Tales of Ismaili Women of Shimshal: Eid Festivities, Celebrations after a Dangerous Trip, and Stories of a Health Worker and a Wood-Cutter

Editor’s note: Shouldn’t girls be given a chance to reach their full potential before they are married? In the first of Simerg’s 3-part instalment from Pam Henson’s recent publication Women of Shimshal readers learnt about Ismaili women in a remote village in the Karakoram who get married before they reach the age of maturity, depriving them of adequate education that would otherwise give them an opportunity to pursue a career of their choice, enhance their earning power and independence. The Ford Foundation 2011 report states that ten million girls every year get married before they reach the age of eighteen. Concerned about child marriages, the Foundation (see link below) has joined forces with the Girls Not Brides campaign and its more than 100 partner organizations to end the practice of child marriage and protect the rights of girls everywhere. As you read this series, what are your thoughts on the subject, particularly as they relate to the Ismaili women of Shimshal? We also welcome your feedback and ideas on how individuals or groups can support the developmental activities of aid agencies to ameliorate the living conditions of people living in deprived rural areas such as Shimshal.

The road to school is full of potential dangers for Shimshal children. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

For readers who are new to the series, we ask that you read the previous part by clicking Remarkable Tales of Ismaili Women from Shimshal, a Remote Village in the Karakoram which gives a good summary of the Ismaili village of Shimshal and has stories of Guljon Bibi and Roshan Noma. The series will conclude the week of November 18, 2012 with the fascinating story of Hussn Bibi.

Shimshal: Festivities, Celebrations and the Stories of Lal Paree and Jahan Paree

By Pam Henson

“To the women of Shimshal village who have hosted me, treated me as one of the family, and shared the riches of their lives with me”

Cover page of “Women of Shimshal” (2010) by Pam Henson. Copyright.



We’re sitting outside on a cold, windy day in October 2006. There’s a national Muslim holiday for Eid and the village is also celebrating four years since the road opened. A programme of cultural events is unfolding on the ground in front of the new boys’ school, with the school verandah serving as podium for masters of ceremonies, dignitaries and guests.

Eid celebrations. The prince and the camel. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

At the moment we’re watching what appears to be a pantomime. There’s definitely a pantomime horse with two men inside, and a prince in a shiny blue coat. Hussn tells me that the prince has lost his way from the Silk Route, and all his camels have died except one. So it’s a pantomime camel. He meets some villagers and asks them for help. Who can help the prince buy some more camels? The rustics, who are dressed in goatskins and furry hats with newspaper boots and leather strapped gaiters, begin a sing-song recitation of all the villagers who might be rich enough to contribute. At some point Hussn nudges me. “They’re talking about you!” she whispers in excitement. I stand up and take a bow. Fame at last! I feel I have really made it in Shimshal life, now that I’ve been mentioned in the folklore. The downside is that I have to produce money. Fortunately I have 100 rupees with me, and I tuck it into the prince’s hat band. What they said was, “Miss Pamela is like a flower.” I would so like to be thought like a flower. Usually it’s more like a thistle. Tears of gratitude seep into my eyes. I suck them back up briskly.



Earlier in the month, Hussn and I took part in a different sort of celebration, one that more closely concerns the women of the village. Kutch is the name for the movement of people, mostly women, to and from pamir, the high pasture, with the smaller animals, mostly goats. In mid-October the women return. They make the difficult journey in two days, but even this rapid travelling doesn’t allow them to reach Shimshal. They camp outside the village, on the far side of the river. The evening that Hussn’s mother Guljon arrived a cutting wind shifted the gravel and sand at the campsite. Grandchildren and children of those older women who were returning made their way to the camp carrying hot-pots of warm food, fresh fruit and other gifts for the tired women.

Hussn and I walked the five kilometres to the camp site in the late afternoon. Two of Raza’s children had gone before carrying food. We searched for Guljon amongst the throngs of people, goats and yaks camped in family groups. There she was, her long, brown face beaming to see us all. Tears flowed, because she was returning from an arduous and dangerous journey which had been the death of some women. The pamir is far from medical help, in the event of an accident, and the daily process of making cheese involves inhaling a huge amount of smoke from the yak dung fires. Guljon seemed in good health, though.

Tea being made for the kutch. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

…A few men from the village had trekked out to the camp and had set up a tea dispensary, building a fire and boiling up huge quantities of water. Mohammad Amin, the teacher, invited me to sit with the men around the fire. The sheltering wall around the fire protected us from the wintry wind, and the tea he passed me warmed up the inside.

Guljon’s sister, Hasiet Noma, had been staying in Raza’s house waiting for Guljon to return from the pamir. Hasiet Noma had a lot of friends in Shimshal, and she was forever trotting off, visiting one family or another. She was a terrific dancer and one evening, in the privacy of the house, daringly gave a vigorous demonstration of rhythmic movement that would have shamed an aerobics instructor. Now she was reunited with her sister at the river camp.

As dusk fell, Hussn and I returned to the relative warmth of her house. The kutch party returned to Shimshal the next morning. School was empty as the kids were all hanging onto their grandmothers’ arms, listening to their stories. Guljon seemed unfazed by her arduous journey and her five months’ absence from the family. She fitted back into family life as if she had never been away. For the next week we ate fresh cream with our chapattis. It’s one of my favourite Shimshal meals.



Lal Paree. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

Pam Henson: Lal Paree was a familiar sight to me, walking up and down the path to Aminabad with one or other of her in-laws, leading a cow to pasture. She is married to Qudrat Ali, who is a high altitude porter and climber and part-owner of a trekking company based in Aliabad.

I am 35 years old. I was born into an educated family, the niece of Daulat Amin, who was the first educated man in Shimshal. When I went to school I was very interested in education. My grandma always said to my mother, “Don’t give any work to my baby. She’s getting an education for her future.” I did very well at school, always coming first or second in class.

When I was 15 or 16 I became interested in marriage, and got married. I was in the same co-educational class at school as my husband, who was one year older than me. We were not friends, exactly; that’s not our culture. However, we knew each other quite well. Our parents arranged the match. I was too young, and didn’t think about the future.

I considered my parents-in-law the first family in Shimshal and I liked my husband’s mother. The family was very kind to me and they gave me a nice time. I was able to continue my education. It is normal in our culture for girls to become housewives after class eight. I did some housework and also continued with class nine and ten at small coaching centres in the local schools. I passed Matriculation twice. The mark sheet for my first exam was lost, so I sat the exams again. Then they found the first mark sheet. I passed both sittings.

Meanwhile my husband, Qudrat Ali, was studying in Gilgit and staying in a hostel. Why get married when you don’t live together and you aren’t needed for the housework? In our culture, if the parents have a lot of work they marry the son to a wife who can help in the house. There was little education amongst villagers and they didn’t think about the future for their children, just the current needs. My husband and I started living together after two or three years. After passing Matric, I started my job at the wishes of my husband and my parents-in-law. This was in 1989. I’ve been a ladies’ health visitor since then. At that time there was no woman to help with births. When I passed Matric the villagers asked me to be a health visitor to help wives and mothers with home deliveries.

Pam Henson, the author, teaching class 4. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson Collection. Copyright.

First I got TBA (Traditional Birth Attendance) training from Aga Khan Health. For two years I worked voluntarily. In 1991 I applied to the government and was selected to be a paid health worker. I got one year’s training in Gilgit at the DHQ (District Head Quarters) hospital. My first daughter was born during that year and my husband looked after the baby in Gilgit. I was 22. While we were in Gilgit, my husband started his work in tourism. In 1991 he was on the first expedition to the Mulangutti glacier.

After 1992 I requested a transfer to Shimshal but was refused as there was a shortage of nurses. But I insisted that I wanted to serve the Shimshal community. We were flown back to Shimshal by helicopter, which caused a small sensation.

After six years in my job I asked for more training. I was able to do a special midwives’ course for one year, also in Gilgit, where I was working in the local hospital. Qudrat Ali and I trekked for three days to Pasu with our three daughters before getting the bus to Gilgit. Later I did one more year at Peshawar nursing school. After I completed three years’ training I was awarded a nursing diploma. While I was in Peshawar, my three girls stayed in Shimshal and I lived in a hostel.

After getting the diploma, I felt established. I told my husband to go and start his business, a tourism company. I and my husband share everything. I am really lucky to have such a co-operative relationship. Now he has his own company, Shams Alpine. I hope we are an example for local people of shared responsibility. While Qudrat Ali was setting up his business in Aliabad, I looked after the girls, worked in the dispensary, fetched firewood and water, did the housework and the cooking, and attended home deliveries. My husband was free from all domestic responsibility. Now I am a director in my husband’s company.

We have a lot of fields and my father-in-law does most of the farming. However, recently he has become more involved in community work so I and my mother-in-law do more of the animal husbandry and crop cultivation.

My husband is away a lot with his trekking company. His work is quite dangerous. He climbs on some of the highest mountains in the world with his clients. He is very good at his job, but there are many dangers. I send him gifts and letters frequently and he also writes to me. We will have enough money to pay for the girls’ education. We want them to be well-educated and we’ve refused the oldest girl’s offer to work at home. We haven’t really decided whether they should work away from home, but we encourage them to be ambitious, to travel and work abroad if they want to.

I worry that the new road will bring about the destruction of our culture. Nearly everything about the road is good, but I think our culture may be in danger.



Jahan Paree. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

Pam Henson: In 2000, three young women regularly collected wood for me and Lynette, for our cooking. Here is a story of one of them, Jahan Paree.

Bismillah rahmani raheem. I am Jahan Paree. I’m 22 years old, and I was born in Shimshal. I have two brothers and two sisters. I studied here in Shimshal until class eight, and after that I went to Gulmit for two years. I took my Matriculation exams and I failed in two subjects. After that I came back to Shimshal and got married. After I married, my mother-in-law got sick and I gave up my studies and just did housework. I was 17 when I married and my husband, Gafor, was 16.

I had a very nice childhood. We had a big family. My father has three brothers, and we all lived together. All my cousins were at school with me, so we were very comfortable at school too. My time was free when I was a child, but I always helped around the house and field if my parents asked me. I had no special responsibilities and spent most of my spare time studying.

I didn’t like to be separated from my mother, so every year I went to Gujerab pasture with her sometimes from May to October, sometimes just in the school holidays. The route there is quite flat, after the climb to Zartgarben and the travel time is only about one or two days. I usually rode on a yak for the journey, but even so felt tired. I used to play with my friends at Gujerab and only disliked it when the weather was bad. It was a pleasant and relaxed time, being home with my parents, but it has not been so easy with in-laws.

Studying in Gulmit was also fun and interesting, and I really wanted to continue as a student. I stayed in Ghulkin because I had relatives there. I would walk over the hill on the four-wheel drive road to Gulmit. Often we’d learn our homework on the walk, or we’d just gossip. Sometimes we’d get a lift in a jeep. I wanted to study nursing after Matriculation but it was impossible because of the situation at home.

When I was considering marriage, my in-laws promised to help me with my education, but after the marriage they took no interest. My Matriculation results didn’t arrive, but my parents-in-law didn’t try to get them. They needed me to help with housework and field work. So I gave up trying. My mother-in-law is a relative and even though I wanted to study, everyone persuaded me that it was my obligation to go into her house and help her.

Young woman carrying brush for cooking fires. Shimshal 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

I like my husband a lot, so I don’t regret marrying him. He is working in a hotel in Islamabad, and he visits from time to time. Sometimes I only see him once a year. He feels bad about my lost chance to study and he wants to earn money so he can help me. He’s not interested in having a baby, but I’d really like a baby to keep me company while he’s away.

I’d like to continue my studies some time in the future. If my parents-in-law sold our animals, I’d have time to study. Sometimes I feel very upset because I see my friends going away to study. But when I think about the community and my parents-in-law I feel I couldn’t possibly leave them without help. I have two kinds of feelings about the situation. Gafor would like to live in Islamabad with the family, but his parents don’t want to give up the farm and sell the animals. Perhaps it will happen in the future. I would never ask my parents to support me now that I’m married. That’s for my parents-in-law to do.

The road to the Karakoram Highway from Shimshal, through the Shimshal Gorge. Some consider the new road a blessing while others treat it as a threat to their culture. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright

Life in the village is not all bad! The new road brings in interesting people, and the chance to meet foreigners. It was nice to get the chance to meet you, for example. I work as the secretary for the women’s volunteers and the guides. I’m educated so I have a duty to help where I can. Nursing is another way I can help the community. My idea of service to the community is inspired by the books I’ve read. It makes me feel good as well.

Date posted: Friday, October 12, 2012.
Date updated: November 18, 2012 (link to Part 3)

Copyright: Pam Henson and the Shimshal Trust (www.shimshaltrust.org.nz)

Next (Part 3, concludes three part series): Tales of Ismaili Women of Shimshal: Hussn Bibi and Her Journey to New Zealand to Study English
Previous (Part 1, series start): Remarkable Tales of Ismaili Women from Shimshal, a Remote Village in the Karakoram


External Website:
Ford Foundation – Youth and Sexuality Rights


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2 thoughts on “Tales of Ismaili Women of Shimshal: Eid Festivities, Celebrations after a Dangerous Trip, and Stories of a Health Worker and a Wood-Cutter

  1. Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. It is a joy and a blessing to be connected to such inspiring pillars of strength through the auspices of Simerg. Indeed may no child be separated from mother, before or after marriage! Thank you.

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