Monday, August 27, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed               27 August 2012         Pakistan Today

Jirga: a group of men entrenched in the status quo

A jirga in session

Norwegian courts sentenced Andre Breivik to 21 years in prison after finding him legally ‘sane’ and therefore responsible and guilty of murder. Breivik accepted this result of his psychiatric assessment, because it gives his phobic views the weight of the opinions of a sane person.

A British judge convicting the parents of Shafilea Ahmad of murder refused to use the term ‘honor’ killing to describe their crime; as did, to their credit, the British police, which had sufficient nous to differentiate between honor and anger.

Little words such as ‘sane’ and ‘honor’ can hide a deranged ideology, and a sickening murder, as can others, such as ‘freedom’, ‘religion’, ‘liberty’, ‘rights’, ‘duty’, ‘tradition’.

Perhaps this is why the Arabic language with its subtle nuances and multiple layers of meaning was chosen to convey such revolutionary concepts, because it can be precise; and why Muslims are encouraged to read the Quran, with understanding, in the original.

In Pakistan we are given to conferring and embracing grandiose titles. If it is Arabic or a traditional title, it is accepted as synonymous with religion and wisdom. Zia-ul-Haq played upon this sentiment, and so we have the Hudood Ordinance liberally sprinkled with dangerous ideas with elaborate Arabic titles.

We also have ‘jirga’, a term wrapped in tradition and tribal mystique.

Over the years, parliaments have evolved, the power of monarchs curtailed, marginalised groups granted rights, and other systems and institutions transformed, enabling change for the better.

A jirga, which adjudicates criminal and other cases in the tribal and rural areas of Pakistan, could also be changed to incorporate powerful criteria of composition and qualifications, making it a valuable local council that settles minor complaints to take some load off the courts. This would be a promising development. But at present it remains a gathering of the ‘elders’ of a community, little educated, possibly illiterate, men –they are always men– rarely neutral, respected because of their position, entrenched in unchanging systems, adjudicating important cases. With conditions as medieval as they are in our tribal and rural areas, these men view anything new with suspicion. Their interest lies in maintaining their power within a status quo, which is that of a primitive, violent society with little education, where women have no rights. This is not the ‘will of the people’, it is power play at its worst.

Given the tribal concept of justice, a jirga’s adjudication is often based on revenge, and the point of a gun, and smacks bizarrely of dark creeds such as LaVeyan Satanism, which promotes vengeance as its central concept, and is based entirely on a philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye’ and the concept of the satisfaction of the self by means of acts of revenge based on ‘do unto others as they do unto you,’ rather than ‘as you would be done by’, or any concept of right.

Islam, (after laying down criteria for its judges and their judgements) encourages forgiveness, but takes a measure of just revenge into account – provided any violence in the name of justice does not exceed the crime, is in the name of God alone and not for personal gain, and therefore for the greater good. This was best illustrated when Ali’s adversary in a war against the enemies of Islam, spat upon Ali’s face. Ali withdrew his sword from the man’s neck and said that killing him would now constitute revenge, and would therefore be wrong.

Implementing such concepts requires a degree of legal wisdom, which, unfortunately, is not the hallmark of a gathering of tribal elders.

Recent judgements passed by jirgas illustrate this point:

A young man from Mansehra dared marry a girl from another tribe. In punishment, the jirga gave his six-year-old niece in marriage to a ten-year-old boy from the other tribe, because her father was unable to pay a fine. The father appealed to the regular courts to annul the marriage.

Another man, this time from Peshawar, asked the high court to intervene because, he alleged, the jirga had ordered him to pay Rs 27,000 to his nephews because he had refused to give his minor daughters to them in marriage.

The list of such judgements is endless.

With the elections close at hand, people have been weighing their choices, and the PTI has a growing following. However, after Imran Khan’s vociferous endorsement of the jirga, many supporters are thinking again. After all, which would you endorse, if any, the six-year-old marrying the ten-year-old, or the two minors being forced to marry their cousins?

The PTI is often viewed as ‘the lesser evil’. Sadly, it is rapidly acquiring the potential of being yet another one.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed  20 August 2012  Pakistan Today

The ECP might register the people, but who will get them to the booth?

Taking a cue from Naeem Sadiq’s informative column on the subject, this is about the elections, now around the corner.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has an impressive website, where Jinnah, addressing Pakistan’s civil servants, says, “Prime ministers come and go…..but you stay on, and there is a great responsibility on your shoulders.” Ironic, how the first half of this statement applies to his country today. As for the second half...

The Election Commission’s website is useful. Just SMS your CNIC to 8300, and almost before your finger leaves the send button you have a response telling you if you’re registered, and from where. However, if you’ve moved or died, you need to fill out a form to let them know. This means that in this illiterate country, in spite of its affinity for cell phones, we’re in trouble right away.

People avoid forms like the plague, which you’ll understand if you’re ever tackled the process. Maybe this is why, as Naeem Sadiq pointed out, millions without CNICs are not on the electoral roll, while millions who’ve died since 2008 still live, and as many more have moved. The Chief Election Commissioner said that the Commission’s work ‘is not easy; it is complicated, challenging and demanding’. Given the way the country functions generally, he is very right.

Only at our local bakery, one person gets my biscuits together, another the bread. A third fishes out the milk while a fourth produces the eggs. There is obviously little coordination because when I check later, something is often missing. The manager wonders why I complain, given that I have been served by four whole persons every time. Really, I’d be happy with half a man or his grandmother, so long as I get what I paid for.

The ECP has mobilized a huge force which has been busy collecting data door to door, compiling it into lists, as is done. It needs organization, however, which is not a national strong point, and a degree of adaptation to make the process work according to local conditions.

Let’s take my lady, the one who reigns supreme in the kitchen, and that’s not me, praise the Lord.

At sixty, Ashi has adult, educated children, but Ashi herself cannot tell the time, nor can she use the phone. So she will not be accessing the voter lists via the telephone, and must check them physically. Someone will have to accompany her, because like so many Pakistanis, she cannot read; maybe her sister, the one who gets an income from the Benazir Income Support Program, and knows who she wants to vote in, if her monthly check is to continue.

The ECP website says that voters can check their particulars by visiting their respective District Election Commissioner’s office, where the final electoral roll is available, and that the addresses and contact information of the DEC’s offices across the four provinces can be found on the Election Commissions website. Uh oh.

Some voters may have checked the draft version of the electoral roll that was on display for 21 days at Display Centers across the country. Locations of these centers was widely publicized via newsprint and the electronic media and the public was invited to verify their information and file claims for addition, deletions or correction of details. And here it comes: Form A is for additions, Form B for deletions, and Form C for corrections. It’s all on the website.

When Ashi watches television it is only the weepiest, soppiest ‘droma’ dripping with dreadful daughters-in-law and martyred mothers-in-law. She pounds the episode of the day into the dough, and stirs it into the chicken, muttering imprecations against the bahu all the while. Her children could check for her, only they find it hilarious that ‘Amma’ should vote.

If all turns out well, and it comes time to vote, Ashi’s employers are happy to give her the day off to cast her vote. Presuming she is registered there…her village is only a couple of hours away, but queues are LONG.

Unfortunately, a proximity to home is not the case for many people, who may work here, but may be registered somewhere up north. Few employers are likely to give a couple of weeks off so that their employees can go vote for some berk who comes into office and sits there twiddling his thumbs. But I digress.

Most of this country is an Ashi, in some form or the other. Nevertheless, let’s hope all those forms and all those people going door to door collecting our particulars can deliver one honest vote per one live person…for some berk out there who sits there twiddling his thumbs.

What do you suppose?

Sunday, August 12, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed Pakistan Today 13 August 2012

Let’s shift the focus from what goes on the head to what goes on inside it.

My husband mentioned they were making a separate shed for the bull at his farm, so that they could remove it (the bull) from amongst the cows. The reason, unexpectedly, was that all that togetherness had made the bull ‘indifferent’ to his cows. Apparently segregation is a commonly used method of stimulating interest between genders, on farms.

Well now, isn’t that interesting? Animals are used in labs to research behavioural patterns, because these patterns are shared by humans with the more complex members of the animal kingdom. Therefore this incident above has to be quite revealing with all its implicit parallels in the human world: could it be that all that segregation is actually having a counter effect to what we expect here? What fun!

There is no huge difference between this society and others, whether more or less conservative, in terms of the ‘interest’ and respect women attract. If anything, the difference registers negative on the respect scale in this country, with many exceptions of course. This goes for the urban areas where women lead a relatively independent existence, the rural areas where women although they work in the fields, are under greater constraint of dress…and in the tribal areas where they are virtually incarcerated. In fact, in the village where my husband’s farm is located, incidents take place which would make your toes curl. Incest is not unknown, and promiscuity is almost languidly acceptable. I have come to accept with some sadness that my father’s description of our rural brethren as simple, honest, salt of the earth folk was either exceedingly na├»ve, or shockingly outdated, or else just plain wishful thinking.

Anyone who keeps an eye on the news and lives around here, will have witnessed and heard (on an ascending scale of revulsion) of cases of forced or/and child marriage, rape, torture, and the sale of women and girls...there was a case recently where a couple of men in Hafizabad sold their mother for Rs 30,000. This is apparently not an uncommon occurrence, although the price may vary, depending. Women are even killed because they dare to marry a man of their choice, because they are suspected of having affairs, because they did not produce a male child, or just because. In another incident a woman was paraded naked through the streets because her son was suspected of sleeping with their neighbour’s wife and making her pregnant. Yet another lady was taken onto the streets, her head publicly shorn, and her face blackened because she left her husband and married another man. These are for the most part women who do not leave home without a chador, if not a veil.

It can only be called an obsession, what else, when even the Olympics are viewed from the perspective of what and how much is worn by female athletes, particularly those who represent the Muslim countries of the world. If there were anything to show for this preoccupation with (and endorsement of) a shroud for a living breathing human being, one might concede a valid point, but as the incidences cited above and others indicate, there is not.

And then of course, there is the opposite end of the spectrum, again an obsession, again centred on women, but this time encompassing what and how little they wear. The American National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was recently responsible for a video production titled, ‘Bodies in Motion,’ which centred not on the outstanding performance of American female athletes in the Olympics this year, not on their athletic prowess and huge medal tally, or on the achievements of other female athletes from around the world. Instead, it focused entirely on the carefully selected poses of only those athletes with an attractive physique minimally covered. These poses, innocent as far as the athletes were concerned, were conveyed along with a discernibly pornographic aura and decidedly salacious overtones by means of strategic camera shots and suggestive music. The video has since been removed following an outcry from some other (media) quarters.

Obviously, both extremes produce almost identical results. It leads one quite naturally to question the attitude surrounding the matter: that of making the matter an issue at all. Could it be an idea to shift the focus: from what goes on the head to what goes on inside it, while keeping everything below clothed within moderate bounds of decency and sense. The definition of which, of course, is for the individual to decide, and the rest of us to accept. Let’s just call it ‘Live, and Let Live,’ and move on to other, greater things.

Monday, August 6, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed Pakistan Today 07 August 2012

Politics brings out the mean streak in people, and a nasty, selfish streak it is. Take the Olympics for example.

In 1972 at Munich, in the then West Germany, terrorists belonging to the organisation ‘Black September’ broke into the Athletes’ village and took some of the Israeli contingent hostage. The standoff lasted several hours, leaving eleven hostages and a West German police officer dead. Five of the hostage takers also died.

Forty years later at a ceremony at the London 2012 Athletes’ village, the President of the (IOC) President Mr Jacques Rogge mentioned those events in a short speech, and led a moment of silence in memory of those who died in 1972. As well, the Israeli Olympic contingent wore black armbands at the otherwise festive opening ceremony of the games.

The many who condemned this commemoration, said that by reminding the world of divisive issues, such displays at the Olympics undermined the aims for which the games exist, of peace, friendship and respect, and a joint participation in the joy of sport. Obviously, if one team is allowed to use the Olympics as a political platform, others (some would say more deserving) ought to be granted the opportunity as well, because there is always another side to each coin, and many coins in the mint (displaced Palestinians, Burmese Muslims, the residents of Aleppo, the list goes on).

Besides, there are other, more appropriate platforms.

The Israeli contingent may have reminded the world, lest it forget, and the spirit of the Olympics suffered as a result, but the Israelis shot themselves in the foot and suffered most of all, because of their tasteless timing.

The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre (Lahore)
Similarly, here in the Punjab, one Khwaja Asif of the PML(N) may be seen hopping around, an axe stuck through his bleeding foot as in the Urdu idiom, after accusing Imran Khan of ‘gambling away’ funds donated for the Shaukat Khanum Hospital.

At a press conference in Lahore, Khwaja Asif alleged that Imran Khan had used Zakat donations to make foreign investments which later failed, in the face of opposition from the hospital’s board of governors. He also made allegations, of nepotism at Shaukat Khanum.

He should have criticised Imran the leader of the PTI, not Imran the founder of the hospital, because the PTI Imran shoots his mouth too often, has an unfortunate predilection for khaki and a bit of a mullah streak, alas; but most people give him credit for a measure of integrity and few will or can criticise his greatest achievement, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, in Lahore, all else notwithstanding.

Those allegations have since been responded to, and most properly relegated to the electioneering bin, as they should.

In a country where politicians switch allegiances with monotonous predictability, where few projects progress beyond the high level meeting stage, or if they do are rife with corrupt practice from the start, these accusations are definitely a bit rich, and malicious. Also, like with the Israelis at the Olympics, their timing is deliberately hurtful, with elections around the corner and the PTI gaining ground, and particularly because they have been made during Ramzan, when people open their purses wider than usual to give Zakat.

Pakistanis are generous in charity. Approximately half of Shaukat Khanum Hospital’s revenue is obtained from the services it offers. The rest of its costs are met by Zakat and charitable donations from all over the world. As a result of PML-N’s Khwaja Asif’s allegations, these donations may drop this year, with a subsequent drop in the hospital’s capacity to treat its patients. The ones really hurt therefore are not Imran and the PTI, but Shaukat Khanum Hospital’s poor and sick cancer patients. That is what our politicians do best, isn’t it? Hurt the poor.

Imran Khan began the hospital project as far back as 1989. It is a measure of his dedication that he has stuck unwaveringly with this project for more than twenty years. Now that the hospital has come into being, a beautiful, well administered hospital, staffed with qualified and dedicated personnel, it is comparable to other similar hospitals anywhere in the world.

The SKMCH, a cancer hospital, treats patients with a very high standard of care…free of charge if they are financially unable to pay, which is a large percentage of those seen. The poor and sick people of Pakistan, whose options would otherwise be limited to facilities provided by a government that couldn’t care less are indebted to Imran Khan for his dedication and perseverance in this cause.

Whatever lustre remained to the PML(N) has been dimmed by these remarks. For the discerning, this should go a long way towards helping them fill out that ballot paper come election time.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at