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The Voice of Pakistan

07 March 2011

As a voice coach, traveling often to different countries, working with groups of business people, who are looking to revive their speaking voice, I make it my business to listen carefully to the voice of their culture.

You can probably imagine, before my recent business trip to Pakistan, I was met by stoned silence, fears for my safety and consternation. The Western media portrays this country as a land infiltrated by terrorists and whose women are burdened by the 'repression of Islam'.

To my surprise, I was met with an hospitable, warm, nationalist people working in cosmopolitan cities, overwhelmed with the task of navigating complex social and political issues.

Pakistan is a country of incredibly rich natural resources (it has the largest gold deposit in the world), a booming HR capability (67% of the population is under 21) and intelligent business leaders, who move in the global market. This wealth is undermined by an astoundingly weak education system (30 million children will never go to school - that's more than the population of Australia), a political system that is attempting to force the square peg of democracy into the big, round hole of a rural, tribal ancestry and a gaping wound in the communal psyche caused by the premature deaths of all 4 political leaders since Foundation in 1947.

With this backdrop, I came to work with the business elite: 10 workshops to 500 business executives on \"Inspirational Speaking\".

Why would Pakistani leaders want to sound inspirational? Does the world need this? A resounding: \"Yes\". The voice and face of Pakistan is grossly misrepresented in the West.

Pakistanis are passionate. This was refreshing coming from a country (our beloved, Oz) that seems to have nothing to fight for and, in turn, no impassioned voice. What I heard was a people who had either; a strong voice delivering their passions truthfully, or those who had very little voice with a shy, reserved, retracted energy.

What was consistent was passion: passion for their independence, their people, their beliefs. I heard emotionally charged talks given about the plight of the poor, the disability of not speaking English, the corrosive state of Pakistani politics, the despair of the human suffering from the floods.

But of course, communication cannot survive with passion alone. I wondered: Why is there no traction in this country that has a lot to say?

A possibility: Rigour!

Generally, my workshop participants were not too good at rigorous thinking. The passion lacked a container. These business leaders, who are out there speaking in and for their country, didn't expect an outcome, demand action or suggest a solution, in which we could participate. Great communication needs a balance of thought and feeling.

This tendency toward passion says much about the voice of the culture, and it is recognized by some in Pakistan as a burden on their ability to have a commanding voice in the world.

So to women. Contrary to common belief, I did not have to be covered. Nor are many of the women in the major cities. Conservative dress, yes. Pakistan is now looking outward and integrating global trends. This was also evident in business. I was asked to speak with a group of 60 women, who are involved in the Diversity strategy of Pakistani chemical conglomerate. Diversity is a new business concept in Pakistan.

These women, from varying religious and cultural backgrounds, wanted to understand how to claim your voice as a woman in business. At the end of the session, one woman, in her full Hijab, stood up and explained that it was considered rude and inappropriate for women to be assertive and bold in their voice. She was smartly followed by a second Pakistani born woman, who commented that she had just spent 2 years in an Australia business and found that she had a harder time claiming her voice and being accepted by men around an Australian board table than she does in Pakistan. A shocking comment and one that asserts what we know as women. We have a hard job being heard in business in Australia. For those of you who are tired of continually claiming your right to have a voice, perhaps this assures you that you are not mad!

Women are surely moving up the ranks in business in Pakistan. They are not quite at the point of considering the their number on Boards as we are here, but in a country that traditionally saw men in business, women's voices are being respected.

In March, I plan to be in Pakistan for the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day, where I will be gathering with a group of formidable female business executives to discuss the role of women in business in a 'live' cross to women business leaders in Australia. Stay tuned!

In order for Pakistan to lift their rich country to the world's stage, they need to claim their inspirational voice with tenacity and courage. I hope to support that in this article. Far from what I expected, the voice I heard stirs the spirit. I look forward to listening to this country over the next few years to hear how it claims its right to be heard.