Monday, September 26, 2016


Earlier this month a powerful tropical cyclone hit the Philippines and Taiwan before moving on to China. There, in the Fujian province of China it killed eighteen people leaving eleven others missing, and caused damage worth billions of dollars. After the typhoon had blazed its trail of destruction a television journalist in Xiamen city was filmed interviewing volunteers involved in recovery efforts. She was wearing sunglasses and holding an umbrella over her head. The image went viral on social media, and the journalist was suspended from her job. The reason was adverse public reaction to her appearance during the interview. Comments included: 1: The journalist’s accessories and appearance were unprofessional and not how journalists are supposed to look in China.  2: The interviewer, with her sunglasses and umbrella presented too disrespectful and stark a contrast to the volunteers she was interviewing, who were dressed any old how for physical work.
The incident presents some interesting points. One that rankles is that journalists appear to have been typecast in China. We are familiar with this when it comes to gender roles in Pakistan where women are also typecast within restricted roles within restricted boundaries. They are permitted certain restricted behavior and a restricted ­response within a restricted range of situations. This includes the expectation that women must be ‘married off’ and supported and that women will of a necessity weep and suffer from ill health, and be victimised by their husbands, in-laws and society. Rarely, in Pakistani society, are strong women acceptable. Vigorous women who possess a mind of their own are beset with controversy and accusations. If they are in the public eye these accusations may include being Indian, Israeli or American ‘agents’. It is only men with wildly controversial views who are accused of anything, whereas for a woman the accusations start as soon as she says ‘no’.
There is really no one way a journalist must dress other than decently, and appropriate to the terrain if outdoors. But to take it further, in a way that ties up with the point below, he or she should also dress appropriate to the people in the midst of whom he/she stands. It would be inappropriate to dress in expensive clothes and accessories for example when interviewing people living in an impoverished settlement.
And that is the angle which is interesting in the context of Pakistan, the apparent expectation in China that a person or a class of persons should not appear so obviously above another, in this case the journalist who by means of her accessories and dress was perceived as ‘speaking down’ to the volunteers she was interviewing. They were probably grubby with work, and dressed in a rough and ready fashion. What a contrast to Pakistan where the appearance of being ‘above’ someone else commands respect, and where the ability to do so is striven for more than anything else. This is an angle from which this incident should be discussed in Pakistan where every man on every rung of an imaginary ladder feels obliged to display his muscle to the man on the rung below, starting from menial domestics to the topmost position in the land. It is what is symbolised by those overdressed begums, the armed guards at gates, the armoured cars and ambulances following VIPs in those elaborate cavalcades, by every individual who skips a queue based on his or her acquaintance with some official.
The example of that journalist may be somewhat extreme and she may have served as little more than a scapegoat in the case, but the fact remains that Imperialist China was followed by Mao’s policies where such inequalities were frowned upon although they did exist in other ways. China may now have become much more capitalist but as with our colonial hangovers the Chinese obviously still possess certain values that remain a pale red. Without being red oneself the ostentation and false values of society in Pakistan are enough to drive one to the verge of a very light pink. I wouldn’t agree with that journalist being suspended but I do appreciate a society that feels she should have dressed ‘down’ on this occasion surrounded by disaster. As I wish more people would condemn the palatial homes of our ruling class which are grossly inappropriate when the living conditions of the people they are ruling over are taken into consideration. Because that is precisely the point: they are not taken into consideration, not to mention that fact that there really ought to be no ruling class to start with, just leaders. But that is just too much to expect, isn’t it?
There is another question worth asking: why is it that a few years of communism left such a mark where years of egalitarianism in Islamic teachings failed? It isn’t the ideology so it must be the way it is presented. I’m not sure of the reason myself, so what do you the think?

Monday, September 19, 2016


Is your husband a drug addict?

There was a time when drug addiction was not a big a problem in Pakistan. Sadly, things have changed and that’s not the case anymore. Today, after ‘main aap ko missed call doon gi’ (I’ll give you a missed call), one of the most common sentences on the lips of women employed as domestic help is:  ‘Mera mian nasha karta hai’ (my husband is a drug addict). It appears to be a problem in almost every home.
Tahira stitches well and possesses a well-stocked wardrobe consisting of refurbished items of clothing given to her by her employers. She also possesses three children and a husband and they all used to live together until she moved out to live with her parents taking her children with her. It was because her husband abused her and at the end of the month would turn the house upside down searching for her wages which she got working as a maid six days a week. He needed the money to buy drugs. He himself does not work.
Neelum is a middle aged woman but looks more than sixty. She too works as a maid, cleaning homes and washing clothes six days a week. It’s been almost ten years since her husband last worked because he too is on drugs; he too beats Neelum and takes her wages. Her children are grown up and married. They do not live with Neelum and her husband because her husband would be a bad influence on his grandchildren. As it turns out the husband of one of her daughters also stays home, is also drugged, also beats his wife and also takes her wages. Neelum’s daughter, his wife, also works as a maid.
Ishrat works in a hospital. She empties bed pans and cleans the rooms and wards. She is not married and wishes she were, yet she can’t help wondering if that wish is entirely sensible, given that her father and both her brothers in law are addicts. Her father works as does one of her brothers in law. But the other one stays at home drugged, beats his wife and takes her wages. Her father and the brother in law although they work also beat their wives (Ishrat’s father also beats his daughter) and take the money they earn. They need both incomes to support their addiction.
These are only some of the women within my own experience. Just what is going on?
According to the UNODC (the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) Pakistan has one of the highest figures for drug addiction in the world. Heroin and cannabis are the most commonly used drugs in this country, they are cheap and easily available. Afghanistan is the major supplier of heroin to Pakistan, as it is to the rest of the world. Apparently ‘‘the number of injected drug users has increased sharply in recent years. In 2007 Pakistan had an estimated 90,000 users but the number rose to around 500,000 in 2014 accompanied by an increase in HIV: in 2005 about 11 percent of drug users were HIV positive. In 2011 40 percent.’’
These are shocking statistics but they may contain an indication of where to begin searching for reasons. Something happened between 2007 and 2014 allowing the number of users to increase more than five-fold, although this is simply the time for when figures exist, the time may possibly be stretched either way, yet it is undeniable that something made it easier for these drugs to get here at this time. What was this something?
As important as the reason behind the easier availability, in fact more important, is why such an overwhelming number of people feel compelled to take drugs in Pakistan. The reason for that is surely quite obvious in the problems the common man has to face in this country.
A poor man in Pakistan is probably poorer than a similar person elsewhere. A person who has no ‘contacts’ either is sunk indeed unless he works for someone who does, who is willing to help which is not always the case. Not in sickness or in health or at any other time would such a person be able to have a moment’s peace.
Asiya has the misfortune of having no money other than a small house which she was smart enough to purchase when she could. She also has no ID card. For some reason her finger prints match those of another woman somewhere in some other city. Attempts to renew her ID card have ended in utter non-cooperation and no action on the part of NADRA. It’s been three years. Any transactions on her house have to be done in her son’s name because he possesses an ID card. To me Asiya represents the faceless majority whose very identity has been taken away from them in this country and they are powerless to do anything about it. Asiya is luckier than most. At least she has a job and food to eat. If she were like the rest leading a life of frustration and fear at every turn small wonder that she should turn to drugs which is what so many of her countrymen have done.
A country is composed of the people who live in it and it should be geared to serve its people. Pakistan appears to be geared to serve only the very few. What happens to the rest? They drown their sorrows by means of needles of course.

Monday, September 12, 2016


Hajj is not the time for protests and demonstrations

The Hajj predates Islam by centuries. Before Islam, it was something of a carnival and included sport and other entertainment as well as worship by pilgrims in varying degree of dress and undress. With the advent of Islam the focus of that worship, the idols, were turfed out of the Kaaba, and the pilgrimage underwent a sea change. The Hajj became one of the pillars of Islam. The equality of all men in God’s eyes, an intrinsic facet of Islam, is reflected in the male pilgrims’ attire, with every man wearing the same white unstitched garment; at a glance, they all look the same which is not something you could say for the same people anywhere else.
Millions of pilgrims perform the Hajj, therefore, accidents invariably happen, some worse than others. There have been fires and epidemics. During, Hajj last year a crane collapsed near Mecca killing many people. In this, and the stampede that followed over 2,000 pilgrims died. According to the figures provided by individual governments Iran lost 464 of its citizens, far exceeding that of any other country. These fatalities appear to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, never agreeable, entered their most belligerent phase. This year some two million Muslims from around the world performed Hajj, but there are no pilgrims from Iran among them.
I never thought I’d find myself supporting the Saudis in any way at all, except that in my personal experience they do a pretty good job of handling the massive flood of people coming into their country each year during Hajj. And although with Ahmadinejad my opinion of Iran’s politicians had become less unfavourable I find myself critical of Iran’s approach to the Hajj and what is appropriate to the occasion.
The Hajj is perceived as a visit to the House of Allah Himself and is an event that Muslims look forward to the right until they can take part in it. The experience has a lasting effect on everyone, this period of soul searching, introspection, and seeking God’s Forgiveness and Grace, His blessing on each individual, his family and friends. The Hajj is a time to seek God’s Mercy, for oneself and for all humanity, for amity in these times of conflict. For the space of those few days, the pilgrims pray as they rarely do otherwise, focusing on the spiritual more intensely than ever before or again. Pilgrims yearn for peace at this time. They need peace to focus effectively on the journey ahead, on prayer, on their personal growth as individuals and their relationship with the Divine.
To destroy this peace by any deliberate means is a crime, there are no two ways about it.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are rooted in the different sectarian viewpoints of the two countries, and in the fact that Saudi Arabia is a prominent American ally, Iran is not. It has led to Iran’s citizens protesting on Saudi soil during Hajj, to Saudi Arabia executing a prominent Shia cleric and Iran’s citizens protesting by setting fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
This year, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have blamed each other for Iran’s citizens’ inability to perform Hajj, a result of the breakdown of talks between the two countries. Iran’s President has suggested that another country should manage the Hajj event. Saudi Arabia disagrees.
But you know what? It is time individuals, organisations and countries stopped hijacking religion and all that goes along with it for their personal ends. Muslims all over the world have had it to the grief of Islam being used as a spring board for dissension and violence.
Hajj is an event to which people arrive after putting their lives on hold. The majority must save for years to be able to afford the journey. This precious time, a time for peaceful dialogue with one’s Maker, a spiritual time, is not an occasion for rallies and demonstrations of protest. There are other platforms, political and religious, that either country can use, that any country can use to resolve whatever issues they may have, even religious ones. If talks between these two countries have failed they should initiate fresh ones, and fresh ones till they arrive at a solution. Go ahead and think of other means and use them. And if peaceful means do not meet with their approval they can do with themselves what they wish without hurting anyone else, but leave religion and the things that go with it alone, let people who wish to practice Islam do so in peace the way they should be able to. God is neither Shiite, nor Sunni, nor Wahabi. He simply is. Take your paltry skirmishes elsewhere and be done with it.

Monday, September 5, 2016


Two young women in Lahore for the first time went the inner city to visit the Fakir Khana. With time to kill they decided to walk around the bazaar. Equipped with dupattas and wearing them too although without covering their hair, and wearing long sleeved knee length kurtas etc as well, they were as respectable (coming from my perspective) as anyone could wish.  Yet while they were walking along enjoying their surroundings a woman came up to them and told them off for not draping their dupattas over their heads.
Here’s the other side of the burkini wars, an issue that gets up people’s noses on either side of the fence, as well it should. Aren’t the two so similar: criticising or abusing a woman for not covering herself to the extent of someone else’s idea of sufficient… and criticising or abusing her for covering herself exceeding someone else’s idea of sufficient? Both actions are dictatorial, both disregard the fact that an adult woman is able to think and act for herself, and both fail to perceive…or perhaps they ignore the fact that respect for a woman has as much to do with attitudes amongst both men and women as with the dress a woman wears or does not wear. Above all it fails to recognise the fact that a woman’s body is hers, in exactly the same way as men lay claim to their bodies.
The French have tried to encourage a secular society. A French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols therefore bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols (such as a Muslim hijab, the Sikh turban and Jewish kippah) in French public, that is in government operated primary and secondary schools. One can perceive if not agree with where the French are coming from if you think of the Urdu idiom ‘na rahay baans na bajay bansuri’ …no bamboo, no (playing of the) flute, and apply it to the French trying to prevent religious discord by suppressing all visual reminders of religious diversity. They clearly failed to appreciate that suppression never works, that on the contrary it causes the suppressed thing to erupt eventually, perhaps elsewhere, in more unwelcome ways. Imagine Marie Antoinette trying to conceal the opulence of her castle by plastering the outside with mud hoping that La Guillotine would not perceive the cake being eaten within. Well La Guillotine was sharp enough to perceive the cake being liberally consumed within the castle. It also noted that only bread was being consumed on the outside and that too when and if available which was not often. So there is no doing away with religious diversity, it will reveal itself come what may. Enforcement of the French law aiming to suppress religious diversity has brought it more sharply into focus than if those women wearing burkinis on the beach had simply been allowed to get on with wearing them and go home in due course. Although the court subsequently overturned the burkini ban it was not before the incidents forcing women to remove their burkinis managed to divide the government over the issue, made France unpopular, and created a furor across the world.
Where, you wonder is the difference between a woman being forced to cover her hair or her body, and a woman being forced to uncover it? Either way it objectifies her. And how does covering or not covering contribute to the presence of morality or to its absence, or to the prevalence or absence of the unwelcome consequences of diversity?  In Pakistan where women dress conservatively there is no lack of ‘eve-teasing’ and Pakistani society is rife with crime against women. And while it is true that religious discrimination too is rife in Pakistan it is also very prevalent in France judging by sentiments that have surfaced in recent events.
Some of the same people who enthusiastically criticise the French for forcefully removing burkinis are happy when their own society coerces women into donning the scarf or abaya. On the other hand people who criticise Muslim women for wearing scarves, and criticise their families for forcing them into those scarves (which is not always why Muslim women wear scarves), those same people were quite okay with these garments being forcefully removed. Respect for women? Is either example respectful of women in any way, or non-discriminatory gender wise or with regards to religion?
It is generally society that pressurises women to cover their hair or bodies, although there are also individuals who are responsible for the pressure. The greater majority of women however adopt those garments because, right or wrong, they believe in wearing them. There are countless young girls who wear the hijab while their parents deplore it and vice versa.
People base their actions on the ‘’I am right, you are wrong’’ argument. It is this attitude that needs to be changed, not the clothing. Also, the ability to analyze a problem and study it from either side needs to be fostered. The ‘I am right, they are wrong’ teachings can be severely discouraged in mosques and schools, while the ability to look at a problem and perceive it from either side should be encouraged via education by instituting debate as a compulsory subject. There ought to be no fear of children learning the ‘wrong’ values as a result. Children learn what they are taught at home, and as a result of the lessons home and society place before them. If these are well presented encouraging them to perceive both sides of the argument can only foster tolerance and empathy leading to a better world peopled by kinder human beings, human beings who try to work for the betterment of their own people and others, men, women and children.