Women In Sport Confront Gilgit-Baltistan's Cultural Anxieties

Women In Sport Confront Gilgit-Baltistan's Cultural Anxieties
Last month, the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan’s (GB) decision to organise a Women’s Sports Gala, a women-only event, stirred protests when a few politicians and certain local religious groups opposed it. They claimed that women’s sporting activities are against “our cultural and religious norms” since they spread ‘vulgarity.’ To manage the mounting pressure from these groups, the government renamed the event as GB Women’s Fair 2022. Apparently, the protestors were appeased temporarily but the question of women’s participation in sports – and by extension the role of women in public space – has been debated, which resulted in a polarised public opinion.

To begin with, one wonders, in the context of GB what does the term ‘culture’ imply? Does GB have a uniform culture or is it comprised of multiple cultures? Why only women’s acts like sporting provoke some cultural norms? Why are the cultural values not invoked when men commit crimes such as murder and rape or demonstrate anti-social behaviours like robbery and fraud?

These questions invite a brief survey of GB’s cultural landscape in contemporary times, as well as historically, to situate the current debate of cultural confusion.

Today, the society of GB is diverse in terms of cultural and religious orientations. Therefore, it is unwise to (re)present it in absolute terms, as if all communities in GB share exactly the same culture. Instead, it is important to highlight the existing cultural plurality that appears closer to the reality. Or in other words: in a culturally diverse society, it is crucial to pluralise our cultural discourses to avoid any misplaced essentialisations.

Historically, GB comprised of numerous local princely states that constructed their respective religio-cultural ethos. However, they roughly shared tribal social arrangements along with a dominant patriarchal mindset, where women usually could not enjoy an equal status. This cultural baggage has been handed down to latter generations and it still persists in the society. The patriarchal mentality continues to haunt women in GB even today.

After the disintegration of the princely states, GB was treated as a single administrative unit of Pakistan. At the time of such a political change, GB lacked in a cultural unanimity. Hence, the absence of a common cultural outlook created a void. That gap was gradually occupied by religious groups who then proclaimed themselves as definers and defenders of both religion and culture.

Later, their influence was further accentuated by some global and national developments such as the Afghan war and the Iranian revolution along with General Zia-ul-Haq’s policies of Islamisation. As a consequence, they imported strict religious narratives. These narratives came from competing religious factions along ideological fronts, but abetted each other on the role of women in the society. Thenceforth, women’s participation in the public realm has been excoriated through some religio-cultural idioms.

Formerly, the conservative and misogynist elements in GB disapproved of women’s education by equating it with spreading ‘vulgarity.’ However, women did not give up on their dreams. Similarly, the precarious cultural norms were shaken when the educated women in GB entered professional arenas in different fields. Now, the same mantra of ‘spreading vulgarity’ is repeated when women come out to participate in sports.

In effect, neither did the previous intimidation stop women in many parts of GB from pursuing their dreams, nor will the current protests hinder them from participating in healthy activities in the long run.

Most importantly, an unnecessary use of religion mixed with cultural seasoning makes a toxic blend against women in GB. This should be avoided since it tends to create a sense of contempt among women for their religio-cultural institutions. As a result, women may become alienated from their societies. The feeling of alienation may cause unsettling anxieties and depression that disrupts belongingness and social relationships. This tendency is seen as a major contributor to the rising rate of suicides in GB. Therefore, let us reevaluate our cultural and religious discourses that hamper our efforts of creating an egalitarian future. Undoubtedly, such a healthy future demands women’s active participation in social processes and useful contributions to the common good.

Thus, it is urgent to reflect on the cultural structures in order to reinvent ourselves according to the changing conditions. The absence of critical reflection creates what William Fielding Ogburn calls “cultural lag”—an unequal rate of change between material and immaterial culture. Like other parts of Pakistan, in GB, the material culture has witnessed dramatic changes whereas the immaterial culture has lagged far behind. Paradoxically, people in GB generally prefer updated technology but they do not bother to update their tribo-patriarchal mindset in order to make their existence and surroundings more meaningful.

This disturbing mismatch between different parts of culture causes cultural anxieties that harm social inclusivity and progress in GB.