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