Tuesday, March 27, 2012


http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/?p=173263 Printed Pakistan Today 26 March 2012

by Rabia Ahmed
Is Pakistan’s patience a blessing?                     

There was this on a friend’s Facebook profile: “I am not just bombs, poverty and corruption. I am Edhi's philanthropy, Arfa Karim's brilliance and Pervez Masih's sacrifice. I am Afridi's exuberance and Miandad's six. I am the fastest growing of IT industries, an ever-expanding middle class. I have fought dictatorships. I am 40,000 deaths for global peace. I am hospitality. I am the epitome of resilience and one of the bravest nations of the world. I am Pakistan!”

Each one of us can contribute stories about the resilience and bravery of the people of this country; here are mine:

At sixty, M, our cook, is a frail, scrupulously honest man. He must have married late because his family is young – a couple of unmarried daughters aged twenty one and twenty two and a feeble minded loafer of a son aged seventeen.

M himself not a towering intellect either has worked in the Middle East, so he was able to build a house for his family in Kashmir. On one of his visits to his native town from Lahore, he wanted to take back four kilos of minced beef. The beef in Lahore, he said, was much better than back home. I worried the meat would spoil, but ‘I have a fridge in the house,’ he assured me proudly. ‘I have a television and furniture and everything I need. It’s just that I have no money.’

Chitral, Pakistan
This bravely bittersweet confession is Pakistan. Damn right, we are not just about bombs and violence. Our people have everything: a beautiful country, minerals and other natural resources, brains and a sophisticated cultural heritage. It’s just that they have no money, and no peace.

Exposed to bombs and violence from above, beyond and within our midst, Pakistan’s resilience is providential but its patience in the face of such trials may be a mixed blessing.

Last week, according to officials, Taliban militants armed with guns and rockets killed at least three soldiers at a check post in the tribal region Khadizai near the Afghan border. The residents of Khadizai are familiar with these incidents since these areas, acrawl with insurgents, and bastions of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

According to Pakistan Today, ‘Islamist’ militants have killed more than 4,900 people across the country since July 2007 alone.

Life is cheap in Pakistan. When seven people died at the hands of a militant gunman in Toulouse, it shook the people of France and this incident is likely to have political ramifications for France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy.

In Pakistan, we leave it to tawdry scandals to achieve what loss of life, of whatever magnitude, cannot.

An eighteen-year-old boy perched atop the carpenter’s table at our under construction house the other day was writing in a book on his knee, tongue out and oblivious. When I asked him to show me what he was writing, he proudly displayed a page of writing in Urdu and told me about himself: by day he helps lay floors, at night he studies in grade one at his local madrassah.

They aren’t all cradles of militancy, these madrassahs, which like the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Jihad’ have acquired negative overtones. Tell me where else is a man to go working as a tiler’s aide for less than three hundred rupees a day? The cheerfulness and courage of this hardworking boy studying in his spare time match the intelligence of Arfa, Afridi’s exuberance Pervez Masih’s courage and Miandad’s six, while many of these madrassahs are run on charity as large hearted as Edhi’s.

In the face of the merciless power shortage faced by this country, it is incredible that we are only now seeing some riots protesting against the problem. Given the past though, it is possible that after a month of these days more frequently without than with power, people will accept the fact that their businesses are unable to survive, their homes unable to function.

Is this defeatism or resilience, or a mixture of both? Is it providential, or would the country be better of if its people were less patient with their hardships?

Tailors are taking longer to complete their jobs because they say their workers refuse to use hand cranked sewing machines. Farm workers will not use manual water pumps. These old methods are the new ‘new’ technology, and like with all new technology our countrymen are loath to use them. They’d rather sink slowly but surely into darkness. And yet, there is the fast growing IT industry and middle class. So you tell me.

Pakistan has ever been a conundrum, a fact never better witnessed than on the cricketing field when its unnerving unpredictability so completely oversets the other team.

Who knows when this patience will turn into uncontrollable violence off the pitch?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012



By Rabia Ahmed      Pakistan Today        19 March 2012

Preventing the perfect storm 

Noori, the world’s first cloned pashmina goat, arrived fifteen years and several clones after the birth of Dolly, the world’s first cloned mammal.                      

The fabulous pashmina shawls, made from the fine cashmere wool of the Himalayan pashmina goat have been mentioned even in ancient texts. When, therefore, these goats stopped breeding as prolifically as before, scientists in the Sher-e-Kashmir University used a less high tech method to produce Noori who will hopefully represent an upward turn for a flagging industry.

Even beneficial technology has a flip side and its opponents feel vindicated following incidents such as the dangerous damage to nuclear power plants after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year.

Reaction to news of Noori’s birth was no exception: “Yahh Allah!!!”exclaims one reader. “It is wrong to clone...it is not our culture…our religion forbids this...it is un-Islamic...please don't do this...”

Of course this could be a tongue-in-cheek comment by a supporter, but the odds are against it.

Cloning could be dangerous if certain wishes were in the habit of being fulfilled:

“I hope one day I can clone another Dick Cheney,” said George W Bush wistfully.

Ya Allah!            

A world teaming with Cheneys or Rumsfelds would be unpleasant. However, Donald Rumsfeld’s tangential statement, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know,” while it may have murdered the English language applies to cloning as it never did to the issue to which it originally referred, Iraq and its never present weapons of mass destruction.

On the pleasant other hand, there are identical twins. According to Richard Dawkins, a biologist, “Anybody who objects to cloning on principle has to answer to all the identical twins in the world who might be insulted by the thought that there is something offensive about their very existence.”

As with every issue, it all boils down to intent and to the important but difficult question of control, since any time we play God there is a danger of abuse of the privilege. In this case there is the very real danger of bringing procreation to the human level of manufacturing in the absence of serious regulation.

A physicist I spoke to says, “All the evidence from the life sciences indicates that humans are machines that engineer other things. It is inevitable that we will genetically engineer and clone other species and quite possible ourselves as well.”

And on the subject of artificial life that most loaded aspect of cloning, that, ‘the first bacterium are pretty close to actually being created, which may be scary, but the benefits are incredible. You can for example create a bacterium that eats one thing but then creates oil (fuel) or medicine as a waste product. Or one can create viruses that fight cancer. There are some dangers but the benefits are huge.’

To return to Kashmir, Noori the pashmina goat’s homeland, trade in pashmina shawls brings in some $80 million for the region. A dwindling supply of the cashmere wool used in its production, now being imported from China, would mean a drastic reduction in earnings for its people. This will hopefully no longer be the case if the pashmina herds can be augmented with clones.

The authors of the ‘Empires of Food’ have quoted the chief science advisor of the government of UK as saying that by 2030 world demand for food would spike by 50 percent, and water by 30 percent as the population topped 8.3 billion. “It’s a perfect storm,” he said.

Such an eventuality may be a perfect storm in the UK but for the poorer and more populous countries of the world with no Nooris and Dollys to sustain them it would be more of a tsunami, tempest and tornado rolled into one, if, that is, we continue to as Iqbal puts it: haath pay haath dharay muntazir e farda ho…wait around idly for tomorrow.

A blind negativity indicates a failure to appreciate the invaluable examples of genetic engineering in our daily lives: the grafted fruit, the life saving medical benefits both now and in future, as well as the animals we all use and consume…genetic engineering is heavily relied upon in animal husbandry, agriculture and medicine.

Human beings have been rearranging nature ever since Cain broke the first clod of earth to bury Abel. The crime was not the burial but the murder.

Dolly of course is now dead. The human race however could use her legacy to live a bit longer on condition that it uses it well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


By:Rabia Ahmed  PAKISTAN TODAY  Monday, 13 Mar 2012

Sub-continental loan recovery systems
In 2001, the owner of a credit society in Mumbai came up with a unique method of loan recovery: he employed eunuchs to sing and dance, as they do, in front of defaulters’ homes, demanding repayment. Shamed by such public exposure, people invariably settled their loans before long. This tactic has since been successfully used by others in India to recover overdue payments.

In 2010, a barrister in Lahore submitted an application to the Supreme Court recommending the same method for the recovery of loans totalling over two and a half billion rupees waived by sundry bureaucrats and army generals who over the years graced our national horizons. The Supreme Court agreed, and recently the Khadim-e-Aala issued directives that eunuchs should be employed for this purpose in the Punjab.A year ago, Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) took the unprecedented (for this country) step of employing eunuchs in respectable data entry positions in their offices in a deliberate move to provide employment for members of that community. These appointments followed upon regular advertisement for these jobs and a merit based selection process.

Nahi nigah main manzil tu justhjoo hi sahi Nahi visaal muyassar to arzoo hi sahi(Although the destination appears elusive, the search for it is presentAlthough the union appears unattainable, the wish for it is present)

The recruits will be trained for the job, NADRA said, adding interestingly, that while there was a good response for the jobs in KP and Sindh, eunuchs did not seem to be interested in working in Lahore.

That scarlet lipsticked person with the painted face and exaggerated female gestures who taps on your window when your car stops at traffic light, who is he/she? What must you call him/her? It?Shoma Chatterji is an Indian journalist who, in her excellent essay on the subject, explains in some detail the life, if it can be called such, of the people we hold in sufficient contempt to offer them the job of humiliating others by their presence outside their homes.

The word ‘hijra’ used in the subcontinent is strictly speaking a man who has been surgically robbed of his gender. Colloquially however, it implies any, a hermaphrodite (a ‘dual gendered’ person), a transvestite (a person who opts for the gender he/she was not born with), or a gender neutral person who is actually an extreme rarity.

While gay and lesbian persons manage to blend fairly well with the mainstream population, ‘hijras’ tend to stand out making them vulnerable to prejudice and insensitivity. Most have learnt to use the leverage this visibility affords in ham roles as public performers.

In India, most hijras owe their status to ‘surgery’ performed upon them as infants, making them as much or greater victims of torture as any inmate of a Pakistani thana. In the absence of information telling us otherwise, we should presume that the story is the same here. After all we shared the Indian Penal Code once upon a time, an amendment to which in 1897 was subtitled: ‘An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs.’

The surgery is performed by untrained dais or midwives and the details are too gruesome for this column. Suffice it to say that the pain these infants go through never goes away. It not only translates into permanent medical trauma, but as children and adults into unrelenting taunts, jeers and a horrible marginalised existence from which there is no escape.

Society sees fit to force these people into the role it has foisted on them, by first robbing them of their lives and self-esteem and then the opportunity of holding a respectable job, or any job at all. As a result they are forced almost without exception into prostitution and begging.

Pakistan has only now seen it fit to allow eunuchs voting rights, realising rather late that it was their gender they lost, not their brain. The Supreme Court has directed that NADRA should waive the requirement for gender verification in the case of persons belonging to the ‘third gender’ so they may hold a national identity card. They will now be able to check the third box on a form stating that they are ‘khwaja sara’, an umbrella term for ‘ambiguous sex’.

In Balochistan, the government has promised to provide them with free health facilities and in KP with inheritance rights. The government of Sindh and the Punjab have also indicated their resolve to contribute in various ways.

It will be a while though before we learn the difference between providing an unclothed man with suitable clothing, or clothing him in clown’s attire. However, nahi visaal muyassar to arzoo hi sahi. In the absence of awareness, this could be seen as wishing for (and moving towards) change.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


by Rabia Ahmed      Pakistan Today    06 March 2012

The ninety-day promise

Pakistan is a beautiful country and the green fields of rural Punjab a welcome change after Lahore. Economics soon asserts itself, however, when successive impoverished settlements punctuate those fields. Before each new village the car flashes past a large blue sign that reads ‘Drive Carefully: Populated Area Ahead.’
I’m really not sure why those signs are there. There is no doubt whatsoever of the supreme uninterrupted fecundity of the Pakistani people. As populous as the birds that peck at the ready corn are the people in the fields, even those fields with no village in sight. They sit under every tree and walk along each little path that traverses the fields. For every adult that trudges along the dusty road (the women with massive bundles of firewood balanced effortlessly on their heads, the men with picks and shovels), twenty children defecate amidst the rice, the wheat or vegetables, dart across the street on foot, on donkey-back or cart, and fifty more stare bug-eyed and silent at your car as you pass.

How can Pakistan’s fast dwindling resources ever be shared with equity among these teeming millions? Those bundles of wood are testimony to the lack of electricity and gas in homes. The farmers hereabouts spend thousands, even lacs of rupees every month on diesel (the cost of which rises brutally every few days) to replace the absent electricity which should be driving their tube wells. In India, power as well as seed and fertiliser are provided at subsidised rates to the agricultural sector. In Pakistan, the resultant high cost of production is passed on to the consumers and the process continues to spiral involving the entire country in its deadly vortex.

The children squatting bare bottomed in the fields indicate the utter lack of sanitation, and I, a woman in the front seat of a car the shocking immorality of the lipsticked world beyond.

After passing streets lined with refuse and dung cakes, our farmhouse appears, small but built to withstand ‘attack’, because yes, this area is lawless as well. Metal doors lead into the house which looks inwards into a secure courtyard. There are no entrances, exits or windows on the outer side, and the only way onto the roof is a ladder which must be pulled up.

The utter silence at night broken only by the occasional cry of jackals and the dull thump of a cow as it rubs against the outer wall is quite deafening to city ears.

Breakfast is served by Jamila who, at the age of thirty has few teeth and no husband which equates to no teeth at all. He died leaving her with some goats, and three children of whom the eldest walks three miles to school and back. There are no school buses because there are no roads. Her brother, accidentally shot, died upon eventually reaching hospital after losing more blood than he could sustain when the police detained him for prolonged ‘questioning’ before he got there.

There is little or no evidence of governance in this area, and no sign that anyone in the hallowed corridors of parliament cares a whit for this village’s existence, and they don’t, nor for countless others like it.

Without connections in high places, farmers are generally unable to take advantage of the minimum price guaranteed by the government for their wheat and rice, nor of the government’s assurance of their harvest being bought at that price in the absence of a higher bidder. Occasional government schemes advertising subsided seed and fertiliser and at times farm equipment are bewilderingly hard to access for lack of information and corruption. In almost every case only the privileged few are granted access to all these advantages, and the small farmer remains neglected.

Imran Khan’s promise of agricultural reform: local sheriffs, reformation of courts, accountability, an end to the patwari and thanedarstranglehold, digitised records etc – these would indeed be the answer to solving many of these problems, but given the nature of some of his ‘landed’ candidates, its like hiring the wolf as au pair for Gran and Red Riding Hood, even though the present au pair is no less lupine.

Bringing a captive electorate in their wake and used to being in power, the powerful new entrants to the PTI will demand the same or better. In turn why should the brutish landlord currently so dependant on patwarisupport, fudged records and a thuggish thanedar at his shoulder be willing to relinquish any of these, and why should his representative in government be willing to facilitate it? Anyway, what incentives lie at his disposal? It is truly unclear how Imran’s promises are to be implemented, much less within the stipulated ninety days, but in Pakistan one lives on hope.