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Hunza Valley women challenge Pakistani patriarchy

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Seated on a set of intricate woven rugs covering the floor of a traditional home in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan’s northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, I cannot help but feel surprised.

After weeks of travelling in a country where men dominate public spaces, I am sharing a meal with my host, his mother and her sister — something unthinkable in many areas of Pakistan, where most women still live secluded from outsiders. Sexual violence toward women is common, and a recent rape case in Lahore ignited street protests after a top police official partly blamed the victim for being out alone at night.

“Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index report published by the World Economic Forum in 2020. In this patriarchal society, women get access to minimal economic opportunities, and the ones who do usually opt for career choices like teaching and medicine,” says Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali, chief executive of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017. “Those women who are rebellious enough to challenge the status quo have to face many setbacks and challenges.”

In the Hunza Valley, though, most of the population are Ismaili, a sect of Shia Islam in which women are relatively visible in everyday life — notably in the tourism industry, Hunza’s major source of income. “Hunza people are quite open-minded and liberal due to higher literacy rates and exposure to international tourists,” Ms Ali says.

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Against this background, tourism — which started in the 1970s, when tourists started to visit this picturesque alpine valley along the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to China’s Xinjiang Province — has provided a route out of the home and into employment for many local women.

In Karimabad, the capital of Hunza District, local women have been learning male-dominated skills such as carpentry and stone masonry since 2003, when CIQAM, a local non-governmental organisation formerly known as Women Social Enterprise, started operating with support from the Aga Khan Foundation, a not-for-profit development agency founded in 1967 by the hereditary head of the Ismaili sect. The organisation currently employs more than 90 women in heritage development activities.

Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali is the CEO of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017
Lahore-based Aneeqa Ali is the chief executive of Mad Hatters, a tour company founded in 2017 © Courtesy of Root Network

Gulmit, a scenic village in Upper Hunza, is home to two other female-led initiatives: Bozlanj, a restaurant that opened in 2016 to cater to foreign visitors to a nearby glacier, and the Korgah Carpet Center, opened in 2005, which employs local women to weave handmade rugs and embroidered purses and wallets for sale to tourists.

These small-scale projects represent significant steps toward establishing a role for women in the local business community. Much remains to be done, however. “Hunza’s tourism industry is [still] largely occupied by the men of the region,” says Mehnaz Parveen, the first female Hunzai chief exeucitve of the 23-year-old Karakorum Area Development Organization (KADO), a local NGO, in Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town.

Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town
Aliabad, the Hunza Valley’s main town © Kit Yeng Chan
A schoolgirl in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley
A schoolgirl in Shiskat, a small village in the Hunza Valley © Kit Yeng Chan

Ms Parveen, a Hunza native who returned to the area in 2019 after 16 years in relatively cosmopolitan Islamabad, describes her work as “bittersweet” because of the difficulties involved in achieving the goal of social progress for women. “I believe my success will pave the way for other local young women to aspire for such positions, which is why I feel it’s worth taking the pain,” she says.

The subsidiary role of women in Pakistan conflicts sharply with the image presented by the mainstream tourism industry in recent years, which has relied on foreign female influencers such as Polish-born vlogger Eva zu Beck and Canadian Muslim convert Rosie Gabriel to present the country as a safe and friendly destination, including for women. Ms Gabriel dramatised this image by travelling across Pakistan by motorcycle.

Helped by a relaxation of visa procedures, Pakistan earned Rs2.3tn ($14bn) from tourism in 2019, according to a March 2020 World Travel and Tourism Council Report, welcoming 24,487 foreign arrivals, compared with just 5,575 in 2014.

A close-up visit to the Passu Glacier. The Karakoram Highway brings visitors within striking distance of some of the Hunza Valley’s most spectacular natural sights
A close-up visit to the Passu Glacier. The Karakoram Highway brings visitors within striking distance of some of the Hunza Valley’s most spectacular natural sights © Kit Yeng Chan
Laila Rajani walks in the Chitral District’s Ramboor Valley with local Kalasha women
Laila Rajani walks in the Chitral District’s Ramboor Valley with local Kalasha women © Courtesy of Root Network

After a four-month lockdown prompted by Covid-19, Pakistan reopened its borders and ended domestic tourism controls on August 15, prompting fears in Hunza about coronavirus risks from domestic tourists, many of whom are said by locals to be ignoring health requirements such as negative tests results. Pakistan had suffered 319,317 coronavirus cases and 6,580 recorded deaths as of October 12.

The pandemic has provided fresh business opportunities for female artisans, however, including women trained by KADO who are producing reusable face masks. “We sold 19,000 pieces in four months with the help of 50 [local] women,” says Ms Parveen.

Root Network, founded by Ms Ali and four other women (Pakistani and foreign) with hands-on local tourism experience, is raising funds through a crowdfunding effort and has just completed training in 12 areas of Gilgit-Baltistan for almost 200 Hunza locals working as hotel staff, tour guides and porters in procedures to curb the spread of the virus.

A female traveller and local guide take in the beauty of the Hunza Valley
A female traveller and local guide take in the beauty of the Hunza Valley © Courtesy of Root Network
A Shiskat woman prepares food
A Shiskat woman prepares food © Kit Yeng Chan

Root Network’s long-term goal is creating a more sustainable model so that “local community members [will] not end up dealing with the detrimental consequences of wanderlust, instead of benefiting from the economic opportunities”, says Canada-based Pakistani expatriate Turfah Tabish, Root Network’s strategist.

American travel blogger Alexandra Reynolds, who is also involved in Root Network, says the group wants to work with existing organisations to amplify the impact of its attempts to help locals understand sustainable tourism and to ensure acceptance.

“We have those connections in Gilgit-Baltistan, where it is also easier to work as women than in other areas of Pakistan like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Ms Reynolds says. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which lies along the border with Afghanistan, was formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.

Turfah Tabish, a Canada-based Pakistani expatriate, is Root Network’s strategist
Turfah Tabish, a Canada-based Pakistani expatriate, is Root Network’s strategist © Courtesy of Root Network

Root Network says it hopes that its pilot project in Hunza will enable the organisation to apply for funding and support from official sources, with the goal of replicating its programme in other risk-prone tourism areas of Pakistan such as the Kalasha Valleys area of Chitral District in northern Pakistan.

An important lesson of the pandemic, says Ms Parveen, is that Hunza needs to rely less on tourism in the future, focusing instead on developing local businesses that can survive interruptions to the flow of visitors.

She says KADO has taken a step towards this goal by helping local women sell their artisanal products online when local markets were closed during the lockdown.

“We are now working to raise the capacity of both young males and females in IT-related fields,” she says. As the region’s poor internet capacity improves, she adds, the online sector beckons with “huge potential” to expand businesses in Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on October 17, 2020. ©2020 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

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The hat and the pencil: who is Peru’s president in waiting?

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With his huge straw hat and giant yellow pencil, Pedro Castillo has emerged from nowhere to become one of the most recognisable figures in Latin American politics in recent weeks, and appears poised to become Peru’s next president.

But beyond the eye-catching photographs of him ploughing fields in the Andes with oxen, stoking the wood fire in his modest mountain dwelling and riding to his local polling station on horseback, Castillo remains a largely unknown quantity.

He gives few interviews, and has declined to speak to the Financial Times. He has never worked in government and until now was best known for leading a teachers’ strike in 2017.

Pedro Castillo guides a plough pulled by cattle on his property in Chugur © Martin Mejia/AP

And yet, results from this month’s presidential election suggest he has secured an epic victory. With just a handful of disputed votes left to count, he leads his rival Keiko Fujimori by 50,000 votes — 50.1 per cent to 49.9. If her claims of electoral fraud are dismissed and the result is confirmed, he will be sworn in on July 28 as one of the most unlikely leaders in Peru’s rich history.

Much of the confusion surrounding Castillo stems from his flip-flopping on policy during the campaign. One minute he was a radical tub-thumper, determined to nationalise companies and rip up Peru’s 1993 constitution; the next he was trying to assuage the country’s terrified elite they had nothing to fear from him. No one knows what to expect.

On the stump, he knows how to fire up a crowd. His simple message — “no more poor people in a rich country” — resonated with millions of downtrodden voters in impoverished villages in the Andes and Amazon basin.

“He’s one of us,” said Edith Vega as she shopped for food in the town of Chota, close to where Castillo was born. “He knows what our problems are, and they’re not only the problems of Chota — they’re the problems that most Peruvians face.”

In the presidential debates, Castillo was calm and polite but offered little in the way of policy. In his few local media interviews he was sometimes hopelessly out of his depth, particularly when discussing the economy.

Pedro Castillo, right, and rightwing candidate Keiko Fujimori, left, greet before the start of their last debate ahead of the run-off election, in Arequipa © Martin Mejia/AFP via Getty Images

“Pedro Castillo is a disaster when he has to explain his ideas but he’s sensational when he reduces his message to a single phrase: rich against poor, the wealth of those on the coast versus the poverty of those in the Andes, the dispossessed against those who have everything,” said Rodolfo Rojas, a political analyst at Sequoia, a consultancy in Lima.

“He’s a teacher who had a poor education himself and it shows. To give one example, he’s had problems explaining the difference between the national budget and gross domestic product.”

Castillo was born in 1969 in the tiny hamlet of Puña in the northern Andean region of Cajamarca, by some measures the poorest in the country.

“I’m from a neighbouring area and I know something of the hardships there,” said Modesto Montoya, a Peruvian scientist and part of Castillo’s team of advisers. “In my town I knew children like Pedro who walked for hours to get to school. When they came into contact with the cities it made them aware of the injustices and inequality of opportunities that still exist in Peru. That’s what led Pedro to want to change the country.”

The third of nine children, Castillo went to a local school, helped his parents tend their crops, trained as a teacher and married his childhood sweetheart, with whom he has two children. He taught in a rural primary school.

Pedro Castillo waves to supporters after casting his vote on June 6 in his home region © Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

He became a rondero — the peasant nightwatchmen who, in the absence of the state during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, formed their own communal protection groups, patrolling the Andes and meting out sometimes brutal justice to those they deemed criminals, including leftist guerrillas from the Maoist Shining Path organisation.

People who know him say that like many mountain villagers he is a social conservative. “It’s deeply ingrained in the Andean culture,” one said, adding that Castillo is unlikely to champion gay rights, women’s liberation or a relaxation of the abortion laws.

His first venture into politics came in 2002 when he stood unsuccessfully for a mayoral post with Perú Posible (Possible Peru), the party of then-president Alejandro Toledo.

Fifteen years later he reappeared, this time at the head of a striking teachers’ union.

Castillo’s poor Andean roots have led some to compare him to Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales, but Montoya says the analogy is misguided. “I see him more as a Pepe Mujica,” he said, referring to Uruguay’s plain-speaking leftist president from a decade ago. “He’s a simple, honest man.”

The problem is knowing what this simple, honest man would do in government. Who would serve in his cabinet and who would advise him? While he flatly denies he is a communist, his party, Free Peru, is headed by a Cuban-trained Marxist ideologue, Vladimir Cerrón. It is unclear who would hold the reins of power.

In March, Castillo gave a local television interview in which he said he wanted “to revive the economy, renegotiate contracts, nationalise Camisea [a gas project], eliminate private pension funds and return money to Peruvian workers”.

He confirmed that as president he would sit down with foreign mining companies to squeeze more money from them, even to the point of driving them from the country.

“I imagine that at the end of the conversation multinationals are going to pack their bags and say ‘you know what? I’m out of here’ and the [Peruvian] people will say ‘that’s fine, you can go because we want companies that come and invest and negotiate with the state’,” Castillo said.

As UK-based consultancy Teneo noted, Castillo would come to power “with a shaky mandate . . . a lack of experience and a tendency to improvise, an uncosted policy programme . . . a weak position in congress and a radical rival to his leadership within his party”.

Like Castillo’s own journey to the polling station in the first round of the election in April, when he paraded through the streets of Cajamarca on a skittish, bucking horse, it promises to be a rough ride.



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Coronavirus latest: Boris Johnson extends lockdown restrictions in England to July 19

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New York state has the lowest seven-day average Covid-19 positivity rate at 0.44 per cent, governor Andrew Cuomo said, citing Johns Hopkins University data.

On Sunday, the state health department said 383 new positive cases were identified from 110,437 tests – a rate of just 0.35 per cent.

“We’re beating back Covid-19 across the state and New York has the nation’s lowest seven-day average positivity rate, but it’s going to take more vaccinations to get us across the finish line,” Cuomo said.

The state plans to offer “exciting incentives” for vaccinations, he added.

Cuomo said more than two-thirds of New York adults – 67.2 per cent – now had at least one vaccine dose, and 60 per cent were fully vaccinated.

“I encourage everyone eligible who hasn’t yet been vaccinated to take advantage of a free $20 lottery ticket.”

Scholarships in the State University of New York system and City University of New York were also being offered.

The number of new coronavirus cases tallied in the US has remained near levels not seen since the early days of the pandemic, an encouraging decline that has prompted some states to scale back their daily reporting of Covid-19 trends.

Infections, hospitalisations and deaths related to Covid-19 have dropped sharply since a winter surge, brought down by a vaccination rollout that kicked off in December. 

Overall about 64 per cent of American adults have now received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The US has reported 15,928 infections per day in the week ending June 10, which is down about half in the span of one month and 94 per cent from a January peak of nearly 251,085, based on a Financial Times analysis of figures from Johns Hopkins University.



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Hong Kong-Taiwan spat threatens cross-Strait business

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Official representation between Hong Kong and Taiwan is set to end this year as mounting political tensions threaten one of the region’s most important trade and investment relationships.

The number of staff in Taiwan’s representative office in Hong Kong has dwindled over the past two years as the territory has stopped issuing visas, with the documents of those who remain due to expire by the end of November.

Hong Kong also abruptly suspended operations of its representative office in Taipei two weeks ago, ending its official presence there. The stand-off has grown so severe that Taipei has begun making contingency plans for a situation without on-the-ground representation in Hong Kong, two senior Taiwanese government officials said.

The breakdown in relations follows rising military tensions between Taiwan and China and a crackdown by Beijing on pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong that has led some activists in the territory to seek refuge in Taipei.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to annex it if the island fails to submit to its control indefinitely.

Analysts said that cutting official channels would undermine Hong Kong’s traditional role as a conduit for business and financial exchanges between Taiwan and China. Despite the dispute with Beijing over sovereignty, Taiwanese companies are among the largest foreign investors, employers and exporters in mainland China.

Taiwan air force personnel during the visit by President Tsai Ing-Wen
Military tensions between China and Taiwan have escalated, but investment and trade across the Taiwan Strait remains important to both countries © Ritchie B Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A significant part of trade across the Taiwan Strait trade goes through Hong Kong, and many Taiwanese investors in China also use Hong Kong for financial, taxation and legal purposes. Last year, Taiwan was Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, while Hong Kong was Taiwan’s fifth-largest, with HK$504bn (US$65bn) in total bilateral trade. Taiwanese companies invested US$912m in Hong Kong in 2020, while Hong Kong-registered companies invested US$555m in Taiwan.

“Hong Kong has been a springboard for Taiwanese companies into mainland China and it has also been a springboard for Chinese [companies] into Taiwan,” said Liu Meng-chun, a research section director at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, a Taiwanese government-backed think-tank.

Tensions between Hong Kong and Taipei have escalated over the past two years after the territory started demanding Taiwanese diplomats sign documents declaring their country part of China as a precondition for being issued a visa.

After Taipei refused, the number of staff at its office in Hong Kong began to dwindle, from 20 to eight today, according to the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s cabinet level China policy body.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, said it was temporarily closing its Taipei office because “Taiwan’s series of actions in recent years has severely damaged Hong Kong-Taiwan relations”.

A Hong Kong government official suggested the suspension came on instructions from Beijing.

“I think Beijing is of the opinion that [Taiwan’s representative office] affects national security,” said Sung Yun-wing, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who is also a member of a semi-official think-tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, in Beijing.

“There have been reports that Taiwan has been encouraging the protest movement in Hong Kong, which has turned violent, so the protest movement is not only against the Hong Kong government but also Beijing,” said Sung. He added China was also concerned Taiwan was “sheltering” Hong Kong protesters.

While Taipei has been careful to avoid being seen as making it too easy for Hong Kong dissidents to flee to Taiwan, civil society groups in the country have supported the protest movement with advice, money and logistics. “This is something we cannot interfere with as they have done nothing illegal,” said a senior Taiwanese China policy official.

Historically, Hong Kong’s most important economic role in the Taiwan-China trade has been as a sea and air trans-shipment hub for Taiwanese companies to supply their factories in southern China with components.

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While analysts suggested that much of this commerce could continue even if official ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong were severed, they foresaw a sizeable impact on financial services, tourism and education.

“Hong Kong plays a very important role for Taiwanese private wealth management,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA, the brokerage.

He said many Taiwanese individuals had accounts in Hong Kong, where the local units of Taiwan’s banks offered them offshore investment products not accessible under the island’s stricter regulations.

Liu of the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research said many Taiwanese enterprises kept profits from their China operations with their Hong Kong affiliates for tax purposes.

“These things would become a lot more cumbersome without official representation because you would have to start sending documents back and forth for notarisation,” Liu said.



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