Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Can the jirga and women co-exist?

October 30, 2012
"Tahira is never allowed to set foot outdoors," Shifa's mother snapped, scrubbing her dishes, "And here are Shifa and Sidra walking to school?" PHOTO: REUTERS
A loud screech from the speakers drowned out the last word of the lecture ─ the word which happened to be ‘peace’. Nervously, the girls leaned forward to make sure they missed nothing else. They were to write an essay.
Their teacher, her voice thick with distaste, pronounced the words,
“…the existing judicial system and its failings, and how the jirga can help…”
But the rest was lost again as a throat was cleared explosively, and the azaan burst onto the airwaves.
Shifa rubbed hard at her eyes. Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, this was the gist of her thoughts ─ turbulent images that broke her mental barriers only too often, frequently into reality.
The drones had come again last night, and there was screaming within and without. This time no one was killed. However, the week before, one moment a young cousin was scattering grain for her chickens, and the next, a tail of sound whipped through the air and she was gone, like a comet.
“It is a curssse from Allah (SWT),” the mullah had said softly, one hand beside the shrouded body on its bier.
Then, as now, everyone leaned in to catch his words. It was not normal for mullahs to whisper, and this one’s sibilant delivery invested his speech with an undercurrent like a slither on frozen undergrowth.
Shifa’s father had frowned and looked at his feet, and from behind the curtain, Shifa hugged him in her mind. She knew his thoughts, and shared them, but in this they were alone.
Shifa’s mother had never learnt to appreciate her freedom. She wanted ‘normalcy’, which to her mind was the way her sisters lived. Each of them was a prisoner and a slave in her home, and often upbraided her husband for what she perceived as his laxity and indifference in his rearing of their daughters.
“Tahira is never allowed to set foot outdoors,” she snapped, scrubbing her dishes, and throwing them aside. “And here are Shifa and Sidra walking to school (thump!) and back every day (clatter! crash!). Why can you not teach them at home? (crash!) Why do they even need school? (bang! thud!) I never went to school, and look at me! My only problem is you, and….’
It was the daily tenor of their home life ─ a repayment for her father’s wisdom. Shifa wondered which would give way first, their very existence, or her father’s spirit? Both were battered so mercilessly on every side. Although it was his strength that bolstered her resolve, there was, for now, little else he could do.
Shifa yearned to know the reality of things, about why some things were presented in clean wrapping when inside they were otherwise.
She believed there was a reason for every problem and a solution. This, her father had taught her.
Once when she cut her finger and it bled, her mother tried to bandage it immediately, but he stopped her for a while.
“Look, Shifa, see how you lose blood, more when you hang your hand limply by your side than when you hold it up?” he raised her hand above her head, her fist clenched, “Like this,” he said, looking into her eyes. She understood.
“It will not stop until your cells makes a little net like your muslin chaddar, to trap the blood inside the cut,” he said, and they smiled at each other, each knowing that the other thought of the various ways, good and not so good, in which nets trapped things.
Every day when he changed the bandage, he showed her the skin knitting over the wound.
“It takes time,” he said softly, his whisper a promise.
So Shifa knew the jirga was no solution, because a year ago in one of several instances in Shifa’s short life, her 14-year-old friend was trapped in marriage to 70-year-old Tahir from another tribe, since the jirga said that her brother had seduced Tahir’s sister.
“The big court in the city has still not even given a date for the hearing,” Shifa’s mother scoffed, “and here’s the girl married and settled already.”
Shifa would rather be shot than be ‘settled’ with Tahir, but she knew she was wrong even to think in such terms. Only the day before she ceased to exist under the drone, her cousin had wished for something out of the way to happen to her, for once in her life.
So, “A jirga is not a solution to the deficiencies of the judicial system in our dear watan (country),” she wrote that night. “It is cruel…”
But for the first time in her life, her father disagreed. He snatched her book from her, and tore up the page. Pale and shocked, Shifa’s hands balled into fists by her side, and the blood thundered in her ears.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


October 23, 2012

Express Tribune  

Pride of the Wagah Border, "Chacha Pakistan" passes away at 90. PHOTO: ONLINE
A man called ‘Chacha Pakistani’ was at the flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border every single day of the year.
The flag lowering ceremony, a ceremonial thumbing of the nose by the troops of India on one side and Pakistan on the other, has taken place at the Wagah border since 1959. Even though the contempt has since been toned down, it remains a sort of civil baring of the teeth on either side, or as Michael Palin described it, a ‘carefully choreographed contempt,’ of one neighbouring country for the other.
Born Mehar Din ninety years ago, Chacha Pakistani moved to Pakistan a bit after 1947.  Never married, or, as  far as one can tell employed, he lived with his nephews and imposed this border routine upon himself after the 1971 hostilities between India and Pakistan. He donned his special clothes every day: the greenPakistani flag complete with the crescent and star made into a long shirt, a white shalwar, and a green hat. His white beard and erect bearing, coupled with his resonant patriotic slogans audible well across the border, rendered him somewhat larger than life, as much a distinctive feature of the ceremony as the exaggeratedly turbaned soldiers on either side. So much so that the Pakistan Rangers were moved to confer an award upon him for his services to the nation.
When he recently failed to appear at the border for some days, however, officials do not appear to have enquired why. The reason of course was that sadly, following a period of illness, Mehar Dina akaChacha Pakistan died yesterday (Sunday, October 21,  2012) at the age of 90.
When larger than life personalities die it is almost too mundane an act for them to be caught at, something they’d never do while alive, not but what a person only ever dies while alive… but you know what I mean.
It appears that Pakistan can boast more than a single ‘Chacha’. There is the other Chacha Pakistani, a Mr Jawed Akhtar…and aChacha Cricket, a Mr Abdul Jalil. Jawed Akhtar is known for travelling from mausoleum to mausoleum (Jinnah’s to Iqbal’s) on his motor bike, every year, trying to raise patriotic sentiment among the youth, while Mr Jalil is a sort of live cricket mascot, adopted by the Pakistan Cricket Board, a familiar figure at every cricket match played by the Pakistan team.
It makes it an interesting reflection…all these Chachas, why do they do it?
Why did Mehar Din, make such an effort to get to the border daily for the past 40 years and shout his support for Pakistan every single day?
Is this being a patriot?  Which is what, exactly?
Mark Twain was not too impressed with patriots, because he defined a patriot as a person who hollered the loudest without knowing what he was hollering about.  Adlai Stevenson, on the other hand defined patriotism as the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime, rather than short, frenzied outbursts of emotion.
Chacha Pakistani lived in the small Pakistani village of Chandrai near the Wagah border. When I say ‘near,’ I mean in terms of a comfortable ride in one’s own car, because Chandrai is just 40km from the border.  For Chacha however, who neither owned nor drove a car, to attend the flag lowering ceremony meant a hitched ride or two and even a walk part of the way every single evening, for the past 40 years.  Surely, this is a tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime, even though he did holler louder than everyone else once there.
The origin of the saying that ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’ is lost in the mist of time, but every so often someone comes along who lives the idiom. The various Prophets of history have stressed that each man worships according to his ability, and worship manifests itself in different guises. Was it the Prophet Moses who received a divine reprimand for chiding a woman on her very personal method of demonstrating devotion to God? The same surely applies to other sentiments, including patriotism.
It is not within every man’s power to build bridges, or lay down his life for his country (in fact not everyone who can does build bridges). Patriotism, like religion, has to be an expression of love for a homeland to the best of a person’s ability. And against such a definition, Mehar Din was a patriot, because he was steadfast in the expression of his love for his country, to the best of his ability, almost all his life.
May his soul rest in peace: Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed  16 October 2012 Pakistan Today

Around the world, change was a while coming, but it arrived eventually

Education in Pakistan is not a right, it is conferred as a favor for which the female student must be eternally grateful to the father, hallowed be his name, his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth and never mind what heaven says. I see it at the school I teach, the difficulty some of the girls have in obtaining permission to study, and once there, to remain. At the slightest transgression, or what is perceived as such, the ‘favor’ is withdrawn, and back the girl returns to her stove to await the transfer of papers that will see another man take possession of her life.

Resistance emerges from unexpected quarters. There was Veena Malik’s wonderful
Altaf Hussain
‘Mufti Sahib, yeh kya baat hui?’ response a year ago to Mufti Abdul Kawi’s ‘baigharat’ remarks, and now here’s Altaf Bhai calling the Taliban ‘inhumane, illiterate, stone age people’. It is a bit rich coming from him though, when you remember the Stone Age tactics often resorted to by the MQM, safely incited by Altaf Bhai himself over the airwaves.
There is little will for change at the top, and although there is undoubtedly anger among the public against the TTP and its dreadful crime against Malala, this has yet to filter through and translate into a general attitudinal change. Obviously, it is early days yet since this particular incident, but such crimes as the attempt on Malala’s life are not isolated or new. The lack of sufficient response can only indicate the depth of support these inhumane, illiterate, stone age people have, and the extent of its spread across society. The scary thing of course is opposing the access the other side has to the same hearts and minds. Before people can process such events, before they can marshal their arguments, much less change, the local Stone Age person scatters these arguments by roundly condemning even the thought as the work of the devil.

It takes time to bring about change, and some space in which to germinate, some slight help in the methodology of building supportive arguments. It is no help, for example, that the daily debate diet on television consists of people who do little beyond scream at each other without remit. Where are the programs and the curricula teaching people to reason from the Quran, from textbooks, and life, without emotion or sentiment? Where is the language that promotes such reason? Yes, the Taliban and all such groups and persons are inhumane, illiterate, stone age, but why should they be considered as such, with concrete supportive examples? And above all why, when people in areas where such groups are most active are being pounded to death by exactly those who supposedly agree mostly to that they are inhumane, illiterate, stone age people?

Around the world, change was a while coming, but it arrived eventually. The war against militants in Pakistan itself has received international support as we saw at the time of the PTI’s recent foray upto Tank. The movement to end gender discrimination is being fought probably in every country except Pakistan. Remember the time when airhostesses were supposed to be pretty? Well, anyone who has travelled British Airways or any of the American airlines will attest to how far those days have been left behind in many places. On my last flight on Delta I was served by a little uniformed grandmother with moustaches who stumped along the aisle chucking peanuts into everyone’s lap.

The racial war is still being fought, but societies have moved miles away from racial segregation, although there are plenty of Christian Taliban still around, such as Pastor Mark Downey who writes, ‘It is a misnomer to call other races or species ‘mankind’. In the book of Genesis, God’s Law of kind after kind was established, meaning species. The Bible we have in our hands today repeatedly teaches about ‘seed after its own kind’ in which each and every species of plants and animals propagate within their own kind. In the case of Adamkind, it is clearly the White race.’(sic)

Such people and their opinions can never be totally weeded out; in fact their existence is a foil to more enlightened philosophies. They will always have their adherents, but their stranglehold can be broken, only if there is the will to do so. As long as there are vested interests in preserving the status quo, such as feudals in places that bring about change, this will is likely to be thin in the ground and in Pakistan the Stone Age will continue; there will be other girls and women who share Malala’s fate, only because we allowed them to.

Monday, October 8, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed   Pakistan Today   08 October 2012


Defining that elusive and misunderstood term

It was amusing to read, what can only have been a cub reporter’s assessment of the President’s speech, when he, Mr Zardari, denounced the movie recently made by an American, at the UN. The reporter writes: ‘These bold and candid utterances of Asif Ali Zardari have satisfied the people in Pakistan including those who would mistake Zardari’s party, PPP, as the party that symbolizes liberalism.’ Ouch.

I wish people would refrain from speaking for all the people of Pakistan because last time I checked I am definitely a Pakistan person, a liberal one, and I may or may not agree with a self-appointed spokesperson. Definitely I disagree in this case because I remain eminently dissatisfied with Mr Zardari and his party, while agreeing (if reports are accurate) that the movie was probably unwise, distasteful, and blasphemous, as far as my beliefs are concerned.

Actually that reporter is not alone, many people in this country have a deep-rooted misconception about certain words and ‘liberal’ is just one of them. ‘Secular’ is another, and the list is long and includes some tantalising words such as ‘religious’, ‘patriot’, and of course that bastion of Pakistani culture, ‘honor’.

There is a quote by Thomas Sowell, economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author that, ‘If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, it would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.’ He talks, of course, of the wider world. In today’s Pakistan, determinedly straddling centuries, the word ‘liberal’ is synonymous with a person who does not speak madrassah. I apologise for falling into the crime of stereotyping (a habit I normally dislike) with this way of using the word ‘madrassah’, but there’s no doubt that it saves explanations when required.

There are times when one is in danger of falling into another quoted definition of ‘liberal’, which is that ‘a liberal is a person too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel,’ perhaps because there are so many definitions of ‘liberal’, although none appears to be as damning as the one most commonly held in this country.

Without going into the Latin, ‘liberal’ in the dictionary is synonymous among others with the words ‘abundant’, ‘advanced’, ‘progressive’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘generous’, ‘eclectic’. Politically the word is used in conjunction with the political ‘left-wing’.

I find it too generous when ‘liberal’ encompasses the word ‘Catholic’, at least there was little liberal about the Catholic nuns at school, but it gets closer to the heart of its meaning when it includes the word ‘free’.

Free, its closest definition is based on the concept that all human beings are free and no man is another man’s master; the opposite is slavery. However, no man is ‘free’ to trample on the rights of others or do whatever he pleases. That is a definition of ‘chaotic’. It is this that in Pakistan is confused with liberty along with the word ‘non-conformist’, another definition of liberal.

‘Non-conformist’, at the extreme end of the liberal scale means a dissident, a freak, malcontent, separatist, or (hold your breath): a misbeliever. But to define a liberal as a ‘freak’ or ‘misbeliever’ is stretching the definition in the same way as to define a Muslim as a terrorist. Most of the time a liberal is a good thing, just as most of the time a (true) Muslim is a good person (there I go, setting conditions to my own side in an argument).

So to revert to the issue of that movie in passing, a liberal is a person who does not agree with the views presumably expressed in the movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’ (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it). Yet, being liberal, he is able to understand that everyone does not hold the same views on every issue, and his response is tempered by this understanding. A non-liberal, on the other hand, is a person who violently disagrees with the said movie and is willing to break and kill to push his point. The response of the liberal thus defined is more likely to result in such movies being relegated to the rubbish heap where they belong just as any amount of destruction caused by the other is likely to give them undue importance.

An ‘opportunist’ on the third hand is a person who boards any ride that goes his way; it is this label under which you will find the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, although there are those in his party who would rather walk.

Monday, October 1, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed  Pakistan Today 01 October 2012


No planning in urban planning

There’s a penguin near LUMS in Lahore. Well, it’s a statue of a penguin, a full sized one, on a patch of grass between two busy roads.

So why does a penguin live between two busy roads in a country that has nothing to do with penguins?

You might also ask why those two penguin roads have been designed the way they have, without any access breaks between them, and little convenient access to LUMS. Those living close behind LUMS are forced to drive the distance to Wateen Chawk before turning around again, when for LUMS they cannot take a simple right to its entrance. They must perform a complicated manoeuvre around the penguin and a couple of houses that moonlight as a roundabout, and then cut immediately across a road that leads to the main gate. Before that point they are in danger of taking an unmarked fork that would take them right back to Wateen Chawk once again.

As a consequence, many drivers, mainly cyclists and motorcyclists, drive along the wrong side into a blind corner, all to avoid the long trek in the opposite direction. It’s shorter, but exceedingly perilous, both to themselves and to the cars turning the corner from the other, the correct side.

I’m told on good authority that these roads are laid out like this, following accidents on that stretch of road, but this solution is no solution, without any consideration for convenience, safety, or the Pakistani psyche.

Similarly, the ‘backside’ of LUMS has a burgeoning population, and many schools. Almost no one stops at the traffic lights there, not even in front of the Lahore Grammar School, and they drive on the wrong side again, because once more, to get to the other side is too long a detour. Obviously the new colonies were not planned for, and once they mushroomed into existence no one bothered to accommodate them, or enforce any safety rules, here or anywhere else.

Alas Pakistan and its lack of planning and enforcement. These examples but illustrate that point. In today’s expensive times with current prices of fuel, to expect commuters to drive so far out of their way is unrealistic, yet it happens with monotonous regularity throughout the country that anyone who can make life difficult for anyone else, does so. But we’ll come back to that later.

The lack of planning extends to almost every sphere of life, but since we’re speaking of construction the other obvious example is buildings. The recent heartrending tragedies in Karachi and Lahore where so many lives were lost were apparently a direct consequence of a lack of planning and a singular lack of enforcement of safety regulations: a single access point into a congested building with dubious electrical wiring and most of electrical equipment is that well worn cliché: a recipe for disaster, and a disaster it was.

Seeing that the Pakistani public observes rules only to break them, the solution lies in the three Es: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement, properly implemented.

Roads and buildings designed by civil engineers and architects are not just about walkways, flyovers, walls and windows. They are also about people, their mentality, and their interaction with civic amenities. Designs must reflect this aspect too.

If the public does not understand safety, it must be educated. Until then, there’s enforcement. In the case of roads, the sharp metal spikes in Karachi’s Khadda Markets streets have forced people to use the one way system, proving that money is better spent on enforcement rather than on penguins and kalmas at chowks.

So about making life more difficult for everyone, I have a theory which you may call the Obstruction Theory. It says that people have such an unfailingly miserable time getting the most mundane work done here that they’ve come to think of it as the norm. To acquire legitimacy, a thing must be hazardous and obtainable only after overcoming many obstacles. That, according to popular perception, is how life is meant to be, and therefore, they make things difficult and hazardous on purpose. Which in a sense means that all this haphazard planning; it’s really people working very hard in the only way they know best, to do what they think is right. And we thought we never planned, worked hard, or did what is right. It just goes on to show how wrong one can be.

Also, you know that penguin I mentioned earlier? Well I forgot to tell you, it wears a hat. It’s only a bowler hat, but never mind.