The second Literature Festival in Islamabad featured more than 122 speakers in about 70 different sessions dealing with all kinds of topics ranging from culture, art, Pakistani and South-Asian literature, politics and media. Various sessions and discussions spanning over three days emphasized on various cultural ways of expression and resistance as a key in the countering rising intolerance and extremism within Pakistan.
On the whole, the gathering of those renowned liberal Pakistanis who contribute with their work to the cultural understanding and the diversity of opinions was really impressive and interesting. Especially the sessions focusing on the topic of gender and gender equality emphasized the problems and discrimination women are facing in countries like Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The author and human rights activist Feryal Ali Gauhar was one of the most impressive persons during the festival, touching the audience on the one side by her emotional readings and on the other side by illustrating the discrimination of women in the society lively and thoughtful. All participants of those gender sessions appeared to agree on the fact that the inequality between men and women has been on the rise in recent years and therefore new approaches are needed in order to achieve gender equality. The need to increase the role of men in gender movements was also brought to the table. Another interesting approach was highlighted by the book launch of ‘Language Gender and Power’ by Shahid Siddiqui. His book deals with the critical reflection of socially constructed gender roles in the language. Despite my personal lack of knowledge regarding Urdu and other languages spoken in Pakistan, I’m aware of the fact that it is a necessary but challenging task to amend gender concepts rooted in the language.
On a critical note, however, the group of speakers as well as the audience was somewhat homogeneous. Therefore, both parties mostly agreed on the particular topics. This ‘preaching to the converted’ atmosphere casts doubts on how an event like this can promote tolerance and democratic values in Pakistan if only a certain class of people becomes part of it. So despite the fact that the Literature Festival was open for everyone and free of charge, security aspects might have prevented the organizers, the Oxford University Press with the support of the Italian Embassy, to promote the event in diverse social classes of society. The invitation and participation of members of religious, right-wing and centrist groups might have increased public interest in the event and created more discussions and arguments between the speakers and the audience. Instead of having a monologue the event could become a dialogue between the different societal viewpoints, however, not without the risk of giving more space to the already dominant discourse of right-wing. For example the book launches of Shabbar Zaidi’s ‘Pakistan: Not a failed State’ and ‘What’s Wrong with Pakistan’ by Babar Ayaz could have been more controversial than the continuous affirmation of both authors about their friendship.
Overall literature and other forms of cultural expression surely have a positive impact in countering the ‘radical demographic shift’ in Pakistan which occurred during the last years. While looking back on the history of the Subcontinent and of Pakistan, the country can definitely be proud of its cultural diversity despite its current interpretation and evaluation. Especially while not lacking pride regarding its own past, the population in Pakistan should be open-minded regarding their multicultural heritage in order to realize that all humans around the globe face the same basic problems regardless of their value system or moral views. By promoting literature and art the second Literature Festival in Islamabad tried to contribute to the societal change but it was mostly a great overview for liberal Pakistanis about the current art and culture scene of Pakistan.