—the UN estimates that the country had 173 million residents as of 2010, up from 143 million in 2000, and only 111 million in 1990. This is a problem, especially in rural areas where poverty and lack of government services are widespread. DKT International, an NGO that provides birth control throughout the developing world, is among the organizations trying to contain the country’s population bomb, and it’s doing so with condom commercials that are too hot for Pakistani TVDKT was founded by Phil Harvey, who made his fortune selling sex toys, condoms, and porn through his company Adam & Eve. DKT sells rather than donates condoms in order to take advantage of retail distribution networks (shopkeepers have to be able to profit from something to stock it on their shelves) and because buying family-planning products encourages people to value and actually use them. A big part of DKT’s strategy is not just educating people about birth control but marketing their products, which is why they aired a commercial that showed Pakistani supermodel Mathira married to a goofball of a dude because he used the company’s Josh Condoms. Unfortunately, the spot drew complaints for being “immoral” and was pulled off the air in late July by conservative government censors.
Christopher Purdy, executive vice president for DKT, which has operated in Pakistan since last year, said the problem with the ad was not just Mathira’s image (she’s the Marilyn Monroe of Pakistan, he said) but the somewhat hidden implication that the couple had sex before tying the knot.
The ad was also accused of promoting oral sex because Josh Condoms come in a strawberry flavor, but that’s “in the eye of the beholder,” according to Christopher. “Why you’d want a strawberry-flavored condom is usually just to mask the scent of the latex,” he said. “The irony is that we’ve been selling strawberry-flavored condoms since we started [in Pakistan], and that’s our number-one variant.”
Buying Condoms in Pakistan Is Hard
The first time I tried to buy condoms in Karachi, I caught the store clerk looking at my ringless finger. When I made a questioning face at his disapproving expression, he asked me if I had a husband. “No,” I admitted.
That’s when he told me he couldn’t sell me condoms. “I wouldn’t want my baby sister to be able to buy it so easily,” he explained. I nodded although I disagreed. “But, wouldn’t you want your sister to be able to have safe sex?” I asked him. I told him that if she was buying her own condoms, her having sex was probably inevitable. “Wouldn’t you rather she not get pregnant?” He shook his head and told me he’d rather she never have sex. Before I could continue to argue the point, he waved me along. “Try another store,” he said firmly.
I’d approached the street-vendor mostly out of curiosity. At a recent dinner party, one of my female friends told me that she was tired of her boyfriend showing up at her house without condoms. “Then he wants to have sex,” she said, rolling her eyes. I laughed, asking her why she didn’t just keep a box at home. Her eyes grew exaggeratedly round and she giggled. “How on earth could I possibly buy my own condoms? Women can’t just walk into a store and buy them!”
That’s when I realized that I had no idea how people in Pakistan bought condoms. Afshan, a representative at the Family Planning Association of Pakistan told me that 80 percent of Pakistan’s general stores sold condoms and that it was the most used contraceptive device in the country, with 12 percent of married couples using it as their primary contraception. It’s readily available everywhere from ramshackle kiosks on the city’s sidewalks to larger convenience stores with pharmacy counters.
Episode 2 of VICE on HBO premieres tomorrow night at 11PM! Sneak peek
Facedown in Chitral: Where Pakistani Muslims Go to Secretly Party
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a 19th-century tale of empire, madness, and idolatry centered around two roguish British soldiers who take a perilous journey into Kafiristan, a hostile mountain region populated by pagans who kill and rob anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Kafiristan took its name from the Arabic word kafir, which translates as “nonbeliever” or “infidel.” The region stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
For nearly 70 years, up until 1896, the emir of Afghanistan offered bribes to the people of Kafiristan to discourage them from robbing outsiders and slinging their bodies off of mountains. The Kafirs took the money but refused to give up their marauding ways. Abdur Rahman Khan, nicknamed “The Iron Emir,” grew so incensed by this flagrant disrespect of his power that he sent troops into the Afghan-controlled portion of Kafiristan to discipline the local population. Kafirs were rounded up and given a stark choice: Islam or death. Naturally, most chose Islam, and the Afghan side of Kafiristan was soon known by the euphemism Nuristan, or “land of light.” These forced conversions and the change of moniker, however, did little to alter the nature of its people. In his 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby cataloged some common phrases in the Nuristani language at that time: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning”; “I have nine fingers; you have ten”; and “I have an intention to kill you.”
In the end, the Iron Emir was only sucessful in converting the population on the Afghan side. Across the Hindu Kush mountains, in Pakistan, a raucous pagan animism persisted. Today the descendents of these pagans live in what are known as the Kalash valleys: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. They are the last animist tribe of Central Asia—a nature-worshipping island in a sea of Islam spreading out in all directions.
The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. For decades, pleasure-seeking Muslims have ventured to these valleys to get drunk on Kalash wine (which tastes like sherry) and the local moonshine known as tara (which tastes like schnapps). The drug of choice is opium brought in from Afghanistan or, more commonly, nazar, an opiate-based chewing tobacco, which oftentimes makes users sick and dizzy. Just like American kids who travel to Florida or Vegas to blow off some steam, devout Pakistanis periodically head up into the mountains for a taste of the debauched pagan life.
The Taliban Just Tried to Assassinate Me
There’s a certain amount of irony when you’re accused of being pro-Taliban, only to find half a kilo of explosives under your car, which have been put there by the Taliban. But that situation is something that Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most well-known TV presenter, has had to deal with recently.
Not only is the 46-year-old a national media celebrity, he’s also an expert in terrorism—a combination of interests that is pretty volatile in a country like Pakistan. He was the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden before the al-Qaeda leader went underground in 2001. Two years ago, an audio tape purporting to contain aphone conversation between the journalist and a Taliban spokesman was leaked. The discussion about a former intelligence agent who was taken hostage and eventually executed sent shockwaves through the Pakistani media, but Mir strongly denies that the voice on the tape is his, claiming a set up.
Last month, he openly condemned the Taliban on Twitter for shooting the schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai in the head, and received a string of death threats in return—a silencing tactic becoming all-too familiar in Pakistan, where a recent report by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PFF) found that 35 journalists have been murdered for their work in the past ten years and countless others have been attacked, tortured, and kidnapped.
Last week, Mir found a remote-controlled bomb containing a battery, a detonator, and ball bearings strapped to the bottom of his car. It failed to detonate. The Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan) promptly said they did it because Mir was targeting them with a “secular agenda”—and anyone “targeting the Taliban would be targeted with explosives.”
I spoke to him about why he’s not going anywhere any time soon.
VICE: Hey Hamid, why was there half a kilo of explosives under your car?
Hamid Mir: After the attack on Malala Yousafzai, I did some talkshows and wrote some columns about the people who attacked her. It was the Taliban that accepted the responsibility. They wrote a very long email to me, saying I am the enemy of Islam because I am supporting Malala.
That’s a big accusation. How did you react to that?
I responded back. I said, “I am not the enemy of Islam: You are not Muslims.”
And then what?
I’m writing a book, so I went to a photocopy shop in a market close to my home because I needed some photocopies of my columns published in the last five years. I spent some time in the shop and I asked my driver to come along with me to pick up some books in which my old columns were placed. He left the car unattended for about 15 minutes. That was the time it took for someone to put the bomb under my car.
They planted a bomb in my car, in the heart of Rana Market, Islamabad—the capital—in a very secure area. A lot of diplomats and foreigners shop in that market because security agencies have cleared it for them. It’s also a residential area where diplomats live. That’s the reason I went to that market, because I thought it was safe. But even there, they planted a bomb, so what can I do now?
What’s the book about?
It’s about the problems faced by the media in Pakistan, especially the targeted killing of some of my colleagues in the last four or five years. The title is not ready yet. We have lost more than 90 journalists in the past ten years. Some of them, at least four or five of them, were very close friends of mine.
How do you know the Taliban were behind this latest attack?
The Home Department in Pakistan informed me that the Taliban decided to attack me. Then my colleagues spoke directly to the Taliban spokesperson, Ensuallah Ehsan, and he told them, “We will try again. This time he is scared, but we will try again.”
I Hung Out in a Warlord’s Arms Factory
I went to the north of Pakistan last year to make a film. Before I left, my friend Sami got in touch and said that he’d been to Pakistan before too, and needed to tell me about the time he visited a warlord’s factory there. His trip was in 2005, when Pakistan was a slightly safer place, marginally less affected by American drone strikes, Islamic radicalism, and the ISI’s (Pakistan’s secret service) covert funding of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sami went to Peshawar, the capital of the Pashtuns, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. From there he headed into the federally administered tribal areas, a region of the country that governs itself free from the shackles of the Islamabad government. It’s also where Taliban fighters hide and where they slip in and out of Afghanistan from. I talked to him about the warlord’s arms factory and the little coke and heroin den he kept just off it.
VICE: First off, this wasn’t a legal arms factory, right?
Sami: I’m pretty sure it’s illegal. That whole area of Pakistan follows a law unto themselves. We could only get into the area by being smuggled under a blanket through a police checkpoint, so it’s not the most above board of places. But everyone there seemed very jolly. This short guy called, I think, Prince Al Haseem, bounced up to us when we arrived at our hotel in Peshawar and told us that he’d sort out anything we wanted to do. The number two thing on his list was a trip to the arms factory on the border of Afghanistan, about a half-hour drive from Peshawar.
It’s on the border with Afghanistan?
Yeah, it’s down south in tribally administrated areas. Warlords have always controlled it. The Taliban were in charge of the Swat area when we were there, so we couldn’t really go over there, but that area wasn’t really religiously active. Peshawar was, but the tribal areas just wanted to get on with life and weren’t that keen on Pakistani or Islamabad rule at all.
It was obviously a dangerous place at the time, but do you think you’d be able to get there again now?
No, I think it’s an absolute no-go at the moment. The Taliban arsenal is much stronger there and the area seems to be completely shut off. I haven’t heard of any foreigners going anywhere near that area. Peshawar isn’t the most popular place to go at the moment, either.
The welcoming sign at the police checkpoint.
Even at the time, though, surely people weren’t jumping over themselves to tell you to go to arms factories?
I think it was a mix of naivety and the fact that this Prince guy had convinced us that it was going to be a great little daytrip. Prince said, “let’s go to an arms factory,” and we were like, “YES.” We only realized halfway through when he said, “Duck down, duck down; I’m going to put a blanket over your head” in the taxi that it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as he had made it out to be.
What did the area look like once you got past the checkpoint?
A lot of small Pakistani towns look very similar, but as we came into this town, we started noticing that the shops looked quite different from other ones. There were a few shotguns lying against the walls and a few of the shops were selling guns. As we came to the main high street, every single shop on it was selling guns. There were AKs, Berettas, and fake M16s in every single shop window. There were barely any food shops, just guns.