Monday, April 25, 2011


By:Rabia Ahmed

The cleaning lady grunted in annoyance at a recalcitrant tissue. She swung the broom behind her returning the tissue to her small pile of dirt, and then very carefully swept all the rubbish into a dustpan, leaving the floor behind her pristine.

I watched and wished that tissues were issues, and that we could make a clean sweep of all Pakistan’s problems and throw them out just like this, all the issues together, not leaving any rubbish behind.

There is not a single problem facing Pakistan, which is rather like Mirza Ghalib’s statement about not liking mangoes, so let’s rephrase that: there are many different problems facing Pakistan. It is simplistic to say that if only education was more widespread in this country, these problems would go away, although that would help. But while we strive to set up schools to provide this education, there are attitudes ingrained in our society, like dust grains in every crevice of finely carved furniture that are impossible to remove without stripping the wood.

Violence is now a reflex, and every kind of human rights violation finds a home in this country. Torture, domestic and other violence, deaths in custody and as a result of military action, child abuse, disappearances...

Javed Ghamdi
Much of the above can be traced to emotive response to religion. In an interview with Dr Moid Pirzada, the scholar Javed Ghamdi (who has been forced to leave the country because of his views) said that until the people of the subcontinent learn to react unemotionally to religion, we will not be able to rid ourselves of the violence that pervades the region.

Other reasons include tradition and custom such as the custom of karo kari (‘honour’ killing), of keeping women incarcerated in the home, or the paleontological jirga system which has so recently been manifestly upheld by our Judiciary in the case against Mukhtaran Mai’s rapists. And let’s not forget the feudals, let us never forget the feudals in whose interests it is to keep all these problems alive.

A combination of habitual violence, bigoted and emotional religious response and barbaric customs is what causes schools to be blown up as fast as they are built.

On the other hand, whatever the reason behind suicide bombings in Pakistan is, it could not be religious. No religion, however bigoted it is, could kill those at prayer or innocent persons. Yet those who pull the strings use puppets for their ends, boys as young as fifteen steeped in religious fervor, burning with misbegotten zeal, indoctrinated into accepting such solutions as a route to paradise. Which of us does not possess a relative going through ‘a phase’ at that age, for whom everything is black and white, whose blood runs hot and fires a yearning for acts of heroism? It is these striplings who blow themselves up, or as in the case of a young lad recently who injured himself grievously, do not quite succeed in doing so.

There are the stultifying attitudes towards wealth and self-aggrandisement, and the resultant corruption and the stranglehold of the rich and powerful over not just the poor, but over institutions such as the judiciary and the police. It was noted by the Transparency International that a major cause of corruption in Pakistan was the lack of accountability. It said that lower court judges were pressured by superior court judges with regards to legal decisions and that lower courts remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from prominent wealthy, religious, and political figures. In addition there is government involvement in judicial appointments, which increases government control over the court system.

All the while there is the poverty, the mind boggling, crippling poverty which results from all of the above, that contributes to many of the ills.

It has to be a concerted effort, a grass roots movement that will carry leaders along with the people, and sweep issues right out the door in one huge all encompassing move. The people of Pakistan may be patient and used to adversity, but there will surely come a day very soon when verdicts such as those acquitting five of the six persons involved in Mukhtaran Mai’s rape case will bring about a severe backlash.

Public reaction prior and post Pakistan’s semi-final game in the World Cup was an indication of the desperate need of the people of Pakistan for a shred of pride in their country. The fact that some people actually attempted to kill themselves in the aftermath is ominous.

It is not necessary for a huge event to act as a galvanising force. It takes but a straw to break a camel’s back, however, those riding the camel are too busy wielding the whip to understand this. I think my cleaning lady would make a better politician. At least she tries to sweep clean, and most times she succeeds.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


printed in the Dawn Inpaper Magazine section 24 April 2011

By Rabia Ahmed | InpaperMagzine                                                                                                       

We’re dismissive about family values when we’re young, but about the time we start turning into our own parents (much to our horror sometimes), we realise that both genes and family values do exist in a curious mix.
Family values are not culture, although culture shapes them. When an English friend told me she was going for shorter hair because she was now older, it was a cultural concern. In Pakistani culture older women prefer longer hair.
These aren’t synonymous with religious values either, although religion is part of a family’s value system but are common across cultures. In a cross cultural marriage a similarity in values contributes to the marriage being a success or otherwise, despite the difference in dress, language or cuisine.
You may define values as views held by a family regarding itself (loving, taking care of and supporting each other) and with regards to society (knowing right from wrong, hard work, etc). These values, unchanged in their essentials, have been in flux over time. The concept of caring for the aged, a strong value in Pakistani families is an example.
Once, several nuclear families lived together, with the (grand) parents in authority. This was the extended family system. Strong family ties characterised this system, providing identity to its members. It is possible for this identity to remain intact even when members of the family are dispersed, so long as its members keep in touch, share a similar sense of right and wrong, a sense of humour, or other tastes and values in common.
Over time economic conditions have forced families to move apart. In Pakistan this moving apart has been drastic and too sudden for many, with members of even nuclear families spread out over continents. This meant much less interaction between members, and as a result less affection and less caring and giving.
It could be that this breakdown of the family has contributed to the breakdown of society, where there has been a corresponding increase in callousness, and a consequent surge in violence. There has also been an increase in domestic violence, acrimony between siblings, and increased intolerance towards the elderly, parents and other family members in many families.
With the decrease in respect for parents and family has come a corresponding lessening of respect for authority and institutions in general.
In the West, where families did not disperse quite as much, or as suddenly, society has had more time to adapt, and it did. So even though families may not have remained as close, the change has resulted in a less violent backlash.
The difference in both these situations may be a significant factor in the presence of stable political systems in the West and the lack of the same in countries such as Pakistan. The past thirty years saw a phenomenal rise of the diaspora of Pakistanis. Members of these widely scattered families suffered from a loss of identity. Changing values within society or in others when moving from society to society proved too bewildering not just for the youth, but also for the adults who reacted with increased confusion.
In the case of migrants, the transition took place as fast as the time it takes to fly from one continent to the other. It is common in the West to find immigrant families engaged in severe conflict, the parents trying to keep their children within the perimeters of traditional family values, and the children under pressure from their peers pulling in the other direction.
For people remaining at home, increased communications have meant that the transition while not as swift nor as complete initially, was nevertheless swift enough, and more confusing. Increased urbanisation in Pakistan has led to similar struggles here. Pakistani society is subject to ‘half truths’, or to people’s perception of urban values and lifestyles.
This perception may or may not be correct, yet it is pursued. What results is a ridiculous aping of accents, a rolling of ‘Rs’ or comical attempts at copying dress. Children, as well as parents switch between cultures (or their interpretation of them) with the speed of chameleons, depending on whoever they are with.
Girls dress quite differently when with their friends than with their relations. Parents spout a different set of values with colleagues than with their families. In general, change has come about within family values without much coherence, while consistency has gone out of the window.
It is no longer possible for some to know what one’s own family actually values, much less any other. The result has been a habit of accepting values without first evaluating them, and a habit of considering ‘yours’ to be better than ‘mine’ based on superficialities. Our values therefore no longer have the stability and strength that they did once upon a time.

Monday, April 18, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed | Published: April 19, 2011
An overwhelming majority of women at the Haj do not cover their face because of the directive that no covering should touch a woman’s face during Haj. A small minority interpreting this differently get around this directive by hanging a veil from a jutting out cap which fabric then stays off albeit in front of the face.
The injunction against niqab during the Haj appears to indicate that the niqab is not a general requirement for Muslim women. The Ihram for men, and the head covering and modest clothing for women, the other aspects of the pilgrim’s dress code, represent certain principles which are applicable both during the Haj and beyond: the principals of equality, simplicity and modesty. If covering the face were part of these principles, wearing a niqab too would have been part of a woman’s dress during Haj. If nothing else the climate does not support it.

This being my personal stance with regards to the niqab, my reaction to the French law against "hiding the face in any place open to the public or on the public highway" aka to wearing the niqab is like anyone else’s whenever a politician anywhere makes a bid for popularity by playing on harmful public sentiment.
It has been claimed that this ban supports women’s rights since Muslim women are said to be forced to wear the niqab, and no doubt some are. However, considering that only a tiny percentage of French Muslim women (about 2,000 out of a total of around of a million and a half adult women) wear the full face covering, this would point to certain ineffectualness among the Muslim male population of France rather than the other way around. Just as sex for the majority of women is not rape, the niqab is a matter of choice or accepted lifestyle, and I am sure nobody is about to ban sex.
According to the French Interior Ministry quoted in Inter Press Service (IPS) one woman is killed every three days in France due to conjugal violence. The report continues to say that reported cases of domestic violence have increased by about 30 percent and that more than 47,500 cases were reported in 2007. The report says surveys indicate that two million French women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. That in 2008 a national police study showed that 156 women were murdered by their partner or ex-partner, compared to 27 men killed in comparable circumstances.
Figures such as the above put the ‘niqab threat’ in perspective by suggesting some factor other than a concern for the welfare of Muslim women as the motivating force behind this new legislation.
To view the world through a slit in a veil is a stifling way to live, but to live facing the threat of being laid out on a mortuary slab with one black eye and the other blue is considerably worse.
Agreed too that a person muffled in a burqa is a possible security threat in today’s world, but by extending the same principal across the board so is Santa Claus behind his ample beard and whiskers, and the person behind a Mickey Mouse mask. Are those to be banned as well? Is there no way of checking who lies behind the red suit other than banning it?
It is annoying that we cannot foist our opinions on others, until we realise that by the same token neither can anyone else foist their opinions on us. To force those Muslim women who perceive the niqab as part of their faith to abandon it is no better than the Taliban whipping a woman for not wearing one.
Banning things like this smacks of the ban on Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ which ended up giving a poorly written book the status of a best seller. A similar ban in Belgium has proved impotent, and the one in France promises to be the same with the Telegraph reporting Denis Jacob of the Alliance police union as saying: "We have more important matters to be dealing with."
At the end of the day, however, we must remember that Muslims are under instructions to abide by the rules of the land in which they live, so the Muslims of France have a choice in front of them if they feel their liberty threatened, or if they feel unequally treated within the fraternity of the people of France. If they are compelled to leave their homes however, the loss will not be theirs but of the people of France.

This news was published in print paper. To access the complete paper of this day. click here

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed | Published: April 12, 2011
It’s very sad and I’m obviously a bad lot because I refuse to get terribly up in arms about inequities against women in countries other than Pakistan. (That’s ‘inequity’, folks, which means ‘unfairness, or ‘bias’, not to be confused with ‘iniquity’, which means ‘gross injustice’ or ‘wickedness’. English is an iniquitous language).
And so voting by women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or its absence thereof (of the voting by women, not of the Kingdom, alas) is for me another interesting example of the short-sightedness and foolishness of the rulers of that country, and of the general batty approach to power by Middle Eastern governments (do you suppose just as too much inbreeding isn’t good for the intellect, too much ‘inkinging’ addles the brain? I dunno, it’s worth checking out). Anyway, it is so absurd, that it has to be a short-lived matter (short-lived as opposed to the grander/longer scheme of things), one that will be taken care of in time like Hosni Mubarak’s state of emergency, and the similar situation in Bashar-al-Asad’s Syria.
Let’s say that the Faiz Foundation, set up to promote the ideas of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, announced a scholarship, and its eligibility criteria excluded peasants from applying. Or that a Ghalib Trust forbade the writing of poetry, or just imagine a Yusuf Raza Gillani Literary Group which is all that needs to be said about that one, but yes, something dippy and incongruous like that. All of these examples are dreadfully ironic, not very different to that of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, which is purportedly ruled according to Islamic principles refusing to allow its female citizens the right to vote in what meagre elections they have; municipal elections, in this case.
Not many people would neglect to recall the example of Hazrat Aisha here. She was the wife of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). One of her husband’s companions said, “If we companions of the Messenger of God (PBUH) had any difficulty regarding a matter, we asked Hazrat Aisha about it.”
Hazrat Aishah was an extremely strong willed, intelligent woman, held by scholars to be an authority on medicine, poetry, Islamic jurisprudence, education, social reform and politics. The Prophet (PBUH) is said to have directed people to learn a part of their religion from her.
And Hazrat Aisha, if she were alive today, would not have been allowed to vote? Or drive a car? She rode a camel into war once, but obviously, that’s beside the point.
Women in Pakistan, both Muslim and others have to contend with bias, as well as horrific acts of injustice and cruelty against themselves (both inequity and iniquity). Yet they have carved some kind of niche for themselves, at least earned the right to lead a life, in some places more than others. We had the respected Ms Jinnah, and a female Prime Minister who still lives to shield our Head of State behind her skirts. We have Ms Awan, who lives, and Ms Sherry Rehman who has in recent months earned my respect. We have Asma Jehangir, Naseem Zehra, Bapsi Sidhwa, Nigar Ahmed, Fahmida Riaz, Naseem Hameed and many others. There are millions more not well-known but who are greater soldiers and crusaders in their own right, bringing up large families with their toil, providing for them right along their men folk.
If these women have the right to vote, it is but their right. If they use this right, it is kudos to them. If they don’t, it is once again but their right.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia incorporates many contradictions within itself. It is an Islamic state, yet it is an absolute monarchy. Its leadership is hereditary, from within the same family, most of its government posts also being distributed among the members of this same family. The Kingdom is an Islamic state, yet it denies women equal rights to men, such as the right to vote.
It won’t be long before, along with other movements for democracy in the region, we see a movement for a sane attitude towards women (and politics) in Saudi Arabia. It won’t be long before the women of Saudi Arabia realise that their rightful power will not once again be handed to them...they have to reach out themselves to take it.
Like for men and women everywhere, it is but their right.

This news was published in print paper. To access the complete paper of this day. click here

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed | Published: April 6, 2011
The last few days have been eventful, as always. 
More people lost their lives at various shrines, and Mr Zardari signed off on re-opening the ZAB trial case.
The doctors’ strike in the Punjab initiated by the Young Doctors’ Association (YDA) on the 1st of March 2011 extended to Out Patient Departments, and on the 27th, the doctors protested outside the Punjab Assembly where they were lathi charged, and some arrested, while several doctors lost their jobs since. Other doctors were recruited in their stead. In the Punjab, doctors withdrew their services from emergency departments.
Doctors across the country indicated their support with those in KP announcing they were joining the protest, many in Karachi and Quetta expressed their solidarity with the YDA.
Doctors are somehow perceived to be above other professionals, even such as judges and the police. The truth is that the Hippocratic Oath expressly forbids doctors to ‘play at God’. Doctors work like the rest of us, and like the rest of us they are entitled to be paid at a rate commensurate with their qualifications and work load, just like other professionals.
According to Mr Asad Jameel, Vice President of the YDA, the government has been promising to review doctors’ salaries for more than a year. Committees were formed, offers made, and doctors showed their will to compromise by accepting some of them; but the offers were not acted upon by the government which says it lacks the funds at present.
This is not borne out by the fact that last year, at the orders of the Chief Justice, the salary of civil judges in the Punjab was increased several-fold, while members of the police were offered a special package. Recently the Government of the Punjab felt flush enough in the pocket to offer half a million rupees in reward to each member of the Pakistan cricket team post the World Cup. Doctors, on the other hand, doctors work in many cases without any payment at all.
As matters stand, more than 20% of doctors doing their house job work for free, while the same is true for many post-graduate doctors.
Pay scales for young post-graduate doctors remain between 18,000 to 23,000 rupees per month, which is a pittance for such a responsible, skilled job. They have no health facilities, even though they work within the health sector.
These conditions have resulted in thousands of doctors leaving Pakistan to work in the Middle East, and more will follow, Mr Jameel says, unless reason prevails.
The doctors’ strike has resulted in scores of deaths across the Punjab. This only serves to underline the crucial nature of the work undertaken by these young professionals who spend years qualifying for these jobs, and work longer hours than most other professionals, under more stressful conditions. If a strike is the only way to get attention for their plight, they are but human, and a strike it is.
The lack of responsive governance in the country means that Pakistanis have been bypassing due process and getting work done any which way they can for years, simply because they know that ‘due process’ never works. Of late, the alarming tendency is to bypass process straight to protest, because people have discovered the power of the stone, the gun and the Government’s Achilles heal: making it ‘look bad’. This generally results in at least some kind of response being cobbled together. This has led to increased violence, in an already violent society.
The doctors’ strike following failed attempts at negotiation is an example of the futility of spending time on due process.
Terminations have begun, and Mr Jameel reports that ward boys and other non qualified persons are being made to fill in for striking doctors in hospitals. The obvious fact that none of these can replace professional expertise, the fact that lives are being lost in the process ought to be reason enough for the government to take make all attempts to settle this dispute. The government however appears to be quite impervious to the seriousness of the situation. At present, a promise to raise salaries ‘in due course’ appears to be the best they have to offer. Meantime, the YDA has received thousands of letters of resignation from doctors across the Punjab.
And finally as an anti-climax: I am NOT going to say anything about the World cup except that it is said that an Indian parrot had its neck wrung for being too much in the know about the World Cup. Although by the time the last match was played, I too was willing to wring the neck of anyone talking cricket, I can’t help but feel rather sorry for the parrot, the tiniest victim of terrorism, and as such, I’m sure that when he died he went straight to parrotise, which is more than anyone can say for our ridiculous Interior Minister and his ludicrous statements on the eve of a crucial match.

This news was published in print paper. To access the complete paper of this day. click here

Sunday, April 3, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed | InpaperMagzine

Villages on the way south from Punjab are squalid mud or twig huts abutting dirty pools of water; the N5 Highway itself is smooth, except for the stretch bypassing Multan to Bahawalpur.
Mercifully, I have a fuel-efficient car, as CNG was unavailable when we left Lahore for Karachi early one December morning.
Pit stops though available at most fuel stations, are filthy, mosquito ridden, and without water. It’s a good idea to take along dry and wet tissues.
The Khanewal to Bahawalpur Road is rutted, and crowded with trucks with extra wide loads that threaten to tip over. After half an hour behind one that said ‘Naa dekh hiqarat say kisi ko, naa janay kaun kab vazeer ho jai’ (don’t be contemptuous of any one, for who knows when someone might become a minister?), the road suddenly turned near Lodhran and became clearer, more prosperous, with well marked fields, sturdier homes, date palm groves, and piles of sesame wood waiting to be threshed for the seed.
Nine hours after leaving Lahore, we stopped for the night at Sadiqabad, midway between Lahore and Karachi where life centres on the Jamal Din Wali (JDW) sugar mills, and trucks laden with sugar cane clog the streets.
Mist still shrouded the fields, and the road was deserted when we hit the N5 again the next morning. Truck drivers drive better than those driving private cars, adhering to the speed limit on their side, even indicating a turn or change of lane. In an attempt to hitch a ride in the truck’s slipstream, a motorcycle runs about a foot or two behind the rear bumper of each truck like a crow on a cow’s rump. What if the truck stops suddenly? Their utter disregard to safety is mind boggling.
At the Sindh border we had our first encounter with the Sindh police who asked for third party insurance documents that we did not possess. They blatantly demanded Rs 200 for ‘chai pani’, our national cuisine.
Pitiful living conditions once again in Sakrand. Pakistan is a desperately poor country, yet somewhere behind all this poverty lies a nuclear arsenal. Frightening? Yes. We passed some colourful rallis being sold by the roadside at extraordinarily low prices. How much was the artisan paid given that retail?
Hala was disappointing, the few handicrafts shops ill stocked, the pottery, otherwise so beautiful, chipped and carelessly painted. Over the parched Mehran river are some UNICEF sponsored tents for internally displaced persons (IDPs), which remain long after the floods and rivers run dry.
Huge PPP banners started at the Sindh border: Z.A Bhutto, a hopeful Bilawal, the shaheed BB, and Zardari grinning toothily behind them with the local PPP candidate. Once in Karachi, we lost our way, reaching home 12 hours after leaving Sadiqabad. Karachi reinvents itself on every visit with new flyovers, and buildings.
We stayed opposite Bilawal House. To the left of the apartment, half the dual carriageway including the service lane was permanently closed to traffic forcing residents to find their way as best as they could.
We left after 12 days amidst dire warnings of fog in Punjab, and retraced our steps, past a bustling sabzi mandi to another police check post 102km before Hyderabad where another rapacious member of the police demanded Rs1500 because we were without a Highway Code book, and a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Do we need permission to move around the country, or did Jinnah have it wrong when he said, ‘One Nation, One Road,’ which slogan is plastered every few miles on the Highway?
There’s plenty of water logging and salinity along the way, and the ubiquitous ‘Lakki Marwat Hotel’ crops up frequently with its charpoys and water coolers catering to truckies. At Sadiqabad after nightfall our guide to the farm loomed out of the dark carrying a Kalashnikov; the day before, some people were kidnapped in that area.
A car behind a truck loaded with sugar cane
The sugar cane trucks are a hazard by night. They have headlights, but the wide load on either side is not visible until you’re almost hit by it. The following day there was a light mist all the way to Lahore and we reached Multan Road by 5pm, where the traffic became heavy. We reached home two hours later, very glad to be home again.
We spent a total of Rs650 on road toll on the journey, Rs3,600 for petrol and Rs4,400 on CNG.
We learnt to resent the presence of Bilawal House, to stay away from the police, and to keep away from trucks laden with sugar cane at night. Drive when days are longer and there is no fog, and keep a handful of Rs20 notes handy throughout the trip for toll. Above all, drive carefully.

Not one of my favourites since its been mercilessly chopped to shorten it by the editor. Anyway, this was printed on the 3rd of April 2011, in the Dawn Magazine