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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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

Allah De Hawale

*Originally published in The Friday Times:

A sessions court in Karachi recently dismissed a plea filed by PTI against the Sindh government regarding incompetence and apathy in the face of the devastating heat wave that struck the city. According to a report in Dawn, the esteemed judge was of the opinion that, “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.”

Energy experts at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, Maha Kamal and Maariyah Wasim recently wrote an article stressing the dangerous scale of climate change for South Asia. While emphasising and proposing proper policy action to combat climate change, they mention that the Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015 marked Pakistan in the ‘extreme risk’ category and comment that, “Climate scientists all around the world now agree that climate change is not an esoteric term but a manmade phenomenon, caused by human activities. Blaming ‘climate change’ without accepting responsibility for the causes of climate change has led to inaction by policymakers, as well as a lack of direction.”

The New York Times’ also recently commented on the fresh findings of British medical journal The Lancet concerning the subject of climate change and its effects on health: “More people will be exposed to floods, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather associated with climate change over the next century than previously thought.”

Furthermore, Michael Kugelman’s article in Dawn throws light on the immensely alarming looming danger of water scarcity in Pakistan: “A new IMF report throws the severity of Pakistan’s water crisis into sharp relief. Back in 2009, the Running on Empty study projected that by 2025, Pakistan’s water shortfall could be five times the amount of water that could then be stored throughout the Indus River system’s vast reservoirs. It estimated that the shortfall in 2025 would comprise almost two thirds of the entire Indus River system’s current annual average flow.” In view of this, the nightmare of a ‘water-starved wasteland’ does not appear too distant as Pakistan’s future.


However, it seems that no amount of studies, statistics, figures and projections can drive home the point that Pakistan faces a crisis of survival posed by climate change. There cannot be a clearer signal and a more frightful warning than the recent heat wave that claimed a staggering number of 1,200 lives. It can only be wondered with dread what more is in store for a country that, according to the data from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation (ND-Gain) Index, holds a dismal ranking regarding its adaptation to global warming, and yet, has left it all to the Will of Allah alone.

The belief that all lies in the hands and power of Allah is not alien to Islam. However, neither is the norm of the use, abuse and exploitation of religion by the Pakistani state uncommon. Such an argument, as articulated by the distinguished judge, deprives those in power of any agency, which they are otherwise rather quick to exercise. It serves to justify and perpetuate the incompetence that marks government performance in the country; providing them an escape from the responsibilities and duties owed to citizens.

Back in May a motivational lecture on the ‘Morality and Ethics and Public Service Delivery’ by a religious scholar was organised for customs officers by the Federal Board of Revenue.  While there is nothing wrong with motivational lectures, it remains to be noted that it will take a lot more than sermons to “motivate” the epidemic of entrenched corruption and inefficiency out of the bureaucracy. FBR and other state institutions need immediate reforms which sermons can succeed in supplanting.

What the mention of this motivational lecture exhibits is once again, the pervasive use of religion in Pakistan as a convenient substitute for initiative, action, accountability and reform; a use that will intensify as issues such as those of climate change increasingly lay claim to the country.

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. Addressing muftis from every province after the horrific Soma Mine incident that killed 303 workers, Professor Gormez also responded 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.”

From Soma to Karachi, the importance of Gormez’s message resonates; ‘divine power’ and ‘fate’ should not be draped as escapes from human responsibility, or excuses for indifference and inaction.

Perhaps it would be better if those at the helm of power in Pakistan stop indulging in convenient fatalism and immediately revise and implement the National Climate Change Policy. With more than a thousand lives usurped, it is time to abandon the prime method of redressing Pakistan’s pressing problems, a method which can be summed in three words: Allah de Hawale.

– Hafsa Khawaja

They Were Not Numbers

*First published by Hum-Aahang. On seven months since Peshawar:

Majid Maqsood is a 16-year old student who has just passed his matriculation with 80% marks and is headed towards college. He loves music, football, writing and composing songs, and rapping. Incredibly polite and rather mature, he is brilliant young boy, but most importantly, a brave one.

Majid is a survivor of the Peshawar Attack.

When the attack began, Majid was in the auditorium with students of the 8th, 9th and 10th grade for a medical lecture. Soon they heard the sound of firing as three terrorists entered shooting, at the sight of which he sat down to take cover; the best he could do to hide. They went firing from chair to chair, now remembering which Majid is surprised that he managed to survive. He recalls that in those eight to ten minutes of firing, more than a hundred students were killed.

Ten minutes.

A hundred children.

Ten children killed in every minute. Ten families shattered forever, in sixty seconds.

Ten minutes. A hundred children. Each with a name, a face, a family, a future.

They were not numbers.

“They were the future of this country; someone was a brilliant doctor, one an army officer, one an engineer, one an actor, one a musician , one a politician – everyone was pursuing his dream and working hard,” he recalls. “Each one was kind, intelligent and smart”.

He remembers the last time he played football with Mubeen Shah, but in particular, he remembers his close friend Usman Abbasi. “We used to play together, sit and talk, go out. He was a really mature guy and more intelligent than me. He was a sharp but he had different dreams and goals too.”

He wants people to not just remember Peshawar [attack] as Peshawar and all that is conventionally associated with the city, saying those who were killed were “were not only Pathans or from Peshawar, it was an army school so students from all over the country were studying. Even I am not a Pathan. On the 16th, the dead bodies went to almost every part of Pakistan.”

The dead bodies.

Dead. For once they lived; they breathed, they played, they hoped, they dreamed.

They were not numbers.

I asked Majid if he felt people had forgotten the attack, and he was quick in expressing his sense of the briefness of outrage after Peshawar, the short-lived grief and the hollow promises, “After the 16th [of December] I learnt a lot, that there’s no one for you, no one cares about anyone.”

But as a survivor, despite the scars of trauma and sorrow, he believes he has emerged stronger than before, “After losing my friends and teachers, now I am afraid of losing others. All I went through is beyond describing; all those dead bodies of friends, lashes of blood, shouts and screams, but that day really made me strong because now I am no longer afraid of such cowardice. That day revealed the value of a single life to me.” He now wants to do a tribute song for the APS attack victims.

No 16 year-old who loves music or writes songs, should ever be thinking of channelling the expressive power of these passions into a tribute for his fallen friends, peers and teachers.

No 16 year old, and no child, should ever be required to be this brave.

Yet Majid’s maturity only strikes with the harsh acquaintance survivors and victims of the APS attack had to make with the hideous realities of life; of blood, death, and loss. A reality birthed by consummate barbarity.

But he continues to have lofty ideas and plans, “I am focused on my own work, and I have many aims and dreams in life but not just for me but for my country, its people, everyone.”

Majid is not one boy; he is one of many, many who were usurped forever from us.

They were not numbers.


They were made of blood and flesh. They had hopes, fears, zeal and dreams. In them were poets, painters, singers, soldiers, artists, sportsmen, philanthropists, doctors, and leaders. They were tomorrow’s Faiz, Manto, Wasim-Waqar, Gulgee, Jahangir Khan, Moin Akhtar, Ahmed Shah Bokhari, Nur Khan, Adeeb Rizvi, Abdus Salam and Alvin Cornelius. They were to scale the mountains and to soar into the skies. They were to imagine, to create, to heal. They were to pave the path for a better, peaceful, a just tomorrow. They were the promise of a tomorrow.

Seven months on, Majid is right to assert that, “Time heals but we [the survivors] don’t want this.”

Let us allow this wound to deepen. Let us stare into this abyss of loss. Let us never let the pain of Peshawar subside.

Let us realize that December 16th 2014 made us forever poorer.

Let us never forget, for they were not numbers.

– Hafsa Khawaja

The Night is Dark

*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

Five Hazaras were gunned down in Quetta on 7th June. Numbering 500, the bereaved families and members of the Hazara community later protested on the streets with coffins of the deceased. In vain.

Aftab in his youth

Aftab in his youth

Aftab Bahadar was hanged on 10th June. Sentenced in 1992 for a murder along with Ghulam Mustafa, the plumber for whom he worked, he had been painfully waiting on the death row since 22 years. However, both Ghulam and the eyewitness who testified against Aftab only recently repudiated the claim that Aftab was complicit in the crime. According to Guardian and human rights organization Reprieve, Aftab said that when he was arrested the police asked for a 50,000 rupee bribe and said they would let him go if he paid. He couldn’t.

What lies between these deaths is hollowness, a hollowness of promises and vows that continues to jar louder each day since 16th December 2014.

With a seriously flawed judicial system and reportedly the world’s largest number of inmates on death row, believed to be over 8000, the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan was controversial from the start. Yet all reason was jettisoned in an attempt to subdue and satiate the seething fury and mourning after the Peshawar Attack. The decision was oblivious to logic in disregarding the fact that the very desire of terrorists resides in death and the anticipated ascension to heaven; and that an ideology as toxic, bloodthirsty and pervasive as that of extremism cannot be bound, let alone defeated, by the mere physical elimination of its members. Nonetheless, the restoration of the death penalty was made to appear as a seemingly bold and big step against terrorists; symbolic of the state’s newfound deadly and steely resolve against terrorism. However, the reinstatement of the death penalty was but a grand eyewash and façade used to deflect from taking real action on the fronts that demanded immense political will, honesty, courage and tenacity. A reality starkly reflected between the unabated killings in Quetta and the hanging of Aftab Bahadur at Kot Lakhpat.

The comprehensive National Action Plan that emerged in January as the government’s guide to countering terrorism and extremism seems to have been an act of plain political grandstanding since it remains far from any noticeable implementation.

A critical statement on the state of madrassah education by Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed was enough to evoke a spate of hate and attacks against him, prompting fears for his safety. Pervez Hoodbhoy succinctly spoke of the controversy’s implications in his Dawn article ‘The Pervaiz Rasheed Affair’“Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. By refusing to own the remarks of its own information minister the government has signalled its retreat on a critical front — madressah reform.”  Such are the hazards and hurdles associated with the problem of extremism in Pakistan that a mere statement can shackle the government from action. As for the minorities Shikarpur, Youhanabad and Quetta suffice to mention. They continue to be hounded while militant outfits such as LeJ and SSP continue to run amok with their lust for blood.

On the other hand, decisions taken in wake of the Peshawar attack such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s permission to allow teachers weapons inside schools resonate with the coarse nature of political imagination in the country. The prevalence of such poor governance that determines this slipshod management of alarming issues and knee-jerk reactions to them has only recently taken the life of a 12-year old pupil in Swat who was accidentally shot dead by the teacher while he was cleaning his pistol.

Despite the monstrosity that bloodily usurped the lives of 141 children, the government’s reaction has been marked by the customary national cycle of temporary outrage, condemnation, protest, forget and repeat. The recent killings of the Hazara in Quetta and the execution of Aftab Bahadur serve to illustrate the lack of any decisive, solid or substantial government and state action against terrorists and extremists, and the superficiality of the steps taken, such as the restoration of the death penalty, in curbing the cancer.

Little has changed six months since the Peshawar Attack, most of all the captivity of Pakistan and its collective consciousness by political, ideological, social and moral paralysis.

At such a moment in time, one must listen to a dead man speaking from his grave; Aftab Bahadaur’s words from his last letter (translated and published in The Guardian a day before his execution):

“While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say. I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money…I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”

The night ended for Aftab as his last, but for Pakistan, indeed the night remains very dark.

~ Hafsa Khawaja