U.S. scholars visiting Pakistan report a surge of interest by academics and the Pakistani government in nurturing research at universities and collaborating with their U.S. counterparts.
There was a "positive atmosphere" at the January conference in Islamabad on "Islamic Identities, Gender & Higher Education in Pakistan," said Carla Petievich, a historian from Montclair State University in New Jersey and one of a group of U.S. professors who attended.
The conference was co-sponsored by the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS) and Quaid-i Azam University. Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Farrell expressed pleasure that the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State was able to fund U.S participants through the ECA grant to AIPS.
Top Pakistani educational officials, including Ihsan Ali, vice chancellor of Hazara University, Manshera, and Qasim Jan, vice chancellor of the Quaid-I Azam University, addressed the conference. A closing discussion included representatives of both the Pakistani Ministry of Education and the Higher Education Commission.
Kamran Asdar Ali, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, hailed the conference as "a first" for bringing American professors to their counterparts in Pakistan. The AIPS has not convened a meeting in Pakistan since September 11, 2001, but held conferences in New York and Philadelphia in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Ali said the U.S. government's security concerns have made it difficult to keep abreast of changes in Pakistan, but that the Islamabad conference improved scholars' understanding of Pakistan's civil society.
Petievich said that issues of participatory democracy and security in Pakistan are often the only topics of interest to media, yet among scholars there is "a desire to develop the humanities and social sciences." She said that flourishing art and culture there are "underacknowledged." The conference, with 15 scholarly papers presented, covered archaeology, history, literature, anthropology, political science and education.
Unlike at most scholarly conferences, there were no concurrent panels. That allowed attendees to participate together in the same meetings, to focus on the same topics and to meet all of the other scholars, organizers said.
Discussions on women's rights were especially relevant, Petievich said, because of current debates surrounding the repeal of Hudood laws restricting women's rights in Pakistan. Women's rights have been debated recently in Pakistan's parliament, she said. But the scholars' presentations looked at the issue of gender more broadly than just women's status. Linguist Tariq Rahman, of Quaid-i Azam University, spoke of gender in language, and Khalid Masud, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, spoke of gender in Islamic thought.
J. Mark Kenoyer, president of AIPS and a professor of anthropology and archeology at the University of Wisconsin who grew up in India and speaks Urdu and Hindi, called the conference "a great success" because it reconnected U.S. and Pakistani scholars.
There is already evidence that the collaboration is paying off: a conference to build on the January event was held at Punjab University February 19 and February 20 to discuss religion, politics and society in South Asia. Kenoyer said that other spin-off conferences are being proposed.
Kenoyer has spent the weeks since the January conference working on an excavation in Harappa, Pakistan, where he is training 23 Pakistani students from three universities represented at the conference - Hazara University, NWFP; Punjab University, Punjab; and Khairpur University, Sindh. He is teaching the students to survey an area, lay out a grid, excavate, and keep field notebooks and drawings.
More information on the American Institute for Pakistan Studies is available on its Web site.
Source: U.S. Department of State