Pakistan: A Fashionable History

Pakistan: A Fashionable History

Journalist Duo Releases Book On The Fascinating History of Pakistan’s Fashion Industry!

Lahore, Pakistan – August, 2020: Pakistan’s first-ever non-fiction book on the creation of the local fashion industry, is the brainchild of writer/journalist Mehr F Husain and, a collaboration with the photojournalist, Saad Sarfraz Sheikh.

A fascinating study of the pioneers of Pakistani fashion who came together to form what today stands as a multi-million dollar market, Husain and Sheikh’s gorgeous coffee table book – which took over two years to document and compile is now available for purchase!

Filled with first person narratives from the trailblazing designers and non-designers, fascinating anecdotes, stunning photography and historical archives, the publication delves into the heart of Pakistan’s history. Starting from partition, the book documents the journey of a people who sought to dress and adorn a new country, giving the Pakistani nation a multi-faceted identity that has remained unexplored…till now.

Husain and Sheikh’s book goes beyond the aesthetics by gently uncovering a history, heritage and culture, and exposing the hidden beauty of a country and its people who have been maligned and misunderstood for far too long.

Highlighting the origins and the journey of local fashion – amid tumultuous phases over the decades – the book is a delicious page-turner which will appeal to a number of age groups intrigued by the role of fashion and how socio-political issues and the quest for a young nation’s identity led it to where it is today; a formidable force in the global arena of fashion.


Mehr Fatima Husain – Author

Mehr is a British-Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. Born in London, she was raised in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and England. Having completed her education (secondary and undergraduate) in London, she wound up working for Barclays in the city, ran a humour blog while based in Saudi and over the past 12 years, and worked in different roles in the Pakistani media industry; as a Features Editor at The Friday Times (TFT), an Assistant Editor at Good Times (GT) magazine and as a columnist for India’s Mail Today where her column ‘The Lahore Log’ also appeared in The Daily Mail/MailOnline.

Mehr’s commentary, criticism and journalism have appeared in The Economist’s 1843, The Times of London, The Diplomat, India’s Mail Today, The Daily Mail/MailOnline, Libas, The Friday Times, Herald, Pakistan Today, The News, The Nation and Pakistan Link. She was also the Editor for ‘Multan: A Spiritual Legacy’ (a book about ancient structures in Multan) which was presented to HM Queen Elizabeth by the Pakistani Ambassador to the UK in 2013. In 2014, her short story ‘A fool’s paradise’ was published as part of an anthology that was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival and is now part of the Pakistani national curriculum. In 2016, another short story ‘The first cut’ appeared in another anthology published by Mongrel Books in Karachi.

Mehr holds a MSc. in Asian Politics from SOAS, University of London and a BSc. in Politics with Business Management (Hons.) from Queen Mary, University of London. She was also accepted into an MPhil in South Asian Studies at St. Edmunds College, Cambridge. In addition, she has delivered workshops on journalism at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), appeared as a guest on the hit satirical programme ‘News, Views and Confused’ and performed as the opening act for ‘Auratnaak’, Pakistan’s first all-female comedian troupe.

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh – Photographer

Saad is an independent journalist and photographer based in Lahore. His journalistic career began by working as a Desk Editor for leading newspapers in Pakistan, including the Daily Times and The Friday Times. His work involved reporting, writing, editing and supervising layouts of the newspapers. This led him down the exciting path of field reporting and photography assignments for Getty Images, Demotix and Corbis, as well as other renowned publications.

Saad’s work has been featured in Time, Al Jazeera, Esquire (Middle East), Foreign Policy, Courrier International (France), Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, Roads & Kingdoms, Forbes Lifestyle (part of, The Hindu, Vogue India, Verve India, NowThis, The Friday Times, Herald (Dawn), The Nation and The News on Sunday.

Apart from his prolific career, he has also conducted photojournalism workshops at festivals and journalism institutes in Pakistan, including a TEDx talk on photography as a medium in 2013.

Over the years, Saad has carved a name for himself as a well-known Pakistani photojournalist, documenting issues of conflict, politics and social issues, including local art and culture. Apart from his journalism-related projects, Saad also shot the production stills for two critically-acclaimed Pakistani films, ‘Shah’ and the ‘Motorcycle Girl,’ including the production of a poignant documentary for the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) on the plight of juveniles facing the death penalty in Pakistan.

He is also a band member of Pakistan’s only percussion band, Quadrum, and has performed at more than 500 concerts in Pakistan and abroad. Saad has an undergraduate degree in journalism from the Forman Christian College (FCC) in Lahore and an MA in Global Journalism from the University of Sheffield.

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 Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen’s books are remarkably relevant to women in Pakistan today, as Moni Mohsin found when she met the sub-continental Janeites
Women of consequenceLaaleen Sukhera (left), the founder of JASP, with Afshan Shafi

Founded by Laaleen Sukhera, a journalist, JASP is two years old. It has chapters in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and a Facebook page with over 1,000 followers. There is just the one dress-up party annually but they meet two or three times a year to discuss all things Austen.

The members of JASP, while perhaps a tad more ardent, are not alone in their passion for Jane Austen. For the truth – universally acknowledged – is that Jane Austen is enduringly popular in Pakistan. Bookshops have whole shelves dedicated to her novels, critiques of her novels and novels inspired by her novels. Visit a DVD rental store and you will find film and tele­vision adaptations of her work. She is taught in schools and read at home. “Pride and Prejudice” has been translated into Urdu, and “Aisha”, the Bollywood adaptation of “Emma”, was watched by millions of Pakistanis. Plans are afoot to publish adaptations of all six novels with contemporary sub-continental settings. Meanwhile, “Austenistan”, a book of short stories written by members of JASP and edited by Laaleen Sukhera, has been acquired for publication.

“Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan,” says Sukhera, 40, a mother of three girls. “I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.”

Just as Regency high society had a social season so, too, does its modern-day Pakistani counterpart. It lasts for about three months, starting in mid- December and ending mid-March, just as the weather warms up. The social activity peaks in the 20 days at the turn of the year when, like homing pigeons, expat Pakistanis flock back for the Christmas and new-year break. Those 20 days and nights are a whirl of back-to-back weddings, parties and charity balls where girls, decked out in brocade and jewels, flit before eligible suitors under the gimlet gaze of both families. It is not unusual to attend three weddings in a day to “show face” at each.

Weddings are particularly fertile hunting grounds for expat men who, having dallied in Dubai or Dallas, are ready to settle down with a “nice girl” from home. “For us, weddings serve the same function as the Bath Assembly Rooms for Catherine Morland in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and the Elliot sisters in ‘Persuasion’,” says Sukhera. “It’s where people go to promenade, to flirt and search for suitable partners.”

A traditional way of showing off wealth and standing in Pakistan, society weddings are huge, 1,000-guest affairs strung out over days, if not weeks. For the determined, they provide fail-safe opportunities to find a match. When a friend’s quiet daughter failed to attract the right proposals in Lahore, her aunt whisked the girl off to Islamabad. Drawing up a list of weddings attended by “our sort of people”, she escorted her niece to each one. Within two weeks, her niece had bagged a prize: a single man in possession of a good fortune who liked her dusky skin and demure manner enough to nudge his family into sending a marriage proposal.

As in the Bath Assembly Rooms of the 18th century, there is a social protocol that governs interaction. It is rare for a man to have the nerve to introduce himself to a pretty girl he has spotted in the crowd. Instead, he might ask a mutual friend to make the introduction, or else he will point her out to his mother or aunt. If they do not know her they will swiftly consult a friend or relation who does. Within minutes they will have the lowdown on the girl: her marital status, family background, wealth, age, education, job and reputation – whether she has been soiled by previous relationships and if so, how publicly. If her profile meets with familial approval, a meeting might be orchestrated.

“Expat guys can go to weddings in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, checking out 100 girls in a single two-week trip,” grimaces Sukhera. Only 50 years ago, suitors like these – self-made men with successful careers in banking in London or information technology in San Francisco – did not exist. In that, they are the modern equivalents of Sir Thomas Bertram of “Mansfield Park”, who owes his considerable fortune and exalted place in society to his business interests in Antigua.

For all their apparent tranquillity, Austen’s books were written in a time of social and economic change. The Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion and the Napoleonic wars were transforming English lives. There was unprecedented internal migration from the country to cities, and new fortunes were being made in the colonies and armed forces. Social attitudes had to adapt to keep abreast of economic developments. Brief but telling glimpses of that societal change are found in Austen’s works. When, in “Persuasion”, Captain Wentworth, a junior naval officer, asks for Anne Elliot’s hand in marriage, Sir Walter Elliot, her snooty father, dismisses his suit as being unworthy of a baronet’s daughter. But when he returns from the wars a rich and decorated officer, Sir Walter – who has suffered a decline in his own fortunes – finds him eminently eligible.

“At our tea parties we talk a lot about how similar our circumstances are to the characters in Austen’s books,” says Sukhera. ‘”How old values are eroding, how new people are coming up.”

Pakistan, too, has undergone much change in the last 30 years. While Austen’s England had its Napoleonic wars, Pakistan has suffered the blowback from the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. As with most wars, it has proved extremely lucrative for some. Generals own multiple flats in central London, sugar and textile mills, as well as prime real estate and agricultural land in Pakistan. As people move to cities in search of economic opportunity, industrial urban centres like Karachi, Sialkot, Lahore and Faisalabad have doubled in size over the past two decades. Although nowhere near the scale of wealth that was pouring into England from its colonial empire in the 18th century, remittances sent home by workers in the Middle East and the West have transformed Pakistan’s economy, kick-starting a consumerist boom. Where hand-printed chintz and fine Indian muslins were all the rage in Regency England, Swiss voiles and French chiffons are the fabrics of choice for Pakistani ladies-who-lunch. The nouveaux riches, their money generated from consumer goods and construction as well as politics, have displaced the old landed elites.

As Mehr Husain, an ardent JASP member, comments: “There was a time when land-owning families of the Punjab only married among themselves. They knew each other’s family trees intimately and were really particular about caste and bloodlines. Now, as long as you’re loaded, no one asks any questions.”

Faiza Khan, editorial director of Bloomsbury India, a Pakistani and an Austen devotee, agrees that Austen’s appeal lies in her relevance to Pakistani society now. “Social values have moved on in the West. The conventional drivers of an Austen plot – the obstacles to marriage like discrepancies in class and wealth, the disapproval of parents, the compromising behaviour of your ghastly family – disappeared long ago. All those old tropes like the Unmarried Daughter, the Repressive Father, the Poor Relation seem quaint now. Whereas I, an unmarried daughter, have Mrs Bennet sitting in the next room, dropping hints about some acquaintance or other being ‘a nice boy’.”

Pakistan, like Austen’s England, is a place without safety nets. Life for the poor is tough, the welfare state is non-existent and those who slip out of the middle classes have far to fall. Families are therefore of vital importance. And at the heart of every Austen novel, too, is a family – big or small, vulgar or respectable, chaotic or controlling. As Pakistanis often quip: “We have only two institutions left: the family and the military.” The family offers not just economic protection but also identity. Your social standing and financial prospects are gauged not so much by your abilities as by your family’s position.

The same was true in Austen’s time. Harriet Smith, a pleasant girl of unknown parentage in “Emma”, cannot expect to make an advantageous marriage. Without a family to locate her in society, she is a nobody.

“The Pakistani way”, muses Mina Malik Hussain, another JASP member and full-time mother, “is all about family. You are constantly thinking about the edifice of, the honour of, the benefit of. It’s like a company and everyone is supposed to do their bit.”

As General Tilney of “Northanger Abbey” would no doubt agree, marriage is a means of cementing alliances with families of equal if not higher standing. It is therefore too important a decision to be left to the whims of inexperienced youngsters. Arranged marriages – agreements reached between families with little or no consultation with the boy and girl involved – place preservation of bloodlines, status and property over compatibility. Hence the huge popularity of marriage between cousins in Pakistan; more than half the population is married to the offspring of uncles or aunts.

“This whole cousin-marriage thing,” observes Sukhera, “people in the West find it so weird now. But Austen didn’t. Her novels are full of it. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are first cousins. Mr Collins and Elizabeth Bennet are also related, as are Mr Darcy and Miss de Bourgh. See what I mean about us and Regency England?”

Parental efforts at matchmaking in Austen’s books chime with the experience of Pakistani readers. They may not warm to the wealthy, superior Lady Catherine de Bourgh – but they certainly understand her desire for a marriage between her daughter, Anne, and her nephew, Mr Darcy. After all, what could be more natural than the marriage of two cousins, equally wealthy, equally high born, and the noble heirs of two great estates, Rosings and Pemberley? And knowing all too well the social opprobrium attached to spinsters, they sympathise with Mrs Bennet’s efforts to find wealthy suitors for her unmarried daughters. “You know,” jokes Sukhera, “I used to identify with Lizzie Bennet but now, with three daughters of my own, I’ll probably morph into Mrs Bennet.”

“I love Austen”, she continues, “because like us, she’s all about reputation, she’s all about face, she’s all about status. We know that everything we do or say reflects on our families.” A constant refrain in Pakistan to remind wayward children of their duty to keep the family name pristine is: “Just think! What will people say?” Despite the huge population, social circles are small and incestuous. Like Austen’s characters, their members are constantly scrutinising and judging each other. As Mr Bennet remarks in “Pride and Prejudice”: “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?”

As in Austen, there are different rules for different strata of society. “If you are an heiress from a powerful family, you can bend the rules,” says Sukhera. “You can rock up to a party on your own and stagger home at five in the morning, without destroying your reputation or bringing shame to your family but if you’re not, you can’t. People are much more judgmental about those who are not rich.” She pauses for a moment, “A bit like Emma, who can make her own rules because she’s rich. But Fanny Price, because she’s a poor relation, doesn’t have that privilege.”

As everyone knows in Pakistan, a girl must marry while in the full flower of her youth, or else be consigned to “the left behinds”. When I was in my late 20s, my single state was the source of much anxiety for my mother and my aunts. As a family friend told me: “If you don’t hurry up and marry you won’t be on any old shelf, you’ll be on the continental shelf.” Like Anne Elliot, Austen’s left behind in “Persuasion”, I was then 27 – and most of my friends were married with a child or two. I was advised not to be “too choosy” or to leave it too late or I would “get set in my ways” and not be able to mould myself to the wishes of my husband’s family. When, at 32, I announced to my family that I was getting married there was relief all round. But the cherry on my marital cake was that my husband-to-be was (entirely by accident) of the right caste. “It’s a miracle, I tell you, a miracle,” sighed my aunt.

Chai Society JASP members Mina Malik Hussain (left) with Mehr Husain at the annual dress-up tea party in Lahore
Chai Society JASP members Mina Malik Hussain (left) with Mehr Husain at the annual dress-up tea party in Lahore

“The gender inequality portrayed in Jane Austen’s books,” says Mehr Husain, “reminds me so much of our own.” The daughter of a landowner from the Punjab, Husain was educated in London. Now married with two children she lives in Lahore. Her parents are cousins who had an arranged marriage, but Husain is not related to her husband.

According to sharia inheritance law, Husain’s brothers will receive twice her share of their father’s property. Still, Husain is fortunate. Fobbed off with a dowry in the form of jewellery and clothes, or a car and some cash that the husband immediately claims, most women do not receive any of their fathers’ real assets like land or real estate or shares in a family business. And in traditional Sunni families, if a man has no male children, like Mr Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”, his property will pass on to his nearest male relative – in Mr Bennet’s case to Mr Collins. Even today many daughters of wealthy fathers receive nothing at all.

“It’s a bit like the Dashwood sisters, in ‘Sense and Sensibility’,” says Husain wryly, “who got thrown out of their home after their father died and their half brother inherited the estate. That kind of inequality is so common here.” A writer and stand-up comedian, she has been a mould-breaker in her family. “I’m Catherine Morland from ‘Northanger Abbey’,” she says, “a tomboy with a vivid imagination. My mother told me I had to grow my hair long if I ever wanted to get married. I was also told I had to choose a safe, respectable profession like banking or teaching. But I did my own thing.”

Journalists, academics, bankers, entrepreneurs, the members of JASP could not be more different from the Dashwood sisters who had no options other than marriage. But they are keenly aware that most women in Pakistan are not as privileged. While increasing numbers of women are joining the workforce in larger cities, salaried jobs for women are rare in provincial towns, let alone in rural communities.

“They have no access to money except through marriage or inheritance,” sighs Husain. “Like Austen’s heroines. But, even though they don’t have many choices, Austen’s heroines don’t marry losers like Mr Collins, or cads like Wickham. I like that.”

It is as much a sign of the times as an indication of Austen’s own proclivities that Elizabeth Bennet spurns her mother’s wishes and ignores Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s threats in order to marry the man she loves. Similar changes are afoot in Pakistan. While in villages and small towns old customs prevail, in the cities, particularly for the middle and upper classes, new ideas are being embraced. Increasing numbers of educated, urban people are rejecting arranged matches for what is commonly known as “love marriages”. They meet through work, at parties or even through social media and take it from there. Though living together before marriage is still taboo, most love marriages are preceded by a period of dating, a comparatively recent phenomenon that still shocks conservative circles, as it would no doubt have horrified Lady Catherine.

As in Austen’s novels, a satisfactory ending for a girl is still one that results in a wedding but that wedding can wait a little longer than it did when I was of marriageable age. My niece, an actress and writer, is 30 and happily single. Her married female friends didn’t tie the knot until their late 20s, and the younger members of JASP assure me that it’s perfectly okay to be single in your mid-30s with a “kick-ass career”.

And while all of Austen’s novels end with the assumption that the hero and heroine will live happily every after, that is not the case with privileged young Pakistanis today. Just 40 years ago, divorce was unthinkable, so great was the shame. A girl’s mother would often whisper in her daughter’s ear on the eve of her wedding: “Remember, only your corpse can return to this house.” If a girl’s marriage turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, she had, like poor Mrs Price in “Mansfield Park”, to shut up and “cope up” as they say in Lahore.

These days, says Sukhera, “we don’t stay in unhappy marriages all our lives. We compromise a lot, but when it’s time to walk, we do. Even parents, if they see that their daughter is suffering, will say, ‘are you sure you want to continue with this?’ No one judges you any more for quitting a marriage.” Unless a divorced woman is independently wealthy, she will have little option but to return to the family home, with her children, to be supported by her parents. But she will be warmly welcomed. So common is the practice that it has its own terminology. “She’s back home” is shorthand for: she’s divorced and now living in her father’s house once more.

“Persuasion”, Austen’s late, quiet novel about second chances, offers particular hope to second timers. Anne Elliot, an ageing spinster who foolishly turned down Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage when she was young and pretty, is given the opportunity to rectify her mistake when he returns from sea. As many young Pakistani women discover soon after divorcing, they need not spend the rest of their lives as lonely singles. The field is littered with divorced men. But some, as one JASP member put it, “have baggage, like children and stuff…”

Sukhera finds Jane Austen’s books consoling. “The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. There is great comfort in that.” But surely the same can be said for Dickens, Trollope and the Brontes?

“I cried my eyes out when I read the Brontes,” she says, “but there is too much turmoil in their world for me. What with bomb blasts and killings every other day, I have enough drama in my daily life without getting another dose in my reading.”

Austen is kind to her heroines. They may have flawed judgment or be uppity or self-absorbed or unrestrained in their emotions, but as long as they learn from their mistakes, Austen doesn’t abandon them. “Just because you’ve been naughty and had an affair doesn’t mean you have to be crushed by a train,” sniffs Sukhera. “Silly Lydia shames her family by eloping with Wickham in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ but she doesn’t pay by being killed for honour.”

Outside Pakistan’s more enlightened, urban circles, the consequences for her would have been dire. Polygamy is legal in Pakistan, domestic violence is rife and “honour” killings – whereby women are murdered by their fathers, brothers or uncles for bringing shame to their honour through “transgressive” behaviour, which can be anything from laughing loudly in public to falling in love – are depressingly common. Recently the Punjab government tabled a bill for the protection of women against violence. Around 30 religious groups, including mainstream political parties, threatened to bring down the democratically elected government if the bill was not revoked. Giving women protective legal rights, they thundered, was tantamount to the promotion of obscenity. Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, made up largely of bearded clerics, released an official statement permitting men to “lightly beat” their wives.

Austen’s heroes would never sink that low. “Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley, they’re romantic and sexy yet they’re also sensitive and kind,” sighs Sukhera. “Just look at Henry Tilney. He even knows how to shop. I mean when did you last meet a straight man who knew what to buy a woman other than perfume? He’s so witty and laid back and playful. As for Mr Darcy – there never was and never will be a hero like him.”

What, in particular, is Mr Darcy’s appeal?

“He’s not afraid to admit he’s made mistakes,” says Sukhera. “And he’s super into her. He goes to all that effort to protect Lydia’s reputation so that Lizzie doesn’t suffer.”

“Pemberley helps,” adds Husain dryly.

“And his parents are dead,” says Sukhera. “So no interfering in-laws.”

For the last dress-up party, Husain had planned a regency gown in sprigged cotton. She explained it all in painstaking detail to her Punjabi tailor: tight, high bodice, long flowing skirt, small puffy sleeves. Accustomed to making shalwar kameezes, he nodded, making detailed notes. When she went to collect the dress she discovered it was knee length; he’d assumed she’d wear it over the voluminous, trouser-like shalwar and so made it kameez length. Afshan Shafi wore a purple gown and her light brown hair in an updo braided with pearls. She was late for the party because she had been stopped en route at a police checkpoint and her car subjected to a prolonged examination. When she put her head out of the window and enquired in fluent Urdu as to why there was a delay, a policeman explained in polite English: “Because, Madam, you are foreigner.”

Getting away from the trials of life in today’s Pakistan is part of the point. “I like coming to these gatherings,” said Mina Malik Hussain, a mother of four very young children. “It gives me a chance to enter the world of Jane Austen and, briefly, to escape the demands of my own. I like the clothes, the conversation, the company.” While there is the undeniable aspect of escape, these tea parties are not gossip sessions; there is an agenda of discussion that is adhered to strictly.

“We discuss any- and everything to do with Jane Austen,” says Laaleen Sukhera. “Our favourite mean girl in her books, our favourite cad, our favourite mother, the role of money, of sex, of families, her choice of locations. Austen celebrates life, there is pursuit of love and laughter and joy in her books and yet she’s thoughtful and wise. And her sassy one liners! They’re the best. For a brief while, she helps us forget our messy divorces, our broken homes, our demanding jobs, our anxieties about our children, our fears for our security. It is not easy being a woman in a patriarchal society like ours.”

Or, as Faiza Khan says, “We love Austen so much because she can deliver a happy ending we can believe in spite of seeing the world just as it is with all its unfairness and pettiness and exploitation and cruelty. She redresses the wrongs of her society on paper because that is all she or any of us can hope to do.”

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Article by Sonya Rehman, Pictures by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
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Punjab’s fields of change

Calling for rescue: Emergency services in Punjab

Published May 16, 2016 10:11am
Rescue 1122 workers extinguish a fire blazing at LDA Plaza in Lahore | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers extinguish a fire blazing at LDA Plaza in Lahore | Saad Sarfraz

Sahrish Ahmad is a clinical psychologist at Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital. In 2013-2014, while she was doing her masters, she proposed a research study on Rescue 1122, a public sector emergency service set up to help people caught up in accidents, fires and other emergencies. Her teachers at the Centre for Clinical Psychology at the Punjab University, Lahore, accepted the proposal immediately.

To start working on her research project, Ahmad first contacted Rescue 1122 to get the contact information for possible respondents. Senior officials at the rescue service, however, turned down her request on the grounds that all contact information of the callers who seek help is kept confidential. She then contacted her class fellows, friends and relatives for help in reaching out to anyone known to have sought – and received – help from the rescue service. Finding such people turned out to be quite easy.

Hundreds of thousands of people in different parts of Punjab have used services provided by Rescue 1122 over the last 10 years or so. Between 2004 and 2014, the rescue service has handled over 1,159,667 road traffic accidents, responded to 1,465,344 medical emergencies, dealt with 121,387 crime incidents, managed some 5,918 collapsed buildings, provided rescue in 6,904 cases of drowning and responded to 70, 232 fire incidents in all districts of Punjab, a Rescue 1122 performance report, issued in 2014, reads.

After getting to scores of people who were behind some of those calls for rescue, Ahmad identified five of them through sampling methodology advised by her supervisors, Tehreem Arshad and Dr Rukhsana Kausar. These respondents were all young – aged between 22 and 27 – and belonged to middle class families. She interviewed them in detail, asking both quantitative and qualitative questions.

Thematic analysis of those interviews revealed that the overall level of satisfaction with Rescue 1122 performance was high. The respondents regarded the rescue workers as “professional, empathetic, dedicated and calm.” They also rated the rescue service as having better infrastructure in comparison to other emergency services in Lahore.

A firefighter in Joseph Colony, Lahore | Saad Sarfaraz
A firefighter in Joseph Colony, Lahore | Saad Sarfraz

Ahmad’s hard work notwithstanding, this is not a conclusion that one needs a research project to arrive at. Opinion on the streets of Punjab in general, and Lahore in particular, about the quality of Rescue 1122 services is mostly positive. People like Dr Yaasir Ijaz, a Lahore-based anesthetist in his early thirties whose friend met an accident after Eid last year, go to the extent of saying they would have lost their near and dear ones had there been no Rescue 1122.

Arslan Raza, a young telecom professional in Lahore, is similarly full of praise for the rescue service. “I called Rescue 1122 after I witnessed a roadside accident in front of a cinema recently. The ambulance arrived in less than five minutes to provide first aid,” he says. “This is a very quick and efficient response, even by international standards.”

Shaukat Niazi, a 53-year-old language and linguistics expert in Rawalpindi, cannot agree more. “Once a cousin of mine fell from the stairs and broke her nose. [I called Rescue 1122 and its staff] was there in five minutes to administer emergency medical aid,” he tells theHerald. “They were very professional.” Niazi also talks about how the rescue service helped him shift his father to a hospital. “We could not do the shifting because of his spinal injury so I called Rescue 1122.” The ambulance arrived in a few minutes, with stretchers and all. “Four rescuers handled the situation like no other ambulance crew could,” Niazi says.

The story told by Riaz Azhar, a 40-something banker based in Lahore, is no different. He recalls how Rescue 1122 took less than 10 minutes to arrive at his Defence Housing Authority home when his mother had a heart attack five years ago. “I asked them about charges and they told me that it is a free of cost [public] service.”

Meet Irfan Gull. Dressed in an olive green uniform, he looks set to step into a battle zone. With his hands tightly clutching the steering wheel of a red-striped white high roof van, he only needs to turn the key in the ignition – and get orders from his seniors – to speed off to his mission. Not to save the borders or fight the terrorists, though. He, instead, fights fires and other emergency situations that can arise anytime anywhere within the municipal boundaries of Lahore, where he works. He is an ambulance driver for Rescue 1122.

Only 12 years ago, Lahore – as well as the rest of Pakistan – did not have an ever-ready, resourceful and dedicated workforce to take care of such emergencies. There was, of course, a fire brigade in every big city but its staff was not trained to do anything beyond spraying water and other liquids on a raging fire. They could neither provide first aid nor did they have ambulances to transport the injured to a hospital and the dead to a mortuary.

Those who met road accidents had no government department to look for help, leaving it to the passers-by to use either their own vehicles or hire rickshaws or taxis to carry the dead and the injured to nearby medical facilities. And this, too, was only possible when the passers-by were able to shrug off the apprehension that helping the victims of the accident could entangle them in legal and police proceedings which nobody has the time and stomach for. Wherever ambulances were available, mostly at government hospitals, they were generally ill-suited to tackle emergencies because they neither had equipment for first aid nor trained human resources to administer first aid.

For Gull and his colleagues, lack of availability of equipment can determine the difference between life and death.

In 2004, all that changed — first in Lahore and, a few years later, in many other parts of Punjab. That year, the Punjab government set up Rescue 1122 as the country’s first specialised emergency service, running ambulances driven by highly skilled drivers, and providing emergency healthcare through certified paramedical staff. In 2007, Rescue 1122 started operating its own fire brigade, equipped with water bowsers, ladders and fire trucks and manned by a trained workforce. The Rescue 1122 performance report claims that the service has “saved millions of lives” over the last decade and “has an average response time of six minutes.” In the same period of time, the report claims, the rescue service has “saved losses worth over 185 billion rupees through professional firefighting on modern lines.”

Rescue 1122 team at work | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 team at work | Saad Sarfraz

What does Gull feel about this great work that the rescue service has done? He says he is tired. Being among the first people to respond whenever there is an emergency in Lahore, a sprawling, chaotic, ill-planned city of more than 10 million people means he has to be on high alert all the time. The action, he says, can take place anywhere on the street, at someone’s office or home, or on the road. “We take care of the people caught in emergency situations before” anyone else does. “This happens every time someone dials 1122.”

As his colleagues try to breathe life back into the rescued persons inside his ambulance on bumpy roads, Gull has to navigate the mean streets of the city where traffic never gives way. Having to spend endless hours on the wheel, ensuring a quick response time and safe driving simultaneously, is extremely stressful, he explains.

And that is just one source of his exhaustion. Gull contends that the rescue service does not have all the equipment, money and human resources it requires. This shortage puts the existing resources in serious stress. For one, there are not enough ambulances, Gull says. “And we are paid salaries so low that they provide no motivation to continue with the high alert, high stress and high risk job that we do,” he goes on. “The government is paying peanuts to people who save endangered lives and who make life and death decisions every time they are out in the field.”

Gull’s colleague Faisal, a medical technician, bitterly remarks the government pays no attention to improving wages and working conditions at Rescue 1122. “We are often promised revision in our service structure. We also hear that a commission will be set up to identify the problems in the service structure but at the end of the day everything remains the same,” he tells the Herald.

Rescue 1122 workers watch as the fire is extinguished at the LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers watch as the fire is extinguished at the LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Faisal also talks of a catch-22 situation: the hiring of more staff to reduce the workload on the existing workers will also lead to the worsening of the already bad financial status of the rescue service because the provincial government has failed to increase annual monetary allocations for it.

A part of psychologist Ahmad’s research concerns exactly that: the stress the rescue workers have to endure. A high proportion of Rescue 1122 staff that participated in her research was found to be experiencing psychological distress, she says.

“No, we are not God,” says Gull with a sigh when asked how difficult it is to maintain a high level of performance under working conditions he does not like. “We are humans. When we get exhausted, we can make mistakes too,” says Faisal.

Opinion on the streets of Punjab in general, and Lahore in particular, about the quality of Rescue 1122 services is mostly positive.

Furqan Noor is a telephone operator at Rescue 1122 in Lahore so, unlike Gull and Faisal, he does not have to venture out on the streets to help people in distress. Yet, he feels immense emotional and psychological pressure whenever he is on the phone receiving calls for help. “Often, I am holding back tears when I am answering calls,” he says. “Someone’s baby’s heart is not beating and the mother is screaming on the phone,” he narrates one of the many heart-wrenching stories he is privy to.

A woman once called him and said she wanted to commit suicide. She told him that she had been beaten up by her husband and that she did not want to live anymore. And then she asked him about the easiest way to die. He tried to talk her out of it but he is not trained to handle such a situation. “We are trained to be calm and cooperative while at the same time trying to extract information like the address and directions,” says Noor.

Ahmad’s research finds that fielding such distress calls is an emotionally draining assignment. When rescue workers have to deal with highly emotional and tragic situations as a matter of routine, that can make them insensitive, she argues. Clinical psychologists call it “compassion fatigue”. She recommends that immediate steps should be taken to monitor the psychological and mental health of rescue workers and instant remedies should be provided to those who require them.

Dealing with emotional problems of those seeking help, and also their own, is not the only worry that operators at Rescue 1122 face. To deal with a huge number of fake calls for help is a much bigger problem to them. In Lahore, for instance, only seven per cent to 10 per cent calls received at 1122 helpline are genuine requests for help. All the rest are fake alarms that lead to the unproductive deployment of scarce rescue resources. A prankster reporting a fake fire would make five to six fire engines, an ambulance and many rescuers rush to the site. Some callers even try to flirt with female operators or female medical attendants dispatched to help them, says a Rescue 1122 official in Lahore. Those making fake calls, according to the law, can be arrested and imprisoned for six months besides being liable to pay fines ranging from 50,000 rupees to 70,000 rupees. But senior officials at the rescue service say they have no time and resources to pursue the fake callers in courts of law.

Those working in the field say they sometimes experience much bigger insults than the embarrassment caused by fake alarms. We have been “attacked, bitten, spat on” by the irate public, claims Gull.

When Rescue 1122 was first set up in Lahore, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was Punjab’s chief minister and his Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) was the ruling party both in the province and at the centre. Though his family and him have been living in Lahore for decades, they are known as the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, where they come from, and are usually elected from. They do not have a constituency in Lahore to call their own and are considered rank outsiders compared to the Sharifs, the family of the incumbent chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif. Setting up Rescue 1122 in the provincial capital before anywhere else is seen by political pundits as a calculated move by Elahi to attract at least some public support in the biggest city in the province.

That still rankles with the Sharifs, goes the widely circulated conspiracy theory among the residents of Lahore when asked about why the Punjab government is reluctant to increase the annual budget for Rescue 1122 and improve the working conditions of its staff. There appears to be at least some truth to these theories. Recently, newspapers in Lahore carried Rescue 1122 ads seeking donations to improve the service’s finances.

The firebrigade at LDA Plaza | saad Sarfaraz
The firebrigade at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Many in the city were upset over the ads. Why is a government department asking citizens for donations, they wondered, and lashed out at Shahbaz Sharif for ignoring Rescue 1122 while spending generously on his own public transport projects. Others were confused. Is a government department even authorised to seek donations? Senior officials at the rescue service respond to that by citing the Punjab Emergency Service Act of 2006. “The service shall have the authority to accept donations in the shape of land, vehicles, equipment and other such items which may facilitate the functioning of the service,” reads a section in the act. Seeking donations, the officials say, is perfectly legal.

While the provincial administration almost ignores calls from Rescue 1122 staff for more money and machines, it is aware that the rescue service is quite popular and shutting it down will be a politically disastrous step. This neither here nor there kind of approach is creating a situation where the quality of the rescue service will only go down as population increases and human resources and machinery required to cater to its needs become exhausted and worn out.

Many people already have complaints. Salman Muzaffar, an Islamabad-based banker in his mid-forties, got into a fight a few years ago and needed Rescue 1122 help to get to a hospital. He says the rescuers came to him quickly but their ambulance had severe hygiene problems. It was in a shambles, requiring cleaning and maintenance.

Others have more serious grievances. Arooj Zahid, one of the editors at a popular magazine in Lahore, called Rescue 1122 recently after her grandmother had experienced severe breathing problems. The rescuers took more than 45 minutes to reach her home. By that time, her grandmother had passed away. “They were late because they could not find the address,” she says.


Elishba Karis Abel, a 28-year-old teacher in Lahore, faced a similar problem when she called Rescue 1122 for help. The rescuers were required to shift her grandmother to a hospital at 4 am, she says, but they could not find her home. After wandering around the area for quite some time, they called her brother to seek directions. And then her mother had to drive in front of the rescue ambulance to show them the way to the nearest hospital. “Even a short delay can be critical for a patient who needs immediate medical care,” says Abel and suggests that the government should equip the rescue service with a navigation system so that rescue workers do not lose their way.

Abel also wonders about the problems that the rescue workers could be facing while trying to rescue people in the countless narrow lanes of Lahore’s Walled City which are not even mentioned on the maps available in the markets. There have been a number of horror stories of people living in the Walled City not receiving timely help in emergency situations, she says.

One such tragic story unfolded on January 14 this year. At least five members of a family were killed as a house caught fire in the Lohari Gate area of the Walled City. The nondescript narrow lane where the house was located was so difficult to locate and so inaccessible that it took the rescuers too long to reach there in time to save lives. In a similar incident on May 17, 2015, six children belonging to another family lost their lives after their house had caught fire in Lahore’s Shad Bagh area which is not even in the Walled City — though it is equally densely populated and difficult to navigate.

Rescue workers at the sight | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue workers at the sight | Saad Sarfraz

Gull apportions some of the blame for problems in service delivery to the condition of the ambulances available. When he started his job, he says, he was given a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to drive. The second batch of ambulances was all Toyota Hiace vans but lately most vehicles procured in the first two batches have been replaced by Chinese Kinglong Hiace vans. These are five to six times cheaper than the Sprinters — and twice as inefficient, he says.

Even where the equipment exists, it is woefully short of the numerical requirement. For Lahore, the country’s second biggest city and Punjab’s largest, Rescue 1122 has 27 ambulances and 20 fire trucks, according to its own 2014 performance report. This means just one ambulance for 370,370 people (supposing that Lahore’s population is still 10 million). The rescue service has only two turntable ladders and two aerial platforms, both essential tools for putting down fires in multistorey buildings and for tackling other high altitude disasters.

Another big issue afflicting Rescue 1122 is the lack of a service structure for its employees. In the absence of a service structure, no rules and regulations are available for raising salaries and making transfers and promotions of the staff possible. If media reports are to be believed, senior rescue service officials have promised a number of times that a service structure will soon be put in place but nothing has come out of those promises yet. A Rescue 1122 official tells the Herald the rescue service cannot take any decision on the service structure on its own and that this is causing delays in announcing it. Approval of the service structure is the prerogative of the Punjab government’s home department, he says wishing to remain unnamed.

In November 2015, a multistorey factory making polythene bags in Sundar Industrial Estate near Lahore collapsed, resulting in the death of more than 50 people, many of them as young as 14 years old. Evidence has piled up since then that the factory had a poorly planned building. It had no emergency exits and its owner had continued expanding it through unapproved extensions. Eyewitnesses told the media after the collapse that the building had developed cracks after an earthquake in October 2015 and even then the owner, who also died in the accident, was not ready to evacuate the workers and shut it down.

Many of the deaths at the factory could still be prevented if the rescuers had the right type of equipment to cut through the collapsed concrete columns and heavy cement slabs under which scores of people had gotten trapped. As it turned out, Rescue 1122 did not have the technical skills and machines to remove debris without increasing risks to the lives of those to be rescued. In the event, army engineers had to be called out to dig and smash the collapsed structure and heavy machinery – such as cranes, bulldozers and dumper trucks – had to be borrowed from private builder Bahria Town for debris removal. Even then it took close to a week to clear all the debris – a massive 17,200 tons, according to the district administration – and retrieve all the injured and the dead from under it.

While the district administration was full of praise for the private builder for providing help in tackling the disaster, there was loud criticism of the government over failing to monitor, and stop, the flawed construction of the building before it collapsed and, most importantly, for not having invested enough in rescue services.

Dealing with emotional problems of those seeking help, and also their own, is not the only worry that operators at Rescue 1122 face. To deal with a huge number of fake calls for help is a much bigger problem to them.

For Gull and his colleagues, lack of availability of equipment can determine the difference between life and death. He recounts how in December 2014 he was ordered to rush to Anarkali bazaar where a commercial building was on fire. Along with him were 16 fire engines and 80 firefighters. They reached the site of the fire in eight minutes but could not make it inside the narrow street where the building was actually located for the next 45 minutes. The building – which had only one entry and exit point – burned down in front of the rescuers as they struggled to carry water hoses and fire extinguishers inside it. Even more unfortunately, the accident resulted in the death of 13 people.

The rescuers needed to cross many hurdles before they could start extinguishing the deadly fire. Hundreds of motorcycles were parked where the narrow street leading to the building branched off the main road. Vending carts clogged both the street and the road. And there were no hydrants, no fire extinguishers close by. Even the staircases and the parking areas were turned into shops, making it impossible for the rescuers to move within the burning building. Long-neck cranes could have helped the rescuers avoid all these impediments but Rescue 1122 does not even have enough high ladders. The lack of these ladders was felt acutely when the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Plaza caught fire on May 9, 2013. The LDA officials claimed the fire took long to extinguish because the rescuers did not have the required equipment to reach beyond the plaza’s sixth floor. In another glaring instance of equipment shortage, Rescue 1122 had only 12 life jackets and three to four rafts to rescue the entire population of Muzaffargarh district in 2010 floods.

The Sundar factory collapse | Arif Ali, White Star
The Sundar factory collapse | Arif Ali, White Star

In some incidents, the lack of proper equipment has endangered the lives of the rescuers too. Back in 2011, four firefighters fainted while fighting a massive fire in one of Lahore’s most crowded commercial areas, Shalmi Market, inside the Walled City.

Some rescuers recall the inferno on December 20, 2008, at Rawalpindi’s Gakhar Plaza with shock and horror. As this commercial building caught fire, rescuers rushed to it, but found out that they had no cranes or high ladders to be able to vacate it in time and put out the fire without having to enter the burning premises. Many of them went in as parts of the building were already crumbling around them. This resulted in 13 of them getting trapped in raging fire and falling debris. All of them were later found dead.

Suggestions vary on how to expand the Rescue 1122 coverage, both geographical and in terms of disasters it can handle. Some say it needs to equip and train itself to handle emergencies such as animal bites, disease outbreaks, chemical spills, torrential rains and storms, flash floods and terrorism. Others, like Rameez Ahmed, a textile engineer at a factory in Multan, say rescue services need to spread awareness among the general public on how to manage low intensity traumas and disasters such as non-fatal accidents and damage done by localised weather phenomenon.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations in its 2012 report on Pakistan also recommended the same. It noted that Rescue 1122 had been advised (by the UN) to spread awareness and education among common people regarding first aid, disaster and trauma management. The rescue service, indeed, is doing just that, though on a small scale, by providing training to students but the compilers of the report were not satisfied. Rescue 1122 has failed to do that because of lack of funds, they noted.

Rescue 1122 workers at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfaraz
Rescue 1122 workers at LDA Plaza | Saad Sarfraz

Yet another suggestion is that Rescue 1122 should extend its services to remote and underdeveloped places where people are prone to medical emergencies but have next to no healthcare facilities available close by to address those emergencies. More often than not, patients die while being transferred to a far-off hospital. Rameez Ahmed recounts how his friend died recently of a cardiac arrest in Narowal, a town about 50 kilometres to the north-east of Lahore, because there was no hospital in his hometown that offered treatment for coronary diseases. If a Rescue 1122 ambulance was available to transfer him quickly to a hospital in Lahore, his life could have been saved, says Rameez Ahmed. Consider how people suffer similar tragedies in far-off places such Layya, Bhakkar, Rajanpur and Sadiqabad which are all hundreds of kilometres away from a decent healthcare facility.
To a certain extent, Rescue 1122 is already operating in some remote areas of Punjab but its services are limited to major cities and towns and the equipment available there does not even match the one available in Lahore. The expansion is also impeded by a lack of funds and absence of coordination between local hospitals and emergency service providers, sources in Rescue 1122 say.

While these issues await resolution, Gull and Faisal just keep doing what they have been doing for years — providing help to people in need of rescue. And they continue to plead to “the powers that run the country, the many health ministries, secretariats and departments, the prime minister and the chief minister” to allocate sufficient funds for the rescue service. “We might just have to rescue you someday,” they seem to be saying to all these policymakers.

This was originally published in the Herald’s February 2016 issue.



24 year old Shama and her 26 year old husband Shahzad Masih were laborers at one of the many brick kilns in Pakistan’s Punjab. Due to their inability to pay money to their employer, they were falsely accused of blasphemy and were burnt alive on 4th November, 2014. This video looks into the life of their three children, Suleman, Sonya and Poonam…

‘Flogging dead horses…’


Often while we’re talking,
we look around for a break…
That break, can make or break…
it can diversify the context,
or bring it to an abrupt end…
sometimes it has already ended,
Sometimes there’s no end,
but you like to flog dead horses, don’t you?

The Floral Dream…

"A young man named Nasreddin planted a flower garden, but when the flowers came up so did a great crop of dandelions among them. Wishing to eliminate the unwanted guests, Nasreddin consulted with gardeners near and far, but none of their solutions worked. Finally, Nasreddin traveled to the palace of the sheik to seek the wisdom of the royal gardener himself. But alas, Nasreddin had already tried all the methods the kind old man recommended to him for eradicating such troublesome weeds. Silently they sat together for a good long time. At last, the royal gardener looked at Nasreddin and said, "Well, then, the only thing I can suggest is that you learn to love them." 'Nasreddin's Flower Garden' -  A Traditional Sufi Story
“A young man named Nasreddin planted a flower garden, but when the flowers came up so did a great crop of dandelions among them. Wishing to eliminate the unwanted guests, Nasreddin consulted with gardeners near and far, but none of their solutions worked.
Finally, Nasreddin traveled to the palace of the sheik to seek the wisdom of the royal gardener himself. But alas, Nasreddin had already tried all the methods the kind old man recommended to him for eradicating such troublesome weeds.
Silently they sat together for a good long time. At last, the royal gardener looked at Nasreddin and said, “Well, then, the only thing I can suggest is that you learn to love them.”
‘Nasreddin’s Flower Garden’ – A Traditional Sufi Story

The Goodie-Bag Man…

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“I’ve noticed that poor/economically challenged people have relatively bigger hearts. Two men sharing a plate of ‘daal’ while sitting on the floor will offer you their share of food, but the rich will only offer you their leftovers, once they’re done with their food.
Its not about whether you share your food or not. It’s about how you treat others.

I stop by this poor neighbourhood every day while selling Chinese electronics. The streets are embroiled in congested and narrow lanes, but the hearts are open and giving.
The people may not be able to afford what I sell, but they feed me food. Even without asking, I am given a glass of water, as I walk by.

‘Why do you think so?’

Maybe because these people like me fight for their daily wages, and realise the ordeal I go through everyday just to feed myself and my family”


Shot near Gujranwala, Pakistan

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