Much of the news that comes out of Pakistan is about dictators, drones and destruction, but 31-year-old Shehrbano Saiyid is one of the few Pakistanis who is trying to change the narrative of this beleaguered nation. She recently became the first Pakistani to lead an all-female mountaineering expedition through the Shimshal range in the Northern areas of Pakistan. The Pakistan Women's Expedition or PWE conquered three peaks that hover over 20,000 feet, all in a span of six days.
I first met Saiyid at the busy offices of GEO News nearly six years ago. We were trying to launch the first English language news bulletin at Pakistan's largest network. But it wasn't politics that consumed Saiyid; she jumped to life at the mention of the C-word -- climbing. An aspiring documentary filmmaker, she decided to combine her passion with her profession, leading to this latest feat.
The Shimshal valley is embedded in the Karakoram range, which runs across Pakistan, India and China and touts the second-highest peak in the world- K-2. Although Everest towers over K2, it's not just size that matters. Climbing enthusiasts know very well that K2 offers a far more-challenging and treacherous climb than its neighbor in Nepal.
Tucked away within the jagged peaks of Karakoram, is the area's first mountaineering school, founded by two climbers Shaheen Beg and Qudrat Ali -- both of whom have staked their flag atop K2. The school founded in 2007, is the first of its kind in Pakistan, specializing in training 8-10 women, though they have over 100 members from across the area.
Accompanying Saiyid were six women who belong to that school and are locals. They adhere to a liberal strain of Islam -- Ismaillism, a Shia sect, often the target of religious and ethnic discrimination in the Sunni-majority country. But the women all between the ages of 18 to 25 have enormous support from their community to pursue their dreams. The men have imparted the tricks of the trade, taking time out to teach their daughters, sisters and wives all that they know, so that one day they can begin their own careers in this male-dominated field.
This is indeed an exceptional move on the part of Shimshali men as gender equality in Pakistan is mere conjecture, even in metropolitan hubs like Karachi. In October last year, Pakistan ranked 134 out of 135 on the Global Gender Gap Index compiled by the World Economic Forum. Case in point: the attempt on young Malala Yousafzai's life by the Taliban. Although most Pakistani's united in condemnation... the country has failed to provide women with any true safeguards, while other sub-continental regions like Nepal and Sri Lanka have leaped ahead.
Shimshal will hopefully serve as a microcosm for the rest of Pakistan. The girls from that secluded area have gone from tending to livestock to tending to their dreams, providing hope for the millions of oppressed Pakistani women.