Pakistani Women Scale New Heights

02/21/2013 11:00 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

Eight young women from Shimshal, Hunza, led by Karachi-based, independent filmmaker Shehrbano Saiyid broke several records when they conquered three peaks with temperatures dipping -10 or less, at the Karakoram Range, in Gilgit-Baltistan region. According to mountaineering official from Shimshal, Qudrat Ali, "these girls summited three 6000m peaks (close to 20,000ft) back to back within six days. This is a record not only for women but for all non-professional Pakistani climbers and trekkers."

The first summit, Julio Sar (6,035 meters) had never been climbed by any non-professional Pakistani climbers and the third summit Quz Sar (5,950 meters) was the first unassisted all women's climb. Quite the first time, in Pakistan's mountaineering history did women alone handle all technical responsibilities independently and completed this first all women's summit. This team of eight women aged between 18 to 25, maneuvered two unclimbed routes, which are now named after them -- including a mountain that had never been climbed before.

"Two of these mountains have been named after these Hunza women. Five Nannies Peak 1 and Five Nannies Peak 2. The decision was made by the group," said Shehrbano.

Dubbed Pakistan Women's Expedition (PWE), the eight-member team is organized and led by Shehrbano, who initiated this project as part of her documentary series on Pakistan's northern areas, and life in the Karakoram -- one of the biggest glaciers and mountain attractions in the world.

"I wanted to share the stories of people who live here, in my documentaries and through their stories, show the true picture of diversity, the richness of tradition and the tremendous beauty of the mountainous region of Pakistan," Shehrbano said. "These people are tourism-thirsty," Bano says that by showing the life and assortment of tourist attractions here, she felt she could help them draw more foreign interest for the tourism industry.

It was her documentary on the women mountaineers of Shimshal, that took her five months filming the expeditions that she organized and sponsored, meanwhile scaling new heights with her team (PWE) and breaking belligerent social mindsets, not just in Hunza Valley but across the country.

"I think now my parents will let me pursue mountain climbing," says Alia Ehsan, an aspiring mountaineer and anthropology major at LUMS. "When young women from small villages can have the freedom to beat the odds of society and cold weather, why can't we educated women from big cities and elite schools? These girls inspire me and really push me to go for my dream of mountain climbing."

Shimshal, Neglected in the Vistas:
Tourism used to be the lifeblood of Shimshal, a small village in the Hunza valley. With a population of about 2,000 people, the area spreads across 3200km of the Gilgit-Baltistan - the northern region of the country that shares the Karakoram with China and carries some of the greatest glaciers in the world, including the world second highest peak, the K2.

When things changed after 9/11, especially after the intrusion of Taliban and militancy in the north east regions of Swat, Peshawar and FATA, Shimshal ultimately lost tourists and now just relies on farming. Many locals go out to bigger cities like Gilgit to work and send money home. Due to the deteriorated economy the region is facing tremendous social and income challenges. Ali Ahmed, a reporter with a local channel (Geo News) says, "The government does not make any investment in the infrastructure or social needs of the people." Water, electricity, communication and transportation are some chief problems.

Even in her 50s, Hameeda Bibi has to carry the blue drums filled with 32 liters of water on her back along with other women in her neighborhood from miles away. "My two sons work in Gilgit and I don't have any one to help me bring water, the woods or go to the clinic."
But Hameeda's biggest challenge has been seeing a doctor when she really needs to.

"There are no hospitals or doctors in Shimshal," tells Ali Ahmad. The village has one dispensary and three health workers, but to go to see a qualified physician, locals have to travel three hours to Gojal. With only three public vans in Shimshal, it is a challenge for Hameeda and other women to get medical facilities on time. It's worse for pregnant women, especially during intemperate weather conditions. Sometimes all the vans are out of town and due to bad weather, road blocks and landslides, don't make it back for days.

Hameeda Bibi lost her pregnant daughter-in-law and grandchild in her womb, when she tried reaching the hospital in Gojal, a few years back. "My sons were away, the vans were not available so we waited for the weather to get better and the vans to return. But as her pain grew, our neighbors helped in carrying her on a wheel cart. Then the roads got ruthless and we lost them both."

Hameeda's family is not the only one who suffers from the neglect of the state. "No mobile connections, no power, no water and bad roads are a daily inconvenience for each one of the 200 households in Shimshal," reports Ali Ahmad.

Iron Maidens and Dreams of Skies:
Despite a financially downtrodden life, people of Shimshal are not backward. Women in Shimshal are forthcoming and exuberant. They help in farming, business and aspire for the mountains. According to Shujat Ali, an official at the Deputy Commissionerate, literacy rate here is 98% - including men and women. With only three schools in town and higher education in the big cities, this is quite a feat.

Even though they primarily share the same culture of the northern region of Pakistan, which is rather backward for women, in terms of education, opportunities and domestic life, people of Shimshal believe in freedom of opportunities and thought for its women.

"Certainly the problems that have infected women empowerment and progress in Gilgit-Baltistan, don't exist in here. Those traditions where women are not supposed to leave their homes, 'un-supervised' (without male supervision), or those ideology of other tribal lands where society thinks that education is not important for women, is beyond the people of Shimshal" says Prof Khawar Akram an academic at International University of Karakoram

Changing Mindsets:
Shimshal Mountaineering School, which was established with the support of Italian climber Simone Moro, has been training men and women alike since 2009. Encouraging young girls to get trained in mountaineering, SMS is changing mindsets and has managed to attract scores of female students.

All the Hunza girls in the PWE team are trainees at SMS. "None of them are professional climbers but some of them had gone on expeditions before," said Qudrat Ali, one of the founders of SMS. He says that even though mountaineering seems to be an odd fiend for women in Pakistan, the people of Shimshal have never restricted women from pursuing mountain climbing.

To add from Prof Akram's assessment, "Such societal ingenuousness has always thrived in societies through out history. Now that these girls have broken records, it will encourage some breaking of mindsets."