New heights: Pakistan’s women mountaineers will summit much more than K2

New heights: Pakistan’s women mountaineers will summit much more than K2

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On June 25, a Pakistani mountaineering team made up entirely of women, left Skardu on a mission to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Although Pakistani mountaineer Samina Baig already has the title of becoming the first Pakistani woman to summit K2, this is the first time an all-women Pakistani team has made the attempt.

The expedition is to last a total of 45 days. The co-leader of the expedition Anum Uzair said that she hopes to inspire all Pakistani women to “dream big and pursue their passions.” Her team mate Amina Hanif comes from a family of mountaineers; her father and grandfather ‘Little Karim’ were renowned climbers. All in all, the team has plenty of experience under their belts to brave through the harsh conditions and physical and mental challenges that lie ahead.

The fact that this is an all-female team of climbers also represents an important act of de-colonization and women empowerment in Pakistan. One of the tragedies of Pakistan’s patriarchal culture is that it has deprived women from experiencing the outdoors in ways that are available to men. In recent years, climbing and trekking companies have emerged that take women for expeditions to the northern areas. These expeditions provide women with protection and a safe environment where they can be free of harassment while they undertake their outdoor adventures. At the same time, these trips are not accessible to most women around the country. For most in the country, truly experiencing the outdoor adventures unique to Pakistan remains a pipe dream.

This is frustrating because foreign teams of female climbers and outdoor enthusiasts are accessing Pakistan’s great outdoors all the time. There are scores of teams made up of women from all over the world that regularly climb Pakistan’s majestic peaks. It makes little sense that foreigners should have access to such experiences while Pakistani women do not.

It is undoubted that their efforts will inspire Pakistani women to see that their country and its vast offerings belongs to them as much as they do to men.

Rafia Zakaria

As post-colonial theorists have stated, these distant and cloud covered peaks of the Himalayas were untouched before the region was colonized. Indigenous communities revered them but did not climb them. The act of “conquering” these mountains were part of the conquest narrative built up by the British as they gradually took over the South Asian subcontinent. For instance, in Nepal and Tibet, many of the highest peaks were protected by Lhasa warriors because they wanted to keep foreigners away from them.

Indeed, if one reads the accounts of early mountaineers (all of them white men), their language of conquest and domination remains the vocabulary of mountain climbing. The more peaks were scaled, the more dominated and ‘taken’ the lands were imagined to be. The indigenous lore which promoted respect and reverence of the lands and the peaks was largely discarded.

It is precisely this tainted and troubled genealogy of mountain climbing that makes it necessary for people native to Pakistan (and other parts of South Asia) to reclaim the peaks that belong to their own countries. It is essential that the experience of reaching these heights becomes one that is connected to people who have long generational connections to them and for whom the mountain is a part of home. The task of undoing damaging, age-old narratives can only happen with expeditions like the one initiated this week.

When young Pakistani women climb the highest mountain in the country and the second highest mountain in the world, they bring with them intrinsic connections to the land. They represent an overturning of the patriarchal and colonialist domination of the land and its return to the brave women whose ancestors have inhabited it for generations.

The brave Pakistani women who are making their way to K2 base camp right now are not interested in conquest and domination. Theirs is a project of respecting and uniting with the land, of experiencing the majestic wonders of their country and becoming a part of imagining a new future for the millions of women who live in it.

It is undoubted that their efforts will inspire Pakistani women to see that their country and its vast offerings belongs to them as much as they do to men. Many of them may never climb an actual mountain in their lifetimes, but the metaphors and possibilities of reaching the very top will live large.

- Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. Twitter: @rafiazakaria

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