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

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.

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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

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

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.

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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.

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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

Engaging Youhanabad


*Originally published in The Friday Times:


“Taleem aik amanat hai, issko aagay naa puhanchna khayanat hai”

This was Roohullah Gulzari, human rights activist and fellow at Atlantic Council and Emerging Leaders of Pakistan, speaking to the students at Youhanabad as one of three guests invited in a session dedicated to student activism and the pursuit of education against all obstacles.

This was Project Youhanabad.

Started by Minahil Mehdi, a senior at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who has been leading HumAahang a student-led initiative against intolerance, extremism and terrorism, Project Youhanabad was envisioned after the twin blasts that struck a church in the area earlier in March. To show support and solidarity with the Christian community, members of the Democratic Students’ Alliance from LUMS decided to form a human chain outside the church and were joined by other students as well including those who were part of HumAahang. It was during this time that Michelle Chaudhry, who heads the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, reached out to HumAahang resulting in Minahil’s visit to the Foundation’s school in Youhanabad.

It was after that visit that the idea of a summer camp in collaboration between HumAahang and CICF for those studying at the school was devised. Funding was sought, a curriculum charted with Fatima Khalid Khan of Next Generation Pakistan and applications for volunteers to teach at the camp opened. The summer camp began in mid-June and was to be conducted two days a week for two months.

Minahil is quick to clarify though that the summer camp, “wasn’t just a teaching program but a community engagement initiative.”

What exactly is community engagement? Community engagement is not constrained by a single, rigid definition, however, at its heart lays the concept involving participation, education, and the fostering of permanent relationships with a community. In this case, it is interaction with a community for the realization of its growth and development. Community engagement is thus, engagement with a community for the purpose of empowering it.

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The students at the camp varied greatly in ages, with some as young as eight and others as old as twenty. Groups of six to seven students were assigned pairs of two volunteers as mentors; and the groups kept small so to foster a sense of trust, friendship and understanding between the mentors and students; to create a relationship between them that could be stretched out into the future beyond the project whenever the students need any assistance or help.

Interestingly, the summer camp did not involve teaching the usual school subjects such as math and science. Each week has had a different theme with one day was dedicated to instruction and theory and the second to practical performance and examination. There were sessions on critical thinking, world history, public speaking, child abuse, civic responsibilities, human rights, and on music and cultural politics. The idea, according to those running the summer camp was, “To expose the students to disciplines of education they have not known before; to introduce them to new perspectives, new dynamics. Telling them there is more than one way of thinking.”

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To add an element of entertainment to the education, the camp also involved various trips and excursions within the city including one to the Mall Road, where the students were told of its colonial significance. More recently, they were also taken to LUMS and acquainted with the university’s National Outreach Programme (NOP) designed to identify and enrol talented students from all over Pakistan held back by financial constraints.

The objectives of this community engagement initiative branched out into both short-term and long-term. Conceived in wake of the Youhanabad attacks, the immediate aim was to dispel the feeling of isolation and insecurity prevalent in the place; to reach out and help; and to express and demonstrate support.

The long-term objectives strike at the status of the Christian community at Youhanabad, which Minahil helps explain, “Youhanabad is a very underprivileged community; they lack resources, facilities and opportunities. The tragedy is how all of this marginalization has led to the lack of vigour and dreams that every child must have. This is where many cleaners, nurses from our public hospitals, and domestic helpers live. So when we asked the children what they want to do, they said nurses, mechanics etc. We want them to think, why not a doctor instead of a nurse, an engineer instead of a mechanic? We want them to think out of the box. To dream, to challenge themselves, surpass their own potential or in the least be aware of their potential and talents.”

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At its heart, Project Youhanabad sought to engage the students in a way to raise their morale as a minority community, open their minds, cultivate confidence in their potential, expand their sense of possibilities and assist them in their pursuit. It aimed to make them aspire and strive.

However, building long-term relationships was central to the key of community engagement, which is sustainability. Well-aware of this, Minahil states, “We are in fact very lucky that some friends of HumAahang have come forward and offered to sponsor the education of two students from this camp. So this really is what we wanted; for the project to go beyond a two month activity. To make it sustainable not only from our own end as an organization but by investing in the future of the kids because that is all that really matters.”

Project Youhanabad ended on the 14th of August.

In a time when Pakistan has been torn through by the fall and burst of bombs, violence, confusion and despondency, the state has much to do for the amelioration of conditions. But perhaps community engagement is also what the need of the hour is; for people to connect with each other, to help, to empower, and to heal. And if a university student can do it, so can anyone else given the drive and determination. Perhaps the present and future may not appear so bereft of hope if such initiatives are established all over the country and all those scattered are reached out to in spirit of our shared humanity and responsibility to each other, one community at a time.

 

~ Hafsa Khawaja