“Skardu is an epitome of serenity. It is a path to some of the world's highest mountains and is known to be a paradise for mountaineers. I was raised under its crystal clear starry skies. Its blooming silence and serene winds have always soothed me in ways no other place ever has. The city of Skardu is where my immediate and extended families live and is a place I call my home.
As a child born and bred in a collectivistic community, I developed an early attachment with it. This attachment brewed into an ambition and a strong drive to contribute to my community’s development in some way. From an early age there was something about me that would draw people into sharing their deep emotional experiences with me. This came so naturally that I never really paid it any heed. It always felt like I owed it to them. They deserved to be heard. It was not just empathy I believe, it was a deeply rooted compassion. I would never reject listening to anybody. I would listen to them and would come up with some sort of solution for them. I was the go-to person in my friends and family circle.
Having the ability to make people feel that they can confide in you is seen as a unique characteristic and it sure is. But early on when I started to feel this urge to solve people’s problems and actually start doing something about it other than merely listening, it turned into dissonance. From the many missions that I so wanted to undertake in my full capacity was to build a shelter home for women in Skardu whose parents or spouses would die and they would have to live with any of their living relatives. They would be mistreated yet they had no other choice but to give in. This reality always irked me and I remember even as a teenager I gave a small interview explaining my vision and it faced strong criticism and appreciation from the ones who had actually faced this problem.
When I was enrolled in a government-run school studying in grade ten, I would deliberately try to distance myself from all that was boiling within me. It was a drive to contribute to making my community progressive, to be able to solve people’s problems. I would see girls who just wanted to lead a normal life and I would get so hard on myself for wanting more. For wanting a life that was not confined to completing education, getting married and giving birth to children, rather a life where I work really hard to make others’ lives better in some way. When I was in high school I was introduced to the subject of psychology. I found it to be very interesting. We would have discussions about people’s thinking and behaviors. This is what I got out of it back then but I knew at that point that this was what I wanted to make a career in.
My brother would teach me psychology subjects and would encourage me to opt for further studies in the field. I topped the examination in high school and had always been a high achiever. I scored a gold medal in BA. After completing it living in Gilgit Baltistan, I wanted to go to Punjab University Lahore for doing MSc in Applied Psychology. It is very rare for a woman to go to a city outside of Gilgit Baltistan for further studies. I had a very good reputation in Skardu city in terms of my educational achievements and perhaps that was the reason I did not have to face resistance. So I was one of the very few women in our area who got a chance to move to another city for education. I landed in Punjab University Lahore and completed my MSc. There was a Gilgit Baltistan male student council in the university which helped newly enrolled students from the district. I pushed for the idea of having a females’ council which would specifically help women from GB to get scholarships at the university and generally in getting them acquainted if they enroll. I was the council’s chairman back in the day. The council is still operational and is helping many girls from our district.
Throughout this time I continued conducting consultations with people in my area and elsewhere. I just knew that this was my dream job and that I was headed in the right direction. I somehow realized that whatever was happening in the society had to do with mentality. Societal norms created psychological distresses. Gender roles that grow out of misinterpretation of religion had such a huge impact on both the genders. Men were supposed to devote their whole lives while being the provider of a household while women had their own share of roles to live by. It came to me how women in my community had internalized inferiority in the name of religion. They had to be made aware of their rights. I had so much to do for both genders yet I also knew that mental health was considered a taboo in our society. This was still the way I could make a contribution.
I went on with my studies and got a scholarship opportunity to go to the United States of America to get a Diploma in Special Education from Northampton Community College. While I was in the US, I got exposed to different cultures and experienced many things. I felt free of societal pressures and expectations. Like many others I was also tempted to make a life in the US. Eighty percent of the people who went never come back. I was the first woman from my area to go for this scholarship. But I also knew that I was going to be the last if I chose to stay there. I received the Exemplary Leadership Award from the United States Department of State. I then came back and worked for several development initiatives in my community while also holding clinical consultations with many in my area.
Mental health is not even considered important in the region. The society in general is into superstitious beliefs. If a child is not studying, instead of preferring a therapy they would take him to a mullah. Islam is a beautiful religion and a complete code of life. Yet many people here are extremists. If there is a severe mental illness, exorcism would be considered the most viable option. There are a handful of mental health practitioners from Skardu and I am one of the fewest who have practiced clinical psychology in the region. There are psychologists and psychiatrists in Mansehra where people are taken very rarely when some cases are considered to be associated with mental health in the first place. So practicing psychology here is a huge deal. You have to keep in mind some veteran medical norms that have been going on for years. You also need to make sure that their beliefs are taken into account before letting them know of the importance of mental health.
I completed MS in Clinical Psychology from University of Management and Technology, Lahore in 2020 after coming back from the US. I won a gold medal for my grades and participation in extra co-curricular activities. Currently I am working as a clinical counsellor and a visiting lecturer at the University of Baltistan. I am also a trainer for Tameer o Tabeer (good health, quality education & gender equality) project of Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund. The project supports the development of community driven institutions through consistent financial and technical support, in order to facilitate initiatives for sustainable development. I also work part time at UMANG and Crime Victim Services Pakistan. Besides this I also provide free clinical consultations. I am also an associate researcher at the Community Development for Peace (CDP), Bangladesh. I have worked for Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Skardu as well which was very close to my heart and many similar ones.
The projects that I have been a part of and the ones I am currently serving in are associated with development goals of education, health and hunger in one way or the other. My job involves community building which requires me to work in close contact with my community members. I understand their deeply rooted beliefs and practices. I must at all times understand their religion to make sure nothing negates people’s beliefs. I visit far flung areas of the Skardu district and conduct group consultations with women where they share their problems with me. I let them know of the importance of getting education for themselves and their children. Had I not been a part of the same culture and religion, there would not be any impact. This is something that I have understood over the period of time. Another reason why women understand when I make an attempt to get an idea through is because I have set my own example for them to see.
I remember back in my college days I joined an academy which was located quite far from my residence. Every day I used to come back in the evening. In summers since the sun stays up till late, it was relatively easy for me to convince my family to allow me to go there. It was a problem because my transport used to drop me at a place that was a bit distant from my house and I had to walk home from there. But when winters came and days became shorter my family started to have a lot of reservations. I was the only woman going to the academy at the time. Every day I had to put myself out there and convince my parents that I would be okay on my own and that it was important for me. This one time there was some visit in the academy for which I had to stay there for longer. When I got back home, my family was on fire. It was very traumatic for me back then and it still triggers whenever I am out late. I have seen girls quitting because of such familial reasons. But I never gave up. It was one of those very hard experiences in my early educational journey that I could not have lived had I not shown perseverance. Many girls started to go to academies because I had set an example.
People saw that I managed such a thing and girls now had my example to quote. Similar to how so many women now leave Skardu and go to cities where better educational facilities are at their disposal. Even my younger sister could go to Lahore for her studies because I had opened a way for her and my family had seen me be on my own for a long time. I realized that you cannot give up.
Giving up for me meant that I was not going to help girls in achieving their dreams so it was not just myself at stake.
I knew for a fact that I would be able to help many girls like myself only if I was successful in my career. People often ask me what the biggest problem of the region is and which development goal solves that. And I always tell them that except for Skardu city where things are relatively better, far flung areas of Skardu district and elsewhere in Gilgit Baltistan, people lack basic necessities of life. So areas like education and gender equality are far from even being considered.
I keep moving around and hold consultations in groups. Consultations are on many topics ranging from mental health to education to domestic affairs. With the help of the time that I have spent with women people closely listening to their issues I have realized how in my region they do not even know what their rights are. From a very early stage I took it on me to educate them about how they are supposed to be treated. Things they forbid themselves over are actually their basic rights and they need to hold themselves accountable too if they want to get those rights.
Internalizing misinterpretations of religion that give birth to patriarchy is not going to help.
Similarly educating only women would not help in empowering them. Both genders need to understand very basic things like women’s right to education. Being a psychologist is not easy. It has an emotional toll on you which you constantly need to keep in check.
When I dig deep into people’s emotional traumas, I get very angry because they almost every time have to do with toxic masculinity or imposed gender roles. Yet anger is not the solution nor is going in the same path as the patient’s is. So many university students face mental health problems yet they are not paid any attention to. I am the only clinical counsellor at the University of Baltistan and I want to have more in every university of the region. Many people are now making their careers in the field of clinical psychology but that is not enough. Practicing it in our region is what I hope to see in my lifetime. There is so much to do in Skardu. Making people aware of their rights, stopping the malpractices around mental health, providing quality education and what not. But it is not something unachievable. I am at a point where people now acknowledge my efforts and understand what I am trying to achieve. This did not happen on its own. It required a tremendous amount of patience, hard-work and commitment. Putting a constant effort is a choice you have to make every day.
It is not like I do not face any obstacles now. They come in different forms. Recently when I was doing my research in MS on the topic of women sex workers in Pakistan, I had to face a lot of hurdles. When I was able to show my faculty supervisors the need to conduct a research on the subject and showed willingness to undergo a supposedly profane research, I did get through in the end. That is what it is. With every hard work and the consequent failure or success, you find this potential in you. That is what I have done throughout my life. Whenever I made things easier for women and when I saw them being able to do something because of my efforts, it just gave me more motivation. Today women tell me how they got their daughters into schools/colleges because they got to know how important education is through my communication. They thank me and I cannot tell you what those words do for me. I have a long journey to make but as long as I know I will keep going forward no matter what comes my way, I will be fine.”
From Afsana: Ishrat's story emphasizes the need for access to basic education for women and the importance of mental health and its intersectionality with women empowerment. There is more to be done to support leading women like Ishrat in their efforts for providing opportunities for women in far-flung areas. Please continue to support our platform to learn more ways to help, and if you also have a story to share as a Pakistani woman, please contact us.
Written by Sadia Rashid of Afsana