When Hamid was asked about Nadia, his liberal burqa-wearing protagonist, he explained that he wanted to tackle a stereotype most of us have about veiled women. He told us about a wife of his friend in Lahore who is a famous TV presenter in Pakistan. She too wears a burqa outside simply because she gets pestered too much otherwise. Hamid also shared another story of his father, a university professor, showing him a photo of a university canteen in the 1970s and now. In the first photo there are young men wearing jeans and turtle necks smoking in the canteen. In the second photo there are many covered women. His first reaction was to point out that Pakistan used to be much more liberal back in the days with students wearing Western clothes. Prompted by his father he then noticed that in fact there are just a couple of women in the first picture while half of the students in the more recent photograph were women. Indeed, today there are more female than male students in every university in Pakistan. So what is the true sign of progress: Western attire or women enrolling in higher education?
Hamid's talk made me think my recent experience of a stereotype tackled head on. I was visiting King's Canyon in Watarrka National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. There was a group of us, perhaps 15 people altogether. There was a couple from the US travelling with their two children aged about 17 and 19. The father was telling the guide about their travel itinerary. They planned an epic 33-day journey visiting Australia, Thailand, China and Japan. It sounded like a very expensive trip, and I assumed at once that the father was probably a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had cashed out to take his family on such a long and pricey trip. I even found myself labelling his kids as spoilt brats for no good reason. And then something prompted me to talk to them. It turned out that the father used to work for the US army and afterwards he was a civil servant. He began saving for this trip ten years ago so that when he retired, he could take his family on an unforgettable journey. He had made the final payment for the trip just a month ago and finally there they were exploring the King's Canyon in the Red Centre of Australia. I told him how much I admired his endeavour and his accomplishment especially in the age where no one seemed to be saving money anymore.
The only way to crush prejudice is to start a conversation. We all need to admit that we are inherently biased and prejudiced. It's just how we are built with our brains programmed to jump to conclusions especially when encountering something familiar ("rich Americans") or different ("women in burqa"). It's up to us to take a step back and challenge our primitive instincts with more sophisticated examination of our thought process. This is the necessary step to effect bigger changes in society. What we need is to hear men in power admitting that they were doing nothing about the gender pay gap and all-male boards at their organisations before they had understood the importance of diversity and fair remuneration of their talent. Admitting to prejudice is the first step to tackle the way the society conforms to stereotypes. The second step is to act and make changes.