Pakistan currently has the youngest population it has ever had. Many from this demographic have been deeply affected by the issues surrounding Pakistan's 'War on Terror', especially those in the northwest of the country. What do they want?

As the father of three children who grew up in Islamabad during Pakistan’s decade-long war with Taliban insurgents, my abiding memory is of the September 2008 evening the Marriott Hotel was bombed.

Like the 52 ill-fated people who died there, a group of my eldest daughter’s school friends had gathered at our suburban home for an Iftar dinner when news of the attack broke. But rather than loudly discussing it in the dining room, a handful of the teenage girls had discreetly moved to a bedroom where, over the telephone, they were quietly reassuring a terrified classmate. 

Her house, located a hundred metres or so down the road from the hotel, had been rocked by the shockwave generated by the explosion. She was alone at the time and stranded on the upper storey after the force of the blast collapsed the indoor staircase of her home.

“Don’t talk about this in front of the others, baba,” my daughter Iyla cautioned, explaining that one of her friends was the daughter of Miangul Asfandyar Amir Zeb, a politician who was assassinated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 while campaigning in the restive Swat Valley for the forthcoming general election.

The children’s stoicism in the face of such a horrific event evoked mixed reactions in my mind. As a journalist who had previously covered conflict in the Middle East, I admired their courage, but as a father I felt pangs of guilt for not relocating them to my native London.

However, time has since proven that adversity can, indeed, build character. When panicked middle-class parents in vulnerable northern Pakistan reacted to the TTP insurgency by restricting their children’s movements to home and school, they rebelled by turning intra-school extracurricular events like debates into mixed-gender social affairs where they had precisely the kind of fun the TTP—and their parents—were seeking to deny them.

Pakistan’s “war generation”

Pakistan’s “war generation”, now aged 18-25, comprisesome 17.5 million people, or 17 percent of the voting public, and could have the decisive say in Pakistan’s forthcoming general election on July 25.

Unlike their elders, their ballot box decisions would not be moulded by the power struggles of competing political dynasties predating their births. That is particularly true of middle-class youngsters in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, once the epicentre of the TTP rebellion.

At the last election, the province maintained its historic tradition of voting for a different party every time, elevating Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) from the political wilderness into the national limelight. If he is successful in his bid to become prime minister, Khan must persuade KP voters to kick the habit.

Crossing the confluence of the Indus and Kabul rivers, the natural border of hilly KP and the rolling plains of populous Punjab, I wondered if Khan’s rallying call of “change” had convinced first-time “war generation” voters from the urban middle class - on paper, the natural constituency of the PTI. Their importance lies not so much in numerical strength as in their influential role as social trendsetters.

In Peshawar’s affluent University Town shopping district, I find that they—like their contemporaries in Islamabad—are focused on aspirational goals, many of which fly in the face of the conservative traditions embraced by the narratives of political parties.

Take, for instance, 21-year-old Noreena Shams, an energetic young woman who manages to pursue multiple careers as an engineering student, businesswoman, education activist and professional sportswoman with equal determination.

She is the survivor of a TTP vehicular suicide bombing attack which destroyed her family’s home in July 2010. Located next to the entrance gates of a paramilitary fort in Timergara, the administrative centre of northern Dir district of KP, the house was routinely in the line of night-time fire from TTP militants entrenched on facing hillsides. As such, the family was not particularly perturbed when shooting erupted around 1am that fateful night.

Rather than evacuating the upper storey bedroom they shared, they dozed until the suicide vehicle, under fire from troops in the fort, crashed into the wall of the property and exploded. The force of the blast tossed the family from their beds and rained shattered glass on them.

In an interview with TRT World, Noreena recalled dragging her physically disabled elder sister Sairah from the room and fleeing with her mother and three other siblings to the basement of the partially collapsed structure.

“The house was practically destroyed. Our servant, who was sleeping in the hujra (an unattached reception room), was convinced the entire family had been killed. The local community was amazed we had survived,” she said.

Since then, she has defied the ultra-conservative social mores of her native Dir, which had prompted her parents to name their third daughter Noorena; in Pashto. It means “no more girls”.

Having started playing sports with her brothers and soldiers from the fort while disguised as a boy named Noor Islam, she has become Pakistan’s No. 2 woman squash player and is ranked 118 worldwide.

Likewise, her disabled sister Sairah Shams, an activist of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, was one of two women to publicly defy an illegal ban on women voting in Dir at the last general election in May 2013

Before heading to New York University to study civil engineering and pursue her international sporting career, Noorena intends to fulfill her responsibility as a first-time voter, although she does not share her sister’s political leanings.

“I want to contribute to the system when it needs my decision - but the funny part is I don’t see a worthy candidate in my constituency,” she said. “If a political leader can give me the ability to think for myself and the power to change my life, then I will follow them.”

Her rebellious tendencies are shared by two of her friends, brothers Mohammed bin Ali and Talha bin Ali, aged 20 and 18, respectively. Growing up in Peshawar, the KP provincial capital, they had been passionate football players until the TTP insurgency erupted.

They were deprived of this sole social outlet by the terrorist attacks which plagued the city - suicide bombings on an intelligence agency building and hotel twice shattered the windows of their home.

Mohammed, however, is fortunate inasmuch that he switched schools during that period. Half a dozen of his former classmates at the Army Public School were among the more than 140 students and staff massacred there by TTP terrorists in December 2014.

Practically imprisoned by their justifiably worried parents, the boys were drawn towards electronic dance music. Using a popular mixing app, Mohammed began playing electronic music for fellow students at a tuition centre - much to the horror of its administrators, who were suspicious “immoral activity” was taking place between male and female students, he said.

Nonetheless, the brothers sensed an opportunity to cater to their entertainment-starved contemporaries, in particular the girls, and in July 2016 organised Peshawar’s first female-only rave. Mohammed says that around 150 girls had responded to their event ads, and 80-90 showed up. This included Afghans wearing abayas (full-body cloaks). 

It was shut down eventually on the orders of the provincial chief minister. Apparently over 60 people complained about the event.

Although cancelled, the event generated great interest among young people, enabling Pluto (his stagename) and brother Talha a.k.a. TBH to form the electronic dance music group “Team Wonderland”.

Two weeks later, they performed for an audience of more than 700 youngsters, segregated into male and female areas, at a Model United Nations event in Peshawar, and have not looked back since.

Like Noorena, Pluto is not enamoured by the choices facing him as a first-time voter. He views the contesting politicians as fuddy-duddies preoccupied with an outdated sense of morality.

“Whenever we want to do something, they stop us. I just wish they would get out the way,” he said.

Pluto’s sense of frustration should not be taken lightly. The emerging generation of middle class voters are “kids” today, but over the next 10 years they are destined become the backbone of Pakistani society. 

Politically, they will project their influence through the middle-management positions they would come to occupy throughout the civil service and the commercial world. And as they become young parents, they would project this influence to support the aspirations of future generations.

If Noorena and Pluto are anything to go by, that would be when Pakistan might actually change.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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