Handful of Salt


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

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

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

And domestically, what is there to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hafsa Khawaja

Can the FATA Reforms Break Colonial Legacy?


*Originally published on Tanqeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Hafsa Khawaja

Who was Amjad Sabri? He Will Never Know


Amid mourning,

The music died,

Amid grief,

The conversation stopped,

Amid lives trampled,

A heritage crumbled,

All was lost,

Silence reigned,

Nothing remained.

All was lost.

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Amjad Sabri?

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

So wrote Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451.

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

It has made me think of Sabeen.

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

And yesterday, it made me think of Amjad Sabri.

It struck me.

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

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

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

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

We are poorer today than we were yesterday.

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

And this hit me sharp when my own brother asked me.

Who was Amjad Sabri?

He will never really know.

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

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

Yeh roz ki rasmayein.

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

But it’s not just them, it is us.

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

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

As a friend, Sajjad Hussain, wrote:

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

You, yes you, are complicit.

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Amjad Sabri.

“Āj bhi mere Rabb tere ghar main

Gūnjtī hai azān-e-Bilālī

Bhar do jholi meri ya Ilāhi

Laut kar mai na jāunga khālī…”

 

 

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

PEMRA’s Bans: Perpetually Problematic


*First posted on The Nation’s Blog.

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

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

And indeed it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is deliberate silencing.

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

Jasmeen Manzoor tweeted on the matter:  @jasmeenmanzoor

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

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

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

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

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

-Hafsa Khawaja

Seeking Validation for National Tragedies


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

Sunday. Holiday. Easter.

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

50,000 and counting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray for them.

Visit the bereaved, the injured lying in hospitals.

Rush to their help.

Connect to your own humanity before seeking it from others.

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

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Bill and the Need for Cultural Currency


*Originally published in The Nation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hafsa Khawaja

The National Inertia Plan


*Originally published in The News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Hafsa Khawaja