Monday, February 22, 2016


What is routine becomes the way it must be
It must’ve been a rocky road for Aneela Naz but she made it. Naz belongs to the KP, home to one of the country’s most conservative societies. She chose to enter the police at a time when it contained just nineteen women (it now contains 600) and rose to the position of District Superintendent of Police.
Naz’s success is partly due to her father’s support. He moved from their small hometown making it possible for both his sons and daughters to be educated and working.
While the obstacles faced by women such as Naz must be prohibitive, it is hard for most men to understand even the minor obstructions faced by women in Pakistan in their day to day lives. I speak not of acid thrown on a woman’s face or other more serious crimes but of the general attitude towards women.
One of the jobs most easily available to a woman in a country with such high rates of illiteracy as Pakistan is that of a domestic worker, or maid. These domestic workers often encounter abuse at work, particularly from their female employers. Since most employers are unable to offer accommodation, they commute to and fro on the bus and face harassment on the road as well where they are followed by cars containing men, or encounter other male pedestrians who tease them. A routine male response to this is that if a woman would only dress conservatively she would not be subject to such treatment, which is not correct. Women, even if shrouded by a burqa, are subjected to as much disrespect as those in more convenient clothing. The only difference is if the clothing implies some financial standing, then a woman may be treated with a kind of false, temporary respect, and then only to her face.
There is a shockingly high incidence of domestic violence (and substance abuse) in this country, particularly among the poorer segments of society. Almost without exception women such as these domestic workers are also treated badly at home, with disrespect by their mothers-in-law, beaten and otherwise abused by their husbands and in many cases also by his brothers. You would think these abused women would break the chain and bring up their sons to be more respectful, yet come the time to choose brides for their sons they have no criteria beyond close kinship, a pretty face and a large dowry. They treat their daughters-in-law with the same lack of respect they themselves were subjected to, and do not object when their sons treat their wives exactly the way their husbands treated them. What is routine becomes the way it must be.
There is little point in arguing with those who maintain that in Islam a woman’s place is in the home, and that women should not enter the workforce. If the example of Khadija (RA), a successful businesswoman and the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), is insufficient then the only response left is to demand conditions under which women do not need to work and are able to stay at home… which are not the conditions prevalent here in Pakistan. As in most other countries, families here barely manage to exist on a single income.
The plight of unmarried women in our society is perhaps the saddest of all, and this phenomenon is seen across the social board, barring only the most affluent few. The stage is set for this tragedy by members of a woman’s own family when it exerts its imaginary right over her, by not allowing her to marry the person of her choice, by forcing her to marry only within the ‘clan’, and ultimately and worst of all, because even though such marriages may turn out to be happy, by not allowing her to work or have access to skills required to earn a living should the need arise.
How many women do we know living miserably with a sibling or with the extended family? Unloved, unpaid labour, they decry to the last moment the choices that forced them into such an existence, yet are unable to survive independently. Not only will they not be allowed to move out since it would be a disgrace to their male relatives’ ego to have their sister or aunt living anywhere except under their roof, but also they would be unable to support themselves, even as a domestic worker.
There are no visible initiatives to change this situation, to make enablers of our schools and families, like Naz’s father was to his daughters, instead of a hindrance. No amendments or additions to syllabi, no effort to teach better attitudes in schools, no laws to protect women in the workforce or from their families. On the contrary, notice how the media and these very same unhappy women perpetuate the myth of helpless, brainless, born-to-be-dominated womanhood. Go to any bank and notice how the manager and bank tellers speak to the female receptionist, or go to the receptionist’s home to witness the way she treats the woman who cleans the house.
A question asked on social media was, ‘Had Nergis Mavalvala lived in Pakistan, could she have achieved as much as she did?’ The same applies to Malala, and to countless other women. What do you think?
It feels silly to repeat such an obvious fact but women constitute half the population of any nation. It should feel as silly to treat half the population of the country the way women are treated in Pakistan, even were it not wrong and not at all the way women ought to be treated. Why not become enablers instead, like those who made it possible for their daughters to be policewomen, activists and so much more against the odds?

Monday, February 15, 2016


This country didn’t get the population it has by means of IVF

 Dear President of Pakistan Mr Mamnoon Hussain,
You were looking as dapper as is possible for you on the occasion of Abdur Rab Nishtar’s death anniversary. Unfortunately, while making a speech urging people not to observe Valentine’s Day ‘because it has no connection with our culture’, you missed the hypocrisy: you were wearing a suit and tie which have no connection with our culture either. I see nothing wrong with wearing a suit in Pakistan, but neither do I see anything wrong with celebrating Valentine’s Day, although you claim to.
It isn’t just Pakistan. In Egypt a four kilometres long red carpet, estimated to have cost over $200,000, covered the road over which the presidential motorcade drove carrying the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His destination? A suburb of Cairo where he was to inaugurate a project consisting of homes for the poor. Do you notice anything wrong with that? Expensive carpet, homes for the poor, representative of the people… no? I didn’t expect you would. Many people don’t.
Most of us, for example, applauded Mr Obama’s visit to a mosque in Baltimore in the US. And many people thought it unfair that a hijab wearing professor was asked to leave a Christian college because of her headdress. It’s obvious that we expect others to be tolerant of our culture and religion, and yet quite a few of these same people would agree with your sentiments regarding Valentine’s Day which means that tolerance is expected only of others, not of oneself. That’s another angle on the matter, doesn’t it seem rather unfair to you? Besides, it’s an inclusive world, Mr President, and although I think it always was, it’s getting more so with every advance in technology. What can a trifling thing like Valentine’s Day achieve given larger issues such as the sectarian violence in this country? Is that violence compatible with our religion, let alone culture? Valentine’s Day is nothing but a Hallmark card hype when people exchange messages and gifts with those they love which could mean any friend, not just a lover. Even if it were the latter, you reckon enough of that doesn’t go on with or without the assistance of St Valentine? And what’s wrong with it anyway? This country didn’t get the population it has by means of IVF. People are tired of such interference, Mr President. But they would appreciate some genuine improvements.
You chose to stress the issue of Valentine’s Day in your speech while there are people out there leading hellish lives, and many are being killed for no reason at all. In Thar innocent children are dying of starvation. In the fiasco surrounding the privatisation of the national airline two persons died, quite needlessly, and a state of emergency was declared in Pakistan as millions of Lahoris fled the city after being disgusted with the performance of their team, the Lahore Qalandars in the Pakistan Super League. Or wait, that was from Khabaristan Today; it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. Delete that last bit, please.
So what does your government do in response to these hellish lives mentioned above? It buys more F-16 jets. Will anyone be nosediving those jets into the Thar desert to bore wells into the sand? Or using them to drop food packages for the people who live there? Last I heard, the Sindh Minister for Food Syed Nasir Hussain Shah was blaming those deaths on the children’s mothers, on their mishandling of their children’s diet. Yes, I know Mr Shah belongs to the PPP, not the PML-N, but I expected no other response from you as he is covered by the term ‘you guys’ and all you guys remind me of the men who broke into a house in Karachi and after tying up the inmates but before making off with their valuables, they kissed and touched their foreheads to a Quran they found lying on the table. Still duh? Okay. Here’s another reality check for you:
Yesterday in Defence, three kids jumped out of a rubbish skip right beside my car. One of them was carrying a couple of bananas in her hand. They’d been removing and eating food from the rubbish people had thrown into the skip.
A few days ago at the unbelievably overcrowded emergency department in the Punjab Institute of Cardiology a woman lay silently fitting and unattended on a gurney, while on the other side another woman lay dead, all by herself. The ratio of doctors and nurses to patients does not permit attendance upon everyone. Meantime, outside, the new overpass and what not devour meagre funds that, had your government gotten its priorities right, could have been used to improve medical facilities.
Reality is the young woman whose husband beats her. The particular young woman I speak of took refuge in a centre for abused women where she was beaten by the other residents and made to cook for everyone every day for a week until another new woman arrived and she was subjected to the abuse instead. Later the first young woman tried to kill herself but was saved by her relatives. She is now looking for a job but has not yet been successful.
This is rock bottom reality, unperceived by people who think reality lies in dissing St Valentine’s Day. Get a life, Mr President, at least what you think is a life, and let us get on with ours as best we can.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Racism and bigotry become a much greater problem when they attain a platform

Although racism and racists continue to thrive, there has been a struggle and things have improved somewhat. Racism is now frowned upon, at least officially.
It is only a recent improvement. The last permit to shoot a ‘native’ was issued in Namibia as late as 1936. The person who used that permit could well be alive today.
Native Americans did not get the vote in the United States till the 1920s, African Americans in the 1960s, and persons of Latin origin in the 1970s. There is a chance that Americans who were not allowed to vote in the country of their ancestors may still be alive, and there are many Americans living today who could not once vote simply because of the colour of their skin.
In Australia, the White Australia Policy was dismantled as late as 1966, which means there are people living now who were unable to visit an entire continent because they were not white. In Queensland in Australia, Aborigines could be forced to live on reserves till 1971 and could not own property till 1975. The legal right of the Australian State to forcibly remove children from their parents’ custody was not taken away until 1969. The Australian government has apologised to its Aboriginal community for having wrested countless of its members away from their parents, and for having restricted their right to movement, and to ownership of a land which was once all their own.
In many places such changes are yet to occur. In the Punjab in Pakistan, the infamous question requiring details of a person’s caste still exists on tax forms. Being Ahmadi bars you virtually from life, the blasphemy law thrives, and all minorities are routinely discriminated against. Naturally, given such conditions, political correctness is a far cry for this country. People who clean houses and other places for a living are often called ‘chooras’ and ‘Oye! Lame guy!’ is still a common way to hail a physically disabled person.
Political correctness (PC) means that certain terms have been dropped because of their hurtful and abhorrent connotations.  In English, for example, ‘nigger’ is one such word instead of which ‘black’ or ‘African American’ are now used. ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’ are used instead of ‘Native Indian’ or ‘Red Indian’. PC applies to physical disability as well, so its ‘disabled’ instead of ‘handicapped’, and ‘visually impaired’ instead of ‘blind’.
The above may appear to be mere words but each of these words is burdened with a past. Behind the word ‘choora’, for instance, lies a history of contempt and humiliation, and the loathsome principles of untouchability and caste. Behind the word ‘natives’ are ranged all those aboriginal people killed just because they existed, the children taken away from their parents and men and women who could never own the land they lived on. Behind ‘negro’ are lives spent in slavery and untold tragedy, marginalisation, ghettos, poverty, a search for roots and a fight for human and political rights. You think of Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X… rich lives. The impact of words associated with such lives should not be underestimated.
The politically correct words used as alternatives recall and reinforce values of justice, equality and tolerance that may be limited to politically correct terminology for some people, but given time these values become part of the fabric of an entire society. People like Donald Trump or religious bigots when they come into prominence threaten any move towards a just, more compassionate society because they possess a platform from which to air their views. From that platform they endorse racism and bigotry among their followers, and even others, and undermine the effects of those ‘mere words’ on people’s minds, turning years of valuable but as yet fragile improvement into dust.
Having said that, there is a flip side to the situation. It is not as bad as it may seem for that bald spot behind the comb-over to be exposed, because it never hurts to re-examine values, even good ones. Why do we do what we do, think the way we think? Is race equality a good thing, and if so, why, and what can be done to further it? Re-examination may bring to light unexpected progress or shortcomings, and provide suggestions for further improvement. Should migrants be encouraged to integrate? If so, how can they be helped to do so? Should their places of worship be expected to change in the new environment? Should their dress remain as is or should a change be encouraged? How about the curriculum taught in mainstream schools, versus schools run for and by these minorities, such as American schools outside of America, and Islamic schools in countries with a non-Muslim majority? What should their curriculum consist of? Do either or both need to stress diversity and tolerance to a greater extent than at present? How can change be brought about if it is required?
The recent migrant crisis, tragic as it is, has brought to the forefront questions that needed to be brought into the open, such as questions relating to the exclusivity of nations. Do richer countries have a responsibility towards the less fortunate? Should they be forced to shoulder it, to acknowledge their share in creating the problem? Colonialism, and in present times the quest for oil and the massive weapons industry have all caused havoc in the world. The Dutch, the British and the French in South Africa, India, Australia, the Americas… these once colonial nations thrive today at the expense of indigenous people; the Indian people of the subcontinent were luckier than others. At least they survived.
Pauline Hanson formed the One Nation party that won a number of seats in Australia between the years 1998-2002, but now has no seats at all. In 2006, Ms Hanson famously said that Africans bring disease into the country and should not be allowed in. Similar gems have issued from the mouth of Trump, the American Hanson, on numerous occasions. The reason one gives him any importance is that he has much more support than Ms Hanson ever did and therefore more influence. Hopefully, he too will go the way of Pauline Hanson. Yet his views will continue to bite non-white citizens and visitors to the United States for some time to come. A good question to ask now would be: ‘What went wrong there and how can we prevent it from taking place elsewhere?’ Most importantly, how can we remove the curse of racism in Pakistan, the country that we like to call our own?

Monday, February 1, 2016


Fear, hate and prejudice

This particular less pleasant side of the USA was known and seen, but like the dark side of the moon it was ignored for the most part. Now starkly exposed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the startling thing about it is its familiarity.
In Lahore, recently, the Mall was blocked by a rally several hundred strong. The participants were demanding the removal of the death sentence against Mumtaz Qadri.
A report covering the rally in this newspaper explained that Qadri had confessed to murdering Salmaan Taseer, the person he was hired to protect. One reader threw all his ire into a comment by stating: ‘I think you are a Qadiyani, that is why you are speaking such rubbish against Mumtaz Qadri. Shame on you if you call yourself a Muslim. You will be questioned after death!’
Fear, hate and prejudice, these weapons are used all over the world, purportedly in support of ideologies that are in actual fact opposed to all three.
Some people stand up to this fear and hatred. Salmaan Taseer stood up against the blasphemy law and was murdered by Qadri.
Arish Singh, a Sikh man was escorted out of Donald Trump’s rally, as was Rose Hamid, the Muslim woman who stood in silence behind Trump wearing a shirt that said ‘Salam. I come in peace’. Singh had heckled Donald Trump and unfurled a banner that read: ‘Stop Hate’. The crowd chanted ‘USA! USA!’ as Singh was escorted out. It booed Hamid and yelled ‘Get out! Get out!’ as she was led away. After Singh was removed, Trump made one of his irrational comments, saying, ‘We got to do something folks because it’s not working.’ After Hamid was led out, he said, ‘There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred, it’s not our hatred.’ Both statements included keywords and phrases calculated to get a response from a mob whose xenophobia had been fanned to fever pitch.
The ideology Trump pretends to support is ‘the American way of life’, an ideology meant to adhere fearlessly to the principles of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The blasphemy law supposedly supports Islam. Neither is true because neither the way of life nor Islam have anything in common with fear, hatred and prejudice.
An electoral candidate must identify something to use against his opponent and anyone else who opposes him. Trump has figured that he can use best xenophobia, which is alive to a varying extent in every country including the USA. Xenophobia has an irrational following, which means the arguments used to fan it are irrational, which suits someone like Trump just fine.
Of course it doesn’t have to be xenophobia. Pick a fear, any fear, and fan it enough to make it grow. Then coin rallying cries using the very terms used to fan the fear into existence. It’s a favourite trick amongst politicians and religious leaders. You get shunted out of a rally, you get slammed with the blasphemy law, you cut off your hand and present it to your local mullah, you get your life turned inside out because you disagree with some big shot… it’s all a result of some kind of fear, it happens all the time.
“Those responsible for the magazine are liable to death.” Maulana Abdul Aziz once said about Zubair Kasuri, editor of the fashion magazine Octane.
“You should know that at the moment they have at least 400 to 500 female suicide bombers in Waziristan and other tribal areas,” Maulana Abdul Aziz said, referring to the TTP. “The government should understand the situation and their demands,” urging the government of Pakistan to come to terms with the TTP which uses fear, hate and prejudice to bring death to innocents.
If only this country was a canal like the one that runs through Lahore. Once a year around this time the Lahore canal is drained for cleaning when it yields its silent load of filth, dead bodies, untreated sewerage and an immense amount of trash. If Pakistan was a canal, we could go back and dredge it free of the fear, hate and prejudice that has been spewed into it from the mouths of demagogues and hatemongers and allow it to run clean again.
It doesn’t matter that the American people pride themselves on their way of life and outlook. We had a better life too and just, intelligent leaders we could look up to, most conspicuously the man who created this country. Neither is recognizable now for what they really were after being shaped by the hands of religious bigots and demagogues, who now have a sizeable following. Donald Trump is beginning to sound uncannily like the rabid mullah from the mosque down the road, exuding fear, hate and prejudice. And like the mullah he has a following. The US needs to learn from Pakistan’s experience before it is too late.