Pakistan occupies a transition zone between India, Afghanistan and Iran. It is a place where these great cultures meet, and that has been one of the root causes of instability over its short history. The closer you are to India, the more subcontinental things feel. As you leave the Indian border, you pass through the Pakistani heartland, the ‘collision zone’ of colourful south Asian family culture and conservative central Asian nomadic traditions. Approaching the western border, the Indian influence dwindles as Pashto language replaces Urdu, green tea replaces milky chai, and Afghan turbans replace prayer caps. To understand “Pakistani culture” is to understand that national borders are merely lines drawn in the sand less than a century ago, and that timeless cultures instead melt into each other gradually over hundreds of kilometres.
Two things that are true throughout Pakistan is that family is the bedrock of life, and Islam is integral to the daily functioning of society. Pakistan today constitutes a largely rural, mostly traditional society, although this is rapidly chaining in the posh areas of big cities where some fast food patrons would not look out of place in New York or London.
Since an “Islamisation” drive in the early 1980s, religion has taken on a much more serious and austere role in the nation. This can be seen partly as a generational shift, but as the notion upon which Pakistan was founded, it is logical that Islam would play a crucial role in building the identity of this young nation. However that’s not to say that all Pakistanis are devoutly religious, although if someone does flout religious sensibilities, they almost never do so in public.
Women hold a particularly important place in Pakistani society, as for many they are seen as the guardians of familial honour. In many families, men do the shopping while women stay inside the home, shielded from potential slights on their integrity. Consequently, women are conspicuously absent from many streets in Pakistan, particularly in poorer and rural areas. This is seen as a matter of respect and loving protection for many families, and not usually understood as restrictive as many foreigners might see it.
The other major difference between Pakistan and the west is the degree to which religion pervades public life. Even conversations which are ostensibly non-religious (e.g. – travel plans) could be infused with religious themes and terminology (such as the common “in sha Allah” – “if God wills it”). Family members, neighbours and even complete strangers are quick to offer advice about their understanding of Islam. While this can be very confronting to westerners accustomed to a strictly secular existence, bear in mind that none of it is ill-intentioned, but rather an inseparable part of the fabric of Pakistani life. It is important to understand and respect the centrality of Islam to the lives of many Pakistanis, no matter how “modern” they may appear.
Before travelling to Pakistan, it is essential that you make yourself aware of current events, preferably from as many sources as possible. For safety advice, it is recommended that you read the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller Travel Advisory for Pakistan, the British Foreign Office’s Pakistan Travel Advice, or your government’s relevant department.