Chuura, Chaprasi, Chuurian and Khawaja Sira: Making a Nation out of Words


*Originally posted on The Friday Times’ Blog.

Words. They have the power to inspire and incite; uplift and daunt. From Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ to the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have wielded enormous influence and impact. Most importantly, they mould mindsets.

Often certain words, terms and sayings become such a commonality in cultures that their nature starts to elude people. Such is the case in Pakistan; questionable sayings, practices and customs that should usually arouse attention have become so imbedded in the society that they’ve become a part of us.

“Hum nay choorian nahi pehni hui!”  (We are not wearing bangles), that consigns femininity as derogatory is one that has assumed form of a very popular phrase amongst the tub-thumping, populist rhetoric in the political arena of Pakistan.  

Another popular example given to children to explain the consequences of deviance from or slack in studies is “Parho gay nahi tau chaparasi ban jao gay” or “Parho gay nahi tau cycle stand par lag jao gay” and so on.  

Those who sweep and clean our homes, roads, streets and country and those who toil at workshops are reduced to lowly figures of little worth, therefore, little respect. 

Consciously or unconsciously, this idea is implanted in the child’s impressionable mind.

Socialisation is defined as a continuing process, beginning in infancy, whereby an individual learns the culture of a society; the distinction between right and wrong; the social dictates of his or her gender; the kind of behaviour that is expected of him or her – in short, his or her social identity and person that inevitably is intended to conform to the social demands and be socially and culturally appropriate. This process of learning is often based on interactions between the individual and other members of the society, and language is the hinge of interaction.

It is through language that the beliefs and ideas of the society, even if they be social prejudices, the parameters of what is socially acceptable and what is not are conveyed and instilled into a child or individual which grow with him or into him as part of his personality and identity formation. 

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Linguistic anthropology is a whole interdisciplinary study dedicated to understanding the effect language yields on social life, beliefs and identity of an individual.

“Language socialisation is a concept we take to mean both socialisation through language and socialization to use language. Children and other novices in society acquire tacit knowledge of principles of social order and systems of belief  through exposure to and participation in language-mediated interation. Language use is then a major if not the major tool for conveying sociocultural knowledge and a powerful medium of socialisation.” 

Transgenders in Pakistan are also mentioned on the same lines, terming someone which is considered an insult and abuse, the words ’khussra’ and ’khawaja sira’ have been assigned the status of pejoratives just like the aforementioned sweepers and cleaners. A recent example of the usage was heard with the name of Khawaja Saad Rafique (FYI, to whom I bear no relation) by many of those who related him to the alleged rigging at NA-125 in the May 11th elections.

PAKISTAN-UNREST-VOTE-SEXNotwithstanding the fact that the transgendered are what they are as products of nature, their’s is neither a life one would wish to lead nor a fate one would desire especially in Pakistan where they are ostracized and degraded for what is beyond their being. 

Moreover, language prejudices may also acquire a religious colour skewed against people of a certain faith that translatte into stereotypes which may run into branding all Christians in Pakistan to be chooray, chaprasi or jamadars or possessing capabilities only fit to these. This is to be considered keeping in mind that these occupations have been debased into pejoratives.

It is instances and patterns like these that reproduce the rotten elements in our culture and society – as they have been passed down through language – : condescension of some classes against others; relative/occasional and situational employment of respect and regard towards others. In short, social decadence. 

The result is often witnessed at public places like restaurants where poor waiters are subjected to much impolite, crude and rude behavior by many or when domestic helpers are made objects of jests and jokes.

A nation can be judged vastly from its character and conduct which are, need I state, shaped by communication of the society’s ideas, beliefs, values, norms and mindset that constitute its culture. And language, is the vehicle of culture. 

All humans and individuals are equal and it is a demand of time that Pakistan transcends beyond the self-constructed barriers of class, ethnicity, race, sect, gender, regression and myopia. Place your words in your thoughts before letting them ride your tongue, measure their meanings, gauge their effects and consequences. thoughts and calculate their consequences for yourself and others. 

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For Pakistan to progress and prosper, the people will have to realize that change must not always and necessarily have to spring from the top but must also begin from within. Introspection, critical reflection must govern us first and foremost. We must be the regulators of ourselves for it is us that form a society from which the heart of a country, a nation is born. 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Pakistan in Transformation


*This article originally appeared in Muftah.org and has been republished with permission.

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Founded in 1947, Pakistan has traveled a troublesome road.

For approximately thirty-five of its sixty-six years in existence, four different military dictatorships have ruled the country.

Even under civilian rule, the country has been gripped by political instability, with governments subject to intrigues and interventions by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.

In light of the Arab Spring, many Arab nations have been compared to the country, especially regarding the military’s involvement in politics.

Nevertheless, despite Pakistan’s many challenges, there has been a lack of attention to contemporary developments in the country, which represent nothing less than a silent revolution.

Pakistan is in transformation.

Democratic Political Evolution:

In 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was elected to office. The civilian government brought an end to the military dictatorship of then Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, which had started nearly a decade earlier.

Five years later, in May 2013, Pakistan held its next scheduled round of parliamentary elections, making the PPP the first democratically-elected civilian government in the country’s history to complete its full term.

While this was an important milestone, it was also a bittersweet moment of reflection for ordinary Pakistani citizens.

An excerpt from Omar Waraich’s TIME’s article “Two Cheers for Pakistani Democracy: A Sobering Milestone” may help in explaining these sentiments:

‘Public resentment has been fed by an endless litany of problems: enduring power shortages (up to 18 hours a day at the peak of summer); the failure to curb terrorist attacks, protect religious minorities and formulate a coherent anti-terrorism strategy; a slow and weak response to the floods; sluggish economic growth, a bloated public sector, cresting inflation; and tales of legendary corruption, carving out private fortunes from a treasury to which they scandalously pay little in tax

In the words of Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani policy analyst: “It’s a true milestone that signals an emerging consensus that democracy is the right governing system for Pakistan. There’s a long way yet to go.”

Having suffered greatly under the previous administration, Pakistanis jumped at the opportunity to vote the incumbent PPP government out during the elections held on May 11. Recording an impressive voter turn-out of 55%, the contest set Pakistan on a new path.

The elections were largely peaceful with the EU Mission finding that 90% of polling stations exhibited satisfactory electoral conduct.

Braving security risks, terrorist threats, the sweltering heat of May and an entrenched sense of indifference, the people boldly gave their vote of confidence to democracy. In doing so, they rejected and repudiated perceptions that countries like Pakistan are ‘not ready for democracy’.

An unprecedented feat, the elections marked the peaceful transition from one elected government to another. In the process, these events resulted in a notable win for the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the party head and former twice-elected prime minister, was elected prime minister for the third time.

The PML-N is generally seen as a moderate party. Before being ousted by General Pervez Musharraf in the coup of 1999, it was  previously voted into power in 1990 and 1997, and it is, to date, the only party in the history of the country to have a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Since the coup, it has reiterated its commitment to democracy and complete opposition to any undemocratic intervention in Pakistan’s politics and government.

Misconceptions:

A number of misconceptions about Pakistan’s state structure must be clarified to understand the changes currently occurring in the country as well as its democratic, political and social development.

In contrast to popular assumptions, with only one exception, Pakistanis have never elected an Islamist government or been ruled by Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator without electoral legitimacy who ruled from 1978 until his death in an air crash 1988, is the one aberration.

While religious parties have wielded great power at the grassroots level and mastered the art of populist rhetoric, they have managed to grab only a meager amount of votes in elections.

This might explain the eagerness of religious parties in Pakistan to offer their services to military-run governments, which represent their best chance of sharing in governance processes.

Along with having vital, functioning state institutions, since the 1970s, Pakistan has had a proper, popularly accepted constitution in place, although numerous military interventions in politics have prevented its proper implementation from occurring. In recent years however the activist judiciary and media have resulted in greater accountability towards the ideals the constitution upholds.

In contrast to the gloom and doom that many believe indefinitely prevails in the country, Pakistan today hosts a vibrant, free, and fledgling independent print and electronic media; an active judiciary that respects the importance of the rule of law; an army that has begun to receive scrutiny and that has, at least ostensibly, taken a back-seat in politics; a robust opposition in parliament; and a vigilant network of citizens on social media who generously indulge in the country’s relative freedom of expression.

Pakistanis are also looking forward to the trial of Musharraf, under house arrest since his return this year on charges of deposing and arresting the judiciary in 2007 (in response to which the Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary, popularly known as the Lawyers’ Movement, which ran from 2007 to 2009). He is also to face justice in connection with the murder of both Benazir Bhutto and the Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti; both cases in which he has been named the prime suspect.

Pakistan is a country that is continually learning the prerequisites for successful democracy: consensus-building, collaboration, dialogue, and inclusiveness.

This developing view can be seen in the country’s eighteenth constitutional amendment. Passed in 2012, the new law curbed the president’s sweeping powers to unilaterally dissolve the parliament, which had caused much havoc in the preceding years.

Population and Social Characteristics:

Pakistan enjoys massive human capital that has heretofore been hindered by political crises and widespread unemployment.

It is home to a population of 190 million people. Seventy million of these individuals are part of the country’s middle class, while 16 million have access to the Internet. 67.1% of Pakistanis are below the age of thirty.

The country is urbanizing at the fastest rate in South Asia. Half the population will live in cities by 2025, up one-third from current figures.

Pakistan has a burgeoning textile industry and immense potential to be an emerging market. It has women who serve both on political and combat frontlines and has produced a Nobel Laureate and two Oscar winners.

Conclusion: A Difficult Country

Yet side by side with these signs of success are the other, alarming aspects of Pakistan’s character.

Today, the country stands at the convergence of many grave social, political, and economic issues. It faces challenges from the dual monstrosity that is terrorism and extremism; an acute imbalance between military-civilian relations; corruption and venality; an economic breakdown; societal decadence; bureaucratic infighting; and hurdles in its geopolitical relations.

Just as the Arab world is in the throes of revolution and rebellion today, Pakistan also seeks a break from its own past, which is riddled with instability, uncertainty, contempt of law, and dictatorial violations of the sanctity and soul of the country.

This year’s democratic transition brings with it the hope that Pakistan will finally close the chapter on its history of military intervention in politics. It also indicates the emergence of a democratic culture in a place where the rule of law had long been subordinate.

Pakistan’s new government may not entirely cure its problems but that these historic elections have occurred is an achievement in itself. Indeed, it represents a much-needed first step in the right direction.

The world should embrace Pakistan as it finally embraces democracy.

~ Hafsa Khawaja