Reflections on Graduate School in Amreeka


Last month, I completed my first year of graduate school in America. Given how the semester was ruptured by the pandemic and truncated to accommodate our changing realities and shifting circumstances, it felt like a rumbling ride having come to a sputtering stop. But there’s a lot to gather as I look back upon the past two semesters through my eyes, so what follows ahead is an archive of my experience.

Going from LUMS to Columbia had prepared me tremendously when it came to expectations and management of academic rigor, but I was left unprepared in many other ways.

The first realization which struck me like a bolt of lightning was just how elite the university was. I know that a fundamental fact such as this about the nature of a historically white and elite institution should not come as a surprise, but to witness it first hand is just something else.

Columbia impelled me to consider the institution of the academy itself, which has been historically white. But the academy isn’t just white in the predominant composition of its students, faculty and administrators, it is white in the location of its origins, in its evolution, how it works epistemologically and ontologically, its vocabulary, its terms of legibility, and its practices. I have lost count of the instances when my fellow Pakistani batch-mates and I would find ourselves disconnected from the conversations in class, conversations focused on and located in a world between Europe and the United States; conversations we did not relate to, conversations we were not invested in. And that is just the natural turn of conversation when the academy’s tongue is bent towards the West, leaving an afterword to be uttered for the East.

20200616_184859

But this disconnect was not only existent in courses and conversations which weren’t centered on South Asia in the first place, it was a disconnect I continued to grapple and wrestle with in courses on South Asia itself. Repeatedly, I was accompanied by a discomfort when the region or its issues were being taught in a vacuum, as a relic itself; static; delinked from its present. It bothered me that South Asian history, especially, was sometimes taught in disassociation with, for example, its rapid and burgeoning weaponization in India and Pakistan which have previously and are continuing to yield dreadful repercussions there. The present is the afterlife of history, and we cannot neatly sift and separate the two. In fact, during my first semester, I remember approaching a professor of mine who acknowledged that the discipline of history needs a reckoning of its own.

Perhaps my discomfort arose from my experience at LUMS, where professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences taught texts, theories and ideas by cultivating and revealing their resonance to our immediate environments, what was happening around us, in the university, in the city, in the country. There was an urgency, there was an immediacy, there was relevance to the texts and knowledge which primed us for bearing them in our mind, contemplating them, holding onto them and engaging them in our everyday. Here, however, I was frequently faced with one dilemma: I have this knowledge, but what do I do with it now? Why does it matter?

I suppose the disconnect itself is a product of the geographical distance between America and South Asia (?); a product of studying South Asia while oceans away from the region itself in a knowledge economy whose engine and circulation aren’t concerned with cultivating a politics of action and activism, but with reproducing academics and scholars to keep its machine moving. Or maybe this has to do with the scholar-practitioner/scholar-activist binary that has been assembled by liberal academia which tries to conceal how deeply political (by which, I don’t necessarily mean support for established political parties but a foundational ethic of who exactly your work or scholarship will aid, what does it say, and what will it advance) the academy is.

Maybe all elite universities are like this? Ivory towers gazing upon the world beyond, high and perched above them, rather than being in them.

20191023_162352

And the truth is, the foundational architecture of the academy with its hierarchies and gatekeeping, the institution of the university, and inarguably the Ivies have historically been complicit and implicated in power, rather than being bastions of speaking truth to it. They’ve been built over the bodies and lives of the oppressed and dispossessed, and they remain participating in these enterprises but in the guise of newer practices and projects.

20200611_221200
Scribbled on the barrier erected by Columbia University at a construction site where they intend to establish yet another monument to their escalating gentrification of Harlem

But then the question, which has been posed to me by many friends and strangers alike, also pertains to the value of studying South Asia in Amreeka. South Asia parhany Amreeka jao gi? South Asia parhnay Amreeka kaun jata hai?

I am well aware of the political agenda historically underlying the emergence of Area Studies in the United States (an agenda that is alive and kicking, as the number of military vets in the Middle Eastern and South Asian department have proven), but I also believe that there is ample ground for wanting to study South Asia in the United States too. The recent dismissals of Ammar Ali Jan, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Mohammad Hanif from different universities in Pakistan are vividly indicative of the state of academic freedom in the country and the consequent quality of education in national institutions of learning. More importantly, our region, its histories and cultures were studied for centuries in Western centers and the Western academy; cradles of orientalism. The apparatuses, the research, the archives for studying South Asia are, ironically, well-situated in the West, whether that’s the United States, the United Kingdom or even Germany. Writing and scholarship within my discipline of history has never been an apolitical endeavor, and the historian has never been the mortician or the embalmer to simply look at the dead past, dig in and dig it out. All histories, whether intended or not (really doubt the latter) have certain political, moral and ethical claims, which they represent and serve. History is absolutely political; it has always been. This convenient abdication and denial of an ethic or politics of excavating and writing history, and any kind of knowledge for that matter, is a charade for the intellectually dishonest and hollow. After all, the brutal enterprise of colonialism itself was thoroughly legitimized and validated by the creation of certain histories and modes of historiography; histories which dehumanized lives and undid entire worlds.

But how does one talk back to the empire if one does not know its language and ideas? It is imperative to use the same apparatuses that were once employed to deny our humanity to now study our histories and life-worlds on our own terms; to write them on our own terms, and to write them ourselves.

IMG_20200617_131406_980

As a Pakistani student, I also had an additional motivation to pursue South Asian Studies abroad because even when this challenge to orientalist, imperial histories is thrown, the discipline assumes a markedly Indian representation and orientation. Subsequently, the South Asia in South Asian Studies has largely been a stand-in for India for all practical purposes. India has most representation in this area both when it comes to faculty (the only two Pakistani professors I know of at Columbia are Manan Ahmad and Akbar Zaidi), facilitating an array of courses dealing with India under the umbrella of many different disciplines, and also when it comes to students. They have better funding opportunities (when I was thinking of applying to graduate schools for South Asian Studies in both the United States and the United Kingdom, I would often come across grants, scholarships and aid offered by Indian institutions or organization for international students from India, and not a single one which was specific to Pakistani students) which allows them wider possibilities for research and scholarship.

Pakistan, on the other hand, well. This excellent article by Adnan Rasool on the hurdles Pakistani scholars face in making it to and in global academia sheds further light on the matter. But simply because the program has patent power differentials is not reason enough, in my opinion, for it to be abandoned or ceded rather than attempting to elbow one’s way in it for a place. In fact, precisely because South Asian Studies contains such power differentials (and quite frankly, which discipline in the academy doesn’t in one form or another?) and representative imbalances makes it even more significant and pressing for Pakistanis, and other South Asians, to pursue it and study either their own countries and histories, or expand the scope of research and subjects explored and written under the banner of this field. I remember being pleased to hear when our program director informed us there hadn’t been as many Pakistanis in the program previously because I did hope and I do hope that this establishes the passage of Pakistanis going into this field as possible and precedented. At the end of the day, an imbalance in the field requires intervention and redressal not abandonment and capitulation.

20190828_192805

I mentioned above how my Pakistani batch-mates and I encountered several conversations in class which were either Eurocentric (and sometimes even India-centric) but we would never shy away from widening the focus to South Asia in the case of the former and larger South Asia in the latter case concerning debates on climate change, nationalism, visual cultures, and whatnot. In some ways then, through our presence, we attempted to make South Asia present in class conversations that were Eurocentric and to make Pakistan present in conversations which were India-centric while claiming to be about South Asia. Obviously in a two-year MA program, I will not be producing some groundbreaking scholarship that will shake this field and I will only be handing in a thesis, but I one of the convictions I came to graduate school with was that I’d research and work on Pakistan, not due to some nationalistic myopia but plainly because I strongly believe the scholarship on Pakistan isn’t adequate and there is still much to be studied and written about it, so I should, in my own personal capacity, contribute to this however I can. This is also why I think more Pakistani voices are needed in the academic chamber generally, but particularly when it comes to South Asian Studies. There is a massive need for us to learn and be trained in robust methodological frameworks and theoretical tools and test their application in the study of Pakistan in order to dislodge pernicious narratives and comprehend the country better, and to impart the knowledge however we can when/if those of us who intend to return back home and foster local apparatuses and infrastructures of learning and studying.

IMG_20200415_152529_621But moving on. Maybe because of my past experience at LUMS or maybe because of the vast student body here, I sometimes think, as of yet, that there isn’t much student community in Columbia, let alone organized student action (but maybe it is my folly to expect student activism or student action in an institution that is the beacon of elitism). Perhaps that is specific to my Masters’ program which is sandwiched between the undergrad and the doctoral community, or my school, or a city as huge as New York in which the possibilities for friendship seem endless but the possibilities one can enact do depend on the space afforded to them, which in this case, is their academic program and institution. I mean, I cannot go to Times Square and tap people on the shoulder to request them to be friends with me. So while I agree entirely that it is essential to break out of one’s Pakistani bubble and mingle with people from different places and stages when you’re abroad for education but I should assert that, speaking from experience, it often depends on many more factors than just one’s willingness: the university, the program, the city, your budget (socializing isn’t free) and even the free time you can manage to squeeze out. This, of course, is assuming that you’re willing to break out of the bubble but for anyone in such circumstances, remaining closely connected to familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting is then only partially a choice and significant for social survival too. And in that regard, I am grateful to have found a wonderful community of Pakistani women who anchor and sustain me.

I also keep going back to the personal magnitude of my presence in graduate school as a brown woman. I am inhabiting an experience unimaginable by my previous generations, an experience that was unimaginable even for me till the day I set foot on this campus. How does one even begin to translate the lifeworld you’ve come from and what a giant leap stepping upon and walking on this campus means?

20200607_205450

But I also think of those who do not have the privileges I did: a private-institution education throughout the course of my life, educational institutions which trained me in English and a specific dialect of it; a vocabulary legible to the Western academy which eased my path to it. And as much as I miss hearing Urdu or Punjabi, every single day in Amreeka has been and is a staggering reminder of what a massive privilege it is to know English. It permitted me access to and navigation of a wholly new world. To be able to render legible and knowable an unfamiliar and overwhelming world, and to be able to make yourself legible and heard in it. To comprehend and be comprehended. And this is only one of the many forms of privilege and luck (what are the odds of being born into a background that can grant you elite education) which allowed you access to this world in the first place and a shot at landing in it. In this unequal world, English is a central currency and social capital. Positions and vernaculars of privilege determine so much of what you get in the matrix of opportunity, which is demarcated from what you may really deserve. And I pray I never lose sight of this.

In light of my above observations and reflections, I must hasten to add that to apprehend the nature and limits of what you’re being given as education is less a cause for despair and often an education itself, but there is also much that I’ve gained and obtained from graduate school in one year and I have been careful to note my intellectual growth. I have had the opportunity to learn from some phenomenal professors who have challenged and reorganized the frames of my thinking, along with familiarizing me with modes of historiography and methods of doing history. I have acquired an understanding of how to actually do academic reading, how to really attend to the texts and listen to what they say as opposed to only critiquing and deconstructing them; how to manage 5+ conceptually-heavy texts for classes. And though there’s a long way to go but being pushed and enabled to actually speak up and present in seminars and classes and learning to really critically engage with texts, formulate and articulate questions, inquiries and insights out of them feels like one big milestone considering just how often and just how much I struggled with this in undergrad.

IMG_20200608_202726_498

So as I continue to observe and reflect and continue to figure things out, at the end of the day, I’m doing what I love, which is studying history and striving to learn every single day, however I can. Or so I hope and try. But there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, of that I’m certain.

– Hafsa Khawaja

 

Note: this post is particularly dedicated to Aaisha Salman, my brilliant and lovely flatmate and batch-mate whose presence and conversations nurtured mine and helped me make sense of all that there was.

Eqbal Ahmad: Ivory Tower & Intellectual Integrity


The 11th of May this year was the 21st death anniversary of the late Eqbal Ahmad, a giant of a public intellectual, an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed both at home and abroad, a visionary writer, and an indefatigable academic, activist and organizer with prescient insight and unshakeable principles.

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 5.17.24 PM

Towards the end of last year in 2019, I attended a panel discussion in New York City on India’s revocation of Article 370 for Kashmir. The discussion commenced with a panelist who contested the legal legitimacy underlying the removal of Article 367 while detailing the technical intricacies and the constitutional validity of the measure; followed by another panelist who conversed upon occupation as a spatial, social and psychological existence, and the violence(s) of imposed silence(s). It was a Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal of Lafayette College, however, who offered a scathing presentation on the epistemological violence rendered on Kashmir; the complicity of the Indian liberal and secular intelligentsia in the oppression by their intellectual obfuscation and categorization of the matter as an issue of Indian governance rather than Indian occupation; the pressing need to dislodge Kashmir’s narrative from the framework of India-Pakistan statist and nationalist conflict and to recast it as a narrative of political aspirations and the right to self-determination. She emphasized that the Kashmir crisis precedes Modi, pointing to the dishonesty there is in advancing the idea that the current moment and situation in Kashmir is an anomaly borne out of the unique character of the ruling right-wing regime. She bolstered this assertion by referring to the history of Kashmir and draconian measures such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. She further contended that the existential crisis in Kashmir is neither about India’s democracy or its liberal project and a litmus test of it, nor should it be made to appear as one for Kashmir is not the “laboratory of Indian democracy” but it is an indictment of it. Lastly, she stressed the gravity of subjugation Kashmir has now been subjected to, which is nothing short of a beginning settler colonial project with severe implications for Kashmir’s demographics. ​

After her presentation, finally came the turn of a venerated scholar of South Asian Studies who, to much disappointment, only went on to repeat the notion of Kashmir as a case of internal colonialism in India, which, ironically, was just the line of argument that Hafsa Kanjwal had condemned and eviscerated previously.  This revered academic’s presentation was what I personally considered an exercise in complete prevarication and obfuscation of the issue, which amounted to an abdication from any and all ethical positions on it. In fact, they went as far as to explicitly state that to take an ethical position on this subject was a complicated thing.

But this remark stayed with me and took shape as the primary point of my reflections on this event: how difficult or complicated is it really for an academic to take an ethical position on a matter of supreme urgency and gravity concerning human lives, oppression and freedom? How difficult is it to speak truth to power and to name what is right or wrong, and is that considered un-academic by most academics? How neatly can an ethical position be separated from the grand theories and lofty ideals taught by academics? Is an abdication of an ethical position the result of the high claim of “objectivity” and “rationality” that academics aspire to or that the academy is geared towards? Is an ethical position necessarily an emotive one? And can an ethical position and even an emotive or moral position only be taken by those personally tied and invested in a matter, as Hafsa Kanjwal is to Kashmir? Aren’t the personal, the ethical and the political always implicated, in one way or another, in the work and endeavors of academics and scholars? Is a position of indignation premised on principle necessarily bad or beyond the bounds of the academy? Or can issues and crises of urgency, gravity and depravity only be observed and intellectualized from the distance of the ivory tower? Is it even possible to simply observe, dissect and intellectualize struggles of emancipation and crises of existential nature (not always anthropocentric necessarily; even including crises such as that of climate change) for intellectual consumption, without any accompanying position on it (which may very well be grounded in principle and theory)? What is the function of academic scholarship and what is the responsibility that comes with being an academic or scholar?

Kumar-2-768x598

It was the vortex of these questions which took me back to Eqbal Ahmad. After all, the scholar-practitioner ethic and the commitment to this ethic was unwaveringly embraced and practiced by the likes of Eqbal Ahmad, who bravely and actively took stand on the struggles of his day and stood by his positions even as the risks to his career refused to fade; even as he was, as Stuart Schaar wrote, “snubbed and ostracized” by his fellow faculty members at Cornell for his pro-Palestine stances and subsequently had days when he would have to eat all alone since “no one joined him even as the other tables filled up”; and even as he was unsuccessfully threatened with deportation by the United States. And this scholar-practitioner ethic was also demonstrated by Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal at the talk, but which was otherwise sidestepped by the celebrity academic. The panel discussion brought into sharp relief the stark difference between academic celebrity and intellectual greatness; the former did not necessarily translate into the latter nor can the two be conflated.

As the world turns aflame with injustice and seethes with the rage, we must reckon and respond to the beckoning of intellectual honesty and a scholarship which does not observe the world from afar but seeks to place itself within its lives and for those lives; a scholarship not just of theory but of lived intellectual integrity and an embodied politics; real, practiced, emancipatory, radical, and courageous.

The responsibility is immense, but a task that may be inconvenient and arduous is not necessarily a task that is impossible– and Eqbal Ahmad’s life is a towering monument to this labor.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Confronting Anti-Blackness in Pakistan


An advice or “word of caution” I was frequently offered by people in Pakistan before I moved to New York was that I should steer clear of Harlem because of how “dangerous” it is and that I should avoid black people for the same reason. Then, once I moved here, my relatives and parents’ friends would inquire about the area I was staying in and would express their shock and worry that I was staying in West Harlem.

“Bach kar rehna”
“Beta bas kal’on se door rehna”

And in the current moment that America is experiencing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police, I think it is important for brown communities to confront the anti-black racism within. I cannot speak for every community of colour, of course, but I can certainly speak for mine. Some great individuals and organizations associated with South Asia have already issued a useful list of ways we can be better allies but there are a couple of things I wanted to re-emphasize:

—-

1. Don’t, for the love of God, use the N-word: You *can’t* use the N-word if you’re not black. You have no right to throw around a word built on the backs of a people abducted, sold and enslaved, their pain, and the hate for their descendants. If you are not familiar with the history and gravity of this word or the history of slavery, please read up and don’t be inhibited to reach out and ask for resources to learn.

[This statement from South Asian Students for Black Lives Matter is one excellent resource containing books, articles, podcasts, videos, along with a list of practical ways to uproot anti-blackness from among us + how to support the black community.]

Saying “oh we can use the n-word since we don’t have a history of slavery” or “we don’t have any black people in Pakistan” is terrible and ignorant defense of what is already indefensible. In fact, Pakistan does have its own indigenous black community who are known as the Sheedis. But again, you do not need to be in the presence of certain people in order for you to respect them or in order for you to not be racist. You do not need to be in the same room as me for me to respect you. It doesn’t matter if Pakistan doesn’t share America’s ignominious history of slavery, what matters is that history exists. And that should be reason enough for you to be mindful of it and respectful of those for whom it is an everyday legacy that they experience as they continue to struggle, live and breathe under systems and structures which carry on from that history and from that barbaric institution.

—-

2. Quit colourism: our pervasive social and cultural obsession with “beauty standards” that pit fairness against dark skin, which is deeply disliked and disdained, is deeply racist. (Someone on Twitter quite pertinently added that colorist contempt against the Bengalis was also of no less significance in the attitude of West Pakistan towards East Pakistan and the fateful rift which developed eventually). Comments on complexions and judgements based off those are not uncommon, but are far too common. Whenever you find yourself in the middle of such discussions, please speak up. We have entire industries of fairness creams and entire industries of relationships of rishta-hunting for gori chamri running on this. Break their chain.

—-

3. Do not make jokes about “kaala rang” or “Africa” and do not condone cultural appropriation: Again, “hum Amreeka main thori hain” is not an excuse, your location does not determine your morality, ethical positions or decency, and regard for people’s experiences and lives. Black people’s cultures are not costumes for you to trot out for fun. And neither are they fodder for your cheap laughs and giggles. I know anyone who attempts to stop such things is usually met with “yaar can’t you take a joke” and “har cheez serious nahi hoti/mazak bhi koi cheez hoti hai” and I know, for a fact, that I too will soon be told “Amreeka jaa kar Amreekiyon wali baatein karna shuru hogayi hai, social justice warrior ban gayi ho.”

But the thing is, none of these are jokes, none of this is anything to be laughed about or to be flippant about. Would you laugh about something deeply personal and agonizing? Would you, if it was not for your internalized anti-blackness, joke or laugh about black people? So while it is often uncomfortable to be that one person who doesn’t laugh along and calls others out, it is also one less person partaking in a system as vicious and savage as racism; which affects real people and real lives. It is one less person in whose presence others can think anti-blackness is kosher. Doing the right thing may not be easy or fun, but it is the right thing at the end of the day. There is plenty of stuff in the world to be joked about, but a people, whose past and present are bloodied with oppression and suffering, aren’t it. And the least we can do is not participate in the denial of this and perpetuation of it. Words, jokes, language may not seem concrete or material but they constitute material realities in equal part, which, in this case, is the dehumanization of black people.

—-

4. Educate your parents and your elders: anti-blackness in Pakistan is internalized and generational which is why it is widespread. Have a conversation with your parents, your elders and relatives. It doesn’t have to be confrontational and angry, sit them down, patiently explain things, have a dialogue. Keep trying. Inform them about the state of brutality and zulm faced and battled by the black community.

EZZYikBU4AEc34D

[Credits to Rehma for this]

Living in West Harlem over the past 8 months, I have actually had several conversations with my own parents, my grandparents, and my relatives on this subject and I have tried to untie the stereotypes they have held about the black community. If it helps, use examples that resonate to make your point: Hazrat Bilal’s life, the Prophet’s exhortations against racism, or even more contemporary examples such as Muslims=terrorists stereotype. There is absolutely no parallel for the black condition and it shouldn’t require examples from different contexts but here we are.

 

—-

5. Hold yourself accountable: unlearning our internalized anti-blackness will have to be and should be a continuous effort. Listen to black voices, read black writers. Continue supporting black movements for justice. Support and help however you can: donate, reach out, amplify them.

—-

6. Please acknowledge the entrenched anti-blackness within: Being a person of color does not exempt or excuse you from being racist and the possibility of it. Brown people can be racist, and brown people are racist often. Please play your part in unlearning it, in educating others, in continuing to educate yourself. Put an end or a stop to anti-black discourses, conversations, comments, jokes and stereotypes—whenever they circulate in your presence, intervene, confront and counter them.

—-

Be better. Do better.

Know there exists a system in which the life of a black man is worth less than a $20 note, in which black people are killed while jogging, while walking home with Skittles, for getting a normal traffic ticket, for simply sleeping at home. All for being black. All for the color of their skin; a license for harm and hurt, a warrant for death.

This is a system of racism and the dehumanization of black people. Apathy is complicity. A difference of geography from the location of this system does not excuse your participation in it. Anti-blackness is not as afar as you may think. It exists within and among us. Bigotry is complicity. Apathy is complicity. And empathy is action, solidarity is work.

Cut yourself out of complicity from a system of white supremacy which consigns black bodies and lives beyond the confines of humanity and dignity because black lives DO matter.

20200126_163750-2
[Photo taken in Harlem, January 2020]

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Stopped In My Tracks


There are lots of things that hit you after graduation.

But there are certain things that are only specific to some.

One of the first things whose absence I found jarring after graduation was the freedom to walk. My mobility had been throttled to a paralysis. 

I had spent four years at a campus where I walked most of the day. I’d walk while waiting for my car, I’d walk aimlessly, I’d walk for hours. My pace was always swift, unshackled.

I walked with my head held high. To walk with no care, anxiety or fear of the male gaze, harassment, or a feeling of being out-of-place and to walk with the luxury of occupying as much space as you wanted, with as much visibility as there could be, was liberating.

It was a liberty I could not otherwise afford. My campus was my little island where my feet took a force of their own. They dictated my steps, I merely followed. Where else could I walk as I wished, even rushing and running at times, without restraint? Where else could I break at least seven khussas in four years and where else could I have no hesitation in walking barefoot? The streets, the roads, the city did not welcome and permit such walking, strolling and sauntering, especially not for a woman. 

Each step in the outside world is heavy with caution of where we step, how is step, the space we occupy, the visibility we claim among the crowds and hordes not meant to include us, not meant for us. Each step heavy with the gaze of a hundred men, each step careful of where it is placed, each step taken after surveying what space my person is entitled to, what space my figure is safe in, what space I am least visible in, least drawing of attention in. Conscious of every dark turn and corner. Outside, I walk only to complete one task or another; a fleeting shadow of myself. On my campus, I walked as an expression of myself, my personhood, my joy and freedom.

The change is stifling, mutilating.

And I wonder if any man has ever felt this strange longing for something as simple as being able to walk freely, being able to walk every day, being able to walk as you wished. Not at the mercy of certain spaces and moments in life to do so. Not wishing to take and hang your gender on a hook to be able to do so. 

I wonder if they realize the spaces their presence, their stares, their utterances and their ideas about us narrow and snatch from us. I wonder if they ever realize the violence they inflict when they usurp the right for the other half of the world to breathe, inhabit, occupy and walk this earth freely and equally.

___________

I wrote the above last year. 

Living in the epicenter of a global pandemic as an international student is an experience fraught with anxieties of a precarious present and an even uncertain future, so ever since the situation began to spiral in New York City during March, I began journaling to make sense of my emotions and to cope with a reality entirely unprecedented and completely out of my control. There’s much to grapple with, much I’m struggling with, but there was one particular discomfort I was carrying which eluded description.

I couldn’t quite put a finger on this feeling and name it, until a few days ago. 

This was a feeling of being stopped in my tracks.

Literally.

As a woman, one of the gleaming promises of pursuing graduate education in New York City was the unrestrained ability for movement and mobility.

IMG_20200403_132938_391

With countless pedestrian-friendly lanes and streets and a vast public transportation network, the possibilities had never been more exciting.

IMG_2321

No matter where I had to go, I only had to glance at Google Maps and head to the nearest subway station, or sometimes the bus station.

All that I needed was the strength in my legs. Sure, I’d get out of breath when rushing (read: jaywalking) to class through upward sloping lanes, streets and roads, but at least I was able to do it. 

This was a freedom which enabled me to explore cities, to forge connections, to create a social world of my own, and now that I look back, to craft memories from moments which were only rendered possible by unrestricted mobility.

And it was also a freedom which filled me with confidence. I prided myself, after spending six months living here, on the navigation skills I was gaining. I knew which avenue was where, I knew which street I had to take. It was okay now to get lost, I could trust myself to find places all on my own. At my own pace, at my own convenience, independent, undaunted.

This is from a particular rainy night on which I got lost alone in the city but I ended up finding my way entirely on my own too.

This is from a particular rainy night on which I got lost alone in the city but ended up finding the way entirely on my own too.

By now, I could rely on my feet to guide me. Right under the open sky, sometimes among hordes, sometimes among a scattered few. You truly breathe in a city when you walk in it, and that is just how I felt.

And now that I am largely confined to my small apartment, unable to take the subway, and conscious of venturing and walking around without care and concern, I realize what is bothering me.

It feels like a replication of the fetters I faced on my mobility in Pakistan.

Back in Lahore, I could not simply get up and go wherever I wanted. My gender came in the way, as did the design of the city, its public transportation system, and the safety and space all of these allow a woman. I was always in the waiting area of mobility in Lahore. Even while I come from a class and family of privilege, there has been a certain privilege always pending for me; the privilege of mobility: I was dependent on someone to drive me to a place, dependent on the availability of the car, dependent on the plethora of permissions and prohibitions, the compulsions, risks and fears, which curbed the map of the city for me; a city I have lived in for 25 years but hardly walked.

When it came to the space I could traverse, I could carve out a corner. But when I came to New York, I sought to carve out the world for myself. Step by step. 

So now I sit in my room in New York, saddened that even as I am oceans away in another world, I have been stopped in my tracks, longing to walk, freely, fully, and gladly.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Tale of Two Ramzans


Sehri

Lahore, 2019

It’s sehri time. Abdullah and I are already up. He’s watching a movie or a series on his laptop, and I’m reading something on mine. I go to wake Ammi, hoping she had gotten some sleep, but just as I enter her room, I see the light of her phone screen illuminating her face. As always, she hadn’t slept, fearing she won’t wake up in time to get sehri prepared. Abdullah then wakes up Umar Bhai, our trusted house help, and opens the kitchen door so he can enter and start preparing the food.

All of us, barring Ammi, usually have roti or parathay with either anday, aam, or daal, and a small helping of dahi so that we don’t feel thirsty during the fast. We let Abu sleep, but we also can’t let him sleep too long since he has to take his medicines. Once his Sehri is ready, I try to wake him up gently (which is something I look most forward to everyday since never does Abu not wake up cranky. Abdullah, Ammi and I always find it very amusing). We all sit down together and start eating. I remind Ammi to take her medicines too. We talk about things, national politics, and whatnot. We turn on the TV to make sure we don’t miss the call for Fajr. The moment the countdown clock on TV starts showing one minute to Fajr, Abdullah, in his characteristic fashion, starts chugging down an entire jug of water. He always waits till its one or two minutes from azaan to drink liters over liters of water. He’s 19 but is yet to realize that he isn’t a camel who can store water for the rest of the day. He stops just a second before the sirens start blaring from the mosques of the neighborhood and azaan begins, amid Ammi and I shouting for him to stop and Abu shaking his head.

We offer Fajr and sometimes we sit talking for an hour after namaz before falling asleep.

 

Sehri

New York City, 2020

This is my first ever Ramzan away from home, and that too all the way in New York; the epicenter of the pandemic. I haven’t been able to fix my sleeping schedule so I’m already awake when I realize its time I make my sehri. The apartment is silent. I go to the kitchen, make myself a small bowl of oatmeal with milk, grab a banana from the fridge, and keep some yoghurt and water on the side. I eat in my favorite corner of the small apartment lounge, and keep checking my phone for Fajr time; no sirens here to keep me alert. In a few minutes, it is Fajr but utter silence. No sound of the azaan. I switch of the lights in the lounge and move to my room for offering namaaz, wondering if Ammi and Abu took their medicines during their sehri. I wonder if Abu still woke up with the funny face he makes every time we try to wake him up. I imagine my family of three sitting at home, each with a tray infront of them. 

I have never missed them more. 

 

Iftari

Lahore, 2019

We are an hour away from iftari. Ammi is fervently engaged in ibadat, but she quickly wraps it up to go to the kitchen and prepare food with Umar Bhai. I follow and ask if she needs any help. She tells me she doesn’t and asks me to clean up her room where we we will have iftari. I go and tidy up everything in her room. And then I go back to the kitchen, Abdullah follows me on the pretense of asking Ammi if she needs any help but we all know he is there to see how many spring rolls are being fried. Ammi’s dupatta is beginning to soak, Lahore’s summers aren’t kind to anyone, holy month or not. I plead with her to keep the iftari simple and tell her that there is no need to make a feast everyday. Kia zaroorat hai spring rolls, pakoray, samosay bananay ki? I don’t want her to stay in the kitchen too long. She doesn’t listen to me, as usual, and sends everything to her room in our beautiful wooden food trolley. She prepares a plate separately for all of us: Abu, Abdullah, me, Umar Bhai, and last of all, herself. Each person gets dates, pakoras, samosas, spring rolls, fruit chaat, dahi bhalay, rooh afza or mango squash. Each gets a portion according to what they like best. So my plate has the most aloo samosas, and Abdullah’s the most spring rolls. I turn on the TV and Ammi Abu debate which channels shows iftari timings most accurately. “Geo bas nahi sahi batata, hamesha pehle roza khulwa deta hai.” So we land on some obscure local channel and wait for the countdown clock to strike the time for Maghrib. All of us do a collective dua before opening our fast, recite the iftar dua together and then proceed to eat. I am full already but salan is yet to be served. We offer namaaz together.

We rest for a bit, and later Abdullah and I bicker over taraweeh. And then both of us stay up the whole night till sehri again.

 

Iftari

New York City, 2020

I woke up at 3PM, offer zuhr, email a few professors, reply to unanswered messages, and then notice that it’s 7PM. I decide to make aloo chanay and fix myself a sandwich. I clearly started too late. I fumble here and there with the ingredients, making a bit of a mess. And I think of my Ammi and how easily she seems to balance the entire world on her fingertips, how carefully and gently she weaves three lives into the fabric of a home. How does she do all of this and so much more? I also think of Abdullah and if he’s still having those fried spring rolls.

My flatmate joins me in preparing her iftari and I check my phone again to see what the time is. No obscure, local Urdu channel to surf through for the countdown clock. We’re already three minutes past iftari so we scramble to grab dates before we eat together in the lounge. But I cannot be more happier to have found a pack of dates a few days ago, as if the unfamiliarity of recreating an experience anchored in home, family and Lahore in a foreign, troubled land could be dispelled by the sweetness of a single bite.

 

– Hafsa Khawaja

A Spring Forlorn


Apocalypse

A few weeks ago, I woke up one day thinking I was in my own room in Lahore. I lifted myself planning to go see my parents in the other room, only to realize I was actually in this shoebox of a room in New York. Separate and away from every single person dear to me. The reality confronting the world really tends to amplify the distance one is at from home, and distance too feels like an apocalypse. Every night I am confronted with the dilemma of whether grad school worth being away from my family for, only to be sequestered in a small room dunya kay doosray konay main.

Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t easy being away from home but my longing was rendered bearable by the sense of purpose which had brought me to America and the open possibility of visiting Pakistan. But with campuses shut down, classes shifted online, and the airspace closed, I feel as if I’ve been pushed into a blind alley. What am I even doing here? I am separate from everything and everyone to and with whom I belong, and life is at a standstill.

I float somedays, somedays I falter. Sometimes I am gripped by the fright of never being able to see my family ever again, mostly I am clutched by the anxiety for their health, and sometimes I am seized by the utter dread of never being able to let back in to complete my education here even if I do manage to visit my family in Pakistan.

Time feels like an endless, vast stretch that I have to trudge through. The past seems too distant, the future too frail, and the present too precarious.

A present which asks us to retreat from the outside world, and to recede from the rest of humanity. Lanes, streets and markets that were once hustling and bustling are to be empty, people avoided, to be steered far from. Don’t venture too close to others, don’t shake hands, don’t stand too near, don’t touch your face. Socially distance. Isolate. Ordinary acts have become fatal risks to our lives, and those of others. Apprehension and unease stalk the smallest of acts which were embedded in our living and thriving.

A close friend left New York for L.A. three weeks ago, and unlike every time we met, I could not hug her goodbye. It felt strange, cold, glum and incomplete. Another left abruptly for the safety of her family, all in a matter of three days (a fracture that I am still reeling from). I remain unaware of when I’ll see those two again.

Fear accompanies human contact, human proximity, human interaction, human touch; an extraordinarily colossal and profound rupture of normalcy and life as we know it. At this point, I don’t even remember how it all started, how we went from the first reported case of coronavirus in New York City to 60,000 cases and 3,000 deaths (as of today); the epicenter of the pandemic.

I think of my worries and then I think of a world beyond myself. I think of those for whom this moment truly is qiyamat. Those for whom qiyamat comes and goes daily, as the rest of us sit cloistered and cosy. Those who are losing their livelihoods, roofs, unable to know how they’ll manage to put together the next day’s meal. Exposed to sickness, poverty, vulnerability everyday, but more so today.  I think of the inequalities and disparities this crisis is exposing, compounded, aggravating and the appalling ignorance of narratives which are calling it an “equalizer” and declaring “humans are the virus”— clearly or willingly oblivious and impervious to the cannibalistic system that enables such devastation and those who hold the power to drive it.

To be cooped up too is a privilege that is unaffordable for most, and to be safe inside is yet another for not every house is a home. Even in a crisis of existential proportions, privilege is omnipresent. We may all be in this together, but not equally.

A Window

Back when I was preparing to come to America, I decided to pick the room with a bed facing the window. My claustrophobia compelled me to think that waking up to the view of the outside world, sunlight bursting through, would be pleasant. My window looks out to the avenue across from my building and the surrounding neighborhood. A study table and chair are placed right next to the window, a space where I often find myself. One of my favorite things to do, day or night, was to gaze out of the window while sitting there; witnessing the people out and about, doing errands, carrying groceries, jogging, walking their dogs, running into one another. But now, up at odd hours, I look out the window and it’s dark, still, silent, and eerie. Not a single person in sight, not a leaf moves. If it isn’t for the one or two cars which appear once in a while, it would be hard to tell if the window opens to a still image or an actual world outside. I tend to get scared looking outside my window now; an open window fills me with greater trepidation and terror than no window at all. If anything, it gives way to loud, terrifying sirens which continually occupy the night. Reminders of the refrigerated trucks lining the roads across New York City. I quickly pull the shutters down. And my heart is weighed down with it. I am constantly reminded of a conversation I had with a friend last month, when we could never even imagine what we face today: what is the value of locating dystopia in the future? Dystopia lurks in the present.

Spring

 

Sometimes, as dawn nears, I hear the chirping of birds. And sometimes, from my window, I can see the two white weeping cherry blossom trees which have bloomed across the street. Emblems of spring, now a spring forlorn.

Defiance

Abu commented on a post of mine some days ago, writing that “this physical distancing is defied only through love, affection and empathy for humanity.” And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

I think of it when every single day when I see my wonderful flatmate, without whom I would not be able to endure any of this. It helps to hear another voice in the morning, a familiar thud and shuffle of steps in the apartment, a comforting presence, a companionship in crisis. We laugh together while we learn how to survive together in an unfamiliar, uncertain world.

I think of it when I am grateful for that one neighbor in my apartment building who randomly starts playing their piano across the day. And the neighbor who practices drumming in the evening. (I am even grateful for the couple which was arguing at the top of their lungs at 6AM in the morning right underneath my window). I don’t know who they are, where they are, but their seeming anonymity and invisibility is drowned by the reminder their music offers: that there are other people around, and that while we may be distant, I’m not really alone in this.

I also think of it when I receive messages from people close to me, from people I have hardly interacted with but who check in with concern and worry. I think of it when I video call friends in the city and back home. I think of it when all of this keeps me from sinking; all of this, which transcends physical distance and leaves me touched.

Prayer

I pray for all of this to get easier, to get over. And I hope that when it does, that we never take anything for granted again: to meet someone, to greet an acquaintance, to gather in numbers, to brush past another, to stand next to someone, to behold a face, to hold a hand, to embrace. To be close to people. The crowds and the cacophonies. The ruckus and the rush of life, a life with a place among people, a life with people. Knowing the present is all we have, and we are all we have.

I hope when all of this is over that we can remake our worlds rather than recover the one crumbling before our eyes, having crushed far too many.

I hope I get to meet you and you get to meet those you cherish in better times; in health, in happiness, with greater humility, with greater forgiveness, with greater care, with greater gratitude; with a greater, kinder, better, and an unbounded love.

And to the cherry blossom trees, I hope we see each other again not from a window, but under the wide window of the open skies.

– Hafsa Khawaja

Eqbal Ahmad: An Ethic


It has been 20 years since Eqbal Ahmad bid farewell to this world.

—-

In 2011, in an article of his, the late Christopher Hitchens termed Pakistan “a land virtually barren of achievements.” I read it and I, a 16 year old, was outraged, seething with rage. It was then that I decided to write a blog to show that the Pakistani nation had produced its fair share of achievements, pride and glory in every field. And so I began to do a little research of my own.

It was during the course of that research that I came across the name Eqbal Ahmad, “a distinguished intellectual, prolific writer and journalist, widely consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world.”

I was fascinated. And even more so to read that the great Edward Said had penned a moving obituary for him in 1999. He wrote, and I quote,

Eqbal Ahmad brought wisdom and integrity to the cause of oppressed peoples.”

Who was this man that the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky praised lavishly? Why was it that I knew of Edward Said and not Eqbal Ahmad, despite him being one of our own? I began to read him and so began the chapter of my utmost admiration for him.

Eqbal, for me, was and is an ideal.

—-

Born in Bihar in either 1932 or 1933, Eqbal Ahmad migrated to Pakistan as a young boy during Partition and went on to study at the Forman Christian College. He then earned his PhD in the late 1960s from Princeton where he studied political science and Middle Eastern history. As part of his doctoral dissertation which focused on labour movements in North Africa, he travelled to Tunisia and Algeria.

It was in Algeria that he became involved in the Algerian Revolution, meeting and working with Fanon and also becoming a member of the Algerian Revolutionary Council. After the success of the revolution, he was even offered an opportunity to join the first independent Algerian government but he refused. According to Edward Said, Algeria was a turning point for Eqbal Ahmad’s life which formed “an almost instinctive attraction to liberation movements, movements of the oppressed and the persecuted, causes of people who were unfairly punished — whether they lived in the great metropolitan centres of Europe and America, or in the refugee camps, besieged cities, and bombed or disadvantaged villages of Bosnia, Chechnya, south Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran and, of course, the Indian subcontinent.

doc00303420190429222314_001

Eqbal Ahmad was a vocal advocate of the Palestinian cause (an advocacy that left him alienated and isolated; not one of his colleagues would sit with him during lunch at Cornell), and a prominent and vehement opponent of America’s intervention and policies in Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, In 1971, he was part of a group of anti-war activists, the Harrisburg Seven, who were tried on the charges of a failed conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger.

Eqbal Ahmad then went on to teach at Cornell University until 1968. In 1982, he joined the Hampshire College as a tenured professor where he taught until 1997. He befriended, influenced and collaborated with thinkers such as Chomsky, Said, Howard Zinn, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fredric Jameson and Daniel Berrigan.

doc00303320190429222247_001

His knowledge, thinking, observations and experiences lent him a remarkable grasp on global developments, leading him to be “consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world” and allowing him prophetic foresight which identified, among others, the disaster the American exploitation of Islamic fundamentalism against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan would bring, its terrible implications for Pakistan, and the the devastating consequences which would follow any military action to remove Saddam from Iraq.

In the 1990s, he began shuttling between Pakistan and the U.S and began writing for Dawn, while working to establish a liberal arts college named after Ibn Khaldun in Islamabad. The project, however, was wrecked by political realities in Pakistan:

“In the early 1990s, he was granted a parcel of land by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government to build an independent, alternative university, named Khaldunia. The land was later seized by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, reportedly to build a golf course and club.”

Previously in Pakistan, his criticism of military and political actors and policies had irked powerful quarters. He was a fearless critic of authoritarianism, militarism, political corruption, nuclear arms and extremism, and an ardent advocate of democracy, peace, self-determination, social justice and egalitarianism.

output-f_large-e35f94bab0216ee21afad6c020f6a45aEqbal passed away in May 1999 from colon cancer. Upon his demise, “editorials and newspaper columns published around the world quickly paid homage to a unique and fearless thinker. Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote “Palestine has lost a friend”, while the New York Times, whose Vietnam and Palestine policies Eqbal had forcefully criticized, admitted that he “woke up America’s conscience”. The Economist described him as “a revolutionary and intellectual who was the Ibn-Khaldun of modern times.

While we are unfortunate to not have him among us anymore, the possibility of turning to him still remains; because while the issues of our time may be slightly different from that of his, the ethic he embodied, espoused and exemplified beckons for us to adopt and cultivate it. This was an ethic of being a global citizen in times of myopia and division; of refusing binaries and bigotries; of fighting oppression, imperialism, injustice and employing scholarship in the service of these causes; and of speaking truth to power both at home and abroad. It is after all, a testament to his intellectual honesty and principles that during the Harrisburg 7 trial in the United States, he penned his famous Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat in 1971 which was a letter of protest and condemnation of the Pakistani government’s military operation in East Pakistan. In it, he wrote:

“I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army.”

His was an ethic of truth, a truth that transcended boundaries and borders.

His advice and call to action for the younger generation was,

“Number one, read. Number two, intervene. For God’s sake, let us not be only consumers of information. Each person knows some truth – and I really think that almost anyone who is listening to you and to me right now has some knowledge, some truth, some understanding of the world, that is different from that of the dominant media institutions. The moment you find that your truth clashes with what is being peddled as their truth, intervene.”

His was an ethic of intervention, action and practice.

Eqbal was generous enough to leave behind an ethic, an ideal and an education for all to freely embrace, and which, in today’s global and local moment of confusion, censorship, suppression of ethnic movements for constitutionalism, the rise of the right wing, and clamour, is all the more important to revisit and learn from.

And at the end, it is up to us to honor this ethic and its legacy, and to recover its phenomenal promise, power and possibility.

So here’s hoping we turn to Eqbal Ahmad, for to turn to him is to turn to an ethic of supreme intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual responsibility, intellectual independence and imagination. To turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to engage with an ethic of love, empathy, solidarity, of thinking critically and of thinking fearlessly. And to turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to know that not only is this ethic possible but incumbent upon all of us.

—-

For those interested in learning about him, please do refer to the following resources:

  1. Confronting Empire; Eqbal Ahmad interviewed by David Barsamian
  2. The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad
  3. Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia
  4. Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar
  5. The Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education
  6. The Transnational Institute
  7. Eqbal Ahmad Fan Page
  8. Google is your friend: search for Eqbal Ahmad and you’ll come across articles such as this and this here and there. Lots of fantastic speeches of his available on Youtube too.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Why The #MeToo Movement Has Missed Momentum in Pakistan


*Originally published at Himal Southasian. Unedited version below:

As the #MeToo movement steers ahead with momentum across various parts of the world, Pakistan remains largely unaffected by it. Far from making waves, the movement has hardly made ripples in the country.

5ad871cd9d50aPerhaps the only prominent case relating to the movement in Pakistan has been of famous model, singer and actress Meesha Shafi coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of fellow musician and actor Ali Zafar. Zafar denied the accusations and subsequently filed a defamation suit against her, while numerous celebrities rallied to his support. In fact, his film Teefa in Trouble, released after the allegations were made public, was screened in theatres all over the country and ended up raking in more than 300 million.

Pakistan’s entertainment industry has not stood unresponsive on the matter of sexual harassment, with scattered statements emerging from within it, but more in distrust than in support of #MeToo. Model Sadaf Kanwal recently remarked disparagingly about the movement on a prime time talk show, declaring that she had never faced sexual harassment or abuse and going on to say that, You know aap ke saath Metoo jab ho, tab boldo. Baad mai aap ko yaad araha hai metoo, So I think jab ho boldo. (You know, when you have a MeToo incident, say it then. Why are you remembering it later? I think when it happens you should say it.)”

Kanwal’s remarks cannot be seen in isolation and indicate a greater malaise at play when it comes to the matter and conversation of sexual harassment in the country.

Why has #MeToo remained a murmur rather than taking the shape of a movement in Pakistan?

This is not without cause.

Stigma and Sanction

Foremost among these is the taboo and stigma surrounding sexual harassment in Pakistan. Any disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse, including child abuse, is considered shameful and a source of indelible stigma and dishonor for the victims or survivors, and their families. As an issue which is preferred suppressed and hushed up by the society, any public conversation about it then becomes inevitably inviting of backlash. The social repercussions for any individual braving their trauma to air their story are deeply undesirable; spanning subjection to blatant vilification, malicious mud-slinging, victim-blaming, outright threats and even ostracization. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse must routinely confront and counter vehement efforts to dismiss, doubt and demean their harrowing experiences.

Condemnations and repudiations of Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar have often commonly been based on the argument that she was simply doing it for “cheap and quick publicity,” thereby trivializing sexual harassment and recasting it as a mere ploy for attention-seeking. That even Meesha, a celebrity who has successfully featured in Hollywood, Bollywood and Lollywood films with an established career as a popular musician, wasn’t spared this charge can only offer a brief view of what an ordinary woman would have to endure were she to openly voice her allegations or ordeal of sexual harassment.

Legal Hurdles

In addition to the oppressive social and cultural treatment of the issue, the legal framework in Pakistan does not aid the creation of an environment conducive to any fight against sexual harassment. Fatima Anwar, a member of Pakistan’s legal community, draws light to the the degree of difficulty involved in taking sexual harassment cases to the courts. “We have basic penal code provisions against harm and laws against workplace harassment, but we do not have a distinct and separate law that directly addresses, criminalizes and deals with sexual harassment as a whole,” she says. It was due to this particular legal loophole that Meesha Shafi’s case against Ali Zafar was rejected as it was pursued under the existing Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, in view of which her relationship with Ali Zafar could not be deemed as being one of employer and employee. Fatima elaborates that “the evidentiary standards, if the case does not pertain to penetrative rape, are very flawed. Sexual harassment rarely happens in broad daylight with multitudes of witnesses, therefore it is usually the word of the survivor against the attacker. Factor into this the institutional sexism of the courts, the internalized sexism of judges and the widespread harassment within the legal profession itself, and you realize that the likelihood of a conviction for a sexual harasser is very low.”

With scarcely any social and cultural structures, or even legal recourses, in place to offer support or redress to victims of sexual harassment, many women in Pakistan choose to keep quiet than to battle the backlash accompanying any disclosure of the distress they may have suffered or continue to suffer.

Feminist Fissures

Another hindrance to the full exposure of sexual harassment cases in Pakistan is grasped by writer Rafia Zakaria, who identifies the fissures, even within feminists, which contribute to the weakness of the movement in Pakistan: “When faced with an actual #MaiBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence or silence.” Hamna Zubair, an editor at Dawn newspaper, argues “film and entertainment industry’s response to these harassment allegations reveals how, once again, issues of justice and equality in Pakistan take a back seat to the social and financial entanglements of the upper class.”

That class associations, fraternal feelings and financial interests trump a staunch commitment to causes is an indictment of many people in Pakistan and the pervasive parochial tribalism which prompts them to frequently jump to the defense of many solely due to their shared belonging within a group; reducing their faithfulness to social justice, egalitarianism and activism as lip service, and genuine solidarity an act contingent upon convenience.

metoo-pakistan

Dr. Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who writes on gender, Islam and women’s movements in South Asia, opines that “we still have a long way to go when it comes to a wider understanding and sensitivity around sexual harassment. Sadly, even in circles that one would think are progressive, there is little understanding or acceptance of the seriousness of the problem of sexual harassment. While awareness is growing slowly, one would need a wider critical mass of people who are receptive to claims of sexual harassment in order for a Pakistani #MeToo movement to really take off.”

Risking Liberties

A third barrier to galvanization around the #MeToo movement in Pakistan is tied to its potential for being employed to bolster a reversal or restriction on the limited liberties many women are allowed to avail in society such as the freedom to study and work or even mobility in public spaces. Any surfacing of instances of sexual harassment, especially in educational institutions, workplaces or public spaces, is taken, by many, as vindication of the traditional and conservative ideas which call for confining and sequestering women within the four walls of their homes and prohibiting interactions with members of the opposite sex. The argument goes that it is precisely to prevent such unpleasant and unwanted occurrences that religion and culture instruct women to stay in the safety and comfort of their homes under the watchful and protective gaze of their fathers, brothers or husbands, and not venture beyond it unless absolutely necessary. For many women, revealing an experience of sexual harassment, may be used to remove and bar them from the spaces and locations of the occurrence altogether. To disclose, therefore, is to risk hard-won but fragile and precarious liberties. Disclosing instances of sexual harassment or abuse in consensual relationships would endanger these women further since dating is often explicitly forbidden or looked down upon. Consent ceases to be central when the focus shifts to your involvement in a relationship or space that you weren’t supposed to be in, in the first place.

Earlier last year, student and social-media user Ushnaa Habib took to Twitter to collect, compile and publish a stream of anonymous accounts of sexual harassment, many of which named well-known individuals as the perpetrators. Recalling her decision, she describes that “it took an immense strength from the women’s side to even consider opening up. The fact that they wanted to remain anonymous still breaks my heart because the fear of what men will do to them is far greater than you and I can imagine. There were screenshots and testimonies I could not even post, because of how scared the girls were. [But] the main role here, I think, is of the family. Every single girl was scared of her family and not necessarily the men they were naming. They didn’t want their mother and father to find out. But those with supportive families, were fierce and blunt.” Going public with experiences of sexual harassment is then accompanied by the very real fears of reprisals and fear of bringing shame and dishonor to the family. Moreover, such disclosures can be used to advance and implement curtailment of intermingling with the opposite sexes and a limitation of the liberties available to women.

Pushing for Change

Despite the lack of traction gained by the #MeToo movement in Pakistan so far, attempts to change the situation continue in the country through the painstaking efforts of women’s rights activists. Dr. Nida Kirmani provides the reminder that “women’s rights activists have been working consistently and persistently on the issue of sexual harassment for years. It is because of them that we have gotten as far as we have in terms of having a law in place at the national level and some formal mechanisms in particular institutions. The discussion of #MeToo should be seen as part of that wider movement. We have a long way to go, but I see a lot of rays of hope as well in terms of the older and younger generations of feminists working separately and together to lift that stigma and silence and create an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak out and actually get support.” And although Ushnaa Habib eventually found herself at the receiving end of numerous threats, including those of rape and death, in the same spirit of creating an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak it, she maintains her belief that she “did the right thing.” Similarly, Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation which seeks to combat cyber-bullying and make the internet safe for women, has been in the process of compiling the names of pro bono lawyers willing to facilitate victims of sexual harassment. Renowned director and actress Angeline Malik has also launched the #InkaarKaro (Refuse) initiative that hopes to spread awareness regarding sexual harassment and its various forms, bring people together and “allow them to share their stories and assure them that if they feel they have ever been wronged, there are many others here to support them.”

The results of the #MeToo movement may be uncertain in Pakistan but what is for certain, however, is that it has given rise to a moment that has brought the subject of sexual harassment to the fore; and made possible at least some conversation about it, even if limited or even if uncomfortable, and even if it is a conversation on the movement’s negligible impact itself. #MeToo may not be Pakistan’s defining moment in the uphill struggle against sexual harassment and abuse, but even the silences which rendered the movement largely mute in the country, ironically and piercingly also rendered visible painful everyday risks and realities for women here.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Shehri Pakistan: Citizen Empowerment through Design and Technology


*Originally published at Charcoal and Gravel.

1-1

In early 2017, Arafat Mazhar was struck by a particular question: what makes human rights-based advocacy so ineffective in Pakistan? He reached the conclusion that many, if not all, such initiatives rely too heavily on a framework of human rights and an associated vocabulary that is not internalized, understood or readily accepted by the vast majority of people in Pakistan. The public is an ideal target of the emancipatory potential of such discourse however, they remained incapable of accessing it. Something as foundational as the constitution did not have an adequate local learning resource. It was then that he and a few other people decided to produce an animation to explain the constitution with an indigenous setting and characters. The purpose was to highlight the notion that knowledge of the constitution can inform people of their rights and can help safeguard those rights.

And so began Shehri Pakistan in April 2017.

2-3

What is Shehri Pakistan?

Shehri Pakistan is an organization geared towards imparting accessible civic education and constitutional and legal literacy through online animations in Urdu and other regional languages. It seeks to untangle democracy, governance, and bureaucracy for the common man and to promote comprehension of an individual’s central relationship with the state under a democratic system; that of citizenship. In the same spirit, it is dedicated to cultivating the ideal of an informed, active, participatory and responsible practice of citizenship in the country.

Subsequently, Shehri Pakistan has organized extensive campaigns featuring informative and entertaining animations and posters on several fundamental rights, on the different tiers of governance and principles of democracy, and on responsibilities of the state and citizens. Ranging from Passing of the Law; Workers Rights; How to Exercise Your Right to Information; Your Right to Due Process and Fair Trial; How to Vote; What is the Constitution; Right to Clean Water; Tertiary Care Hospital Guidelines and many more. Keeping abreast of national developments and events, they also produced, in the lead up to the recent elections, a string of videos offering explanations of different electoral and government-formation processes, structures and institutions. More recently, they rolled out their latest video on How to File an FIR. Apart from these animations, Shehri Aaj is another feature which is essentially a series of informational and critical videos that delve into issues and subjects of civic education, democracy, governance, and social problems, linking the information presented in Shehri animations to persisting problems and concerns in local communities. So far, more than 70 videos have been created as part of Shehri Aaj, some of which pertain to Transgender People and their Voting Rights; Low Voter Turnout; Animal Rights; Mental Health; Acts of Election Violence; Rights of an Arrestee; Appropriate Police Behavior; and Traffic Rules. They’ve been able to garner over 19 million views, with the most popular videos relating to the Rights of Domestic Workers; Treatment of Police with Citizens, and Problems Faced by Coal Miners.

Moreover, Shehri Helpdesk, an initiative run through Facebook, has responded to hundreds of queries on public and legal concerns. On top of this, Shehri Pakistan’s outreach program continues to organize regular sessions on civic and citizenship education in various public and private schools in Lahore.

In a little over a year, Shehri Pakistan has established a robust digital presence on its Facebook page and amassed nearly a million followers, while disseminating its content to 42 districts, with a total poster reach of 15 million, engagement of 8 million, and a video reach of 50 million.

 

 

The Idea

Arafat Mazhar, founder and director of Shehri Pakistan, explains the idea behind Shehri Pakistan candidly. In his words, when a vast majority of your population is unable to access the relevant vocabulary, discourse, historical framework, and sociocultural context to comprehend the fundamentals of human rights and democracy, it becomes pointless to discuss these systems. In order to further these, it is necessary to educate the people in a way that is palatable for them. These concepts and ideas exist on paper but not in actual comprehension and currency among people.

Shehri Pakistan is a unique initiative not only because it engages with a demographic which is usually excluded from human rights discourses, i.e. the vast majority of Pakistanis who consume information in Urdu and consequently finds the constitution, democracy, and principles of human rights alien, but also because Shehri presents this complex often inaccessible information in simple Urdu using local motifs, visuals, characters, and situations.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Similarly, there is a lack of emphasis on citizenship in Pakistan that the organization seeks to redress. “Shehriat, for the majority of the population in Pakistan, mainly pertains to the fact, experience and reality of living in the country, not the values embedded in the concept, such as equality of citizenship or rights and responsibilities,” says Fatima Anwar, a lawyer at Shehri Pakistan.

The role of Shehri Pakistan is then designed to rebuild the discourse and idea of shehriat as both a set of concrete values and a crucial practice; to locate the place of the citizen within a democratic structure of governance and model of life.

There are still, however, distinctions to be made and lines to be drawn for the organization. “We don’t do advocacy since our aim is education. Our video on the Separation of Powers, for example, is not directed towards any activist goal but simply an awareness of how the state works, or should ideally work,” adds Arafat. Shehri Pakistan is deeply committed to familiarizing citizens with the existing system of governance and the workings of the state that large swathes of the population otherwise see as an alien or complicated sphere that they lie outside of. Engendering a sense of integration and familiarity with the system could inevitably push people to participate in it, appeal to it, and hold it accountable. “We hope that the Pakistani public will eagerly engage with and use our educational resources. And it is heartening to know that it does happen. Recently, we received a message on our page from a follower who narrated how he adamantly refuses to pay bribes to the traffic police since he now knows the actual process of depositing the challan courtesy our animation on Traffic Rules,” expresses Rasti Farooq, Campaign Design Officer.

The Team

Some members of Team Shehri Pakistan at their LMM stall earlier this year

Shehri Pakistan originally started as a team of five people but currently comprises a team which numbers no more than twenty people. The team includes individuals from vastly different backgrounds who have crafted the interdisciplinary nature of its unique approach; combining research, design, and technology in order to provide accessible civic education using indigenous iconography and local paradigms. From lawyers, political researchers, designers, animators, and artists to even musicians and actors, the team is integrated in its commitment to Shehri’s values and objectives but it is incredibly diverse when it comes to individual interests, disciplines and skill sets. (Fun facts: one team member was part of the band that won this year’s Pepsi Battle of the Bands; another team member is an actor who is part of the local theater circuit.)

Collaborations

Shehri Pakistan has forged multiple collaborations with numerous organizations on various issues. This has included partnering with Facebook in the latter’s campaign against fake news and to prevent the spread of false news and information by disseminating localized tips for improved news and digital literacy among Pakistani Facebook users; partnering with the Chief Minister Punjab’s Special Monitoring Unit on the subject of healthcare and the rights and responsibilities of patients; working with Bolo Bhi on the Right to Information; with the Child Protection Bureau on a series of posters on child abuse awareness for parents, teachers and children; and with the National Commission on Human Rights over a series of animations based on fundamental rights. In addition to organizations like Rabtt using Shehri Pakistan’s material in their programs, the circulation of its content has been helped by the interest shown in it by official accounts of the Government of Pakistan on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which specifically shared the videos from the organization’s election-season campaign.

Looking Ahead

For the immediate future, Shehri Pakistan has planned a host of programs and projects ordered around the singular goal of branching out from their prominent digital presence to a presence on the ground. A major new project is Shehri Pakistan’s own legal aid clinic called Shehri Wakeel. The project is already operational in Lahore and provides free or low-cost needs-based legal services such as filing bails, litigating cases, and drafting legal documentation. “We realized the need for substantial, on-ground legal aid when Shehri’s followers started messaging us about their personal legal troubles. For example, we had run a long online campaign on labor rights in Pakistan after which we received a host of messages from working-class citizens whose basic rights were being violated on a daily basis. It was not enough to tell them the law was on their side, they simply could not afford lawyers and lived with the threat of losing their source of income if they pursued legal action. At first, we tried to refer them to other organizations only to realize the dearth of legal aid options available to citizens in dire need. We decided we wanted to fill this gap ourselves–it was a logical extension of the legal literacy work we were already doing online,” Fatima explains.

Furthermore, Shehri Pakistan’s pipeline contains animated short films, the provision of civic education in madrassas, a comprehensive civic education textbook, and the development of an educational and informative mobile app for adults, young adults, and children. This app will contain all of Shehri Pakistan’s content as well as role-playing games for perspective building, Shehri Lughat, a 24/7 legal helpline, and a virtual parliament in which users can debate legislation as members of parliament.

As Shehri Pakistan drives forward with its outreach, collaborations and an array of new projects and plans, it remains resolutely animated and steered by the simple but significant idea which forms its motto:

“Aik bakhabar shehri, aik baikhtiyaar shehri hota hai.”

-Hafsa Khawaja

Resenting the Public in Public Spaces


*Originally published at Timsaal.

The class divide in Pakistan is frequently documented in figures, percentages and statistics. Yet the divide is not in want of numbers when its evidence can be located in an everyday spaces and attitudes.

Recently, a Twitter user commented about witnessing a woman glaring down a man in a local mall by loudly expressing her disgust towards the “ghareeb aadmi” of his kind venturing into such places.

The incident could be brushed as an isolated outburst of a rude individual, but not quite. It is illustrative of a wider phenomenon: the deeply-held classist and elitist entitlement and resentment in urban public spaces.

“Mahol kharab kardia hai in logon nay”

“Mahol kharab kardia hai” is a thinly-veiled expression for the elitist inability to share space with the “aam awaam.” The classist elitism is driven both by a revulsion for the lower classes or perhaps any class below the upper middle and upper class, and an open desire for exclusion of these “others” to maintain a monopoly of certain territories. This classist and elitist territorialism appallingly hinges on asserting that the right of ownership, access and participation in certain spaces lies and is retained in the exclusive domain of a single group, while quite literally asks for the class divide to be enacted and reinforced on ground. In such an imagination, members of the lower, working or even middle classes, and members with rural backgrounds, are “cheap”, “tacky” and “paindu” in their attire and ways; polluting the ambience of places conventionally associated and visited by the urban, affluent and educated sections of society.

The case against the public intermingling with lower socio-economic strata is also often couched in a language of fear and risk of harassment and hooliganism in public spaces. But it remains to be emphasized that the repulsion directed at the sight of people from lower classes sharing a space exists even if these people are with families. It is not harassment but their ways, mocked as “cheap” or “paindu” for how they dress or carry themselves, their Punjabi, their broken-English or lack of English, which elicits this. On the matter of harassment, it is offensive and baffling that one would associate it with a particular class, especially with the lower classes which are already greatly stereotyped and demonized in our society: “lazy”, “chor”, “paindu”, “jahil.”

Customers-enjoying-the-Emporium-Circus-Large-1024x683

Any woman can attest with absolute certainty that harassment is not a class problem. We’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in various public spaces, even in ones entirely visited by men of the seemingly “educated” and “refined” classes. When it comes to harassment, what we have is not a class problem but a gender problem. To reduce harassment to class is a dishonest and dangerous narrative.

Packages-Mall-Inner-ViewIt remains to be proven, however, how a class, with its superiority complex and faux sophistication, entitles its members monopoly over public spaces. And it remains to be reminded that all persons in this country have an equal right to enjoy malls, parks, events and whatever else there is. This is especially important considering the present situation: the ubiquitous fear and danger of security risks have considerably throttled cultural and recreational life in the country. Gone are the days of frequent concerts, festivities and cricket matches. A careful attempt at revival, however, has begun since the past few years with the opening up of certain narrow channels of entertainment: restaurants, malls, cinemas, and occasional festivals.

Public spaces and events as they are, they’ve allowed various segments of the urban population to access and participate in them, but as much of a breath of fresh air this has been and as welcoming as the democratization of public space should be, it has been accompanied by the aforementioned discontentment in certain quarters. Although several classes still remain barred from accessing these spaces and events due to the limits of familiarity and financial affordability. But ask those who remain repulsed, wronged and affronted by this development and images of an utter disaster would be conjured up. Who let these hordes of the hoi polloi into our idyllic abodes of privilege and into spaces which must only belong to us; the most special, the most cultured of them all. After all, haven’t you heard how fluently we speak English?

This segregation of the poor from the prosperous, which is often proposed for existing public spaces, events and activities, already concretely manifests itself and is enforced by the construction and maintenance of various housing schemes like Bahria Town and DHA which are, in effect, gated communities that do little to welcome and accommodate but a particular class. The entire landscape of such housing communities is oriented and designed to attract and entertain the rich or the rising. Take parks and tracks, for instance. Access to many of them is contingent upon memberships, the fees of which are often hefty and unaffordable except for a particular lot.

j

The situation is compounded by the abounding suspicions and caricatures about the poor within these areas. Earlier this year, mass texts purported to be from Defence Housing Authority Lahore circulated among residents, cautioning them against allowing their domestic help from interacting with other workers in the neighborhood to “control the increasing number of thefts and other social evils.” The poor are welcome in these housing schemes and communities, but only to be sequestered in servant quarters, under the strict surveillance of their sahabs and bajis.

Even keeping aside the posh housing schemes and communities, which “often deploy a mix of methods in constructing space and regulating the flow of undesirable bodies”, the case still stands. Ammar Ali Jan, in fact, traces the development and management of Lahore itself as an urban space to specific colonial and post-colonial calculations and objectives which converged at “render[ing] the poor invisible” and the creation of  a “demarcation….between the elite areas of the city and those that contained Lahore’s working people.” Clearly spatial demarcation and confinement of the poor precedes, but aggravates, the exclusion from the few public spaces and recreational facilities that the poor too can avail.

But while the socio-economic gulf may be replicated and reinforced structurally in the design of the city as an urban space and elite housing communities, that does not trivialize the weight of exclusionary mentalities and behaviors which desire and drive away those of the lower and marginalized streams from the few places and areas they may be able to access, even if they are unable to participate equally or frequently in them. The arrangement of urban spaces ought to be critically interrogated for the exclusions they foster, but so do individual attitudes. The next time you find yourself wincing at the sight of someone from a different class visiting or occupying the same space as you, stop and reflect for a moment the discriminatory, demeaning and disdainful nature of your prejudice.

The reasons for denying members of different classes the right to enjoy public spaces, events, activities can be endlessly contrived, but their underlying classist and elitist nature cannot be denied. There is a long route to take if such frameworks of thinking and inhabiting spaces are to be overhauled for a truly inclusive society but a few steps towards it are both necessary and significant. It is crucial for people to learn to see and truly treat, with respect, those separate from their class as equal human beings and citizens who have the right to occupy and share spaces, comfortably participate and claim visibility in them. Although the acceptance of such a perspective may still prove to be tremendously difficult for some.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Of God and god


A couple of months ago, I wrote a Facebook post in which I mentioned the expression of “god’s gifts.” A while later, a message popped into my inbox from a well-meaning stranger, appreciating the post but also admonishing me to write “God” instead of “god.”

I usually do make sure to capitalize the G in “God” but this time, deeply immersed in writing, I hadn’t paid much thought.

The message, however, left me amused. What a strange thing to be pointed out. Had I committed an affront by not capitalizing “god”? How much did it really matter?

I pondered, only to be reminded of my own relationship with my Creator; Keeper of my soul and its secrets, my Rabb but also, closer to me than my jugular, my closest friend, confidante and companion; the only and eternal Mehram of my haal; the One to whom I have cried, wept, pleaded in the day and in the dark; the One to whom I take the most trivial of my tensions and wishes to, the One with whom I have shikway and often even narazgi; the One whose mercy outstrips His wrath, the One who wants me to invoke His name and turn to Him even when I am only in need of the lace of a shoe or a spoonful of salt (and I do).

I worship Him, I remember Him, I thank Him, but even as He reigns, in His Endless Might and Magnificence, I candidly converse with Him, I pose questions to Him, I pester Him, I seek His Benevolence.

My image of God is much like the Pashtun poet Ghani Khan’s conception of Him:

“Ghani Khan’s relationship with God, which is itself another significant theme in his poetry, is one of love, depth, and devotion. It is full of a kind of humility that allows him to talk to God in his poetry, not just of Him. The God invoked in his poetry is a janan, a beloved. This understanding of God is rare in many Muslim societies, but is popular in the Sufi tradition. The wrath of God is emphasized to such an extent that many then become obsessed with fear from God, constantly wondering if what they are doing is haraam or halaal, forbidden or permissible, merely so that they can avoid hell. Prayer becomes a mundane ritual, an oppressive obligation, a dreaded moment; it is not a precious moment between humans and God in which humans humble themselves, submitting themselves utterly to God, overcome with God’s power and awe, and creates a sacred, intimate bond with God.”

I will, of course, continue to write God with a capital G. But I don’t think the God I know will mind if I don’t, because I have, for the longest time, considered the Divine to be much greater than the many limits of our imagination, our fears, and the confines we inhabit, establish and seek to constrict everything in, especially in His name. Khuda nahi, banday ki soch choti hai. Khuda bara hai, hamari soch ki sarhad’on aur had’ood se, aur aik nuktay aur harf se tau kaheen ziada.

 

1609851_10203608303803262_736919541758959706_n

-Hafsa Khawaja

نڈر


نڈر

This was Asma Jahangir.

Attacked on every front that there was; that of her character, her morals, her faith, her sense of loyalty to Pakistan.

Called an agent, a traitor, a blasphemer, and every imaginable and unimaginable label and epithet from the many heaps and streams of hate, misogyny and abuse in this country for the condemnation and demonization of an individual.

And yet, there she stood. Undeterred, unfazed.

نڈر

________________________________________________

“A senior lawyer from Lahore, who does not wish to be named, declares: “Asma Jahangir is working on a specifically anti-Islam agenda and she is getting foreign funding to do that.” The same lawyer contested the Lahore High Court Bar Association election as Asma Jahangir’s nominee but he could not win. “The liberal lawyers did not vote for me because I have a beard and the religious, conservative ones did not support me because I was backed by Asma Jahangir,” he says as he explains how she divides the bar along ideological lines. “She is part of the Illumanti, a secret organisation controlling the world,” he then proclaims.

“When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.”

___________________________________________

There she stood. Fierce.

Shouting at the top of her lungs on issues and matters that people in this country quivered and continue to quiver to even whisper about. Speaking truth to all the powers that be, all the powers that reign and trample many under their tyranny.

She took on the mullahs and the army. The holy and the mighty of Pakistan. She took on the politicians, the judges. The powerful and the many.

And she minced no words. Biting, blunt and brave.

To do so as a woman in a society not used to such a woman, that actively castigates and looks down upon such a female figure, was doubly dangerous; risking her reputation, her personal safety and even her life.

نڈر

_______________________________________________

“This is Asma Jahangir’s style — mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate.”

________________________________________________

She was an icon for so many of us, especially women.

Amidst the many invisible fetters and fears we wear and parade as conformity to conventions, to traditions, to myopic notions of womanhood and femininity and propriety, which limit and lower our voices, which regulate our tones, which ask us to be careful, to be docile, not to stand out too much, not to draw attention to ourselves, to concern ourselves with nothing beyond the home, to never question, to never stare someone in the eyes, to never disturb things, to bend and break but to always let everything run as it is, and amidst a society and culture that asks us to live and pass in the silent shadows of the night without notice, Asma Jahangir was a fascinating force of defiance, courage and inspiration.

She feared nothing and none. Her voice was loud, it resonated. She tore through conventions and silences. She marched with her head held high. She was not going to hide, she was here to stay.

20180212_020805

And there she stood. For women, for minorities, for those denied justice, for those denied a voice, for those silenced, those comfortably unheard. For democracy, for our rights and freedoms. There she stood and battled, in words, in actions, on the roads and the streets.

And we watched in wonder.
Could there be such a woman among us?
Could we be such a woman?

نڈر

_____________________________________________________

Asma Jahangir is the woman I aspired and aspire to be. Or at least a fragment of her self and life, for none of us can ever truly be her.

As heartbroken I am, I feel privileged to have been conscious of her life and work, to have witnessed it in admiration and awe. To have had the chance to look up to her. To learn from her. To question, to shout, to speak truth to power, to stand by what you think is right.

نڈر

_______________________________________________

“Munizae had just started her first job as a television reporter for India’s NDTV in 2005 when in May that year Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a women-only marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by religious parties and groups. On the day of the marathon, the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and taking them to the Model Town police station.

When Munizae arrived at the site of the marathon, the first image she saw was of her mother with her “clothes torn off, her bare back exposed — being manhandled by police officials”. Her reporter colleagues had smirks on their faces. They looked at Munizae from the corner of their eyes. She felt embarrassed — more than that, she was shocked, traumatised.

Asma Jahangir’s husband was out of the country at the time. He immediately came back, only to see Asma’s bare back on the front page of a newspaper. Munizae broke down and cried when she saw her father but Tahir Jahangir was unfazed. If anything, he was proud.

Asma Jahangir was later transferred to jail from the police station. When Munizae got there, she saw her mother “in the same shirt, now stitched up with safety pins”. She was “shouting and essentially leading a protest in jail”.

Nothing, it seems, can ever stop Asma Jahangir from being what she has always been.”

_________________________________________

Today, neither a life nor a light, but a raging fire has gone out.

Rest in power, Asma Jahangir. There was none like you before, and there will be none like you ever.

نڈر

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The State of the State


*Originally published in the Daily Times.

A mere twenty-four hours after the country observed three years since the APS Attack of 16th December 2014, a blast struck the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta during Sunday church service, killing several and injuring dozens. Pictures of the scene of destruction within the church soon spread; spoiled, smashed and shattered Christmas decorations with the forlorn figure of a Christmas tree still standing in between.

DRPms9RX4AAHkr2

As the National Action Plan lies in fractures and fragments of its failure, the situation continues to deteriorate for minorities in the country as they continue to be gunned down, their places of worship targeted, and their communities used as fodder for sordid political performances.

Only a few months ago, Captain Safdar attempted a grab at political relevance in a manner only a disgraced and insignificant political actor capable of headlining solely through corruption scandals can.  Railing against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, he declared that “the Ahmadis are a threat to this country, its Constitution and ideology” against whom action is warranted. This was not the first time Safdar applied the time-tested tactic of resorting to religion and conjuring a threat to Islam and Pakistan for easy political mileage and rehabilitation of a damaged political standing.

In February 2012, he made a speech at the Istekam-e-Pakistan Conference in Lala Musa where he expressed support for Mumtaz Qadri and mentioned that “the first conspiracy was hatched against Pakistan when Sir Zafarullah Khan was made foreign minister.” Sir Zafarullah Khan, who was one of the leaders of the Pakistan Movement and the architect of the Lahore Resolution, was appointed the country’s first foreign minister by Jinnah himself. Did Safdar think Jinnah conspired against Pakistan? Through his principled and distinguished diplomacy, Zafarullah Khan elevated the newly-created state of Pakistan with dignity and respect among the nations of the world, and emerged as an eminent advocate for the Muslim World and the Third World which earned him honor and recognition from around the globe. However, some consideration and compassion can certainly be spared for Safdar and his ilk who devote most of their meagre grey matter to the swindling of state resources, dodging of NAB references and acquisition of apartments in London, leaving little for education, knowledge and decency which would familiarize them with such facts, history and realities

Safdar aside, the recent turmoil unleashed by the the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan’s protests cannot be dismissed in any consideration of the state’s approach towards hardliner groups within the society either.

Neither bigotry was new to the disgraced captain nor was extremism new to the crowds at Faizabad but the placement of both these incidents side by side is necessary to illustrate the shambolic state of affairs regarding minorities in the country and most importantly, the underlying foundations that support it in the form of the state and its institutional attitude on the matter.

Safdar-prisma-min-681x454While Captain Safdar’s venomous tirade against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan drew condemnation from several quarters, the diatribe was essentially enabled by the prevailing criminalization of the community’s faith and identity and the constitutional sanctions for their discrimination and persecution. Even the protestors at Faizabad had demands that tied into existing acts and measures such as the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act, and the ostensible end to their agitation, which also included the bizarre act of releasing protestors and parceling out cash to them, was contentiously brokered by controversial state actors signaling other tensions within the state apparatus and balance of power. Such groups and incidents are only bolstered and buttressed by the establishment of religion as a handy and convenient resort and refuge for the coward, guilty and powerful in a state and society where its exploitation finds fertile ground for the reaping of plentiful gains. This includes the weaponisation of blasphemy allegations, and the scapegoating, targeting and demonizing an already persecuted community, which also serve as effective diversionary tools when political pressures and scandals surge. This is only facilitated by the traction these ideas and tactics find in a country where scapegoating and hate-speech against minorities is a legitimate and popular exercise in vying for votes and power, and where pandering to the religious right and partnerships with militant sectarian outfits are acceptable electoral strategies.

It would be absurd to expect state, government and political authorities to lead the charge against these incidents when these institutions, authorities and actors are at the forefront of enabling them in the first place, with constitutionally enshrined persecution in the case of the Ahmadis, and the institutionalization of the frequent deployment of religion as a prop and ploy otherwise. And without changes in this political culture, and the institutionalized frameworks and state policies which accommodate, adopt, enable and empower elements that endanger the lives of minority communities in the country, Pakistan will continue to be held hostage to the violent and vicious vagaries of bigotry, extremism and intolerance and their many willing and eager adherents who will leave us with no recompense or redress to look to.

– Hafsa Khawaja

A Body of Burden


 “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

d823d2c512f661f109760397583bfddd--harappan-indus-valley-civilization

The female body. The female form. The female figure.

To be a woman in this country is to be constantly, painfully and unusually conscious and aware of a great many things: so conscious of every part of your body; deeply aware of the demands made upon you for its every movement, move and motion to be calculated.

An oppressive consciousness and awareness.

Sit in a certain position, don’t sit in a certain position; don’t lean too much, don’t slouch so much, don’t sit cross-legged. Don’t talk in a certain tone, don’t laugh too loud.

Constantly survey and check yourself.

1ab24d3aaa35437b4c0f6421e0eb3725

It is as if the female body is a burden to be carefully carried and shouldered.

To possess a female body is to exist for and in multiple bodies. You are responsible for your own morality, and that of the other – that of the male. You check yourself and so you check the other. By possessing the vice of a female body, you bear the burden of their imaginations and their impulses. If the gaze or some misfortune falls onto you, you invited it for it is your responsibility to bar it, not that of those who cast it onto you.

You exist with the burden of that gaze on you and that gaze defines how you carry yourself.

It takes nothing but a moment to realize just how these burdens have sculpted you and your persona in the public space. I hold a deliberate and constant scowl on my face, head high, and my walk brisk. It is my way of denying and deterring those prowling leers and stares, of resisting the vulnerability that comes with my skin and whose fear crawls on my skin.

Of leers, jeers, and harassment.

And yet I know it can prevent little. My mere emergence in public visibility is what makes me far too prominent itself. Just being there is what draws attention, I need not create a scene. I am the scene.

The female body is oppressive for the expectations, fears, threats and oppressions heaped onto it are what it heaps onto you.

I catch myself unconsciously glancing at my dupatta every now and then, adjusting it even while it is adjusted. I find myself unconsciously straightening my kameez even when it already is, to make sure its corners aren’t turned, to make sure they cover me fully.

It is a constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

embodying-indus-lifeI sit in the car and get uncomfortable when a car or motorcycle veers too close to my window. The proximity is unsettling for the proximity of access of sight is unsettling. I grab the black shades and fix them over my window amid a sigh of relief. There, I am now hidden. Phew.

I step out and it is a struggle to keep my appearance…in order. I can’t hide here.

How can you possibly feel naked with clothes?

How can your own skin induce fear, vulnerability and discomfort in you? How can it induce a desire for invisibility in you?

An invisibility from the leers and stares that pierce right into you, that frighten and unnerve you. Leers and stares that stalk you with a perverse pride, entitlement, insolence and impudence, and with a complete sense of the perverse power they are, which are undeterred by one’s detection of them. The detection only emboldens them.

How do you come to feel uncomfortable in your skin? How do you come to feel uncomfortable by your own skin?

You see the leers and you survey yourself in worry, is the dupatta in place? Is something wrong? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? I quickly sling my bag or purse on one side to slump over my legs, while the dupatta falls over the other.

How do you keep prying eyes away? To what extent can you possibly hide yourself? What more can you hide of yourself when the imagination encroaches and penetrates all that is you?

What can I do when I am uncomfortable by my own skin? When I made to be felt oppressed by own biology?

I wonder what it feels like to be in the public and to have a mobility unhampered by an agonizing consciousness of every part of your body, a tiring and grueling consciousness that presses itself on your mind.

How does it feel to not be ashamed of your anatomy?

How does it feel to not want to shrink?

How does it feel to not be stalked, surveyed and to surveil yourself?

How does it feel to just wear your skin without wanting to peel it off, shroud it, or fix it?

How does it feel to not be a woman?

I wonder what it’s like, while the corners of my dupatta and kameez tug at the corners of my mind. Is the dupatta in place? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? A constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

You Are 70 Today


You are 70 today.

This journey hasn’t been easy. You’ve stumbled, staggered, suffered along the way. You’ve grown old, and with age your problems have only aggravated. You are as stubborn and slow as a seventy year old can be, your bones creak and ache more, and it hurts doubly: to see you in the state and to feel that state ourselves.

We are, of course, joined at the hip.

55cdbc0588143

I have my complaints, I have my shikway. Take it as the grievance of child to his parents.

And I speak for many of your children when I say this: we too have grown weary with you, as often do children when tasked with the constant and careful care of their weak, old, obstinate parents.

You take one step forward, and two steps backwards. An unchanging, painful cycle.

Maybe it is our fault too. It is, after all, not easy having 200 million children; half try to tear you away in one direction, and half pull you to another.

It is remarkable how you still stand today.

We truly are an unruly, a frustrating bunch, I admit. And we wrong you every day.

And yet you too have wronged many; instead of taking them under your wings you have refused, abandoned, disowned, hurt and ill-treated groups of your children for being different, for not being in the many: The Shia, the Hindu, the Christians, the Ahmedis, those in FATA and in Balochistan; those who think differently, those who see differently, those who question. With no fault of their own but the fault of their being.

Perhaps senility has crept onto your mind too soon. You are too difficult to put up with.

There are times I want to shout at you, there are times I want to scream, and too often have you made us cry, mourn, and despair.

How odd that log kia kaheingay is your mantra, and yet how badly some of your children have turned out to be. So full of intolerance, so petty, so small of heart and mind, and so mean.

Perhaps it is natural to descend into madness with children like yours.

There is mayhem in your home today, and fear prowls about with whispers of God’s decision to forsake you. The home is a circus of clowns, swindlers, serpents, and merchants of malice; playing to the din and drums of hate, injustice and insanity. And they devour you, the weak, the poor, the different in your brood.

You writhe with injury and anguish. And so do we.

I wish to run away sometimes. I do give up sometimes, I despair. I get tired of you; your many children, our differences with each other, our bloody squabbles, quarrels and your dastardly spawn. And yet I always return.

You’re 70, you’re stubborn, and you’re unimaginably demanding and difficult, and yet I am unable to let go of your hand. After all this is what you, while narrating that story of culture and values, taught us anyway regarding the elderly, the old, those who raised you:
Izat. Ehtaram. Farmabadari. Shais’tagi. Sabr.

For each one of us who roams the earth, there are three Makers. The One who breathes life into us, the one who brings that life into the world, and the world that life is brought into.

Each divine.

Each make us. In ways we know and know not.

And you were the third.

You, my Maker.

You gave the rhythms to my pulse, the history, heritage, and culture I wear as my skin, the metaphors; the idioms, the languages that make my many voices; the poetry, the folklore, the melodies etched in my breath; and the joy, the pride, the pain, you have taught me and I carry as I live with you, and as I love you.

In the cradle of your world my life began, and with my burial in your bosom it shall end.

You, my Maker.

You’re 70 today.

It has not been easy, for you and for me. For all of us.

But let us hold on tight to each other, to the promise of a better tomorrow.

Let us be kinder to one another for we are all we have.

And there’s a lot of healing, working, fixing and fighting to do.

Pakistan, you’re 70 today, and there’s a long way to go.

It will be arduous.

But somehow, some day, we shall make it through.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Internet Under Attack in Pakistan


*Originally published on Fair Observer

It has been two months since Mashal Khan’s brutal murder. Amid great shock and outrage, many hoped that this would mark a turning point for things to change in Pakistan. Things had to change after this, they believed.

170613135318-01-pakistan-blasphemy-crackdown-exlarge-169

And indeed there has been a change. There is now official license and pursuit for replications of the ghastly incident: a social-media witch-hunt and increased crackdown on alleged incidents of blasphemy and dissent.

Last month, text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority began circulating nation-wide warning that “uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on internet is a punishable offence under the law” and calling for such content to “be reported for legal action.”

Rather than adopting caution and carefully defusing the growing incitement and agitation over blasphemy, especially after such an appalling incident, the government has decided to vigorously charge right into it by actively encouraging the use of the blasphemy law and expanding its stretch to social media.

THE RULE OF LAW

A few weeks back, the first death sentence for blasphemy on social media was handed to 30-year old Taimoor Raza by an anti-terrorism court. The allegations of blasphemy emerged after Raza engaged in an online Facebook debate on Islam with an individual who later turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. The sentence was given by an anti-terrorism court and should occasion debate about the bizarre logic of an anti-terrorism court dealing with cases of blasphemy and its subsequent implication of blasphemy being tantamount to terrorism.

acd9363a7a88b63fe98f4b2e6c9e4709

Since the past few years, the internet and social media in Pakistan have surfaced as vital spaces for expression of critical views of the state, the government and discourse on various issues confronting the country, especially those that are deemed sensitive or left uncovered the media such as Balochistan, attacks on religious minorities and the Blasphemy Law itself. These were spaces long considered safe from the eye and intervention of the state and government; and free from the taboos prevalent otherwise regarding such subjects.

The disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers earlier this year, however, shattered this illusion. And the recent series of developments have only served to cement the realization that the internet is no longer safe but at the center of a dangerous witch-hunt and crackdown on dissent.

The creeping state spotlight on social media has been given a more threatening tint by the association of blasphemy with it.

It is also important to remember that after their disappearance and recovery, blasphemy accusations were hurled at the bloggers, which indicates increasing pervasiveness of blasphemy accusations for silencing people and for justifying harrowing acts like disappearances.

MISAPPLICATIONS

One of the strongest criticisms of the blasphemy law pertain to its use for personal schemes of vengeance, vendettas, petty conflicts and property disputes. But rather than curtailing the blasphemy law’s use and abuse, an official invitation and initiative for its use on social media only expands the potential for them. It must also be noted that the internet and social media are murky waters where, among other things, fake profiles, harassment and stalking abound and the possibilities of framing people can easily arise in relation to both concoctions of blasphemous content in someone’s name and harming them on that basis. The numerous profiles posting blasphemous content under the name of Mashal Khan that came into view after his death only attest to this. Navigating such a territory for the government will not be an easy task and poses peril for Pakistani internet-users. 

The danger of an increasing emphasis on blasphemy on social media and the punitive measures designed against it lapsing into a clampdown on dissent and criticism of powerful segments of the country is also not insignificant. And while these developments may be attributed to the influence or strength of the religious right, the existence of draconian laws, and the age-old aversion of the political and military establishment to criticism, but the pivotal role played by the Interior Ministry in actively creating these developments can no longer be discounted.

nisarThe Interior Minister’s constant pandering and cavorting with extremists and sectarian leaders is common knowledge. Recently, however, he has also taken to stress upon a number of sensitive issues to create a case for greater internet censorship and control. His efforts have included invocation of the sentiments underlying the Blasphemy Law, warnings of bans on sites with blasphemous content, instructions to the Federal Investigation Agency to act against “those dishonoring the Pakistan Army through social media” and announcements of new rules and measures against online anonymity. These have not been without significance.

Only a short while back, some social media activists and supporters of the opposition party PTI and even supporters of the PML-N were detained by the FIA on the basis of the fresh instructions to the FIA and the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act.

A report in the Guardian on the matter quotes an FIA saying that “his agency had orders from the interior ministry to interrogate, and seize laptops and phones, without warrant” and that they were “authorized to detain anyone, just on suspicion.” An allegedly official list with the names of social media users and activists who are being monitored for their comments against “national institutions” also did the rounds on Twitter.

The surging tide of these developments and the proliferation of these problematic measures and repressive acts involve dangerous ramifications upon which suggest an increasingly bleak future for free speech, public criticism and opposition in the country. They also demonstrate the weakness of the government’s commitment to public freedoms and its own democratic credentials.

This suffocation of spaces for robust debate, dissent and a healthy discourse by the cultivation of a climate of fear is certain to foster intimidation, harassment, abuse, and violence. After Mashal Khan, it seems the Pakistani government itself has stepped in to lead attacks under the cover and with the cudgel of blasphemy but for the purpose of clobbering dissent, freedom and opposition.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Ishq, Ibadat aur Pakistan


I often think about the love that this land has given birth to: Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Sassi Punno, Mirza Sahiba. These were tragic romances, there was separation, pain and loss.

Maybe all great romances are tragic.

I said this once previously, but I must repeat it again today: I see the loss of cricket in Pakistan as the loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a beloved.

This too is a tragic romance, whose pain all of us feel, the return of whose beloved all of us seek.

It has ached, it has devastated us.

But this too is a great romance, one that we refuse to give up on and vow to win over.

Perhaps that is why when it comes to our beloved, we either sink or collapse into despair or we rise to the heights of passion and audacity that stuns all.

And while there may be separation from the beloved, we have never been more in love.

DCnf-4wXkAA5td3

Shift as many meetings with the beloved to a nearby desert but what thrill lies in that? There is no home away from home. What beauty is there in this rendezvous with the beloved at places that belong to neither of us?

Yet every win is a promise of loyalty fulfilled for the beloved; an affirmation of our resolve that our love will overcome the pain of this exile, this separation. It will triumph.

Every single time I cross Liberty Roundabout, I wonder at the irony of the place; this is where, for years, celebrations have converged in the city to the thaap of the dhol, to the beat of the bhangra, and yet this is the place where it all ended in March 2009 by the chilling sound of shots.

This is where the tragedy began. Yet today this is where the jashan of the ishq again surfaced.

They say ishq is also ibadat, and indeed it is.

Cricket has never been just a game in Pakistan. It has been a nation’s beloved; it has been a people’s religion. This is a religion truly shared across the country, surpassing all others. Go out tonight and see how the roads and streets are jammed with throngs of its followers, from the thailay wallas to the jeep wallas, from those on the motorcycles to those on foot, from the young to the old, engaging in the ritual of joy, of celebration, of worship.

No wonder today feels like Eid before Eid.
Is this how the renewal of the vows of love with a separated beloved feels?

How incredible is it that a team that hasn’t played on home ground since 2009, that hasn’t seen home crowds since years, that ranked at the bottom of the table and were no one’s favorites; were torn by weaknesses, lack of resources, and heaps of problems, rose to become the first in the finals and beat traditional rivals and become the champions with such brilliance, with such confidence, with such class?

There has been stumbling, there has been staggering, there has been faltering, there has been fumbling, but they have shown there is always more to them than this, if they will.

I think of the tragic romances again, and I see what happened today and I know this romance will never be tragic. It will live to be told to generations. We will endure, we will overcome, we have persevered, we haven’t given up; we can, we have and we will triumph. And so will it.

The reunion is inevitable.

We come from the land of Sassi and Punno, Heer and Ranjha, Sohni and Mahiwal. And while our beloved may be exiled from home, while we remain in separation, we have never been more in love.

What happened today was ishq.

And what happened today wasn’t surreal, it was only Pakistan.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

 ———-
*Later published on PCB Blogs.

An Old Man at Ghora Chowk


I saw an old man at Ghora Chowk late last night.

It was a mere glance, as much a glance as a moving car can afford.

There he was, an old man holding four balloons in his hand, sitting all alone by the side.

We passed him by and I turned around to look, every time a vehicle would approach he would strain his creaking old knees and legs to stand up. Balloons in hand. So he could be noticed.

So he could be visible.

The cars would rush past, and he would sit back down again. Whenever he would see another at a distance, he would stand up again.

There was something about him that made a knot in my throat; that felt as a punch to my heart.

Here was an old man, sitting all alone at 1AM in the sweltering heat on an empty road, with nothing but his plight.

107551530It was a distressing contrast; the vibrant balloons, and the grim desperation of the man who had pinned his hopes on them. I wondered if people even bought balloons these days, I thought about the utter distress and desolation that the hope for whose reduction hung by the thread of a balloon. At 1AM, at an old age, on a road in a city with stifling heat.

It was a mere glance, and yet I thought of my old grandfather who needs care, attention and comfort at the stage of life, as do all elderly. I thought of the difference between them, and the injustice inequality is. No old man should have to be subjected to the ignominy of poverty like this.

Yet here was a man, solitary in his presence on the road, hard to miss, but not solitary in his suffering.

There is a roundabout in Main Market. And on its ground lie dozens of people, every day, living and sleeping. That, is their abode. That, is all they have.

7b06748f48606c16bb038b70cd1576c2.jpg

I look at them, and I look at myself.

There are times I cannot bear Lahore’s heat. I thank heavens for the ACs and the splits and the UPS. Why can’t I bear the heat? Is my skin different from the skin of those lying in Main Market right under the sun? My intolerance is my privilege. I pinch my arm to remind myself we have the same skin, separate but by the stroke of fortune. I can’t bear the heat because I have the choice not to, they bear it as it strikes down at them, because they have no choice.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers, the young, the old, the disabled begging on the roads every day. We inhabit two different worlds behind the window from which we see each other.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers, the young, the old, the disabled begging on the roads every day.  You look at them and you remember, those residing in their palatial residences, in their Raiwinds, their villas, their flats, with their wealth and stakes stashed in places like London, Dubai and Panama. With enough wealth for their seven wretched generations, while the millions live in the uncertainty of what the other day will bring.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers every day.

These are the people upon whose bones, flesh and blood the palaces and the wealth has been built upon.  

I caught a passing glance at the old man, and I cared not one bit about democracy, justice, morals, ethics, political correctness, and wished for all this lot to rot in hell with their ill-gotten wealth.

May the shame they lack be found in their ruin. And ruin they will.

There are two worlds. What finds no fulfillment in this world, will find fact in the other.

_____________________

On our way back home, I silently prayed in my heart that the old man had gone home.

I don’t know why I did, but I just did.

And yet, as we rushed past Ghora Chowk again on the entirely empty roads, there he was. Still sitting. Balloons in hand.

It was 2:30 AM.

I glanced again and his sight seized my heart.

Yesterday, I saw an old man at Ghora Chowk and I wished the world came crushing down.

I wonder if someone bought his balloons,

I wonder when he went home,

If he had any.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Sultanate at Home


I love watching Turkish dramas, especially the one on the Sultanate of Women. You know, the ones on Hurrem and Kosem Sultan.

It’s a subject I’ve long been fascinated by.  It is fascinating, how these slave girls rose to become sultanas that more or less ruled the Ottoman Empire. Most of it is fiction in the show, but if you’ve read actual history, it gives faces to the names; it gives a life to history.

Life certainly wasn’t easy in the harem, there was struggle, there was conflict, there was suffering, there was love, there was loss, there was death.

I’ve read about these sultanas, their lives, their reigns and I have always been left enchanted by their intelligence, their strength, their beauty, their courage, their power, their triumph against adversity and difficulty; their fight against fate.

I read about these women in history and it gives rise to a strange feeling: a pride that the womanhood I possess has been shared by such glorious women; and a realization that inside every woman, there is a capacity for the things they did.

These women seem worlds removed from our time.

As I grow to embrace adulthood more closely, I find myself perpetually fearful both of what the future may hold for me and what this society definitely holds for me.

There is so much to battle against, so much to resign myself to.

I don’t think I have the patience, the tact, the strength in me to deal with the pressures and expectations of our culture and society. I fear because I don’t think I’ll be able to put up with or bear what it throws a girl’s way.

Then there are times in my life, more often that not, during which I am struck and seized by a moment of sheer marvel and awe at my own mother.

206513_1039646246501_7764360_n

This is a woman who seems ordinary, but she’s also extraordinary and yet her life and story are shared by perhaps millions of mothers across Pakistan.

She’s a homemaker.

20170514_135739She was married fairly young, and she has devoted her entire life to her family, the family she was married into, and the family she raised of her own. She has two grown kids now, a few strands of gray in her hair, and yet even today, from the minute she wakes up to the minute she shuts her eye at night, her day revolves around all three of us. Us, our needs, our demands, our joy, our utmost dependence on her from the smallest thing to the biggest pareshani. We frustrate her, bother her, test her. We are not easy people. Her labor is constant, unceasing, tremendous.

It is almost as if we’ve usurped her life from her as a right of ours.

Ammi is the most beautiful woman I know. She’s the woman with the most melodious voice, to which I have woken up to on countless mornings; blended into the rhythms and melodies of a classic Indian song. Ammi is the woman whose every word, expression, gesture and effort is a lesson in compassion, thoughtfulness and selflessness. She moves mountains, she makes the sun rise and fall.

She’s the brightest woman I know, her intelligence and creativity knows no bounds.

She’s a shelter in storms, a shade to rest against amid scathing heat, a breeze amid the stillness and silences of the night.

She sustains three lives, all on her own. And this is her life.

She astounds me because God knows, the sort of strength, patience, the ability to sacrifice, the ability to endure, to overcome, to love, and to forgive, that she has– which I would never be able to muster even in a thousand years. There have been times that had I been in her place, I would’ve given up, let go or collapsed. I falter at the thought of it. I am nothing like her, not even a mere fragment of her self. And I wonder about the plunders made from the fullness of her life. I wonder about the person she was before but isn’t anymore. What were her dreams? What was she like? What did she stifle or what was stifled of hers to make space for other lives? What of her joy did she surrender to make our joy possible?

And how would she have been in another life?

I will never know. 

I keep looking back on the Sultanas, I continue to be fascinated by them, to admire them and to wonder about their strength, courage, brilliance, and beauty. But I need not look far in books, in dramas, to history, to different spaces and times.

 

207889_1039642766414_6561804_n

 

Because here at home I have my mother.

Not a sultana, but a sultanate on her own.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Remembering Eqbal Ahmad


“Editorials and newspaper columns published around the world quickly paid homage to a unique and fearless thinker. Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote “Palestine has lost a friend”, while the New York Times, whose Vietnam and Palestine policies Eqbal had forcefully criticized, admitted that he “woke up America’s conscience”. The Economist described him as “a revolutionary and intellectual who was the Ibn-Khaldun of modern times”

-From Eqbal Ahmad: The Man who Inspired a Generation

55cf0b9c48465

“Throughout the world, we are living in modern times, and dominated by medieval minds—political minds that are rooted in distorted histories.”

Today is the 18th death anniversary of Eqbal Ahmad, who was one of the most brilliant minds Pakistan has produced and one of the greatest public intellectuals.

In the “intellectual indolence” (as he called it) that has reigned in Pakistan, he was a flare of exception, and he continues to be that, years after his departure from this world.

Anyone who has happened to read my ramblings would probably have noticed my eagerness to quote his words and works in them.

Although I became acquainted with his life and work long after his demise, his intellectual honesty, courage and brilliance have taught me to think, to question and to hold writing to a sacred standard of telling the truth, raging against the wrong and raising voice for what is right.

After all, “lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

item-ea-aad-001

                  A young Eqbal Ahmad  (Photo via South Asian American Digital Archive)

 

Since the day I read of him, my admiration for him has known no bounds, and delving into his writings has only left an immeasurable impact on my mind.

Eqbal Ahmad is an ideal for me.

Along with numerous others, I am truly indebted to his work for awakening, educating and inspiring me; and for pushing me into the pursuit of ceaseless learning. As audacious as it is, I would like nothing more than to consider myself and to be considered as a student of his

It is a shame that a man like him – whose unparalleled insights and advice writers, politicians, activists, revolutionaries, intellectuals and people from all over the world sought; and who possessed a prophetic foresight – is hardly known of or acknowledged today in his own country.

Edward Said, with whom Eqbal Ahmad shared a cherished friendship and association (Said dedicated his book Culture and Imperialism to Eqbal Ahmad), said it best when he stated:

“Knowing him has been an education”

11713862_10203762845626711_799447310987141745_o

Edward Said’s letter of recommendation for Eqbal Ahmad when the latter applied for a job at Hampshire College.

And on occasion of his retirement from Hampshire College, Said remarked that Eqbal was,

“..to paraphrase from Kipling’s Kim – a friend of the world.”

Eqbal Ahmad was indeed a friend who saw the future before its time, who was an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed all over the world and was an epitome of intellectual integrity, courage and excellence – a friend who, in today’s global moment of confusion, crises and clamor, is all the more important to remember, revisit and consult.

12814740_10204864027075559_8604237597365980265_n

Eqbal Ahmad gesturing as he leaves the Federal Building, Washington, DC, in May 1971, as part of the Harrisburg Seven, a group of anti-war activists unsuccessfully prosecuted for allegedly plotting to kidnap Kissinger.

If you wish to read more about Eqbal Ahmad, please do check this excellent page run in his memory on Facebook, along with the Eqbal Ahmad Center for Education, and try getting your hands either on The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, or Stuart Schaar’s book on him, or simply Google and directly read about his life, his vision, his many, many interviews, and writings. Or watch his lectures online.

Let us remember the man whom we have are fortunate enough to call one of our own, a man whose words and ideas can still guide, enlighten and lead us out of the dim abyss we find ourselves in.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Remembering Bassem


“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”

– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Today marks three years since my dear friend Bassem Sabry passed away.

This will be a very personal post, I don’t think I’ve spoken about this before but I hope, in writing this, that it makes others sidestep what I didn’t.

I had gotten to know Bassem through Twitter in 2011, a few months after #Jan25, something I will forever be indebted to social media for. Every single exchange I had with him revealed him to be an incredibly intelligent, witty and kind soul. It was a joy to talk to him.

He was brilliant, in mind and heart. In every way.

A year before he passed away, Bassem wrote a moving post on his reflections on life upon turning 30 (and I would deeply appreciate if anyone who is reading this, read that too).

I remember reading it and thinking just how lucky I was to know such a beautiful person, and how privileged I was to have his friendship. I thought of expressing this to him but only “properly”, which would have been by writing him an elaborate and thoughtful message when I had ample time. I will not deny that I was lazy too. Days passed, and so did the months, and I still hadn’t composed anything. The sentiment persisted but time wouldn’t.

In April 2014, through the very place I had gotten to know him, I learnt that he had left forever.

I had looked for time to express myself and it had passed me by, or maybe I had.

Not a day has gone by since April 29th, 2014 when I haven’t remembered him, but not writing to Bassem is the biggest regret of my life. Everyday, I wake up with this regret, this unmovable mountain crushingly sitting on my heart. It gnaws at my heart, just like his loss.

I read of the things happening in Egypt and the world, and I think of what he would’ve said or written about them. His incisive analysis, his articulation.

I think of things that have happened in Pakistan since he left that he would’ve messaged to ask me about.

I think of how our friendship would’ve grown with time, I wonder if my frequent “come to Pakistan someday, Bassem” would’ve ever realized. I mourn a friendship I could have had.

I think of him every single time I exceed a given word limit for something I have to write, and remember how we’d joked that we can never write within limits and it was almost as if it was beyond our control.

I remember him whenever I listen to Shik Shak Shok and how he had laughed with surprise when he got to know that I knew of the song while sitting in Pakistan.

I think of him everytime I turn a page from one of the books I bought after looking at his Facebook album of recommended books. I read the words and wonder what he would’ve thought when reading them.

I think of the kindness, knowledge, honesty, wisdom, beauty and love this world has been deprived of by his departure.

I think of how unfair his loss has been to a world increasingly sliding into chaos and hurt.

Cb9FBu5WwAAc4SOI knew him for a short while but even that short left me with a trove of treasure, of things, learnings, lessons, and people I met through him.

And how generous he was to teach me something even in his passing: that one should never spare even a second in saying a kind word, in appreciating people, in expressing how much they mean to you.

I have done this everyday since he left, even with strangers.  I hope no one ever loses out on the chance to express themselves to the people they cherish and value.

We take so much for granted.

And maybe how swiftly expressive I am to people now is also my way of making up to Bassem. I pray for him everyday. My prayers are profuse because deep inside, I want to make up for what I lost out on. Yet I know it isn’t the same, it can never be.

Never hold back from saying a kind word or connecting and appreciating those who light up your life in little or big ways, even if just for a minute or forever.

Please do read up on Bassem today, acquaint yourself with the person he was; do look through his work, remember him, and perhaps learn something from him, because his knowledge, wisdom, intelligence and heart were limitless in their giving, and he has left behind much for people to glimpse and gain from. To be better, and to do better.

Spare a thought and prayer for him today and most importantly, do what he would’ve loved: be kind to someone. Or as he wrote, “…the greatest honour that one could experience is to arrive upon a true serendipity of an opportunity to aid and bring joy to another human being.”

For those who are still reading this, I end with words from Mohamed El Dahshan’s tribute to Bassem:

“May you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.”

Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.

Wish you had stayed longer.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Blood on Our Hands


*Originally published in The Nation. Unedited version below:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

– W. G. Sebald

A glance at his profile reveals bits and pieces from which you can patch together his person: poetry, musings, an avidness for photography, friendships, quotes from books, posts on global affairs and local issues, a love for knowledge, an interest in Sufism, support for women’s rights and a heart for humanity.

This was Mashal Khan, a kind and gentle soul whose crime was to think freely, to have the audacity to think differently, and to envision a better society and a better people.

17884473_10158442725890577_6431532837485394761_n.jpg

He was brutally murdered in Mardan.

Is it even a shock that such a horrific incident took place in a country which has institutionalized bigotry and hate? Where politicians, representatives, leaders, judges, journalists, anchors and clerics peddle hate, bigotry and violence every single day?

Before the matter of blasphemous posts was concocted, Mashal was accused of being an Ahmadi which he had denied. Is such an incident unexpected in a land whose laws enshrine exclusion, discrimination and persecution towards the Ahmadi community?

When the state sanctions hate, it is a license for the public to have a free hand to apply it wherever and whenever they wish.

The gruesome incident also forces questions about blasphemy in Pakistan, including the reform and the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. It is undeniable that the matter warrants honest and candid debate, but it is also a point to ponder whether or not the people would stop baying for blood if the Blasphemy Law goes. In Mashal’s case, neither a formal complaint nor an arrest had taken place. There has been no appeal to law, mob vigilantism was the law of the day.

The baying for blood may not disappear with the Blasphemy Law, but let us be clear that state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas opens the floodgates for abhorrent public sentiments and abominable tendencies and menaces to come to the fore and actively play out. Trump’s ascent to the White House and the boost it has been for white-supremacists and racists stands stark in sight. One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.

In Pakistan, state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas, a certain narrative of Islam and the narrative of blasphemy, is an encouragement for the public to engage, express and execute their depraved schemes, bigotry, intolerance, and to take the law into their hands.

Mashal’s murder, however, must not push us into the utopian expectation and idealistic hope that the Pakistani government and state would step up to reflect on their responsibility, their complicity and decisively act to steer the country away from the destruction it is steeply descending into by each passing day.

Such an expectation and hope cannot be fostered while the state and government pander and patronize for their own agendas and interests the very elements and organizations whose extremism, intolerance and violence are fatally injuring Pakistan. Such a hope cannot be kept while religion is employed as a potent weapon for political expediency, for cheap political mileage and for silencing dissent; while lawmakers declare those who wish to see Pakistan should either mend their ways or leave the country; while the Prime Minister’s son-in-law engages in hate speech against the Ahmadi community; while political parties scurry to shake hands bloodied with the lives of thousands of Pakistanis, in the name of electoral alliances; when disappeared bloggers and arrested professors are struck with blasphemy allegations; when the Interior Minister threatens to shut down social media due to blasphemous content; when judges become moral crusaders and drum up perceived dangers to Islam to curtail freedoms.

That this witch-hunt and venom would extend and seep into online spaces was only inevitable.

545b6c88e717c

Shama and Shehzad

It is too much to expect for things to change when not a leaf stirred when Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in broad daylight, when the Christian couple of a pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad were lynched and thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln, or when an angry mob set fire to a house in Gujranwala killing three Ahmadis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.

The involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism and intolerance confronting Pakistan. We are complicit, through our outright espousal of extremism, through our apathy towards its victims; through the stutter and stammer of our tongue with “ifs” and “buts” when condemning these acts, through the repugnant “justifications”, “explanations” and “questions” we offer for these acts; and through our refusal and silences to protest against them. In one way or another, we are complicit.

When an institution of education, knowledge and learning becomes the site of a cold-blooded, brutal murder, it should be enough to recognize that the Pakistani state is a rotten state, with a diseased society, both of which can never bear a truly living and thinking individual like Mashal.

The state is complicit, and so are we.

We may not have been present at the site of the murder, but we enabled it.

One can suppose that the splatters of blood are lighter on our hands, but know that they are there nonetheless.

Every day, this country dies a ghastly death at the hands of the mob it has the misfortune of calling its people, its nation.

It seems even God has forsaken Pakistan for we alone are responsible for the hell and havoc at home.

Kitni badnaseeb hai who qaum jo apne mashal khud hi inkar aur tabah karde.

Kitne mashal bujhaye jayein gay is mulk main? Aur agar hai, tau kitna tareek hai iss mulk ka mustaqbil.

-Hafsa Khawaja

 

Narrowing Spaces


*Originally published in Daily Times. Slightly longer version below:

Pakistan seems to be caught in a constant movement of one step forward and two steps backward.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers, who were critical of the state and establishment, sent shockwaves through the civil society. Their recovery was a cause of relief, however the message of their disappearances to the rest of the activist community was hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

Recently, activist and academic Dr Riaz Ahmed was arrested during a protest on the charges of possessing an illicit weapon allegedly found in his vehicle. Regardless of the dubious charges, it is important to know that the paramilitary force officer, on whose complaint the case was registered against Dr. Riaz, did not fail to mention that the professor was also “involved in advocating on Facebook for the release of ‘blasphemous’ bloggers reportedly picked up by law enforcement agencies recently.”

17620090_10212800518356153_5008944078782522803_o

The allegations of blasphemy have permanently jeopardized the lives of the recovered bloggers, but that those who demanded and protested for their release are now also considered tainted, and their lives subsequently endangered, is a disturbing sign.

In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Holi address to the Hindu community in Karachi garnered surprise and praise from several sections of the population for whom it embodied the progressive acceptance, inclusivity, pluralism, and tolerance that should be at the heart of Pakistan.

While the PM’s speech may have ignited a flicker of hope regarding some modicum of a progressiveness in the government’s orientation, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was swift to emerge as the moral crusader of the hour, second only to Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, to snuff it with the threat of blocking all social media sites in the country which host blasphemous content.

But relevant to this matter, and to the larger phenomenon of Pakistani political parties’ usual pandering and patronizing of the religious right and extremist organizations, is the late Eqbal Ahmad’s incisive analysis in which he wrote:

“Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.”

However, Chaudhry Nisar’s reported statement in Dawn regarding the social media ban, that “no country can allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule the pretext of freedom of expression”, is telling of the other objectives the ban would clearly serve. That the “ridicule” of state and government officials can be swept by a ban ostensibly related to religion indicates the enduring convenience of religion as a useful prop for Pakistani politics and the state itself.

These threads of incidents and developments tie into the thriving reality of an increasingly and dangerously shrinking and narrowing space for freedom of expression, criticism, dissent and protest in Pakistan. It is a space constantly threatened and stifled by religious obscurantism, extremism and state’s growing intolerance of dissent. Activists, students, bloggers, artists, academics, journalists and members of the civil society are steadily being targeted by virulent campaigns or directly arrested on dubious and fictitious reasons.

The academic spaces in the country don’t have brighter views to offer in this these days either.

C7d9RgWXgAAVP6zAt Punjab University in Lahore, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba once again demonstrated their notorious thuggery on a Pakhtun Cultural Day event resulting in clashes and violence. It was later revealed that, in wake of this incident, the Punjab University administration had decided to ban all student programmes and events within the university premises.

This beleaguering bodes well for no one.

Earlier this year, Pankaj Mishra wrote on Vaclav Havel’s conception of a “parallel polis” and its practical construction as a source of people power against the Trump administration:

Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase).

The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”

Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power.

As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.

Although Mishra emphasised Havel’s idea in the current American context, it is helpful for all cornered people and their resistance against the rise of unjust power against them in other countries too, including Pakistan.

The people will have to take up their cause themselves.

The drive to homogenize Pakistan’s religious and cultural character, and to monopolize its narratives through exclusivist understandings and actual violence, has long been a project of regressive forces and the responsibility falls on ordinary citizens today to thwart its renewed attempts.

With this march of terror, fear and suppression, that draws strength from the standard repertoire of reasons such as religion, “national ideology” and “national security”, it has now become necessary for all concerned citizens to recognize this reality and organize to protect those who fight for our freedoms, and vigorously preserve the spaces and liberties we are entitled to.

Further space and freedoms must not and cannot be conceded in the face of this rising tide of regression, repression and pressure, for there is only more beyond a surrender to them.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Return to Pakistan


I’ll say it again, the casualties of terrorism in Pakistan have been many. The sense of loss is perennial. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

I look at my city, and I am often unable to recognize it.
The Lahore I knew was a Lahore of basant, concerts, cricket matches, festivals; a city constantly throbbing with life. Lahore today is the beating heart whose loud, wild and festive rhythms are muffled and arrested by high security alerts, barbed wires, check-posts, fences, and high walls. Arrested by an architecture and landscape of fear and insecurity, mirroring the one we have come to construct, and navigate through everyday, in our collective mind.

17022367_1860334464251748_573775710316885305_n

So many of us have spent the past few days and weeks pondering over and expressing how unwise and misguided holding the PSL final in Lahore is, and yet this return of cricket, this event, even if temporary, even if carefully orchestrated, even if precarious in the possibilities it offers, swept away all the supposed rationality, skepticism, cynicism and sense with which we argued. It was impossible to escape the significance of the event and the overwhelming emotions it brought it: the jazba, the junoon, the frenzy, fervor, joy, excitement – of a beloved’s return, of the recovery of something lost to where and to whom it rightfully belongs, of that persistent pester that refuses to die and continually tugs at the heart for embrace: hope.

And what happened in Lahore embodied it all today.

16996016_10158282530515324_4664250810193786260_n

The crowds, the dhamaal and Dama Dam Mast in the stadium, the electrifying spirit, the joy, the celebration, so beautiful, powerful and symbolic. That we remember Sehwan. That we celebrate Sehwan. That we are all that Sehwan represents. That we will not bow.

That this, this audacious defiance, is Pakistan.
That all is not lost, that we refuse to surrender.
That one day, we will prevail.

Call it what you will, a distraction, a silly show, but God knows we needed this. This was not a triumph against terrorism, it may change nothing, it may have been the extremely short-lived return of international cricket to Pakistan, but for a few hours, it was the return of millions of Pakistanis to the Pakistan they knew, the Pakistan they remembered, the Pakistan they miss.

May we come to see a time where the normal is no longer nostalgia, where this yearning for the normal is no longer normal. May Lahore and all of Pakistan once again pulsate with the celebration, joy and peace witnessed today.

(Also, may Lahore Qalandars have mercy on Fawad Rana and us, and atleast make it to the semi-finals in future editions of PSL….)

Thank you, PSL. Thank you, all policemen, officers and officials who helped make this happen.

Congratulations Peshawar, Warka Dang!

PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!

-Hafsa Khawaja

Panchayat and Jirga Justice?


*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

A married woman recently set herself on fire in Gujrat upon learning that she was pregnant as a result of being subjected to rape by the order of a panchayat.

In Rahim Yar Khan, a nine-year-old girl was given as Vani to a boy of fourteen as a settlement of a murder dispute by a jirga.

In Umerkot, it was reported that a case of gang rape was “settled” for a compensation of 30 mounds of wheat.

In the capital, a bill called the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill was passed by the 23 members of the National Assembly who were present that day, in hope that it would lead to “a speedy resolution of petty civil matters and reduce the burden of litigations on the courts.”

pic_1486128073

This bill provides legal and constitutional status to jirgas and panchayats. This ADR system is set to settle 23 types of civil and criminal disputes.

Jirgas and panchayats have often been the purveyors of archaic traditions, customs and inhumane practices, which the three cases above only offer a glimpse of.  And it ostensibly in view of this that the government has proposed a number of alterations and adjustments to jirgas and panchayats which the bill contains.

The bill proposes the appointment of mediators or panels of ‘neutrals’ in districts who will, after consultation with the high courts, be drawn by the government from “lawyers, retired judges of superior and subordinate judiciary, retired civil servants, social workers, ulema, jurists, technocrats and other experts..”.

However, it is a point to ponder whether the conflicting parties and the people of the districts will accept the authority of the jirga and panchayat if its leaders are not drawn from their own milieu and their decisions are not in line with their entrenched local traditions and local values, such as those of honor. There might also exist the possibility of opposition by the local elders and elites, which have traditionally constituted and headed these jirgas and panchayats, to this replacement and dislocation of their authority. There may also come into being or already exist parallel jirgas and panchayats which will further contest and complicate the process. Therefore, it is essential for the government to have a plan in hand for ensuring acceptance of the appointed mediators’ authority, adherence to their decisions and neutralizing potential opposition and conflict.

The Law Minister had added that the disputes will “be settled with consent of both parties in the dispute and if any woman feels that she is not being given justice, she can move the court.” It is here that the main issue arises. Alternate mechanisms for justice are important, but it is also necessary to keep the nature and character of jirgas and panchayats in view, which have been notoriously misogynist.

8xii3qf4-320

[Excerpt from an Express Tribune report]

Last year, 16 year old Ambreen was hanged and her corpse set ablaze in Makol on the order of a local jirga after it was learnt that she had facilitated an elopement.

In 2015 in Kohistan, a local jirga’s order for the murder of five women after a video of them dancing at a wedding emerged, made it to international news. One need not elaborate at length the long list of verdicts and orders given by jirgas and panchayats in Pakistan that are repugnant and obnoxious to basic human rights, especially with regards to women. It is precisely for this reason that women’s rights organizations have voiced concern regarding the passage of this bill. The Women’s Action Forum has termed ADRs “in the patriarchal and socially unjust and unequal conditions that prevail in Pakistan” as unacceptable.

To carry on from the Law Minister’s statement, if at the end of the day an aggrieved party has to take the route of the courts, then how exactly is the provision of a legal cover to these panchayats and jirgas a step in the direction of speedy resolution of issues and a lessening of burden in litigation?

In her article on jirgas in 2015, written in wake of Ambreen’s case coming to light, lawyer Sahar Bandial located the need for jirgas and panchayats in the “inaccessibility of and delays in the dispensation of justice by the formal legal system.” Her conclusion is echoed by Abuzar Salman Khan Niazi in his comments to Pakistan Today on the passage of the ADR Bill:  “Justice delayed,” he pointed out “is justice denied. And where a property case can take up to ten years to reach resolution in a court of law, a communal gathering or jirga could bring the matter to a conclusion in a matter of weeks.”

It is evident that Pakistan’s mainstream legal system possesses a plethora of problems and burdens, which necessitate that it is streamlined, and in the meanwhile, alternative avenues for dispensation of justice are provided.

However, attempting to provide legal status to institutions as deeply problematic and flawed as jirgas and panchayats seems to be a solution thought in haste, without a thorough examination of their nature and without an elaboration of the mechanisms to ensure the dispensation of justice by these in its fullest measure. That this bill was passed in the National Assembly by a mere 23 out of the 342 members also tosses its legality into doubt and emphasizes the elected representatives’ scant sense of duty and regard for the institution.

While the passage of the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill in the Senate is uncertain, the possibility of the dispensation of justice in its fullest measure by jirgas and panchayats, given their history, the existing social and cultural realities and power structures they operate in, the questions given rise to by the provisions in the bill itself, remains equally doubtful.

-Hafsa Khawaja

It Hurts, Deeply


*Originally published on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

It hurts, deeply.

Lahore. Quetta. Mohmand Agency. Peshawar. Sehwan.

I wonder, will we ever live without this sense of fear and foreboding? This anxiety and fright of you or your loved ones stepping out of the house only to be separated forever.

One of the ways I spend quality-time with my younger sibling is to go to the cinema with him. There have been times when we’ve been there and I’ve been struck by anxiety, and seized by apprehension. What if someone blows this place up today? What if terrorists burst in here? Where is the nearest exit that I will be able to push Abdullah towards? How can I hide him? No, he’s too tall now to be hidden. What will we do if something happens? We shouldn’t be here. What if something happens? What if?

I wonder.

But I am distressed when he goes to school too.

I worry.

I worry someday the Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, or other monuments and places of historical and cultural significance might come into the focus of terrorists. I worry my historical and cultural heritage will be irrecoverably taken from me.

Because nothing is sacred, nothing is certain.

This sense of fear, the sense of loss doesn’t lurk in the dusty corners of our minds, they loom on our hearts, crushingly. 

There are texts and emails every now and then. Identifications of potential targets. Security alerts and warnings. Places to be avoided. Emergency drills to be conducted and participated in. Fears to be grappled with.

For how long?

Normalcy eludes.

I thought nothing was left there to break me further after Peshawar, and yet we learn that what is shattered can be broken further. The past few days have reminded me of the 2008-2009-10 days, when we had ninety suicide attacks and five hundred bombings in a single year.

I thought we were past this. I hoped we were. I prayed we were.

The rising death toll. The need for blood donations. The full impact of the attack. The same old condemnations. The same old rhetoric. The same old statements. The same lies, the same passing the buck, formation of commissions, orders for inquiry etc. Until another attack. And repeat.

50,000 and counting.

We have come to a point where the names of cities are symbolic of the violence, loss and tragedy they have borne. Peshawar is not its history, Peshawar isn’t Fort Bala Hisaar, Peshawar is not Khyber Pass, Peshawar is not its heritage, its beauty, its culture, Peshawar is the APS Attack.

Quetta is not Quetta, Quetta is Hazara killings.

Cities are no longer cities, they are signifiers, signposts of tragedies. Of losses borne, of lives mourned.

The violence, the loss has subsumed everything.

The casualties of terrorism go even beyond the lives. They are tragic ruptures in what was once our cherished collective and celebrated cultural and social life and identity. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

Everything is a reminder of what we face. There is no distraction, there is no relief.

I am at a stage where I shut myself from social media when a tragedy occurs. Because I am a coward, I can no longer face it. I am selfish, because I don’t want to.

I am tired.

Where does one summon the strength from when all is sapped?

I can shut social media for a while, but I cannot shut torment and turmoil of my heart.

I think of the lives taken, I think of the promise held by their presence in others’ lives; the promise held by their existence for Pakistan; a promise betrayed.

I think of the healers, teachers, sportsmen, artists taken from us, who were never given the chance to know it themselves. I think of the ordinary person toiling all day to put bread on the table of his family, wanting to just return home at the end of the day. I think of the love, warmth and hope plundered from multiple lives and generation with the robbery of a single life, in a single moment.

I wrote this before, I’ll say it again:

There are times when I want to escape Pakistan, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to the suffering in this land, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that its suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you, Pakistan, have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

It hurts, deeply.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Ominous Signs


*Originally published in The Nation.

At least six activists have been reported missing within a week.

The editorial in The News was correct in emphasizing “that the near-simultaneous disappearances are linked since all four of the activists shared the same approach, were critical of government and establishment policies and were prominent online and on social media.”

The space for expression and dissent appears to be increasingly shrinking and shriveling. That notable individuals like Salman Haider, a human rights activist and professor at Fatima Jinnah University, can vanish in broad daylight from the capital is a frightening revelation that people’s prominence and profiles can offer no protection or deterrence from the danger and threat of disappearance.

A few weeks back, a small and peaceful demonstration by the Democratic Students Alliance in Lahore, organized in response to the Islam Bachao rally taken out earlier, was stopped and the participants detained at the Racecourse police station for several hours. This crackdown on the peaceful practice of basic constitutional rights and freedoms, along with recent developments, is a grim start to the new year for the country.

Pakistan’s civil society is neither ignorant nor impervious to repression. In fact, it has possessed a history riddled with struggles against censorship, suspension of civil liberties, arbitrary arrests, and persecution under the various dictatorial regimes. However, to witness the revival and replication of these measures and instruments during the stint of a democratic government is an alarming, outrageous and deplorable stain on its claims of a democratic character and credentials.

15940725_225403267919010_4523425218974207522_n

A glance back at the last two or three years also yields a bleak picture associated with a deteriorating situation spanning academic freedoms, press freedoms and civil liberties in the country.

With regards to this, a profile of Mohammad Hanif in the New Yorker aptly captured the constraints of the English-language press in Pakistan and encapsulated a series a incidents related to their breach:

“The Pakistani press corps works with a strange mixture of privilege and constraint. Pick up one of the better English-language newspapers—the News or the Dawn—and you will find penetrating coverage of national security, poverty, and governmental corruption. But, beyond shifting and mysterious boundaries, no journalist may stray without risk. In 2010, Umar Cheema, who had written about dissent within the military, was picked up by men in police uniforms who were widely presumed to be I.S.I. agents. They shaved his head, sexually humiliated him, and dropped him miles from his home, with a warning to stop. The following year, Saleem Shahzad published stories asserting that the armed forces had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in a canal.”

In 2015, a scheduled panel discussion on the “history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was forcibly booted and cancelled after ‘external’ intervention.

In 2016, there occurred the passage of measures such as the Cyber Crime Bill and the move to condemn Cyril Almeida, after much fuss and furore, to the Exit Control List, after his report on civil-military relations.

It is both interesting and worrying to note that discussions within spheres such as a private, often touted as elite, university in an urban provincial capital, and a leading English language newspaper, which were previously considered largely off-limits to state encroachment, now risk subjection to the control of a state, a political, military and intelligence establishment, that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any sign of dissent or criticism.

If the disappearances of these activists has been orchestrated in order to stifle criticism of state institutions and policies, it a short-sighted move since, in addition to protests and rallies across cities, the disappearances are being covered by major national and international media outlets and human rights organizations.

Dissent, criticism, difference of opinion, and activism are critical for a living society, and central to a robust democracy. It appears, however, that some state organs or some actors in the country wish to stem these in their myopic drive to steer Pakistan into ruin.

The sudden spurt of blasphemy allegations and accusations of being “anti-Islam” directed at some of the missing activists also poses a perilous situation for them even if they are recovered, since the mere suspicion of blasphemy is enough to continually and permanently endanger an individual’s life in Pakistan.

It is still hoped that the activists will be recovered safe and sound, however, even if they return, the climate of fear and intimidation engendered by their disappearances will remain. The message of these disappearances is hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

A strongly-worded editorial in Dawn brought to light an important assumption and accusation operating in this entire issue:

“The sanitised language — ‘missing persons’, ‘the disappeared’, etc — cannot hide an ugly truth: the state of Pakistan continues to be suspected of involvement in the disappearance and illegal detentions of a range of private citizens.”

The matter of “disappeared” and “missing” persons began in Balochistan, and today it has reached the capital. There is no escape for the state from this, for it is either complicit or it is incompetent. And for the rest of the country, these are ominous signs.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Far From A Conclusion


*Originally published in Pakistan Today:

Mirrored by a decline in the number of terrorist attacks and incidences and the restoration of a semblance of law and order, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has recently begun to be touted as a story of success.

However, within the month of December alone, a number of developments occurred which question this assertion. There occurred a siege and attack by a mob of 1,000 people on an Ahmadi mosque in Chakwal, during which a 65-year old man belonging to the persecuted minority suffered and died of cardiac arrest. The Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Muhammad Yusuf also happened to present a “peace award” to apostle of peace and esteemed ambassador of inter-sectarian harmony Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, who is now a member of the Punjab Assembly after winning the PP-78 Jhang by-election. Furthermore, flocks of people were reported to be drawing to a site at the outskirts of the capital which was revealed to be the grave of Mumtaz Qadri that is now being turned into a shrine. News of the interior ministry’s preparation of the draft of a law which seeks to give military courts, whose term expired on January 7, permanent status also did the rounds. Lastly, while Jibran Nasir struggles to get a case registered against Abdul Aziz for his declared allegiance to ISIS and for incitement of hate against Shias, pressure from the Sunni Tehreek led to the registration of an FIR and a spate of death threats against Shaan Taseer, son of slain governor Salmaan Taseer, for conveying Christmas greetings to Christians in Pakistan and expressing hope of redressal for those subjected to the blasphemy law.

That these developments occurred within the span of a single month is an unsettling realization which also asks for the direction and narrative of Pakistan’s campaign against terrorism and extremism to be probed and reviewed.

A concrete answer to the question and status of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism is found in Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s inquiry report into Quetta’s Civil Hospital attack of 9th August 2016. The 110 page report provides extensive insights into the “monumental failure to combat terrorism and perform basic protocols” especially pertaining to the National Action Plan. It mentions not only a lack of action against proscribed organizations, that have freely held rallies in Islamabad, but also a brazen “cavorting” by key government figures with the heads of these organizations, as was demonstrated by the meeting between the interior minister and Ahmed Ludhianvi of Ahle Sunnat Wal Juma’at. The report further makes mention of lapses, limitations and inadequacies in terms of the tools and methodologies used to investigate attacks; along with sheer negligence in  “silencing extremist speech, literature, and propaganda” and the stark “shortsightedness” of the federal and provincial governments in thwarting terrorism and extremism.

The report is an act of Qazi Isa’s professional integrity and bravery, but it is also a damning expose and indictment of the government, the interior ministry and the failure and façade that is the National Action Plan.

The number of terrorist attacks and incidents in Pakistan may have registered a considerable drop in numbers but they are far from over. In fact, their focus in certain areas and upon certain communities remains as forceful and fatal as ever. The past year alone remains relevant in illustrating this. In 2016, a Shia majlis was attacked in Nazimabad, killing four. But denial about targeted killings of the beleaguered Shia community persist within the wider narrative of the population. Quetta was also frequently besieged by tragedies which have ceaselessly continued to devour and devastate the city. In August, the blast at the Civil Hospital killed an entire generation of the city’s legal community, while the attack on the police training academy took the lives of 61 cadets and guards. In September, suicide-bombers targeted a mosque in Mohmand Agency, and an Imambargah in Shikarpur during Eid prayers. Earlier in 2016, the attacks on Bacha Khan University and Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park took place. The sites for terrorist assaults may have shifted to neglected and orphaned “peripheries” like Quetta and FATA, but the danger and threat persist. And they will linger as long as state institutions remain divided on the matter and continue to keep in place dubious policies and doctrines that bar an unequivocal commitment to counter extremism and terrorism in all tints and tones. This is no longer a contention but a judgement officially articulated and validated by Justice Isa’s report.

On the other hand, the lifted moratorium on the death penalty, perhaps the only implemented measure of the much-hailed National Action Plan, continues to work in full force without any hindrance of transparency and accountability. According to the Justice Project Pakistan, an estimated 400 prisoners have been executed since the lifting of the moratorium, pulling Pakistan to the position of the third most prolific executioner globally. The JPP also states that a slim 16 per cent of the executions carried out since December 2014 were tied to charges of terrorism, while the rest involved juveniles and disabled inmates. The mockery and sham of justice continues at the courts and the gallows.

Moreover, the attack which gave rise to a national sense of urgency in dealing with terrorism has yet to be investigated. The APS attack, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the National Action Plan were predicated upon, has actually been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at the parents who have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack. Two years on, an inquiry into the APS attack has not been ordered but actively suppressed.

In light of these realities, as Pakistan steps into 2017 it is necessary to proceed with cautious optimism and realize that the calm engendered by a decline in terrorist attacks is relative and temporary as long as the roots and the many manifestations of the menace are not tackled.

This relative calm should not engender a sense of complacency among the federal and provincial governments whose approach to the issue already comprises craven surrender, prevarications and papering over the problem.

The scourge of terrorism and extremism doesn’t only need to be subdued but stifled and strangled to an end. There exists a dire for a fundamental change in the framework, direction, orientation and agendas of the state and the actors steering them. Neither declarations, nor a rhetoric of resolve and programs like the National Action Plan would suffice. Templates and infrastructures like the NAP can only aid and facilitate actual implementation on ground which demands political will, courage, vision and resolve that repudiate political expediency, cavorting, patronizing, pacifying and pandering to militant, sectarian organizations and the many faces and forms of extremism. Until then, Pakistan’s success against terrorism, drawn from a decrease in the number of attacks, must be recognized as partial success in a war with multiple battles and fronts, a war still far from a conclusion today.

-Hafsa Khawaja

#RecoverAllActivists


When dissent becomes danger, when protest becomes a peril, when the word becomes a threat, when a demand for answers becomes unacceptable, when a handful of people and a handful of Facebook pages become a menace, it becomes even more important, it becomes necessary, to raise your voice, to question, to oppose and to disallow the monopolization of narratives, to disallow the perverse and systematic silencing and stifling, and to stand your ground and confront this march of fear.

15874852_10209653911616649_3125490734711355557_o

At least four activists have gone missing within this week.

If there is any doubt in your mind regarding the need for activism and the need for us, as a people, to exercise our rights and kick up a furor over what is perpetrated in our name, look no further.

During times like these, one is always faced by the dilemma of whether one should lie low and live to speak another day or to speak even louder. Should personal safety and security assume primacy over all else? Yet there is no safety if the safety of another is endangered or violated. When sectarian murderers rally at the heart of the capital, when interior ministers cavort with the heads of “banned” organisations and when people are picked up and “disappeared” in broad daylight, every act, every effort becomes significant in this fight. No matter how small.

Resist.

Every time makes demands on people, perhaps this is its demand from us. And it is certainly worth a try.

As the great Eqbal Ahmad put it, and this is something I wish to live by: “Lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

If you choose to sit on the sidelines and be “apolitical” during this, that too is a position, and a very political one. Your comfort is complicity.

Today it is them, tomorrow it could be us. It started from Balochistan, it has come to Islamabad. Its appetite for control is insatiable, it’s grip and clasp is huge. Power is unsparing, unrelenting, voracious, unjust. It will stop at nothing until we step in its way.

#RecoverAllActivists

Black Goats vs Human Responsibility


*Originally published on The Nation Blogs.

Pakistan may have a plethora of problems, but it definitely has no shortage of a peculiar set of solutions to deal with those when the need arises.

Recently, photos emerged of a black goat being slaughtered at the airport tarmac in Islamabad right beside a Pakistan International Airlines plane. PIA has now reportedly launched an investigation into how and why a goat and butcher’s knife were brought to what was a restricted zone.

While at first it seemed that the chief national policy, Allah de hawale, was in action, it was later revealed the slaughter was done as “a gesture of gratitude” in light of ATR operations being resumed.

It is reminiscent of what a sessions court judge in Karachi said in 2015 when dismissing a plea filed against the Sindh government regarding incompetence and apathy in the face of the devastating heat wave that struck the city:

“Climate change is in control of Almighty Allah…Due to climate changes the season of monsoon also has been effected and rather delayed and for all this we being Muslims have to pray before Almighty Allah to extend the relief to the human being by showing His kindness.”

Religion pervades ever corner of Pakistani society and culture. And the state’s ample usage of religion has a long and vivid history which thrives even today. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that references and supplications to the divine feature at all levels in the country, from Pakistani courts to airport tarmacs.

What is unsettling, however, is the conception of religion in this regard. Divine power and fate are frequently invoked, but to what purpose? Often to shift the burden of responsibility that is tied to human agency.

Perhaps the slaughtering of the goat was a well-intentioned act by some PIA employees, and genuinely a gesture of gratitude or a prayer for safeguarding flights against further accidents. And its occurrence certainly does not mean that normal security, safety and upkeep procedures were not being followed, however the symbolism of the act is striking.

The late Ardeshir Cowasjee’s scathing attacks and timeless critiques of the malaise residing and pervasive among the Pakistani people resonate in this regard:

f

 “Gutter bana nahi saktay aur atom bomb banatay hain, cement main bajri ziada mila dete hain aur imarat pay Masha’Allah likh dete hain kay ab inhe khuda bachaye ga” – Cowasjee

No number of goats will be adequate for slaughtering to save PIA from its problems, which lead force such expressions of relief and gestures of gratitude in the first place, if a thorough inquiry and reform is not conducted pertaining to the airlines’ lengthy list of problems and inefficiencies which have made the national airlines the subject of numerous jokes and a source of constant embarrassment to the public, and a source of constant fear to those who chose to fly with it.

In short, the exercise of human agency, effort and diligence is wholly necessitated – that God has given precisely for its application.

Perhaps people in Pakistan need to be acquainted with the message given by Professor Mehmet Gormuz, head of Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs in 2014, to muftis after the tragic Soma Mine incident which took the lives of 303 workers in Turkey. Professor Gormez’s message was also a response to then PM Erdogan’s statement that such accidents were matters of fate and nature:

“Producing excuses about ‘divine power’ for human guilt and responsibility is wrong. The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters. The strength of the believer against the consequences of disasters is important. But similarly important is the believer’s comprehension of the causes.”

The importance of Gormez’s message resonates: ‘divine power’, ‘fate’ and hopes for “divine intervention” and “protection” should not be used as exculpatory devices; as escapes from and substitutes for human responsibility; as excuses for indifference, inaction, and as excuses for the pandemic of human incompetence which we parade all over Pakistan.

-Hafsa Khawaja

 

 

 

The Sham of “Never Again, Never Forget”


“Never again”
“Never forget”

For most of us, this is a mantra recited every 16th December.
And while we speak of the 141, we forget that those really left behind were 141 shattered families.

Amid their immeasurable pain, sorrow and loss, these families, gathered immense courage to knock at the doors of power.

The APS attack, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the grand National Action Plan were predicated upon, has actually been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at these parents who have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack.

15442304_10206641719876768_8334796854948599504_n

Who does an inquiry threaten and why?
What dangers does it pose?

An investigation and a probe will provide no closure to the insurmountable grief of the bereaved, but an investigation will provide some semblance of accountability, answers, and a degree of insight that may be used to prevent further lapses and failures which endanger countless lives.

The APS attack doesn’t warrant the spectacle of mawkish speeches and songs, grand commemorations and empty and insincere vows declared every 16th December, the APS attack doesn’t demand this sham and farce which humiliates rather than honors and remembers the loss.

15420773_10206641719916769_8909955981834410059_n

As long as an inquiry into the attack is not conducted, the sham of justice, the sham of “never again” and “never forget” shall continue.

And today, let us also remember these parents, and salute them for their resolve and courage, for not bowing to numerous pressures and intimidation, for being the only ones to never forget.

Participants in Prejudice and Persecution


Recently, a video surfaced of a man brutally beating and abusing a trans individual. According to media reports, the man, known by the name of Jajja Butt, has been arrested along with other individuals involved in the incident.

Another video was also released of Julie, a member of the transgender community herself, narrating the details of the entire incident and the level of cruelty and abominable treatment – which includes being forced to drink urine, rape and violence – they are regularly subjected to.

While shedding light on the plight of the transgender community in the society, the emergence of the video also elicited a great deal of shock and outrage.

Although the expressions of outrage aren’t misplaced, there is also another issue that needs to be faced with: our role in enabling the condemnation of trans-individuals to the fringe of society where patterns of ostracization, marginalization, discrimination and violence against them reign.

How are we enablers and participants in perpetuating the position of the transgender community as second-class citizens? 

transgender_presser_photo

It is not uncommon to hear “khusra” or “khusri” being thrown around as pejoratives or as so-called humor. And that is exactly what the usage of such language does; it reduces a community and a people to demonized and dehumanized subjects of crass humor, derogatory remarks, ridicule, insults and abuse. Our language is a vehicle for the reflection, reproduction and reinforcement of prevailing social realities, prejudices and beliefs, which are the most vile and unkind when it comes to vulnerable, neglected and persecuted communities like the transgender community.

Such is the level and pervasiveness of this ridicule that prime-time entertainment shows on major TV channels openly employ the identity of a trans individual as a device for humor by having the identity acted out as a character or costume.

These are nothing but shameless caricatures of the plight and situation of the transgender community in Pakistan.

A post by Rabia Tariq encapsulated the problem at hand:

screenshot-2016-11-18-19-02-02

It is right to demand that the state take vigorous steps for the protection and welfare of the transgender community in Pakistan, but the burden of responsibility falls upon us also too for we have been complicit in their isolation and persecution, if not by indifference and insensitivity, then by inaction.

The Supreme Court’s earlier recognition of transgender individuals as a separate gender category on national identity cards and its stress on their right to vote were certainly groundbreaking developments, but these developments cannot work in a vacuum, and existing ground realities attest to this. It is essential to realize that a community which has been oppressed, isolated and ill-treated since decades can neither be integrated in society nor utilize any extension of equal rights without the necessary material and social conditions which must be created for them. The state or government may emphasize or order the employment of trans individuals, but individuals from the community itself cannot avail this without having acquired the necessary education or skills that they have been deprived from all their lives by their removal from participation in mainstream society, and without the cultural and social recognition, acceptance and tolerance of their presence in public spaces, their status as equal citizens with equal rights and equal humanity.

And it is here that we, as a society and a people, must step in to reflect on our role in enabling the discrimination and injustice against this community, and to challenge the entrenched and prejudiced institutional and cultural environment which perpetuates their persecution by our indifferent or active participation in it.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Handful of Salt


While the fuss and furor over a certain journalistic report violating national security raged, lesser attention was lent to the crux of the report itself: the reemergence of the government’s fresh resolve to tackle militant outfits and the stern communication to the military leadership of the need to be on the same page for it.

Voices from within the parliament have also been emerging against Pakistan’s problematic position, shady instruments and assets of foreign policy and national interests, and their ramifications. Aitzaz Ahsan took to bluntly criticizing the government for its unsuccessful imposition of “restrictions on non-state actors according to the National Action Plan”, as did PML-N lawmaker Rana Muhammad Afzal who is reported to have questioned the continued “nurturing” of Hafiz Saeed by the state.

There should be little uncertainty or confusion about the repercussions of these policies on Pakistan which include a fractured social fabric, the loss of 50,000 lives, and a tattered international image. The negligible and indifferent global response to Pakistan’s latest crusade for Kashmir has also disclosed the country’s embarrassingly insignificant standing and tainted reputation on the international stage; which squanders even the scarce diplomatic support and capital the country possesses. While numerous conspiracy theories can be contrived and churned to which this deplorable situation can be ascribed, it is undeniable that Pakistan owes this mess to a suspect stance and strategy on the issue of terrorism, and an appalling state of foreign policy, that others are all too willing to make vigorous use of in pushing for its isolation.

And domestically, what is there to see?

Only a few days ago, a Shia majlis was attacked in Nazimabad, killing four. But denial about targeted killings of the beleagured Shia community persist within the wider narrative of the population.

14650721_10153829077606433_5063245449293667997_nQuetta has been besieged by yet another one of the tragedies which have ceaselessly continued to devour and devastate the city. At least 61 cadets and guards have been killed in the attack on the police training college there.

Much praise has been heaped on the military leadership for eradicating the scourge of terrorism and reestablishing a semblance of law and order, a perception certainly bolstered by the DG ISPR’s claims that the “military has completely cleared all terrorist hideouts in Pakistan.” But it would serve us well to brush our memory and remember that an attack in Quetta just this August killed an entire generation of the city’s legal community. In September, suicide-bombers targeted a mosque in Mohmand Agency, and an Imambargah in Shikarpur during Eid prayers. A few days ago, four Shia Hazara women were murdered after assailants opened fire at their bus in Quetta. Earlier this year, the attacks on Bacha Khan University and Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park took place. The frequency of terrorist assaults may have considerably slid down the scale, and the sites of these attacks may have shifted to neglected and orphaned “peripheries” like Quetta and FATA, but the danger and threat persists. And it will linger as long as state institutions remain divided on the matter and continue to keep in place dubious policies and doctrines that bar an unequivocal commitment to fight extremism and terrorism in all tints and tones.

On the other hand, the lifted moratorium on the death penalty, perhaps the only implemented measure of the much-hailed National Action Plan, continues to work in full force without any hindrance of transparency and accountability. Earlier having delayed the execution of a mentally-ill 50 year old man by the name of Imdad Ali, the Supreme Court recently and outrageously ruled that schizophrenia cannot be considered a mental disorder, essentially clearing the way for his execution. The mockery and sham of justice continues at the courts and the gallows.

The National Action Plan also came into rare force in April when the planned convention for the commemoration of the Okara peasants’ struggle was banned and more than 4000 peasants were charged under anti-terrorism laws. That demands for land rights by peasants now constitute terrorist offences violating ‘national security’ while those who incite hate, violence and maintain actual networks of extremism and terrorism enjoy the luxuries of liberties through the fear and patronage of the state, says much about the scheme of the National Action Plan and the farce of ‘national security’ which is only employed against the weak, those who speak truth to power and those who put pen to paper.

More recently, the parallel conference on Kashmir reportedly held by the infamous Difa-e-Pakistan Council in Islamabad while the Prime Minister chaired the All Parties Conference is also a symbolic testament to the ideological polarization and contestation for power and influence in Pakistan between the government and various hardliner groups. This reported gathering, of what was essentially a coterie of notorious individuals such as Hafiz Saeed, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, and Ahmed Ludhianvi, was especially potent as a reminder of the government and establishment’s shaky sense of proclaimed purpose, weak will and faint dedication towards reining in “banned” groups and individuals involved in nefarious activities and agendas.

screenshot-2016-11-01-19-26-52

That these ‘banned’ outfits were allowed to hold a gathering while Section 144 was supposedly in application, just to curb a political party’s protests, paints an expose of the dark farce that Pakistan has come to be.

parents-of-aps-martyrs-threaten-capital-sit-in-1431828110-6122Most alarmingly, the APS tragedy, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the grand National Action Plan were predicated upon, has been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at the parents of the 141 children that have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack. Who does an inquiry threaten and why?

So as hopes slowly climb upon the possibility of the political and military leadership finally working in tandem against terrorist and non-state actors, it is critical to take the news with not a pinch, but a handful of salt. If they truly are serious and sincere about battling the menace of terrorism and extremism in the country, the political and military establishment can no longer proceed without dismantling existing ideological frameworks guiding state policy; the dangerous and illusory distinctions between “good” and “bad” Taliban; the selectivity of fight against terrorist and extremist outfits, and the pandering, appeasement and patronage of militant sectarian outfits and organizations like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is predicated upon the logic of “assets” and useful instruments of so-called national interest and strategic advantage. To reaffirm the revival of resolve in the struggle against terrorism, the leadership of the country needs to go beyond mere political posturing, grandstanding, and lofty rhetoric. It needs to practically demonstrate change and prove it by concrete action. Until then, the eyewash shall be carried on with and the country’s current direction, which has yielded nothing but disaster domestically and internationally, shall continue to hold Pakistan and its future hostage. And we shall continue to mourn the loss of lives, cities, and the loss of Pakistan.

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Holy Cow of “National Security”


It is telling of a country’s affairs when the state becomes a threat rather than a guarantor of freedoms, and when the pen becomes a threat more than any sword.

Democracy may begin with the ballot box, but does not end at it, and if the PML-N government believes otherwise, it is sorely mistaken. Democracy is meant to be demonstrated, but a string of recent actions by the government in Pakistan have only orchestrated a sham of it. The passage of measures such as the Cyber Crime Bill and the move to condemn Cyril Almeida, after much fuss and furore, to the Exit Control List are disturbing signs for freedoms in the country: academic freedoms, press freedoms and civil liberties.

Only last year, a scheduled talk on the “history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was forcibly booted out and cancelled after ‘external’ intervention.

It is both interesting and worrying to note that discussions within spheres such as a private (often touted as ‘elite’) university in an urban provincial capital, and a leading English language newspaper, which were previously considered largely off-limits to state encroachment, now risk subjection to the control of a state, a political, military and intelligence establishment, that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any sign of dissent or criticism.

A profile of Mohammad Hanif in the New Yorker earlier this year aptly captured the boundaries of the English-language press in Pakistan.

“The Pakistani press corps works with a strange mixture of privilege and constraint. Pick up one of the better English-language newspapers—the News or the Dawn—and you will find penetrating coverage of national security, poverty, and governmental corruption. But, beyond shifting and mysterious boundaries, no journalist may stray without risk. In 2010, Umar Cheema, who had written about dissent within the military, was picked up by men in police uniforms who were widely presumed to be I.S.I. agents. They shaved his head, sexually humiliated him, and dropped him miles from his home, with a warning to stop. The following year, Saleem Shahzad published stories asserting that the armed forces had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in a canal.”

With regards to Almeida’s story, the “PM, army chief and others were unanimous that the published story was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts”.

What exactly are these grand “universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues” are known to none but the government and military leadership alone. Who defined “national security”? And since when did the common and widely-known matter of civil-military relations and imbalance, which have been a constant theme of tension in Pakistan’s history and a determinant of Pakistan’s domestic and international position, conveniently become an issue of “national security”? It is both a ludicrous notion, and as Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) pointed out, the mark of an “insecure state”.

The rejection and denial of the story by the PM Office also stated that the “prime minister took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action”. It is a strange state of affairs when militant sectarian organizations and their leaders operate freely, spew their venom and continue endangering Pakistan’s standing in the wider world and the security of Pakistani citizens, who may happen to have been born in the “wrong” sect or faith, but a journalist doing his job (and rational person would consider his report to be a positive sign of change in state policy and resolve) warrants “stern action”.

Ironically, the decision to add Almeida to the ECL, has given more weight to his story and thrust it into international spotlight. If Almeida’s story was seen as damaging for the Pakistani state, this move has provided ample fodder for its embarrassment and for the country’s detractors. So much for the state’s attempts to smother and stifle the story. While this decision acts as a confirmation of the reported rift between the political and military leadership that Cyril had written of, it is also, in ways, a confirmation of the political and military establishment’s unity; a unity and unanimity in silencing critics and challenges to state narratives.

The establishment’s increasing intolerance towards challenges to its monopolization of state narratives and towards criticisms of its machinations is an alarming development. It has has no right to impose its caprices and whims by arbitrarily designating issues of discomfort to itself as sacred and holy matters of “national security”, set them off-limits to public discussion and knowledge, and punish and bar people from their right to speak, write and know about them. Have we not enough of one Blasphemy Law? Have we not had enough of the Holy Cows?

It is highly commendable that Dawn has unequivocally stood by Almeida, but it is not enough. Irrespective of our personal opinions and disagreements with the news report at the core of the case, it is important for all to realize the dangers and threats inherent in the following developments that are relevant to all of us, the future of democracy in the country and the future of Pakistan itself.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Can the FATA Reforms Break Colonial Legacy?


*Originally published on Tanqeed.

(This article is essentially a watered-down version of a research paper I penned examining the question of how colonial is the post-colonial in terms of the FCR in FATA)

September 05, 2015 — In order to return to their homes from which they were forcibly displaced, the Pakistani government demanded that the people of North Waziristan sign a compulsory and non-negotiable social agreement. That contract demands their allegiance and loyalty to the Pakistani constitution and to the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the colonial era law that is still used to govern the countries Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Most crucially, the agreement entailed that should the tribes fail their responsibilities as categorized in the FCR, they will be subject to severe punishments that include cancellation of their national identity card, passport and other legal documents as well as possible confiscation or razing of their homes. While alarming, the origin of the obligations and punishments in this contract rests in a longer colonial history. In that regard, far from being unusual, it is a window into what has been the normal state of affairs for FATA since at least the British colonial era.

With the FATA reforms process now underway, it is critical to examine the basic logics which have functioned in the governance of this territory. Only by analyzing them can we undo them.

Essential to this analysis is the link between the long history of modern imperialism and Orientalism. As Edward Said expounded, Orientalism is a “a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.” It constructs an essential difference between the East and the West, and imagines the “Orient” as the absolute Other of the “Occident,” in the process stereotyping the customs and “minds” of the former.

That reasoning is evident in colonial documents. For instance, in his 1933 book, The Martial Races of India, General George MacMunn, a British general classified the Pashtuns as a “martial race” but an “untutored” people leading “a wild life….carrying out a blood feud that has been in progress for generations, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Such writing was not mere description; it could be codified into law. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 defined entire tribes as criminal and punished them accordingly on the basis of a racialized and essentialized understanding of criminality. Where “frontier law” was concerned, in particular the Murderous Outrages Regulations that were the forerunner of the FCR, historian Mark Condos writes that, “Arguments for the creation and preservation of…law invariably centred around claims about the purportedly ‘exceptional’ character of frontier governance, particularly the idea that this was a region that existed in a perpetual state of war and crisis.”

Some scholars have also pointed out that, in addition to Orientalist attitudes, the FCR was established in FATA because the British made a cost-benefit analysis. Scholars Sarfaraz Khan and Abdul Hamid Khan note that one of the reasons that the standard legal and administrative system that the British empire sought to institute in the rest of India was not extended to the frontier was “because of its worthlessness in the context of procuring raw material or generating revenue.” Other experts have also pointed out that, at the time, much of that territory was operating at a deficit because of low crop yields and security problems. Instead, the British developed what came to be known as “indirect governance” by co-opting local tribal elders and maliks to collaborate with colonial officials.

Since 1947, there have been a number of amendments made to the FCR most of which have been insignificant in terms of substantial reform. In 1996, the people of FATA were given the right to vote. Since then, the most substantive set of amendments have been the presidential package of 2011 introduced by then president Asif Ali Zardari. It removed women, children below 16, people above 65, and entire tribes, from the clause of collective responsibility, arrest and punishment; provided appeal mechanisms and time frames for the disposal of cases; allowed for inspections of jails, and introduced provisions for bail. The amendment package also introduced checks on the powers of political agents, punishment and compensation for false prosecutions and extended the Political Parties Act 2002 to FATA. For the first time, political parties could operate in FATA.

But despite these amendments, some core issues remain. Article 247 of Pakistan’s constitution, which states that FATA is to be governed by federally, invalidates the application and operation of laws made by the national parliament in FATA, unless the president intervenes and consents. It also removes FATA from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts. The president is the ultimate authority for the creation of ordinances and the passage for amendments in FATA. Such a set-up essentially excludes FATA from the political, social and economic mainstream of Pakistan.

This system of governance in FATA produced the conditions for the current quagmire. Several analysts have argued that the Pakistani state has kept FATA under the FCR for the purpose of fostering the growth of strategic assets of the state, namely Islamist fighters who can be called upon to do the bidding of the establishment. Additionally, its use as a battleground for policies of “strategic depth”, which aim to diminish Indian influence in Afghanistan, has created an environment suitable for criminals, thieves, smugglers and terrorists.

Since 9/11, FATA has acquired new significance, and the political discourse has further entrenched essentialist ideas about the territory and its people. The place is still treated as “exceptional” and in a “state of war”, which bears a degree of resemblance to the colonial assumption of the frontier belt as a periphery of exceptional circumstances and conditions in need of exceptional legal-political regimes. It is the entrenched interests in FATA that have furthered this view. As Sarfraz Khan and Abdul Hamid Khan write, “those powerful having stakes in status quo, prefer [the] existing arrangement in the name of tribal autonomy and preservation of its culture.” These powerful include the political agents, other bureaucrats appointed in FATA and the maliks, all of whom enjoy a considerable degree of power, status and authority which would be diminished, if not entirely terminated, if the FCR is abolished in FATA in favor of the mainstream constitutional order.

Arshad Afridi, the provincial senior vice president of the Qaumi Watan Party’s youth wing, concurs. “Maliks, MNAs [member of national assembly] and bureaucrats in the FATA Secretariat are the ones propagating that the people of FATA want FCR to be retained because it has empowered them. [The] MNA brings a political agent of their choice and they collectively rule the agency. Maliks are the so-called elders who misuse their power in jirgas.” Afridi also adds that apart from the legal power vested in these groups under the existing framework of the FCR, these people also thrive through the illegal activities available in FATA.

The retention of an anachronistic colonial instrument like the FCR was condemned by the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius as “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”. The people of FATA are still bound by a colonial set of relations, barred from the share of any political, social or economic development and participation in the rest of the country; dehumanized and virtually treated as second-class citizens. And while Pakistan’s use of the FCR may be informed by the post-colonial state’s own dispositions and distinct reasons, in that they differ from the exact imperial calculations of the British in implementing the FCR, but for the people of FATA the post-colonial has only been a continuity of the colonial. It is clear that the FATA reforms will only be successful if they can constitute a break from this lingering colonial continuity and its relics.

– Hafsa Khawaja

Looking to Turkey


*Originally published in Pakistan Today. Slightly edited version below:

Lenin is reported to have said, There are decades where nothing happens—and there are weeks where decades happen.” 2016 appears to be one of these weeks. Spanning a number of events, from attacks on European soil in Belgium and France, the occurrence of Brexit, to the looming specter of a Trump presidency in the United States, this year has been marked by several waves of shock, and further ripples were added to these when Turkey dramatically foiled a coup attempt on the 15th of July.

A Dark Moment in Turkey

As news of the coup was revealed, Turkish people flooded outside to mount a challenge, in what was perhaps the most remarkable moment of the botched coup.

People poured out on the streets and roads, blocking the way of rolling tanks, pushing them back, protesting, resisting.

More than two hundred and fifty lives were ultimately lost but history is sure to record the bravery of Turkish protesters as an incredible act of tremendous courage, rendered in the name of defending democracy. Around the world, people were watching—some more intently than others.

Pakistan and Turkey both share phases of history deeply pockmarked by a series of coups and military regimes. Any upset in the civilian-military relations in Turkey thus inevitably evokes interest in Pakistan’s political and public sphere. And while one must always tread carefully and cautiously in pulling parallels between peoples, histories, countries, and events, the recent developments in Turkey do offer something for Pakistan to consider.

Turkey, Pakistan, and the Military

Turkey’s main opposition parties, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (M.H.P) have been vehemently critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan . Due to the tensions which collapsed the peace process between the AKP government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, the relationship in the case of the HDP, whose members Erdogan has previously called to “face prosecution, accusing them of being the PKK’s political wing”, has been even more strained.

Despite these tensions, it is important to note that within hours of news breaking that a coup was being attempted, all three parties strongly denounced the coup and voiced unequivocal support for the democratically-elected government of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In contrast to Turkey, Pakistan’s political parties are known to have distributed mithais (sweetmeats)  on the occasion of coups ousting   rivals; a display of petty opportunism at best. Such a political attitude may be attributed to the nature of Pakistan’s political culture which has historically been stunted by decades of military dictatorship and repression; and subsequently disadvantaged by the denial of an uninterrupted, smooth, and gradual . The prospect of gains from collaboration with military governments also propelled this political expediency.  However, this attitude was, appeared for the most part, on the decline following the Charter of Democracy of 2006 which was signed between the late Benazir Bhutto and now-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The CoD formed an alliance between the Pakistan’s People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to end General Musharraf’s military regime, and enshrined a collective pledge to the principle of civilian democratic rule and its restoration in Pakistan.

More recently, a maturation of political attitudes was witnessed during Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s PTI-PAT sit-in of 2014 in the capital.  The public protest was organized by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and centered on claims of widespread rigging by Nawaz Sharif’s party in the general elections of 2013. The sit-in, which lasted from August 2014 to December 2014, was eventually joined by the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, led by Canada-based Islamic cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. Together the parties and their gathered supporters exerted pressure upon what they called the “illegitimate” PML-N government, calling for the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls across the country.

In wake of this sit-in, political temperatures in Pakistan rose alarmingly. However, they ended up fostering a welcome climate of political unity, solidarity, and practicality by bringing together an entire spectrum of parties under the umbrella of protecting Pakistan’s nascent democracy from imminent danger.

Similarly, the galvanization of masses in Turkey against the coup was also an answer to the surreal call given on a mobile-video app by a Facetiming  Erdogan on CNN Turk for the people to take to the  . While large segments of Turkish society mobilized in defense of democracy alone, the public’s support for Erdogan’s AKP – which helped it garner half of the vote in the elections of 2015 – was also clearly significant in terms of the witnessed mobilization.

Little doubt exists about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic ambitions and his bid for greater power, evidenced by the sharp streaks of authoritarianism he has exhibited without inhibition when “running roughshod over political rivals, tossing enemies into jail and intimidating the media.” His heavy-handed tactics to repress the Taksim Square protests of   also proved to be ample evidence of his shriveling sense of restraint in dealing with opposition. Erdogan’s oppressive and intolerant tendencies have been emboldened after the coup attempt; most sharply demonstrated by the recent purges, which The New York Times aptly characterizes and reveals as being of an “unprecedented scale” and comprising the dismissal of 9,000 police officers, 21,700 officials of the Ministry of Education, the forced resignations of 1,500 university deans, the suspension of 21,000 private school teachers, the detention of 10,012 soldiers and 2,745 members of the judiciary, and the shutdown of more than 100 media outlets.

So, how has Erdogan been able to consolidate power? In part, the AKP government has overseen solid economic and national development in Turkey during its tenure, while positioning itself as the representative of a large constituency in Turkey , comprising Muslims who have long felt ignored and marginalized by the secular elites and the state, and the segments of society which benefitted from the economic policies of the AKP government. But its greatest asset is the same force that allowed the government to resist the coup—the loyalty of the state police and a large contingent of the military.

It is now clear that the loyalty of the state police and a split within the Turkish military itself, with the acting chief of staff Umit Dundar against the audacious initiative to topple the government, also enabled the failure of the coup.

In her interview with Isaac Chotiner of Slate magazine, Professor  Jenny White, of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, spoke about the supremacy of the military at the time of the AKP’s assumption of power in 2003 and the systematic program of defanging it by the government:

“Initially, when Erdogan came to power in 2003, the army was still all-powerful. They still had a position above the government…together with the Gülen Movement, they [the AKP] initiated a series of high-profile court cases against the generals. They put a lot of the high-ranking officers in jail. All of the heads of the different forces eventually resigned. And at that point, Erdogan reached back into the chain of command and promoted someone up. The end result of that was that the military chief of staff was loyal to Erdogan. After that there was no more uppity-ness. They were demoralized.”

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has seen three military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, and in the sixty-nine years of its existence, it has been subjected to three decades of military regimes. The last of these was headed by General Pervez Musharraf who resigned in 2008 succumbing to immense political and public pressure and protests which grew after his controversial imposition of emergency on 3rd November 2007 and the ensuing measures.

Pakistan has been under two different democratically-elected governments, one after the other, since 2008. Yet even as the popularity of democratically elected governments waxes and wanes, there appears to be no end in sight to the popularity of the military as an institution in Pakistan. The poster-boy for this traditional reverence for the army is the powerful Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef today, who is often the subject of frequent and curious #ThankYouRaheelShareef hashtags and trends on social media which heap appreciation on his efforts against terrorism, and hail him as a  strong and upright general who has nothing but the best interests of Pakistan at heart. And while Nawaz Sharif and his government may have ostensibly survived the political crisis of 2014, posed by the impasse engendered by the Khan-Qadri protest sit-in, most believe the crisis was staging ground for the army to launch a soft coup; as a result of which the government ceded power over main matters of the state, such as foreign policy and security issues, to the army in exchange for the security and stability of their tenure.

In 1995 the late Eqbal Ahmad penned an article titled “The Signals Soldiers Pick”, offering an incisive analysis of the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan and the environments conducive to tilt that in either’s favor which still resonate. He emphasized that the end of military intervention in politics hinges upon the legitimacy of the civilian system of power [being] established over a period of time.” He also stated that, ‘We [Pakistan] have been lacking both the political framework and leaders capable of investing the civilian system of government with authority, and taming the warrior class.’

In comparison to the AKP, it is patent that Pakistan’s democratically elected governments have not only been unable to enjoy hardly any period of uninterrupted power, most of which were cut short by instability and coups, to establish a democratic foothold – it was only in 2013, after 66 years, that the country had its first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. When in power, they have been beset by charges of corruption and incompetence, and the threats of military intervention have always hung dangerously close to them. Democratic governments in Pakistan have also continually manifested a complete lack of political vision in terms of their quality of performance and governance, which invest the democratic system with credibility, popular support and legitimacy; that firmly confer upon it the empowering authority it often lacks. This is a challenge further compounded by their lack of imagination, will and courage to take on the military and establish ascendancy of the civilian democratic set-up in the Pakistani state’s equilibrium of power.

Evidently, smooth democratic continuity; a solid establishment of government credibility and stability; and the political will and vision to subdue unbridled military encroachments on the domain of state power are pivotal to democratic durability and authority in Pakistan. The road to it, however, remains rocky.

Lessons for Pakistan from Turkey

The failure of the coup in Turkey owes a great deal to democratic fervor. London-based British and Turkish writer and academic Ziya Meral was quick to praise the “many amazing journalists, academics, activists who are fierce critiques of AKP consistently spoke against the coup attempt.” According to Mustafa Akyol, this occurrence underscores “…that Turkish society has internalized electoral democracy, and Turkey’s secularists, despite their objections to the Erdogan government’s Islamism, seek solutions in democratic politics.”

Many Pakistanis took to social media during the coup attempt, praising the perpetrators and encouraging Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef to lead a similar coup. The existence of this pro-military rule sentiment accentuates the flakey faith some segments of Pakistanis feel towards democratic governments, and the persistence of the military’s age-old, and well-crafted, popularity among the people as the “most trust-worthy institution” in the country – as was also revealed by a survey held last year – especially in contrast to political actors and leaders.

In response to a tweet stressing Erdogan’s authoritarianism, Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Alsaafin replied with, “[Erdogan is] not champion of democracy, but democratically elected.” Alsaafin’s comment contains a principal point; that it is essential to protect, improve and strengthen democracy as the institutional framework for the state and its citizens, despite its imperfections and problems.

As Erdogan unleashes his purges and pillory, the impression that he will entirely squander the support and goodwill he has garnered after the attempted coup, rather than use it for a moment of sensible reflection, is increasingly being lent weight. Nevertheless it is evident that unequivocal political support, the support of the masses and the allegiance of state organs to the belief in democratic civilian supremacy are key to a worthy effort and solid fight, if not bulwark, against the audacity of military adventurism. It is also important for Pakistan to understand that democracy means much more than a current government or a certain crop of leaders. To borrow the idea from Mustafa Akyol’s analysis, the solution to democratic problems must be sought in democratic politics.

Turkey may have had more coups than Pakistan, a gulf of different dynamics, and more turbulent experiences to reach this point, but it is never too late for Pakistan to pick a lesson or two from it.

-Hafsa Khawaja

You, Pakistan


INTERVIEWER

Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”

JAMES BALDWIN

Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.”

You break me often, into pieces, into shards, into tatters and tears.

There are times when I want to escape you, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to your suffering, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that your suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

Yet there is no other music to which my heart beats as strongly, to which my heart celebrates and aches, but that of your turmoil, triumph and tumult’s rhythms and rhymes.

You, Pakistan, are my pride and my pain.

520b3014d3e99

I can’t help hoping about you, because to let go of hope for all that one has is too big a risk to take.

And so I hope and pray today, may fate and future heal your many wounds and that of your many children.

Today I think of Edhi, NFAK, Eqbal Ahmad, Faiz, Habib Jalib, Malala, Ardeshir Cowasjee, Gulgee, Jahangir Khan and countless others who shone brightly upon the world, with their truths and talents, with your name. I celebrate them.

But today I also remember the irreplaceable Sabeen Mahmud, the courageous Shuja Khanzada, the incomparable Amjad Sabri, those taken in the Quetta attack, the 144 that perished in Peshawar, and the 50,000 souls that were usurped from you. Today I think of the Shia, the Ahmedi, the Christians, the Baloch, the people of FATA, the poor, the deprived, the marginalized; all those who seek your justice, your peace; who seek that you to own them as yours. Today I remember them, I mourn them and I honor them, and I pray, I plead: may you be kinder to your people, and may your people be kinder to you.

Against all your afflictions and misfortunes, may you, Pakistan, forever and always prevail.

Faithfully yours.

Remembering Edhi: Let Us Be His Legacy


“So many years later there were many who still complained and questioned, “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?” And I was still saying, “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”

“The Holy Book should open in your souls, not on your laps. Open your heart and see God’s people. In their plight you will find Him.”

“There is no such thing as an illegitimate human being” [On the issue of infants and children being abandoned because they are illegitimate].

Edhi & Bilqees Edhi also take care of the small daughter of the thief jailed for burglary of the foundation in 2014.”

“Day after day, for decades, Edhi and his wife rescued abandoned babies, drug addicts, and victims of political and gang violence. He did God’s Work.

No matter how worse things took a turn for in Pakistan, Abdul Sattar Edhi was one individual, one icon, one saint who gave me, and all, strength and hope. Hope, that there is good in Pakistan, that there is good in this world. And strength, that in him resided the embodiment of all that Pakistan could be. The best Pakistan could be.

I saw in him the Muslim I wish to be, the human I wanted to be. I saw in him the magnificent beauty and purity of humanity.

I knew for every Mumtaz Qadri, there was Edhi. For every Malik Ishaq, there was Edhi.
There was never need for another human being, for he was enough. He was no man, he was an institution.

As we writhed in the pain of our wounds, he healed us.

But he was no hope for the helpless, the beggared, the oppressed, the lowest of the lowest. For the poor laying on the footpaths in the scorching heat, for the beggar limping his way amid traffic, for the infant abandoned for no crime but his birth, for the addicts ostracized, for the victims of a cruel society and an apathetic state -for those who had no one – he was there, he was their everything. He had no education, no riches but he was their food, their clothes, their shelter, their parents, their dignity; their salvation sent from God. 

Edhi healed.

All and everyone.

10888502_10202703969395467_2514851080401721812_n

(My apologies for lack of credits to whoever this image originally belongs to, I found this on the internet years ago and haven’t been able to trace its owner)

He was Pakistan’s soul and heart, a soul and heart unblemished by hate and division. A heart and soul that did nothing but give kindness and love; and that gave generously and selflessly.

He was one of the greatest Pakistanis, if not the greatest alone. And certainly one of the greatest human beings. To walk the same land as Edhi, what an honor it has been. To breathe the same air as Edhi, what a privilege it has been.

Pakistan is infinitely poorer today. Pakistan is orphaned today.
God knows how this void will ever fill, how this void will ever heal. More than ever, it was today, at this moment in time marked by bigotry, distrust and hate that we needed Edhi Sb’s unblemished humanity and love, his unparalleled courage, his matchless integrity and honesty, his radiant humility and dignity, and his towering principles.

AHNyKqbm

We needed Edhi now, desperately, but we also needed him forever.

 

As per his wishes, his healthy organs will be donated. Even in death, he has given, he has helped. He has served right till the end, and beyond.

The only befitting tribute to him would be our realization of the humanity he espoused and practiced; a humanity higher than the petty matters of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, sect, politics and prejudice. A humanity higher than the flimsy divisions we have constructed between ourselves; on maps, in borders, in our minds and in our hearts. There is no better tribute to him that our espousal of his principles and his ideals; it is no tribute, it is a duty and a responsibility owed to a man to whom we will forever be indebted.

Raise your voice, stand up, work and act for a tolerant, humane and peaceful Pakistan and world.

For if only we would all strive for even a speck of the incredible humanity he personified and possessed, Pakistan would be a much better place.

Let our actions, not our fortune, lay claim to Abdul Sattar Edhi and his life. Let us be his legacy.

Let us mourn but let us also honor him. Let us be his legacy, in words, actions, in life and in spirit.

Thank you and farewell messenger of humanity, farewell Edhi Sahab.

—–

Side Note:
I do not wish to write about anything other than the great man and the great loss we have been faced with today, but I find it difficult to sidestep the growing set of comments condemning the Nobel Peace Prize in wake of Edhi Sb’s demise.

You are doing no service to Edhi by reducing his life & work to the trifling recognition of a prize he never sought; he sought nothing. Edhi was in no need of any prize or recognition, and especially not validation. If you want to recognize him, carry the spirit of his work forward. Do not reduce the man and his legacy to some prize or reward, he was above all of these. Do not project the smallness of our minds and hearts onto the greatness of the man. Do not dishonor him like this, please.

—-

Also:

Let us not forget the role Dr. Adeeb Rizvi and SIUT have played in caring for Edhi. Dr. Rizvi is a man in the same league as Edhi’s, he is an incredible human being, an institution and a living legend.

Original Link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154226167180915&set=a.10152469851790915.1073741828.642145914&type=3&theater

Photo Credits: Usman Ali on Facebook. “Dr Adeeb Rizvi, the doctor who looked after Edhi Sb for last 10 years came to Edhi Sahab’s Janaza without any protocol. He sat down on ground and didn’t make any attempt to move to front rows. People shook hands with him and took pictures. He was so easily accessible. The man whose stature is close to Edhi Sb was sitting like a common man. If there was anyone who deserved VVIP protocol today, Adeeb Rizvi Sb was the first person who should have been considered for it.”

A pity he isn’t known much (although known very well to those who threaten him) but he has been aptly called “Pakistan’s Miracle Doctor” and has saved thousands of lives while ushering in a new era for Pakistan’s healthcare system with SIUT.

Below are excerpts from BBC’s coverage of his work:
“But one public sector hospital in Karachi provides free specialised healthcare to millions, led by a man whose dream was inspired by the UK’s National Health Service. Now the hospital says it has the distinction of performing the highest number of successful renal transplants, dialysis sessions and treatment of kidney stone disease anywhere in the world.
He could have opted to set up his own private hospital. He could have built up his own lucrative empire while keeping his day job at the poorly run government hospital – a path taken by many highly qualified physicians in Pakistan.”

 

Who was Amjad Sabri? He Will Never Know


Amid mourning,

The music died,

Amid grief,

The conversation stopped,

Amid lives trampled,

A heritage crumbled,

All was lost,

Silence reigned,

Nothing remained.

All was lost.

Amjad Sabri's fanbase comprises of seasoned listeners and the youth alike. He frequently performed at colleges and universities. —Photo by Shahzaib Arif Shaikh (Taken by Dawn: In photos: Amjad Sabri— The powerhouse performer)

Amjad Sabri’s fanbase comprises of seasoned listeners and the youth alike. He frequently performed at colleges and universities. —Photo by Shahzaib Arif Shaikh
(Taken by Dawn: In photos: Amjad Sabri— The powerhouse performer)

I don’t have anything profound to say because there is nothing more profound, more jarring than loss.

Kuch kehne ko alfaaz nahi, jab na insaan na koi awaz rahi.

Seeing the news, my 15 year-old brother asked me yesterday who was Amjad Sabri?

Who was Amjad Sabri?

“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”

So wrote Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451.

Since I’ve read it, it has made me think of my friend Bassem Sabry.

It has made me think of Sabeen.

It has made me think of those no longer among us. And of the many taken from us.

And yesterday, it made me think of Amjad Sabri.

It struck me.

Knowing never again would we hear the majesty of his voice, the magic, the tradition, the feeling, the beauty. Knowing that there will be many who won’t know him after this, whose souls will be starved from the stirring that he alone evoked; their hearts hollow from being unmoved. Knowing he would never again sing. Knowing the many messages of love, peace and harmony he will never again recite. Knowing all the melodies, rhymes, and rhythms that his voice will never touch, they will never come to be for he is no longer there. 

From Sabeen Mahmud to Amjad Sabri, to all in between and before, this is true.

Kaise bharain gay yeh zakhm, kaise bharay gi yeh khalah?

Kaun wapas la sakay ga baap ki shafqat un bachon kay saro’on par?

We are poorer today than we were yesterday.

This is a poverty of permanence. No amount of riches, no degree of progress can ever paper over this poverty; a poverty of culture, of art, of tradition, of heritage, a poverty of humanity.

And this sharply struck me when my brother asked,

Who was Amjad Sabri?

He will never really know.

Every political item yesterday in the news bulletin infuriated me. All these “leaders” & “governments”, the whole circus, making a joke out of Pakistan as we keep losing our best. The creators, healers, musicians, artists. Our assets, our traditions, our institutions.

Shadeed muzamat. Afsos ka izhar. Tehkikaat ka hukm jari. 

Yeh roz ki rasmayein.

Their apathy, their indifference, their incompetence – Pakistan pays for those every single day. In blood. They keep engaging in their political manoeuvres and gimmicks while Pakistan continually bleeds in a pool of its own blood.

But it’s not just them, it is us.

My mother remarked in wake of the attack, kay mulk kay aise halaat kay dauran kuch bolna hi nahi chahiye. I disagreed, akhir Amjad Sabri ka kia qasoor tha? What was it that he spoke to have had his life cut short? Iss mulk kay halaat satar saal se aise hi hain, kitni daer tak bayawaz bethay gay ham? Zinda hain kay murda hai ham?

Kyun koi nikalta nahi? Kyun koi manta nahi kay iss zulm ka aik chehra aur soch hai? Kyun bhool jatay hain ham?

As a friend, Sajjad Hussain, wrote:

When you’re politically correct and resort to meaningless euphemisms, you call the confused, callous, compromised and complicit majority a ‘silent majority’.

You, yes you, are complicit.

Amjad Sabri kee zindagi kay baab kay sath Qawwali ka aik sunhera baab hamesha kay liye band hogaya. Iss mulk main kitne aur baab band hon’gay? Umeed aur insaaniat kay baab tau kab kay band ho chukay. Kab hoga iss zulm ka baab khatam?

Alfaaz nahi iss sanehay se mutaliq. Jis mulk main kuch reh hi na jaye zulm kay ilawa, kuch kehne ko baqi kia reh jata hai.

No other voice today can describe the irreparable void we’ve been left with, except his own.

Rest in peace, Amjad Sabri.

“Āj bhi mere Rabb tere ghar main

Gūnjtī hai azān-e-Bilālī

Bhar do jholi meri ya Ilāhi

Laut kar mai na jāunga khālī…”

 

 

P.S: Please have some sense of respect and decency in this moment of grief. There is nothing in sharing or viewing graphic images, except perhaps the gratification of some twisted and sick voyeurism. Think of a loved one in such a position.
None of us ever wants to be seen in any state or condition we consider unfavorable or bad, let us not do that to a man who can no longer control it and whose last moments were marked by violence. Kissi kay dardnaak lamhe aur halat ko tamashai ban kar dekhna aik beyhuuda, bayhiss aur bayreham amal hai.
This was a man who gave us much joy and brought us much pride. Show him respect, let him be remembered in all his might and glory, and please remember him as that.

PEMRA’s Bans: Perpetually Problematic


*First posted on The Nation’s Blog.

“Why is Ahmadi such a taboo word? Ideological stances aside, my only goal is that when an Ahmadi is killed or persecuted, the media shouldn’t be scared to talk about it,” he had said.

It seemed too good to be true. A conversation about a pressing issue being initiated by a prominent TV actor with a large fan-following on national television during Ramzan.

And indeed it was.

A few days back, a video emerged of Hamza Ali Abbasi hosting a channel’s Ramzan transmission in which he questioned the seated Islamic scholars whether the state has any right to define who is and isn’t a Muslim, and if the state has the right to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. He further elaborated his intention to host an entire programme on the Ahmadis and the controversial Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan. Hamza was treading on dangerous ground, one which is bloodied with risk and loss.

Social media immediately became abuzz with contention, praise on one hand and condemnation on the other. The latter was taken an alarming notch further when death threats starting pouring in from numerous ends and a certain “Maulana” Kaukab Noorani Okarvi appeared on a show to declare that anyone who discusses the two issues, of Ahmedis and the Blasphemy Law, warranted an end to be put to his life, “ussi muqaam par ussey goli maar di jaaye.”

The absence of any action on part of the government concerning what is an unambiguous signal for murder also indicates the level of its commitment in combatting extremism and safeguarding the lives of its citizens. But even more indicative is perhaps the possibility that either the government agrees with Noorani’s ideology or that it does not have the courage to take action against the expression of a belief, that those who speak of the Ahmadi issue and Blasphemy Law should be killed, which has a great deal of currency and supporters in the society.

But on a more immediate level, what should’ve been an active and responsible response by both PEMRA and other government authorities in light of the call for cold-blooded murder issued on national TV, resulted instead in PEMRA issuing a ban on both the programmes: of the targeted and the perpetrator; thereby essentially equating a discussion on an issue with incitement to murder.

In issuing the ban, it stated: “During these transmissions, ratings remain the focus under the guise of Ramazan shows,” read the Pemra statement, adding that “provocative conversations took place during the shows which has led to much anger”. “Even after clear instructions from Pemra, unfortunately TV channel owners, anchors and audience indulged in non-serious and irresponsible conversations,” added the statement. It is rather curious that the objection of “non-serious and irresponsible conversations” was not invoked in the case of the majority of shows dominating channels in Ramzan which shamelessly make a vulgar mockery and joke of the month. But this is also says volumes about our observation of Ramzan and the hypocrisy, which PEMRA’s decision reeks of, when televised circuses pass for popular Ramzan transmission programmes and a show attempting to go against this norm by broaching serious issues, with a clear set of risks attached to it, is dismissed as “provocative” in the pursuit of “ratings”.

PEMRA is not new to this exercise of farce and regressive thought.

Only recently did it announce and later revoke a ban on contraceptives’ and family planning advertisements. This was followed by its decision to issue notice to Udaari regarding its portrayal of child abuse in the drama.

What is common in this string of actions and decisions by PEMRA, apart from the absurdity of it all, is the idea of silence and denial that the Pakistani society and state thrives on. What exactly is being prevented by these bans? How flimsy and weak are the foundations and ideas of this society and state which are shaken and threatened by mere discussions and simple questions?

Hamza Ali Abbasi’s discussion sought to question and address the difficulties, the discrimination and the plight of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan which is sanctioned constitutionally and imposed stringently by many of its citizens socially and culturally. PEMRA’s ban, however, serves to preserve the state’s monopoly of narrative on the issue. This is the same monopoly that has under its grip issues ranging from the Second Amendment to Balochistan. These are narratives hailed as the truth; narratives that are dominant through years of indoctrination and imposition yet still weak to be confronted by mere question and inquiry. A question and inquiry which seeks to establish that a people have the right not to be killed irrespective of their beliefs and one’s own agreement or disagreement with those. But let alone raising voice in this regard, even the right of that voice is denied to us.

This is deliberate silencing.

The recent notice to Udaari demonstrates the same, but not with regards to state narrative but a cultural and social narrative. The portrayal of child abuse is a cause of discomfort for many, who would rather indulge in their ignorance and indifference to the ghastly acts that are committed every single day against children.

Jasmeen Manzoor tweeted on the matter:  @jasmeenmanzoor

“No idea what message our dramas are giving to public by showing a 10 year old girl raped by her step father #disgusting #pathetic”

It is ridiculous that the depiction of a problem offends and hurts the sensitivities and sensibilities of people more than the realization that this depiction is an everyday reality in Pakistan hurting, harming and destroying hundreds of children and their lives. This is denial. What message are our dramas giving to the public by showing a 10 year old girl raped by her step father? They are giving a message of awareness, of consciousness, of cautiousness, and yes, of disgust, because this does happen in Pakistan. It is not a remote reality or a figment of dramatic imagination. And what message are we giving by calling these efforts “pathetic”? That the plight of abused children in Pakistan is trivial, irrelevant, worthless; that their plight is pathetic for denial, for us, is divine.

Perhaps this is why debates and discussions in Pakistan are seldom ever more than ugly degenerations into polarized demagoguery, tub-thumbing and crass behaviour, such as one witnessed by Marvi Sirmed recently, because we are not familiar with the practice and norm of civilized discussion, debate and disagreement conducive to the healthy development of a society and nation.

We conveniently cling onto silence, denial, dogma and indifference, for they do not offer us the discomfort reality in this country entails. We would rather ignore than cure the plagues and problems Pakistan and many Pakistanis, other than ourselves, face.

What Pakistan needs today is awareness and tolerance, the starting point of which is respecting and engaging differing points of view, opinions, questions and discussions. But for that to happen, there needs to be a basic ability to listen and to learn; an ability which clearly doesn’t exist if the answer to a question and the response to a discussion are death threats and bans.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Seeking Validation for National Tragedies


Just when things in Pakistan appeared to be taking a turn for the better, it took but a single moment to shatter the sliver of optimism many among us were beginning to nurture; revealing the long road it will take for us to ever escape being prisoners of carnage.

Sunday. Holiday. Easter.

Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Lahore. 70+ killed.

50,000 and counting.

For every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its people,
Every corner with fear and ordeal.

Where laughter and mirth were to resonate, screams and cries ensued.

On the ground made for childhoods to blossom, many were plucked before they bloomed.

Days like these may be wished to pass, but their trauma and pain will forever refuse to budge.

Lahore is what is called the “heart of Pakistan”. It is a city festooned with history, diversity and life. Life, most of all. Life, which was taken on the 27th of March.

From hotels, restaurants, shrines, mosques, to schools and parks, there really is no quarter of the Pakistani society, culture, state and the national imagination that terrorism has not breached. Lahore has just been another victim. It has changed drastically, engulfed in an architecture of fear and a cultural life throttled. Security checkpoints, snipers on roofs, high walls; a fortress for a city. Maybe someday this architecture of security and fear could be dismantled and we could once again recreate Lahore and Pakistan, but the architecture of fear and loss which has been constructed in our collective national mind will be an enduring casualty of terrorism and extremism, and increasingly difficult to move past – at least for the younger generation, to which the attack in Iqbal Town struck another blow.

Rafia Zakaria recently wrote on ‘The Playgrounds of Pakistan’ in The New York Times:

“For much of the world, the deaths of Pakistani children are forgettable. They are, after all, the progeny of poor distant others destined to perish in ever more alarming ways. It may not be said, but it is believed that they are complicit in their own deaths, guilty somehow — even at 2 or 4 or 6 years of age — of belonging to a nation that the world has appointed as its own boogeyman, a repository of all its vilest trepidations.

In the media, too, it seems. Two days after Sunday’s attack, Lahore has disappeared from the top headlines. Pakistan’s pain has already been extinguished from the global news cycle, its catastrophe a news item and not — as in Paris or Brussels — a news event. The world has many demands on its meager stores of empathy. The children’s names, their pictures, the terrain of the park where they fell to bits will never be familiar to a mourning world. Efforts to make the dead children of Pakistan real and innocent, worthy of a tear and not just a tweet, start, sputter and fizzle.”

However in Pakistan, a particularly confounding observation was made during the outpouring of grief and shock after the blast: the disproportionate amount of focus by many on global outrage and solidarity (or the perceived lack thereof) than the tragedy itself. While it is entirely understandable the concern many have, and rightly so, regarding a lack of greater global outrage and regarding the recent Lahore attack, it is shameful if it is let to overshadow the loss of lives that has occurred, compared to which nothing is more horrible. In such a time, when schools aren’t safe, playgrounds aren’t safe, the ghastly attack and loss of lives should be the sole focus of our attention, concern and emotion, instead of some search for global acts of support or double standards.

Certainly it is true that attacks in our part of the world fail to capture the sort of shock events in other parts of the world too because bombs and blasts in Pakistan are no longer an ‘anomaly’. But an obsessive focus and debate on the aspect of international acknowledgement and recognition in wake of the tragedy must not trump the sense of grief, empathy and anger that we should experience. Attacks in Pakistan might not be news for the rest of the world, but what matters most is that we shouldn’t become accustomed to their continued occurrence. We shouldn’t treat what is abominable and unacceptable as normal. It is we, whose outrage and condemnation matters most when it is teetering on the edge of apathy and exhaustion, because our battles are not over. We have lost too much and too many to merely look past them. We need not await international recognition of our grief and the gravity of its horror as validation of the tragedies that befall us.

It is a grossly misguided priority if it is the reaction to a tragedy than the occurrence of the tragedy itself. If you are bemoaning the lack of a Facebook filter or the lack of famous landmarks lighting up in green and white at the moment, you are losing sight of sense. This is a trivialization of the lives brutally taken, which deserve our mourning and our respect.

Mourn them, reflect, empathize, grieve, show respect.

Pray for them.

Visit the bereaved, the injured lying in hospitals.

Rush to their help.

Connect to your own humanity before seeking it from others.

As Mosharraf Zaidi put it: Why should Pakistanis seek empathy at Eiffel Tower? Start at home. If we can’t agree on enemy & victim here, why fixate on ‪#‎JeSuisElsewhere.

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Bill and the Need for Cultural Currency


*Originally published in The Nation.

There has been much outcry and uproar. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called it an instrument for victimization of husbands, and suggested that the government should’ve just declared the ‘husband as wife and wife as husband’. Muhammad Naeem of Binoria has lamented it and linked it to the Nawaz Sharif’s promises to the West for bringing a ‘liberal nizaam’ in Pakistan and an attack against our ‘culture’ and ‘values’. There have been protests and condemnations.

Such has been the reaction elicited from the conservative and religious right in the country by the passage of the Bill for Protection of Women against Violence 2015, which criminalizes violence against women and carries comprehensive remedies and recourse for victims of violence, in the Punjab Assembly.

The vehement opponents of the Bill are proponents of an idea that not only trivializes the occurrence and prevalence of shameful ills and stains on Pakistani society, such as domestic violence, but also believe that it is actually the uncovering and exposition of these ills that really brings bad name to Pakistan and its ‘culture’. They would rather that women be beaten and assaulted in their homes, acid thrown on their faces, buried alive in the name of honor, than let their cries be heard or their wounds be healed.

Yet this reaction is symptomatic of a larger malaise within Pakistan’s culture and society that the Bill has merely managed to reveal. It is a malaise that considers violence against women a legitimate and acceptable force to maintain the stability, sanctity and honor of the family and home; violence as a ‘natural’ instrument of exalted masculinity to ‘straighten a woman up’ or ‘put her in her place’. This is cemented by the presentation of the malaise as a matter that strictly belongs to the private sphere, to the degree that even to speak on violence inflicted upon women is considered a breach of the so-called sanctity of the private. Thus, it may be that the izzat of the home is by a woman, but the woman herself has no right to her own izzat.

Only recently it was reported that a man in the village of Lakha Luddan divorced his wife after she got him arrested for inflicting torture on her.

In light of the existing situation, the fervid opposition to the Bill among certain groups and segments in the country underscore something much greater: the need to create cultural currency for change and reform in Pakistan. Since laws cannot operate in a vacuum, legal strides on issues such as those of domestic violence must be accompanied by efforts to conjure cultural acceptance and traction of the ideas underlying the laws to complement and enforce their strength.

Nazish Brohi sharply captures the predicament confronting women in the country: “Women across Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to face an old ultimatum: they can either claim citizenship of the state or membership of the community. Appealing to the former means expulsion from the latter. Once you go to the police or courts or shelters, there is no going back into the family fold.” This separation between the sphere of the state and the sphere of the private defines a great segment of opposition and anger directed at the Bill by many groups which consider it a breach of space and an encroachment of the exclusive rights such a separation bestows upon the private space i.e dealing with women. This division of spheres aids the aforementioned argument of the sanctity of home and family, an argument that Ammar Rashid of the Awami Workers Party was quick to point out was an “age-old misogynist ruse; used to deny women the vote hundred years ago”, which is being invoked by those targeting the Bill as a dangerous device that can potentially trigger the disintegration of families and its eventual disappearance in society.

One wonders what exactly goes on in the cherished institution of family that such a bill threatens by threatening to expose and punish.

It may perhaps well be true that ideas embodied in legal initiatives, of violence against women being a crime, percolate through to larger society but a top down change must be augmented by the creation of congruent values below in order to render it effective and powerful. After all, a woman brought up to believe that to remain silent in face of violence is to maintain honor would seldom think of appealing to laws. And it is this silence that men make their power and impunity. Therefore, as important as it is for the government to ensure the momentous passage and implementation of the landmark bill, it is equally, if not more, important to undertake a serious and concerted campaign to culturally diffuse the value held at heart of the bill and overturn existing toxic ideas and perceptions centered on the acceptability of violence against women. Such a campaign will have to involve the state and government’s engagement and collaboration with the civil society; and the utilization of means and mediums which resonate with the larger public, such as films, dramas, advertisements, lectures, educational activities, and even religious authority.

To stand its ground against the blackmail and bluster of the religious right protesting the bill, and to dispel ideas that incite and justify violence against women in the first place, are both arduous and uphill tasks for the government but tasks necessitated by the realization that such regressive groups and abhorrent ideas have held the country hostage for too long, and Pakistan must be freed from their shackles if ever to move forward.

-Hafsa Khawaja

The National Inertia Plan


*Originally published in The News.

Nearly a month back the attack on Bacha Khan University brought back torment of what is perhaps the most traumatic experience in Pakistan’s collective national memory: 16th December 2014.

The Charsadda attack has been followed by beefing up of security in educational institutions, including the conduction of security drills, trainings for guards and personnel, and even the temporary closure of schools. In assailing the pursuit of education by an environment and atmosphere of fear and militarization, the horror of the APS attack reverberates in educational institutions and students across the country.

This is a militarization that has familiarized students with the grim possibility of never returning home as they leave for schools each day; a militarization out of which schools, colleges and universities have emerged morphed into high-security fortresses; and this is a militarization that has forced revered purveyors of education like Tahira Kazi and the 33-year old chemistry professor Syed Hamid Hussein to build passage for the future of Pakistan not by illuminating the way for students but by extinguishing the very light which was to shine the path: their own lives. It is a dismaying reality that the trauma which accompanies an entire generation of children and youth today, upon which hover fear and threat of death and loss in spaces where only learning, education and hope should thrive, will be an enduring casualty of terrorism in Pakistan.

In wake of the Charsadda Attack, there also appeared to be a dispute between the educational institutions and the government on the issue of security provision. While a legitimate demand to a certain extent, the government’s pressure on the administrations to provide and take charge of all security arrangements once again attests to the government’s willingness to pass the buck, surrender and assign surrogates for what is chiefly the state’s key responsibility; the protection of the lives of its citizens.

In an article based on analysis of school attacks in Pakistan, Rana Muhammad Usman draws focus to alarming trends and figures; including the fact that in four decades South Asia has witnessed 1,436 attacks on education, out of which 60% occurred in Pakistan. Only nine days after the attack on Bacha Khan University four police personnel were shot dead on the Munir Mengal Road in Quetta by the TTP. There is little doubt that violent incidents have slid down the frequency scale since last year but the continued occurrence, even if sporadic, of such attacks and assaults calls attention to unfinished business for both the terrorists and the state. Writing for The New York Times, Mohammed Hanif nails the matter at hand:

“Security experts, a group likely to find a silver lining in hell, say that the Taliban are targeting schools because these are soft targets – and that this is proof the Taliban have been weakened and can no longer attack cantonments or airports. Apparently, we are supposed to take solace in the slaughter of our children because our cantonments and airports are safe.”

However, beyond the issue of schools and security, the Bacha Khan University attack has brought to fore a number of disconcerting realities that remain unchanged since 16th December despite grand proclamations of will and resolve to obliterate them.

The grand National Action Plan which was devised as a comprehensive programme for tackling extremism and terrorism appears to be in tatters today. Banned organizations and ‘assets’ still operate freely, and while the interior minister prevaricated and bemoaned a fictional lack of evidence needed to act against him, the brazen-faced and contemptible Abdul Aziz spat on the writ of the state by informing the nation of his ‘negotiations’ with the agencies regarding his case. Even in this announcement, he continued to spout and spew his hate, accusing a brigadier in ISI of ‘the other sect’ of ‘conspiring’ against him.

Recently, news of the Sindh government’s consideration of Friday sermons’ regulation has also surfaced. While the regulation of sermons is certainly a significant step in examination of the influence sermons wield and exercise, there still persists a pressing need to stem the seeds that require the regulation of sermons in the first place: ideologies of extremism, hate, strife and violence. It is ideology that beckons back to the necessity of madrassah reform, a contentious and difficult issue in a country where any attempt at reform and regulation of religious institutions or religion-inspired laws is seen or perhaps cleverly construed and concocted as an attack on Islam itself.

Madrassah reform is a daunting task but the consequences of not dismantling ideological and territorial sanctuaries that maintain an infrastructure of extremism are even more disquieting – for which every organ of the state has to be united and mobilized in orientation, policy and action, until which all gains against terrorism in Pakistan will be tenuous at best, as the targeting of Bacha Khan University has shown.

Most importantly, the Charsadda attack has accentuated the urgency of a thorough inquiry and investigation into the Peshawar attack, which the parents of the APS students have been tirelessly demanding despite numerous attempts to thwart and silence them. Why is it that the demands for an investigation are being spurned, who does an inquiry threaten, and why does it threaten them? Although it will provide no closure to the insurmountable grief of the bereaved, an investigation will provide some semblance of accountability, answers, and a degree of insight that may be used to prevent further lapses and failures which endanger countless lives.

It is therefore crucial that the narratives of success in the drive against extremism and terrorism, being continuously churned and fed by the government and military, are constantly and consistently questioned because no longer can the inaction, inertia and apathy endemic to the state and government, but inimical to Pakistan, be afforded.

– Hafsa Khawaja

Beyhayai On Wheels


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blogs:

The Punjab government’s Women on Wheels programme was initiated this 10th by a rally of 150 women trained by the Special Monitoring Unit on Law & Order and City Traffic Police.

According to a report in the Daily Times:

“The campaign is aimed at increasing women mobility and presence in public spaces by providing them free lessons in motorbike driving,” said PML-N MNA Maiza Hameed. “The Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) had launched this campaign for educating the women of Punjab against harassment and violence,” she said, adding that the campaign involved workshops to provide women with free motorcycle lessons and also to educate them on their role in society. “Women from all walks of life are invited to ride motorcycles on a pre-specified road,” Hameed said.

The WoW programme took off but not without condemnations on social media littered mainly with charges of “bayhayai”.

That the sight of women on motorbikes is obscene and repugnant to some in a country where hundreds of children are horrifically and despicably abused for years, an issue soon forgotten, spells volumes about the warped and twisted sense of outrage possessed by many in Pakistan.

It is also mind-boggling how the sight of women with men on motorbikes isn’t “beyhayai” but women alone on motorbikes definitely are. Why?

There is little doubt that this line of thought owes itself to the deep-seated scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces in Pakistan.  This is a scandalization resulting from any breach of the chaar diwari; a concept, set in values of honour, which frankly holds scant compatibility with the 21st century, but which nonetheless designates and limits women to the boundaries of the private sphere.

To reiterate what I have asserted previously, this scandalization is a part of the bigger problem women in Pakistan face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.

It is about time that we open our minds and stop treating public spaces as a distant realm for women, off-limits to them, in which their presence and participation is an anomaly that must be demonised and thwarted. It is such a view that often sanctions and promotes hostile conditions for when women when they do step into public spaces, which range from roads, educational institutions to work places, because “that isn’t where they are supposed to be”.

And it is in view of this that an initiative such as Women on Wheels is important and necessary, precisely because it resists this myopic idea by attempting the normalization and empowerment of female engagement with public spaces.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Commemoration to Spectacle


What should’ve been a somber remembrance of the most violent and horrific act in Pakistan’s history and memory was brazenly converted into a national spectacle on the 16th amid no sense of shame or respect.

Knowing the nature of the course things in Pakistan tend to take on occasions and days of some significance, the sensible thing to do for anyone on this 16th  December should’ve been the maintenance of a distance from all the noise and fuss which reigns here. But it was foolish to expect that the usual would be avoided on a day of such grave and grim character.

From “virtual documentaries” on the APS attack, GEO’s anchors distastefully donning APS uniforms as some sort of costumes, to playing instrumental variations of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful Life’ as the background to coverage of the bereaved families’ grief; the media coverage, exceptions apart, was crass and infuriating.

12376551_10153801619267458_1659763424052007272_n

Similarly, posters and advertisements of ChenOne brazenly “saluting” the APS children while promoting its “Mid-Season 50% Sale” appeared in large numbers all over DHA Lahore. As if advertising a mid-season sale during the month with reference to a ghastly tragedy of the same month at the same place was some an entirely sensible and sensitive move, which could only be read as: “Hey, we honor the memory and now that you have noticed this advertisement, hey, we also have a sale this month!”

Screenshot 2015-12-22 12.45.33Moreover, what was observed as the commemoration was also an overly-nationalistic and militaristic pomp and show about which Umair Javed tweeted, “Instead of sombre mourning, guilt and reflection on the senseless violence we’ve turned 16th December into a display of chauvinistic nationalism.”

Further down the line of all that was disconcerting and dismaying on the first anniversary of the Peshawar attacks were a set of narratives that were being constantly reinforced and parroted, particularly of resilience and sacrifice.

To reiterate something I have often said, it is a penchant of ours to present our temporary outrage, temporary outpouring of grief and temporary empathy in the glossy garb of ‘resilience’. And once again, this 16th, many proudly proclaimed just how “resilient” Pakistan has been after the Peshawar attacks, how “resilient” this nation is; without any thought for the parents and families who are still grieving and will forever grieve; without any thought for these families who have been knocking at every door, every day for a year, for their demand of a judicial inquiry into the massacre of their children.

And perhaps resilience is the last of what we need after the Peshawar Attack. What we need is unequivocal and lasting rage in the face of terrorism and extremism and every shape and form of it. Let us not be resilient for once. Let us remember and grieve for those taken from us in Peshawar not just every 16th December but every day and forever.

The second narrative was of the 144 lost in Peshawar being a sacrifice; portraying the children’s death as some sort of glorious ‘sacrifice’ rendered in the name of the nation and country. This is nothing but a crass narrative constructed to give the tragedy an ennobling tint other; obscuring its stark reality so that our eyes are shielded from seeing it for what it was: a senseless, violent, cold, calculated shedding of blood. A sacrifice is a conscious and voluntary decision, not the inhumane usurpation of innocent lives that were never given a chance to even begin or blossom. No parent sends his or her children to school as some sacrifice, no parent sends his or her child to school only to never see him again. As one mother put it, “People say I should be proud because my son is a martyr, would any mother willingly trade places with me so she could feel this ‘pride’?” What happened in Peshawar was no sacrifice, and it was nothing to which the slightest sentiment of pride could be associated. To call the killing of our children as a ‘sacrifice’ is a shameless and insensitive trivialization of the tragedy.

11036538_10156335367700442_6354324018391418020_n

A social-media post by Maham Nasir sharply denounced the disgraceful discourse:

“Stop trivialising the APS tragedy by calling it a sacrifice. It was not a sacrifice. No parents choose to send their children to school so they can make a sacrifice. Don’t tell the parents of the victims to be proud of the ‘sacrifice’ their child made. It wasn’t a sacrifice, it was a carnage. Stop handing out medals to the ‘proud’ parents. No parent feels pride in their child getting murdered at school. It wasn’t a sacrifice, it was much more than that.”

Screenshot 2015-12-22 12.51.19Lastly, there was of course, the hate against Malala which can best be described as rabid since not even the 16th of December, and the respect it warrants for the day, was spared, but actually disgustingly used in a way that is insulting to the 144 too, to sling mud against her.

It is pity that had Malala never survived after being shot, she would have been venerated by everyone. Her fault is to have survived and most of all, be globally admired for her courage and determination. Yet it is incredible how a child, a teenager can evoke such hate and outrage without having done anything to tarnish Pakistan; but those who shot at her and their ilk have not been able to evoke even a fraction of that anger and infuriation.

It is an absolute shame how 16th December was observed this year; through a conversion of commemoration to a spectacle that was made about everything but the lives lost, the inconsolable loss inflicted on Pakistan and the families, and the solemn, sober and honest reflection, mourning and remembrance the day demanded.

To the 144, we failed you again.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Crumble Credibility


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

26th November marks a month since the recent natural disaster struck Pakistan. With a staggering magnitude of 7.5 the earthquake ripped through the northern areas with unparalleled ferocity leaving hundreds dead and thousands of lives shattered. According to the BBC, government officials have stated that ‘at least 10,000 homes were destroyed’.

And it was the issue of the civilian institutions’ response to the devastation that the Senate recently picked up to criticise the government.

The army’s influence in Pakistan is one that is entrenched and patent but despite this being rooted in a long history which has rendered the dominance indelible on the country’s political, social and economic domains, there still remain fronts on which the civilian government happens to give way for the military to spurt ahead, boost and bolster its existing power.

One of these fronts is the response to natural disasters. Within a short span of the recent earthquake’s occurrence, General Raheel Shareef immediately ordered the mobilization of army personnel and resources for relief efforts. This incidence did not escape the recent debate in the Senate which Dawn reported as:

“PPP’s Farhatullah Babar said that Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif had ordered troops to move to affected areas and carry out rescue work without waiting for the government’s directives. “It was a good move, but its implications should be looked into,” he said. The PPP senator regretted that information about losses had come from the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) instead of civilian department and it showed “incompetence” of the government.”

While any efforts undertaken for the earthquake victims from any quarters of the state were both crucial and commendable, it is important to explore the political implications they also happened to contain. One of the clearest political implications of the army having given the first call for action in aiding the earthquake victims was the contrasting impression of the civilian government’s indifference resulting from its momentary inaction.

#ThankYouRaheelShareef

Critical instances like these feed into the popular belief in the Pakistan army’s unparalleled integrity and commitment to the people, inspiring tremendous trust in the military as an institution. This belief is frequently revealed in surveys and polls. The most recent of these was conducted by PILDAT, and while it revealed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to be the most popular political leader in Pakistan, it spelt the age-old result for the army which corresponds to its image among the people: as the most trustworthy institution in the country.

However, this division of trust and popularity is striking since it can be mapped onto the larger landscape of power and politics in Pakistan. The separation of popularity and trust is a key feature of the existing system in the country, where a civilian setup of a democratically and popularly elected government rules but often lacks the trust of the population. In case of natural disasters, this distrust is most evident when it comes to peoples’ willingness to donate to funds for the victims; most are more willing to donate if the material and monetary donations are to be channeled through the army rather than the government.

Although this lack of faith and trust in civilian governments greatly owes itself to the failures and corruptions of previous governments, it has also been sown through decades of dictatorship and their accompanying discourses which were used to justify and legitimate their existence by demonizing civilian rule and institutions. Nonetheless, attention must be called to the fact that the pace and degree of response and action, especially in testing cases such as those of disasters, are battlegrounds where governments’ trust is lost and gained.

It is imperative for the government to realize the indispensable importance of time in framing its response, performance and action in all areas of national affairs let alone natural calamities. It is here that the army takes the lead due to government inertia and delay thereby inevitably succeeding in being posited as an institution more responsive, hence closer to the public and their problems. The government’s delayed response undermines its own credibility which is otherwise pivotal in challenging moments like these during which support can be pocketed by elements inimical to peace in Pakistan.

It is no secret that crises of devastation, displacement and dislocation, compounded by the Pakistani governments’ conventionally slow and sluggish response, are often fertile grounds for non-state actors, militant and extremist groups to flourish in by activating their networks to function as relief groups within affected people while there remains a vacuum of proper government presence and assistance.

Another aspect to note relates to the nature of responses. While the PM announced a relief package for the affected people and ordered the establishment of several mechanisms to ensure its effective deliverance to the people, including a crisis cell for coordination between federal, civil, military and provincial agencies, these are still short-term measures. Cash compensations do not adequately, if at all, contribute to the long-term rehabilitation of affectees which is urgently required in the case of tragedies on the scale of the recent earthquake.

In a country plagued by a deep institutional power imbalance, civilian governments cannot and must not falter and flounder in responding to issues, affairs and crises; creating voids, even if temporary, for other institutions and groups to fill in and fragment its credibility and authority that are both detrimental to the health of the state and dent its potential for a truly democratic future.

Writing in his 1995 article ‘The Signals Soldiers Pick’, the late Eqbal Ahmad stated that the end of military intervention in politics hinges upon ‘the legitimacy of the civilian system of power [being] established over a period of time.’

Undeniably, the legitimacy of the civilian system of power is inextricably tied to its credibility which must be firmly established, constantly guarded and advanced. If a civilian system of power has to be maintained, governments must invest it with the credibility it craves, through their governance and performance, which firmly confers upon it the empowering authority it often lacks. Perhaps the idea that credibility must be constructed and cemented rather than let to chip away is too simplistic a proposition for redressing the power imbalance in Pakistan. Yet it is remains essential to recognize that legitimacy, credibility and authority are intertwined with each other and central to the narrative, if not the reconfiguration itself, of the Pakistani state’s distorted institutional ties. In the sombre shade of this, any sign of government lethargy dashes hopes for democratic civilian ascendancy, or so a military press release would concur.

-Hafsa Khawaja

~ Conversation


 

Drowned from the crowd,


Delivered from the clamour,
 

A moment of peace,

Between You and I,

Not a sound,

Head to ground,

The world at a stop,

Blurred and withered,

The soul spills and scatters to the Will,

Nothing else matters,

Still. Silence. Submission.

For the heart is in conversation with the Creator.
                           ~ H.K

Breaching Boundaries: Female Presence and Public Space


*Originally published in The Nation.

 “Because its 2015”, replied the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upon being questioned regarding his choice of gender balance characterising his cabinet; half of which are women.

Certainly the presence of women in positions of power is not entirely an accurate indicator of the general status of women in a country; case in point being Pakistan itself where the late Benazir Bhutto was twice elected premier and yet it has remained a country, which assessed by the World Economic Forum on levels of economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, was ranked 141 out of 142 countries on the Gender Gap Index of 2014.

Yet Trudeau’s reply does strike as an important message: female representation, participation; gender balance and equality in this day and age should be the norm and not the exception.

On the other hand, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami recently addressed the women training convention at Mansoora. And while he commendably spoke against the tradition of dowry in Pakistan, and advocated the availability of interest free loans for women wishing to engage in small businesses and welfare programmes for them, he also opined that, “Almighty Allah had made women the queen of the household whereas all those engaged in the so-called struggle for women’s rights had compelled the respectable mothers, sisters and daughters to work round the clock.” Siraj-ul-Haq’s assertion was not only a reflection of the concept that females inherently belong to the domestic domain but also a reminder of its continued prevalence in Pakistan today; legitimised using religion and the cultural ideals of honour, decency and modesty, but also glorified now as some sort of royal privilege possessed by the chaar diwari.

Islam and its relationship with women is another debate but that this is the same religion whose Umm-el-Momineen included Hazrat Khadija, a most successful businesswoman, and Hazrat Ayesha, whose intellect and role in spreading the religion’s message is well-known and recorded, and who also led a war, is an aspect that must not be let out of sight.

But notwithstanding the absurdity of associating NGOs with it, Siraj-ul-Haq’s statement on the ‘injustice’ of forcing women to work is preposterous in itself when the ‘queens’ he speaks of are ‘bound’ to do countless duties and work endlessly round the clock, years on end, in their ‘kingdoms’ without any respite. Commentator and columnist Gul Bukhari retorted to the JI Chief’s statement by tweeting: “Someone tell him it’s desire, necessity, poverty, ambition etc. Bring me one woman compelled to work by activists.”

Indeed the notion that women in Pakistan are ‘compelled’ by NGOs to work posits that no woman would want to work unless pressured by some nefarious forces (such as NGOs, of course), and would be content with belonging to the domestic area with the primary responsibility of producing and raising children, taking care of husband and home. Such a huge judgment flattens the reality, as articulated by Gul Bukhari, that women may, can and do work professionally out of difficulty of circumstances or their personal aspirations.

Since the confinement of women to the household, or their ascension to queen-hood, essentially makes them the ‘invisible’ gender; this concept extends onto the expectation that women remain obscure and hidden; never too prominent in any way – physically or by way of their voices. The exercise of any female agency or choice is then a violation of this designated physical and ideational boundary, often set in traditional values of honour and modesty. And it is this violation that comes to frequently factor in the gruesome incidences of honour killings which take the lives of 1000 women annually in Pakistan. Thus, in a country where such boundaries remain demarcated for many and continue to be advocated, female appearance in public spaces will often appear to be cultural aberrations.

Moreover, the prevalence of female confinement to the domestic as a natural and necessary order for women to adhere to in our society has led to a scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces. The ugly phenomenon reared its head notoriously during the infamous dharna held by Imran Khan last year.

However, more alarmingly, this scandalization is a part of the wider problem women here face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.

That this scandalization is a potent problem can be seen from the recent beating of female students at KU for playing cricket. It is perhaps infuriating and unfortunate incidents like these which chain significance to campaigns such as “Girls at Dhabas”; projects which aim to resist this scandalization and tacit exclusion of women from public spaces and places, which may not be systematically or legally enforced but are imposed culturally and socially, by attempting to reclaim traditionally male spaces and activities through normalization of female presence and engagement with them.

It is crucial to note that for any political, social or economic progress to be made in Pakistan, women are but an indispensable force. But such a realization necessitates a reconfiguration of cultural imagination which doesn’t confine or limit but accepts, accommodates and creates space for female roles, presence, representation and participation in all walks of national life.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Parting Ways with Sanity


*First posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

Reham Khan and Imran Khan have decided to part ways.

And it seems we decided we part ways with decency and sanity in wake of  their decision.

Since they picked up confirmation of the decision through PTI’s Naeem-ul-Haq, the media has gone into a distasteful overdrive.

It is often said that a political figure does not have any personal or private life, and although @merabichrayaar was correct to point out that, “announcing the divorce through a political party spokesperson was really not the most privacy protective move”, the social and public response to the matter has been despicable and deplorable.

12190001_10156193008570442_2596825632801864191_n

In a society with even a modicum of decency, maturity and sanity in it, this decision would not be news. At least not in the sense of what qualifies as news in Pakistan, which is the continuous running of red tickers on TV channels that are religiously engaged in a zealous process of seeking comments on the divorce from all and sundry; trying to claw and probe into the reasons behind the separation; endlessly speculating and spouting sensationalism. Not to mention the trashy animation effects gracing all the slideshows of Imran Khan and Reham Khan’s pictures on channels causing thunderous cracks between each photo to Bollywood scores bursting behind: “Bhula dena mujhe, Hai alvida tujhe, Tujhe jeena hai mere bina, Safar yeh tera, yeh raasta tera, Tujhe jeena hai.. mere bina”.

And of course, how could a glorious opportunity for misogyny have been missed here? From the media to the people, within minutes of the matter’s revelation, speculations and “claims” began to rapidly surface which, as Faiza S. Khan (@BhopalHouse) clearly put it, were plain “misogynistic character assassination” relating to Reham Khan.

Social media also filled up with endless commentary on the matter which was being constructed and presented as a national issue; something that may have repercussions for Pakistan’s economy, foreign relations, domestic affairs or the lives of its 200 million people; because of course, Pakistan has no other issues Alhumdulilah to be bothered with. Not like this is a country where mobs burn down entire colonies of religious minorities; not like this is a country where hundreds of children are killed in a school; not like this is a country where hundreds of children are systematically sexually abused for years in a village.

This isn’t a country like that, no, not at all.

So the public response to this private matter of a divorce between  the couple has everyone involved; everyone concerned, and everyone having something to say.

It almost seems as if an earthquake has struck Pakistan, except that it did a few days ago and shattered thousands of lives but to the silence of the media and the crowd clamoring right now.

According to the BBC, government officials have stated that ‘at least 10,000 homes were destroyed by the earthquake, which struck Pakistan and northern Afghanistan’.

With a staggering magnitude of 7.5, the earthquake ripped through the northern areas with unparalleled ferocity leaving hundreds dead and thousands of lives completely destroyed. The most affected areas are said to have temperatures which can drop to as low as -2 degrees and where there will soon be three to four feet of snow, but where countless people today have nothing but the cold to turn to – albeit some efforts seeking help from people to aid the victims – both the cold of nature, and the cold of human apathy and indifference.

This is the human apathy and indifference that has been fostered in the wake of our collective decision to part ways with empathy, compassion, sensitivity, decency and sanity as we remain glued to the crass circus playing out on the media and in our personal circles at the moment.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

______________________

12140767_1506012896364621_4320524351690497918_nSpeaking of the earthquake, the #LUMSReliefDrive aims to collect both monetary and material donations for the earthquake victims from all over Lahore. The #TurrReliefBus will be operating as part of the to collect donations from different places all over the city. The donations will be personally delivered to victims by a team of LUMS students who will be visiting the affected areas, so please do consider contributing and spreading word about this. For more information, do check the pages:

https://www.facebook.com/Lums-Relief-Drive-1505880633044514/

https://www.facebook.com/events/566258273522038/

Protesting and Persisting


*Originally published in The News:

On the 4th of October 2015, the Democratic Students’ Alliance, an organization of left-leaning students, called for a protest in Lahore against the ban on student unions in Pakistan.

The protest was attended by students belonging to various chapters of DSA including LUMS, Government College University, Forman Christian College, Punjab University and Beaconhouse National University. They were also joined by young activists belonging to the Awami Workers’ Party, the Progressive Youth Alliance and Ali Aftab Saeed who came to show their support. The protest was one of the many follow-ups planned by DSA for their plea sent to the Chief Justice in August 2015 to take notice of the student union ban.

12068561_717536918390121_1563270334312640605_o

Participating in this protest spurred a number of observations regarding the protest culture in Pakistan which require emphasis in view of public protest and assembly as two rights critical to any democratic dispensation.

One of the most important demands spelt by the situation in Pakistan today pertains to the idea of independent mobilization, divorced from politicization relating to political parties but not political issues, and the need for it to take root in Pakistan. And it is vital for any culture of civil society action here to be based on the belief that any ordinary, concerned person can independently take initiative both as his right and duty as a citizen of the state. The recent protests and rallies taken out by parents against a hike in fees of private schools and their success should only provide impetus to the idea of civil society organization and action operating within the scope of democratic liberties.

This particularly resonates when kept in view of the late Eric Hobsbawm’s emphasis: “Depoliticization of a great mass of citizens is a serious danger, because it could lead to their mobilization completely outside the modus operandi of all kinds of democratic politics.”

12122419_717662808377532_6688324537418922797_nThis is especially crucial for the youth in Pakistan, which forms a population bulge today and is increasingly faced with prospects of a future which appear bleak at best, that they know they can negotiate their present and future within the realm of democratic rights, expressions and possibilities.

However, for students several strands of difficulty confront them regarding the issue of mobilisation and action; one of which is the education vs. activism binary that pronounces an engagement in activism as a denouncement of commitment to education. In his book on Eqbal Ahmad, Stuart Schaar mentions that Ahmad argued in 1992: “The educational purpose is truly well-served when students are helped to develop a moral outlook…when they know that a primary purpose of learning is to elevate the quality not merely of one’s personal and family life but of the social environment.” And as an expression of awareness and action, student mobilization clearly complements the essence of education. This is a fact evidenced by numerous student movements which have dotted global histories including Pakistan’s, where students have constantly stood up since the very beginning; from the creation of the country, against Ayub’s ‘Decade of Decadence’, Zia-ul-Haq’s regime to Musharraf’s rule.

But the reason for this is association of activism with a lack of commitment to education also owes itself to the predominant attitude towards activism in Pakistan, which is not just of apathy but also of antipathy; seeing activism and civil society mobilization as futile activities that will yield nothing. Personal detachment from activism is coupled with looking down on those who are engaged in it. It is perhaps the prevalence of this mindset that has acquiesced with the deplorable conditions in Pakistan which have been perpetuated regimes after regime relying on public inaction as a prop to their own indifference regarding the country.

12030412_717537285056751_4198119122346790648_o

Yet this perception towards protests and activism has been heightened and expanded into one that also demonizes them, while completely disregarding Pakistan’s rich history relating to them, as foreign cultural imports lapped up by the godless and west-loving ‘liberals’. Creative methods of keeping the people engaged, such as music, during events of protests and activisms are especially frowned upon in the country. Everyday Rebellion, a documentary ‘about creative forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience worldwide’, which was screened at the Karama Human Rights Film Festival 2015 in Gaza does much to particularly throw light on this aspect as not only something that is organic during moments of mobilization but often also critical to their success in sustaining the spirit of collective solidarity, action and unity.

However, a most alarming aspect related to the larger perception of activism and protests in Pakistan is the scandalization of female participation in them. This was a phenomenon that became notoriously prominent in the spate of attacks hurled at Imran Khan’s dharna last year, which disagreements aside, must be lauded for having created, encouraged and welcomed space for women. In a country where a woman is discouraged from having opinions of her own by society, their expression and demonstration in public spaces will naturally be a cultural anomaly to be condemned. This scandalization is but a part of the larger problem women here face regarding public spaces and places, which are designated as alien territories for women in which their presence and visibility are cultural anomalies. But for any culture of mobilization, protest and action to thrive to the benefit of progressive changes in Pakistan, the normalization and acceptance of female participation is imperative.

During the DSA protest we began clapping to provide greater rhythm to our chants and slogans and it was during this that two men on a motorcycle construing the act as some sort of celebration jokingly commented “anday sastay hogaye hain?”. But if this mobilization, scant for now, and collective expression of consciousness and conscience persists and grows as both a right and duty as citizens of a state, who knows, someday we might really be clapping for having achieved greater affordability of basic necessities of life for ordinary people, and of course, sastay anday.

~ Hafsa Khawaja