Eighteen years ago, a small group of women from the Hunza Valley joined a training programme that would teach them basic carpentry skills. Unbeknown to them, they’d soon become the leaders of an equality movement that would change the lives of thousands of Pakistani women.
As the sun dips beneath the horizon in the Upper Hunza Valley, Bibi Amina is finishing work for the day. Pulling a pale blue scarf over her hair, she stands at the entrance to her workshop, taking in her surroundings and inhaling the mountain air. It is early summer, and in this small village called Altit, the streets are lush with cherry trees and magnolia blossom. In the distance, the pinks and purples of sunset decorate a dusky sky, and the snow-covered Karakoram peaks glisten under the last remaining traces of light.
My journey in Pakistan starts in Skardu, where I meet my tour guide Salah Uddin for a two-week exploratory trip of Hunza. From here, we embark on what would be a near 200-mile journey along the winding Karakoram Highway.
For much of the journey, the unfinished road is a single-vehicle pass etched into the towering cliffs of the Karakorams. Snaking below us is the Hunza River, gushing in places and idle in others. For the most part, there is no fence or barrier lining the eight-meter drop and I find myself constantly peering over the edge—in both exhilaration and fear. A few heart-stopping moments, when attempting to pass an oncoming truck, only add to the adventure.
The following evening, I meet Bibi who tells me it’s been a proud week for her and her colleagues. They have completed the work on a stone wall—one that will form part of a barrier between the Karakoram Highway and the sharp drop into the valley below. It is yet another vital development built by the all-female group, known as Ciqam, who is transforming Hunza’s infrastructure towards a more modern, safe and accessible way of life.
Ciqam, set up by the Aga Khan Foundation and partly funded by the Norwegian Embassy Trust for Culture, is a social enterprise that encourages women from low-income households to access education and training in business and key trades.
‘Ciqam’ itself means ‘prosperity’ in local Burushaski dialect. Similar initiatives can be found around Hunza, where young women are taking on creative and management roles in businesses, from masonry to carpet weaving.
Salah calls it “one of Hunza’s proudest achievements”. But the women who work here have their own story of success, a story that has overcome sexism and cultural barriers to inspire over 150 women at any one time to train in what was, historically, considered “men’s work”, of carpentry, masonry, painting, design, plumbing and business.
“I couldn’t afford to continue my education and my main worry was to help my family,” Bibi tells me. “Then I was offered a place to learn carpentry.”
She says she was shocked that this was an option open to her. “I faced a lot of difficulties, because our society didn’t accept us working in what is considered a man’s job,” she says. “People would tell me, ‘Bibi, this isn’t work for you’. They had different ideas of what women should do, like raise a family.”
“Some customers are shocked to see what we do here, especially those from the big cities like Lahore or Karachi, as many have not seen women running a successful business.”
At 22 years old, Bibi was encouraged to grab the opportunity by her “brave” mother, who advised, “My girl, you work hard and help us in this different way.” Bibi had already taken on the role of primary breadwinner after her father passed away six years previously.
With family support and a determination to defy gender stereotypes, she persevered with her role within Ciqam, and in 2017, led her team through one of the most significant community projects—the restoration of the 800-year-old Altit Fort.
Perched on a cliff top above the Hunza River, the ruins were in danger of collapsing, but thanks to their skills, the women rebuilt and renovated the UNESCO Heritage building into a much-respected domestic tourist site.
Now aged 33, married and with one son, Bibi specializes as both a carpenter and mason. “I feel relaxed, fit and healthy. This job makes me very happy,” she says. “Society respects us. People ask me if I can accept their daughters and sisters onto the project.”
In nearby Karimabad, the capital of the Hunza district, the first harvest of the year is well under way. Under the relenting heat of the afternoon sunshine, hundreds of families gather at the town’s Baltit Fort to celebrate. They sing traditional folk songs and dance together in the main square, in a show of both individual joy and community success. It’s a sign of how deeply the two are interlinked in this small society.
In a culture where women are often encouraged to run the house and bring up children, the feeling of empowerment has become infectious, rewarding and liberating.
On the main street, Ambreen Ali and her three friends—Ghazala Beig, Nasreen Rani and Jamila Beig—run a gem store, where domestic tourists visit in their thousands during the summer months.
Inside, the women source, cut, polish and sell precious stones. According to 29-year-old Ambreen, “some customers are shocked to see what we do here, especially those from the big cities like Lahore or Karachi, as many have not seen women running a successful business”.
In the store window, rubies—mined from the valley—glisten from bespoke necklaces and bracelets. A glass cabinet displays the most pure and precious stones. In the back room, machinery, donated by the Karakoram Area Development Foundation, enables the all-important cutting and polishing process.
Ambreen and her team work on every part of the process. This, she tells me, is the first store in Hunza to be managed by women.
“We each hold an equal share in this business, so we share the profits,” says 33-year-old Ghazala. “We are all currently unmarried, but one day we hope to expand this business so we can each support a family. We don’t live luxury lives on what we earn, but we live independent lives. Our livelihoods don’t depend on our parents, or a husband.”
In a culture where women are often encouraged to run the house and bring up children, the feeling of empowerment has become infectious, rewarding and liberating. It’s an inspiring outlook, one that we can find courage from no matter where we live in the world.
Ambreen and Ghazala exchange confident smiles when I ask them about how they see their position in society today.
“We want to teach other women these skills and allow other Pakistani women to follow in our footsteps,” Ghazala says. “Our movement is not just for locals. It is for all Pakistani women.”
The writer traveled to the Hunza Valley with Wild Frontiers who offer both small group and tailor-made tours to Pakistan.