Jane Austen in Islamabad, Pakistan – An Interview
When one thinks of Jane Austen, it’s doubtful that Pakistan comes to mind. However, a major player in the world of all things Jane is literally, half a world away from where the author called her home. In the country of Pakistan, a movement is growing as women, hailing from an already conservative country, are feeling a connection to an author who lived in the early 1800’s but was also bound by certain restrictions in society.
The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan has an Islamabad Chapter with sights set on Lahore and Karachi. They have a massive following with members in 45 countries. These days, Jane Austen isn’t just about school reading or admiration for one heck of a writer. It’s also big business. Private tours of her final home and the areas of Bath, England can range into the thousands of dollars. Her face is on t-shirts, perfume, and even toothpaste. Little did she know, as she wrote about Regency women taking charge of their lives, that her novels would be so revered by women all over the world.
JASP’s Austenesque evening, 2016 (Islamabad chapter).
The Founder of The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, Laaleen Khan, was good enough to give me an interview so I can learn more about why Pakistan has Austen fever.
Please tell my readers a little bit about yourself.
I’m a media professional and I’m working on fiction at the moment. I grew up primarily in Lahore, Pakistan. I graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and I worked in New York City before returning to Pakistan nearly 15 years ago.
What did you enjoy reading as a girl? Did you read Jane Austen as you were growing up, in school?
I grew up on huge doses of Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and MM Kaye as well as LM Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, thanks to my sister Mahlia’s excellent collection. I got bored of the books we were covering for O level English and sadly, Austen wasn’t included in the reading list that year.
I know that you’ve been doing this for over two years. There are Jane Austen societies in England and one near where I live, in Louisville, Kentucky. What inspired you to create a chapter in Pakistan?
I realized that I was posting a great deal about Austen, period drama and literary topics on Facebook and that some of my friends were equally obsessed by it while others couldn’t care less. So my friend Saniyya and I decided to start a private literary society, which I launched as a Facebook page in July 2014, and which evolved within months to over 200 members (now we’re over 700). We originally started out as the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad. However, we’ve grown in significance and are now the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, with plans for chapters in Karachi and Lahore.
Do Jane fans in Pakistan enjoy the English culture, the time period, or just Jane’s books?
I’d say Jane’s fans have universal qualities worldwide, no matter where we live. All of us share a fascination for her novels—as well as for Colin Firth! Janeites tend to have a strong interest in literary classics as well as in period drama, in historical fashions and for visiting palatial estates; our inner Lizzie, in Pemberley-tour-mode, so to speak.
Pakistan is rich in cultural heritage and traditions. It also has a British legacy, the result of colonial rule over South Asia. Many of us grow up on British fiction and television classics and share cultural overlaps—we’re a nation of tea drinkers and absolutely nutty about cricket, for example. Then again, polo started in Lahore eight centuries ago, so it goes both ways. And many Regency fashions came from this part of the world vis-à-vis the East India Company, from cotton fabrics to jewellery and shawls.
Pakistanis tend to be reasonably in tune with British culture. The UK has a significant population of Brits of Pakistani ethnicity including Sadiq Khan—the Mayor of London, BBC anchor Mishal Husain, boxer Amir Khan and musician Zayn Malik. Many of us in Pakistan have family and friends there (and vice versa), travel to Britain during our holidays or attend university there. You’ll never meet a Pakistani who doesn’t love London! There’s a significant British population in Pakistan as well, particularly in Islamabad. The British diplomatic mission in Pakistan is one of its largest in the world for a good reason.
I live in middle America and almost everyone I know is ignorant of Pakistani culture. We think of burqas and religious conflict. Can you describe to me the real life of a Pakistani woman?
We’re a diverse bunch. There are so many strong, dynamic women here who make an impact in their fields, from politics, philanthropy and education to medicine, the arts, business and fashion. We don’t take a back-seat very easily.
There is a stark social disparity here, however, very much like in Austen’s world—the ‘upstairs’ and the ‘downstairs,’ to put it crudely. Suffering and strife tends to attract more minutes on the news than progress and creativity, yet both are a social reality here. We just go on with our lives and our work and hope that the sociopolitical climate will steadily improve over time.
Have other Jane Austen groups been supportive of your chapter?
Absolutely! The interaction has been wonderful, thanks to social media. JASNA has invited me to represent JASP at their next AGM in Washington DC. I recently won a short essay contest hosted by the Jane Austen Society of Europe. Bloggers have been great too, and so supportive. All Things Jane Austen and many others have shared posts about us. And we’ve were published in editorial feature spreads in Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine in the UK as well as in Good Times magazine in Pakistan.
From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like you guys have fun. What can one expect at a JASP event?
We don’t take ourselves very seriously but neither do we meet for mere superficial reasons. We’re an eclectic bunch—literary without being pompous or pretentious, we hope! Our Islamabad chapter is a mix of journalists, academics and other professionals of multiple nationalities and we all share an affinity for Austen. We meet up at cafés and discuss intriguing literary topics, take an Austen quotes quiz or play the Jane Austen Matchmaker card game. We sometimes have members from other locations take part via Skype. Once a year, we dress up in Regency-inspired outfits and host a small private tea party. We’re like-minded eccentrics but it’s all in good fun!
Where can one sign up to join The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan? Does it cost anything and can anyone join?
If you ‘like’ our Facebook page, we assume that you’re a member! We’re currently at 730 members including 45 nationalities around the world. There’s no cost but we do monitor activity to the extent that spammers and people who are there for the wrong reason are removed from the page.
Does your organization do any philanthropic work?
We have plans to work in collaboration with the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation (JALF), which was founded by Jane’s fifth great-niece, Caroline Jane Knight. I’m also a Professional Advisor at the JALF. Funds will go towards underprivileged children’s literacy programs in locations including Pakistan, Syria and Australia.
I have to ask. Darcy or Colonel Brandon? I’m a Colonel Brandon girl, myself.
It’ll always be Darcy for me! I even met and chatted with Colin once, years ago, I still can’t believe my luck!
On our inaugural Regency Tea in 2015, we took a poll and discovered Brandon was the favourite Austen hero for 15% of our members. Of course, Darcy was number one for 45% of our members. You’ll hate me for saying this, but I also have a soft spot for Willoughby! He’s such a romantic figure. A jerk, yes, but an appealing one! And I admire Captain Wentworth’s character as well, more so as I get older.
Bah! Willoughby! Well, I guess we all secretly want the bad boy. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule, Laaleen. For everyone else, click on the links below to join this fun group and involve yourself in the conversation and even take part in their events.