Monday, April 30, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed    Pakistan Today

Although their cause is political and has nothing to do with religion, and even though the majority of Muslims reject their views and actions, the terrorists nevertheless called ‘Muslim’ maim and kill in the name of Islam.They have their clones.
On the 22nd of July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo, then drove to a nearby island where he deliberately picked off teenagers with his firearms at a youth camp organised by the Norwegian Labour party. Seventy seven people died as a result of these attacks, the youngest a fourteen year old. All these people, according to Breivik, ‘looked leftist’. The ones he thought ‘looked right wing’ and conservative were spared.
Muslim immigration into the country was the declared reason for Breivik’s anger against the political left. One man’s meat is obviously another man’s poison. Breivik held the Labour government responsible for opening Norway’s borders which, in his eyes constituted Labour’s betrayal of the Norwegian people and according to him justified his actions and affirms his sanity.
Clearly, ‘mujahideen’ everywhere are blind, and also to the suffering they cause, and the disrepute they bring to their cause whatever that cause may be.‘I acted in self defence,’ said Breivik in a statement, ‘on behalf of my people, my religion, my ethnicity, my city and my country,’ and he mentioned a song ‘My Rainbow Race,’ sung by Norwegian children the lyrics of which he said had influenced young Norwegian culture and softened the attitude of Norwegian youth towards immigration. 
Last Thursday therefore around 40,000 Norwegians gathered in Oslo’s Youngstorget Square and sang that very same song in defiance and rejection of Breivik’s views. There were no hysterics and no violence.‘One blue sky above us,’ they sang, ‘One ocean tapping all our shore. One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?’ Such sentiments of human brotherhood and unity were obviously not appreciated in all quarters. 
It is something of a custom in certain countries to protest by means of song. This is the other side of the coin to the one we in Pakistan perceive, because its flip side is the one that affects us most. When silent aircraft drone across our borders and kill our people and maim our children, their blood splashes across the pages in our hands as it should. It is difficult, when that happens to check emotion. And yet the Norwegians did so.
Pete Seeger an American who wrote the lyrics to this song is now ninety. Some of his other songs have been sung in support of various causes including in protest against the Vietnam War.The forty thousand Norwegians sang softly in the rain last week waving roses as they sang:‘And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try to show my rainbow race it’s too soon so die’An attack on a Shia parade on Ashura in Peshawar wounded twenty six persons and killed a two year old toddler. 
‘Some folks want to be like an ostrich, bury their heads in the sand’A senior government spokesperson accused the media of sensationalising news because there were no target killings in Karachi (the previous day), and said the deaths that day were ‘natural’ and ‘due to personal enmities and accidents.
’‘Some hope that plastic dreams can unclench all those greedy hands’The ephedrine scam, regardless of who it involves, has led to a shortage of essential life saving drugs in the country; this shortage could become dire in the next few days leading to loss of life.
‘Poison, bombs, they think we need ‘em. Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers? There’s no shortcut to freedom.’Breivik admitted to killing seventy seven people in Norway. In other cases around the world responsibility for terrorism is proudly shouldered by various militant groups, whose manifestoes enshrine hatred towards someone else.
 ‘Go tell, go tell all the little children. Tell all the mothers and fathers too. Now’s our last chance to learn to share, what’s been given to me and you.’
And what has been given to us says:41:33, 34 - ‘And good and evil deeds are not alike. Repel evil with good. And he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.’ The Quran.
It is our choice, whether we share our gifts with poison and more bombs, or gently, with firm actions and resolve. To expect our lot, poor, downtrodden, long suffering, to sing is too much to expect at present, but surely some sanity from above…?
Published in Pakistan Today 30 April 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012


Pakistan Today 22 April 2012
By Rabia Ahmed
Eighteen girls in identical blackburqas. One greets the same girl several times as it turns out. Despite the outward sobriety they’re charming individuals, and hats off to them for their courage: they’re at this (free) school to learn computers and from me English, me being a person who has had to look up the difference between an adverb and a pronoun in a hurry the night before. Even more courageous, they are there in spite of their social circumstances.

These girls’ fathers are rickshaw drivers or similar low wage earners, while the more prosperous might own a store. They all live in the area surrounding this school and this, coupled with the fact that the strict supervisor of the school is the only male on the premises, has allowed their parents to send them here. They are fortunate in belonging to families that support their decision to continue their education. For those of us in luckier circumstances, to ‘continue an education’ generally means a Masters or a PhD. For these girls it means anything more than class five, eight or matric, although there is one very bright seventeen-year-old who has not been schooled beyond class four, while a handful have studied to an intermediate, or even a Bachelors level. Their English however is exceedingly poor, as how can it possibly be otherwise?

To live in Pakistan is to feel grateful at every step for a privileged life if one has wealth. These are privileges people take very much for granted in the first world: the opportunity to play, study, and have some leisure, in short the opportunity to have a childhood. These girls, before they arrive for these classes at nine in the morning (at a beautifully appointed centre established by some dedicated people) have helped cook and feed their younger siblings, cleaned and washed their homes and the clothing for their entire family. When they return home they will be expected to make up for their absence by carrying out several further chores.

The bright young girl mentioned earlier was away from school for a week because she took it upon herself one day to cook rotis at their neighbour’s house, when their own was without gas as usually happens. My mother would have praised my enterprise had I done this. Her father grounded her for her daring, and it was only when the supervisor for the centre reasoned with her father that he agreed to let her continue.

It is a world apart.

They are more careful of their stationery, these girls, unlike children from wealthier homes. Books are carefully covered with paper and names inscribed in prettily decorated letters on the flyleaf; pencils and pens are carefully stored. It is obvious that the order of priority in which these items are to be replaced if lost is understood: food first, clothing second, and if finances permit after the bills are paid, the stationery; but naturally the boys come first.

The textbooks are good in the absence of anything local and interesting. Written by an Englishman, they have a liberal sprinkling of Pakistani names among the Annes and Richards, with teacher’s guides and notes. Nothing prepared me though for my students’ comments such as, ‘My father says we must not say ‘God’, Miss? He says we must only say ‘Allah’.’

You’re quite right, Nyla (not her real name naturally), it’s better to say Allah, so long as you’re Muslim and depending on the conversation, just as doctors would do better (conversely) to write a prescription for Metronidazole rather than Flagyl, or Levofloxacin rather than Levaquin. How this question arose in the middle of paraphrasing Alice in Wonderland though, I have never been able to discover. However it may have been, I have learnt to squash such discussions at the outset – who knows what misunderstandings might arise as a result of a single ‘flippant’ remark? One would rather these girls be allowed to continue coming to the centre.

The nation owes me for one thing at any rate. Here sit fourteen girls, and if multiplied by the national birth rate, a potential total of some one hundred and one and a half people who will never say ‘bowel’ ever again when what they mean is ‘bowl’. What is more, they will never direct persons to their homes by saying that they must get there via Shezan’s ‘backside’. I have seen to that, and whether or not I ever manage to teach them the difference between an adverb or a pronoun (or myself for that matter), I consider my efforts well spent.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Printed Pakistan Today 16th April 2012
by Rabia Ahmed

Hundreds of people are killed in the name of religion

Many moons ago in a different continent a Pakistani acquaintance asked me, very seriously, whether she should attend the wedding of her friend’s daughter. Let me explain.

My acquaintance, her friend and their families had known each other for the best part of ten years since moving from Pakistan. In an immigrant’s life, particularly in countries far from home where fellow countrymen are few and far between, such friendships tend to develop faster and deeper than at home. The children of these two families had grown up together and were closer than they would be to their own cousins back in Pakistan. And yet this question arose because the news that the other family was Ahmadi had only recently burst like a thunderclap upon that circle of expatriates. My acquaintance worried that attending an Ahmadi’s marriage would compromise her iman.

Rendered speechless with disgust I advised her when I was able, to attend the wedding, adding that religious loyalty was in fact reason to meet people of other faiths, to show oneself as an example as it were (although, I felt this example was better hidden than not). My caustic under-thought was fulfilled when after declaring piously that ‘by the Grace of God a kafir had never once crossed their threshold, nor the reverse’, we parted, and she did not attend the wedding.

Today when this bigotry has spread and permeated Pakistan like poison, where is one to go, particularly when one has only just returned hopefully to this nostalgic jungle? Is one to be grateful that one belongs to the mainstream religion and sect and let all else go to hell? Given what happens to those who take a stand and speak out there appears to be little choice.
Hundreds of people have been killed because they belong not only to another religion, but to another sect of Islam. These incidents have become so common that they no longer elicit half the response they ought. Certainly nothing more than a token noise on the part of a government engrossed in ensuring it remains in power for another round of rapacity.

The involvement of powerful local political figures has often been mentioned. A Pakistan Today report quoted local Hindus, following the alleged kidnapping of Rinkle Kumari, as saying that a powerful local politician and Pakistan Peoples Party MNA brought armed men to harass them when they attempted to protest.

Similar allegations have been made in countless instances. Recently in a non-sectarian case, the SHO of police confessed to the police’s inability to arrest the suspects because of their (the suspects’) influence and political connections.

A horrific aspect of this trend are the forced conversions to Islam, where relatives of a growing number of girls have alleged kidnap and forced marriage of a female relative to a Muslim.
 The case of Rinkle Kumari mentioned above is one. Says Pakistan Today in a report dated 10th of April, ‘just like kidnappings for ransom (and) extortion by powerful feudal lords from Hindu businessmen…, forced conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh is a big problem for the Hindu community.’

The day that Rinkle was brought to the Karachi Press Club for a session with the media was reported in far more sinister language by yet another newspaper: ‘A couple of bearded people kept on giving notes to the girl during the press conference. A woman, who said she was a police constable, was also present at the press conference, which was abruptly cut short. The girl could not respond to questions asked by journalists and kept on saying that she had embraced Islam without any force and married of her own free will.’ When the conference ended, ‘two men came forward and said that the press conference was over. They held her arm and took her away. They boarded a waiting car and left along with a police mobile which was parked outside the Press Club.’

This is one of the most chilling reports I have ever read both in its content and all that it refrains from saying.

Last week members of minority groups and some social organisations protested against these incidents of forced conversions outside the Lahore Press Club’. ‘Down with mullah-ism!’ shouted the protestors.

‘It is a sin to take away someone’s rights like that,’ said one man. However, another, when questioned, responded in a way that was even more chilling than the report above: ‘Isn’t it a blessing when someone is being converted into a Muslim?’ he bleated.

Please someone force-feed this man prodigious quantity of something good till he explodes, just so he can discover the difference between a blessing and a bane for himself.

Friday, April 13, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed   
Printed Pakistan Today 
09 April 2012
Cell phones ring everywhere they mustn’t     

Well it’s finally happened. A teenager has sold, not his mother, but a bit of himself which comes to the same thing, to buy an iPhone and iPad. Master Wong of China, now suffering from kidney failure was all of seventeen when he underwent a resection of one of his perfectly healthy kidneys. For this working organ he was paid the equivalent of $3,500 in Yuan.

The middle man who recruited him off an online chat room on behalf of illegal organ traders was paid ten times as much for his services. Such, sadly, is the disproportionate importance of this electronic device.

They have their undoubted advantages – I certainly couldn’t be without mine – but cell phones, like weeds, can be as unwelcome and noxious as their botanical counterparts.

For someone who has been away since shortly after Alexander Graham Bell’s death, it is one of the major changes in this country that every man in Pakistan now possesses a cellular phone. It is common for a rairi-wallah’s dhoti to burst into sudden and fervent praise of the Almighty, a signal for him to pull out his cell phone and indulge in loud and raucous conversation with whomever at the other end. Cyclists use phones to while away the ride, teenagers to reinforce their nonchalance, yuppies and their fathers to establish their financial worth, and a woman to keep track of every ant that crosses her path.

The cellular phone’s intrusive range extends from the sublime to the ridiculous because of its ability to reach people anywhere, from a place of worship to a bathroom.

At theatre productions in spite of repeated requests by management, Qari Waheed Zafar’s bell-like tones interrupt the punch line or the Sabri brothers cause performers to veer off note with their vociferous rendition of “Tajdar e Haram.” Cell phones ring in the midst of dinners and school lectures and everywhere else they mustn’t.

To give credit to young girls and boys, their phones are generally accessible and easily switched off, for the simple reasons that they use them so much, and know how to use them.

But of older women (the most common offenders), few know or bother to turn their phone off even when they must. A woman’s phone generally rings from the depths of a voluminous bag, the local dress code for some reason barring women from possessing pockets. It takes a couple of rings for the fact to register with the owner, who then tries to ignore it.

No ma’am, the phone will not stop ringing by itself, at least not for a while, and yes we know it’s yours, since the bag making that racket is resting on your knee. So a couple of rings later, she dives into the bag and throws out its contents: some lipsticks, several keys, a diary, a wallet, a tissue or two and a packet of something expired. The phone, retrieved, promptly falls silent.

If, however, the owner manages to reach the phone in time she rarely leaves the room before speaking in a voice that registers anywhere on the scale between Waheed Zafar to Sabri: in a stage whisper (‘tell him to take the Merc, not the BMW’), a sibilant hiss in the midst of a quiet room, or in booming tones in the middle of a funeral.

There are some things which ought to be taught at a mother’s knee, or at least in a class room: that Jinnah was not a Muslim saint is one and that you never enter a house from the ‘backside’ is another. Yet another is cell phone etiquette, a crucial aspect of decent manners.

Cell phones were not around at the time, but had they been, there may have been a section nine of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s ‘Bahishti Zewar’,all about cell phones and how and when to use them: instructions for pious women and their offspring. As it is, in her article on the subject of cell phone etiquette in the Huffington Post, Bianca Bosker lists some important rules:

Speak softly in public and avoid private remarks. Keep at least ten feet between yourself and the nearest person when speaking in public. Avoid speaking or texting on the phone in the middle of a face to face conversation, or obtain your companion’s permission. Turn your phone to silent or vibrate in theatres and restaurants, and do not display a lighted phone screen in a dark space such as a cinema hall. To phone while driving is not a good idea and to text at the wheel potentially lethal.

Maulana Thanvi would approve.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Printed Pakistan Today 03 April 2012
by Rabia Ahmed

Why don’t women ride bikes in Pakistan?

She sailed past my car as the light turned amber, a woman on a bicycle, and no, she was not a passenger, she was at the wheel. We were all, she, I, and the men staring bug eyed at her (I have to admit I was bug eyed myself) in DHA, just opposite Masjid Chowk in Lahore that bastion of Punjabi ghairat.

Wonder, worry, excitement, all rattled around in my head like a box of liquorice allsorts. Who was she, and why was she doing this? Was she aware of the looks, laughter and lewd comments that rained about her? How wonderful that someone had the courage to do this! I prayed she was a harbinger of some huge change.

She was clearly not a bike rally contestant in training. Wearing a pink shalwar kameez, yellow dupatta and beat-up chappals, she rode an inexpensive bicycle, what used to be Rustum or Sohrab, black and scratched with a paranda hanging off the handlebars. I judged her to be a cleaning lady on her way to work.

I drove alongside her, trying to catch her expression, and you know what, she looked neither worried nor scared. Whip-cord tough she was cycling quite effortlessly. To someone who has cycled, albeit not in the land of the censorious, and was aware that even a flat stretch of road develops Himalayan slopes and grand canyons for cyclists, this indicated one thing and one thing alone: she was used to this particular exercise.

I had a wild urge to follow her, to shield her with my car from the jeers and more that would surely come her way, to congratulate her when we both stopped, to caution her, offer her a job on the spot, anything, but then she turned away from my route and I was left writing this.

You’d think that in a country like Pakistan where women work in spite of purda and other constraints they’d be riding bicycles and motorcycles not because they wanted to but because they must, but they don’t. And when they do use either of these modes of transport, as passengers, they sit side saddle.

Have you ever tried sitting side saddle on a bike of any sort? I have, behind my husband when he offered to show me around his farm and surrounding land on a motorbike. In the five short minutes while I was seated behind him and before I fell off, my respect for Pakistani women went up a hundred fold, mingled with anger.
I thought of all those women dressed in trailing fussy clothes and gold sandals seated side saddle behind their lord and master, children in front, behind and in between, infants on laps, the whole family going to visit the jumma bazaar or some other dazzling place of entertainment…and don’t shoot me, I know there’s little choice.

Can the Pakistani male not even handle the sight of a woman seated astride a cycle? And this, the home of Fatima Jinnah, Nigar Ahmed, Bilquis Edhi, Mukhtaran Mai and Asma Jahangir!

Indian men are clearly stronger. I asked an Indian friend if women cycled in India, and she said she used to cycle herself some years ago ‘when I went to school, college etc, in a small town and got heckled, followed and once, even fondled. Thankfully the same is no longer true. Women in the cities use scooters. They ride pillion, side saddle as well as astride. Schoolgirls and boys use cycles to go to and from school and they are mostly unchallenged and unbothered. Of course I'm talking about Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and cities where I've lived/visited. In Punjab it’s a bit more conservative.’

In which case (as in many other instances), Pakistan has gone backwards. I know that my aunts biked many miles to university and medical school about fifty years ago in Lahore, as did other cousins for a decade more. And then what happened?

The Pakistani male needs to understand that expressing his manhood is not about being able to spit long and accurately right in someone’s path just before they pass, and it is definitely not about keeping his woman in a cage, especially not those in the Punjab, who could do with the exercise.

My friend also wrote, ‘Our aunties told us to stop riding bicycles because we would get muscular legs, and then who would marry a girl with fat thighs?’

And that does not apply to the Punjab either.