Surprising Portrait of Pakistan's Leading Youth Blogger

Whether advocating for gay rights or providing reality checks for her fellow Pakistanis on the real danger facing the country, Sana Saleem is a modern digital woman in the last place you'd expect.
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Islamabad, Pakistan -- The poignant and increasingly mainstream blogger giving voice to the disorganized majority of 180 million Pakistanis is not who you would expect. Her name is Sana Saleem; she is a 23-year-old student studying to be a neuro-pyschiatrist in Karachi, and as an observant Muslim, wears a hijab (traditional head covering). Whether advocating for gay rights in a country where homosexuality is both illegal and taboo, or providing reality checks for her fellow Pakistanis on the real danger facing the country (hint: not America or Israel), Sana is a modern digital woman in the last place you'd expect, assuming you've consumed any western media coverage of Pakistan in the past few years.

As a "hijabi," Sana shatters stereotypes as hungrily as predator drones circle the Af-Pak border. Most people here see the hijab and automatically assume that her politics, activism, and perspective are defined by religious conservatism. Little do they know that for Sana, religion is personal, and has little influence on her politics or activism. This in and of itself is a paradigm changing perspective, and one that both Pakistanis and the west are eager to explore, yet reluctant to understand.

Right now in Islamabad, the International Youth Conference and Festival 2010, a historic gathering of hundreds of Pakistani youth and their peers from 22 nations, is taking place under the auspices of Khudi Pakistan with sponsors as diverse as the Pakistani Ministries of Information, Women, and Labor, Google, YouTube, and the Alliance for Youth Movements. With the goals of introducing Pakistanis to each other and the world, the gathering has successfully provided a much needed forum for leading youth activists and bloggers, eager to share their stories and learn from their peers. Even in a crowd as august and norm defying as this, Sana's quiet, even timid voice, rises above the enthusiastic and empowered din.

As a contributing blogger to Global Voices, Dawn, and multiple other national and international print and online media outlets, Sana has gained a reputation for being both nuanced and balanced. Fatima Mullick, Khudi Pakistan's National Coordinator, notes that

"in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, where the middle ground is increasingly shrinking, people who can play fair and present both sides of the story are increasingly valuable and respected, and that is what Sana does, who she is. She is fearless."

This nuanced approach has put Sana into the heart of the most heated debates in a country with many a pot boiling over, resulting in death threats from Islamic extremist groups and ordinary citizens alike. Despite this, says Sana, she can not be 100% balanced all of the time. "I try to be more outspoken. The whole balancing act has pushed a lot of things under the carpet, and I want to also provide a counterweight to the other extreme."

Confidence in the political process from Pakistani youth doesn't even register, and Sana has redefined the narrative accordingly in an effort to proactively engage her peers. She is quick to define her blogging as being rooted in activism, not politics, saying that without a distinction it is "harder for people to come out and say they're activists. The excuse they use is that they don't want to get involved in politics." And so, as Pakistani youth firmly realize their ability to directly bring about change in Pakistan, Sana sees herself as helping to provide a springboard to youth activists. She says that "we need an initiation point for the changing of mindsets, which is desperately needed in Pakistan."

As youth activists and bloggers feel like no one is listening to them, that they don't have an outlet, Sana has planted her flag as a blogger, an activist, and a force to be reckoned with. As she says, "online activism is not going to change much until we get on the street and show support," and her outspoken writing is her personal protest; a protest that has quickly become far more popular than personal.

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