Of spectacles, discrimination, women and empowerment

By Ross James, founder of HCR

Renovation work underway at the place where I am staying in Pakistan is screened from the lobby by a huge temporary wall of plywood sheets. Photos of famous Pakistanis and their memorable quotations decorate the screen, although I notice the Alvi brothers are absent: they’re acknowledged for creating ‘brain’, the first computer virus, which they created for a moral purpose, not anticipating the malicious havoc to be wrought by later descendants.

Abdus Salam (bottom of picture) was a theoretical physicist who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on electroweak unification, which predicted the Higgs Boson, the so-called ‘god particle’, decades before its 2012 discovery in the Large Hadron Collider, a part of the CERN particle physics laboratory located in a tunnel, deep beneath the Swiss-French border.

Salam founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy and it remains one of the world’s influential hubs for scientific research. He played a pivotal role in the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb project in Pakistan.

All this a remarkable achievement for a person who graduated from the Punjab University at the age of 14 and, although obeying his father’s wish to apply for a government job, was rejected for employment by the Pakistan Civil Services because he wore spectacles (!) and his young age. Salam ignored advice to become an English teacher and decided to pursue mathematics, a decision that eventually led to being the Chairman of Mathematics at the University of Punjab. Ironically, Salam’s attempts to include qantum mechanics (the field that he excelled in) as a part of the under-graduate curriculum failed, so he taught the subject in his own time to anyone interested in the subject.

Later, when the Pakistan government introduced legislation to declare that his Ahmaddiya sect was non-Islamic, Salam moved to England where he died in 1996. According to one report, despite his achievements, Salam's name appears in few Pakistani textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders. His body was buried in his ancestral village in Pakistan under a gravestone that read 'First Muslim Nobel Laureate'. Pressured by authorities, the word 'Muslim' was scratched out.

There are multiple layers to Salam’s story, but HCR resonates with one layer that relates to the potential of human empowerment; although overlooked because he wore spectacles and discriminated against for his religious beliefs, Salam took advantage of his opportunities to effect transformation. At the heart of it, that is all we do in the marginalised communities we partner with. We encourage strategies that neither overlook nor discriminate against the powerless, but create potential for their empowerment. Qaid e Azam (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), the “father of Pakistan”—whose quote about women appears above that of Abdus Salam, and who strongly advocated freedom for every citizen of Pakistan to go his place of worship and action against social evils—would have approved.