Remembering Bassem


“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.”

– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Today marks three years since my dear friend Bassem Sabry passed away.

This will be a very personal post, I don’t think I’ve spoken about this before and I would rather not speak about it but I hope it makes someone avoid what I did.

I had gotten to know Bassem through Twitter in 2011, a few months after #Jan25, something I will forever be indebted to social media for.

And every single exchange I had with him revealed him to be an incredibly intelligent, witty and kind soul. It was a joy to talk to him.

He was brilliant, in mind and heart. In every way.

A year before he passed away, Bassem wrote a moving post on his reflections on life upon turning 30.

I remember reading it and thinking just how lucky I was to know such a beautiful person, and how privileged I was to have his friendship. I thought of expressing this to him but only properly i.e by writing him an elaborate and thoughtful message when I had ample time. I was lazy too. Days passed, and so did the months, and I still hadn’t composed anything.

Until April 2014, when I learned, through the very place I had gotten to know him, that he had left forever.

I had looked for time to express myself and it had passed me by, or maybe I had.

Not a day has gone by since April 29th, 2014 when I haven’t remembered him, but not writing to Bassem is the biggest regret of my life. Everyday, I wake up with this regret, this unmovable mountain crushingly sitting on my heart. It gnaws at my heart, just like his loss.

I read of the things happening in Egypt and the world, and I think of what he would’ve said or written about them. He wrote so well.

I think of things that have happened in Pakistan since he left that he would’ve messaged to ask me about.

I think of how our friendship would’ve grown with time, I wonder if my frequent “come to Pakistan someday, Bassem” would’ve ever realized.

I think of him every single time I exceed a given word limit for something I have to write, and remember how we’d joked that we can never write within limits and it was almost as if it was beyond our control.

I remember him whenever I listen to Shik Shak Shok, and how he’d laughed with surprise that I knew of it sitting in Pakistan.

I think of him everytime I turn a page from one of the books I bought after looking at his Facebook album of recommended books. I read the words and wonder what he would’ve thought when reading them.

I think of the kindness, knowledge, wisdom, beauty and love this world has been deprived of by his departure.

I think of how unfair his loss has been to a world and to a people who need someone like him the most today.

I think of my wish of going to Egypt and visiting him, just as I wanted to in his life.

Cb9FBu5WwAAc4SOI knew him for a short while but I got to know such great people and things through Bassem.

And how generous he was to teach me something even in his passing: that one should never spare even a second in saying a kind word, in appreciating people, in expressing how much they mean to you.

I have done this everyday since he left, even with strangers. Some people find it odd how expressive I am to them, but I learnt a hard lesson.  I hope no one ever loses out on expressing his or herself to the people they cherish and value. We take so much for granted.

And maybe how swiftly expressive I am to people now is also my way of making up to Bassem. I pray for him everyday. My prayers are profuse because deep inside, I want to make up for what I lost out on. Yet I know it isn’t the same, it can never be.

Never hold back from saying a kind word or connecting and appreciating those who light up your life in little or big ways, even if just for a minute or forever.

Please do read up on Bassem today, acquaint yourself with the person he was; remember him, and perhaps learn something from him, because his knowledge, wisdom, intelligence and heart were limitless in their giving, and thankfully he has left behind much through which people can glimpse and gain from them.

Spare a thought and prayer for him today and most importantly, do what he would’ve loved: do an act or say a word of kindness to someone.

For those who are still reading this, I end with words from Mohamed El Dahshan’s tribute to Bassem:

“May you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.”

Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.

Wish you had stayed longer.

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The Blood on Our Hands


*Originally published in The Nation. Unedited version below:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

– W. G. Sebald

A glance at his profile reveals bits and pieces from which you can patch together his person: poetry, musings, an avidness for photography, friendships, quotes from books, posts on global affairs and local issues, a love for knowledge, an interest in Sufism, support for women’s rights and a heart for humanity.

This was Mashal Khan, a kind and gentle soul whose crime was to think freely, to have the audacity to think differently, and to envision a better society and a better people.

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He was brutally murdered in Mardan.

Is it even a shock that such a horrific incident took place in a country which has institutionalized bigotry and hate? Where politicians, representatives, leaders, judges, journalists, anchors and clerics peddle hate, bigotry and violence every single day?

Before the matter of blasphemous posts was concocted, Mashal was accused of being an Ahmadi which he had denied. Is such an incident unexpected in a land whose laws enshrine exclusion, discrimination and persecution towards the Ahmadi community?

When the state sanctions hate, it is a license for the public to have a free hand to apply it wherever and whenever they wish.

The gruesome incident also forces questions about blasphemy in Pakistan, including the reform and the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. It is undeniable that the matter warrants honest and candid debate, but it is also a point to ponder whether or not the people would stop baying for blood if the Blasphemy Law goes. In Mashal’s case, neither a formal complaint nor an arrest had taken place. There has been no appeal to law, mob vigilantism was the law of the day.

The baying for blood may not disappear with the Blasphemy Law, but let us be clear that state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas opens the floodgates for abhorrent public sentiments and abominable tendencies and menaces to come to the fore and actively play out. Trump’s ascent to the White House and the boost it has been for white-supremacists and racists stands stark in sight. One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.

In Pakistan, state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas, a certain narrative of Islam and the narrative of blasphemy, is an encouragement for the public to engage, express and execute their depraved schemes, bigotry, intolerance, and to take the law into their hands.

Mashal’s murder, however, must not push us into the utopian expectation and idealistic hope that the Pakistani government and state would step up to reflect on their responsibility, their complicity and decisively act to steer the country away from the destruction it is steeply descending into by each passing day.

Such an expectation and hope cannot be fostered while the state and government pander and patronize for their own agendas and interests the very elements and organizations whose extremism, intolerance and violence are fatally injuring Pakistan. Such a hope cannot be kept while religion is employed as a potent weapon for political expediency, for cheap political mileage and for silencing dissent; while lawmakers declare those who wish to see Pakistan should either mend their ways or leave the country; while the Prime Minister’s son-in-law engages in hate speech against the Ahmadi community; while political parties scurry to shake hands bloodied with the lives of thousands of Pakistanis, in the name of electoral alliances; when disappeared bloggers and arrested professors are struck with blasphemy allegations; when the Interior Minister threatens to shut down social media due to blasphemous content; when judges become moral crusaders and drum up perceived dangers to Islam to curtail freedoms.

That this witch-hunt and venom would extend and seep into online spaces was only inevitable.

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Shama and Shehzad

It is too much to expect for things to change when not a leaf stirred when Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in broad daylight, when the Christian couple of a pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad were lynched and thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln, or when an angry mob set fire to a house in Gujranwala killing three Ahmadis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.

The involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism and intolerance confronting Pakistan. We are complicit, through our outright espousal of extremism, through our apathy towards its victims; through the stutter and stammer of our tongue with “ifs” and “buts” when condemning these acts, through the repugnant “justifications”, “explanations” and “questions” we offer for these acts; and through our refusal and silences to protest against them. In one way or another, we are complicit.

When an institution of education, knowledge and learning becomes the site of a cold-blooded, brutal murder, it should be enough to recognize that the Pakistani state is a rotten state, with a diseased society, both of which can never bear a truly living and thinking individual like Mashal.

The state is complicit, and so are we.

We may not have been present at the site of the murder, but we enabled it.

One can suppose that the splatters of blood are lighter on our hands, but know that they are there nonetheless.

Every day, this country dies a ghastly death at the hands of the mob it has the misfortune of calling its people, its nation.

It seems even God has forsaken Pakistan for we alone are responsible for the hell and havoc at home.

Kitni badnaseeb hai who qaum jo apne mashal khud hi inkar aur tabah karde.

Kitne mashal bujhaye jayein gay is mulk main? Aur agar hai, tau kitna tareek hai iss mulk ka mustaqbil.

-Hafsa Khawaja

 

Narrowing Spaces


*Originally published in Daily Times. Slightly longer version below:

Pakistan seems to be caught in a constant movement of one step forward and two steps backward.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers, who were critical of the state and establishment, sent shockwaves through the civil society. Their recovery was a cause of relief, however the message of their disappearances to the rest of the activist community was hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

Recently, activist and academic Dr Riaz Ahmed was arrested during a protest on the charges of possessing an illicit weapon allegedly found in his vehicle. Regardless of the dubious charges, it is important to know that the paramilitary force officer, on whose complaint the case was registered against Dr. Riaz, did not fail to mention that the professor was also “involved in advocating on Facebook for the release of ‘blasphemous’ bloggers reportedly picked up by law enforcement agencies recently.”

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The allegations of blasphemy have permanently jeopardized the lives of the recovered bloggers, but that those who demanded and protested for their release are now also considered tainted, and their lives subsequently endangered, is a disturbing sign.

In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Holi address to the Hindu community in Karachi garnered surprise and praise from several sections of the population for whom it embodied the progressive acceptance, inclusivity, pluralism, and tolerance that should be at the heart of Pakistan.

While the PM’s speech may have ignited a flicker of hope regarding some modicum of a progressiveness in the government’s orientation, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was swift to emerge as the moral crusader of the hour, second only to Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, to snuff it with the threat of blocking all social media sites in the country which host blasphemous content.

But relevant to this matter, and to the larger phenomenon of Pakistani political parties’ usual pandering and patronizing of the religious right and extremist organizations, is the late Eqbal Ahmad’s incisive analysis in which he wrote:

“Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.”

However, Chaudhry Nisar’s reported statement in Dawn regarding the social media ban, that “no country can allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule the pretext of freedom of expression”, is telling of the other objectives the ban would clearly serve. That the “ridicule” of state and government officials can be swept by a ban ostensibly related to religion indicates the enduring convenience of religion as a useful prop for Pakistani politics and the state itself.

These threads of incidents and developments tie into the thriving reality of an increasingly and dangerously shrinking and narrowing space for freedom of expression, criticism, dissent and protest in Pakistan. It is a space constantly threatened and stifled by religious obscurantism, extremism and state’s growing intolerance of dissent. Activists, students, bloggers, artists, academics, journalists and members of the civil society are steadily being targeted by virulent campaigns or directly arrested on dubious and fictitious reasons.

The academic spaces in the country don’t have brighter views to offer in this these days either.

C7d9RgWXgAAVP6zAt Punjab University in Lahore, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba once again demonstrated their notorious thuggery on a Pakhtun Cultural Day event resulting in clashes and violence. It was later revealed that, in wake of this incident, the Punjab University administration had decided to ban all student programmes and events within the university premises.

This beleaguering bodes well for no one.

Earlier this year, Pankaj Mishra wrote on Vaclav Havel’s conception of a “parallel polis” and its practical construction as a source of people power against the Trump administration:

Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase).

The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”

Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power.

As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.

Although Mishra emphasised Havel’s idea in the current American context, it is helpful for all cornered people and their resistance against the rise of unjust power against them in other countries too, including Pakistan.

The people will have to take up their cause themselves.

The drive to homogenize Pakistan’s religious and cultural character, and to monopolize its narratives through exclusivist understandings and actual violence, has long been a project of regressive forces and the responsibility falls on ordinary citizens today to thwart its renewed attempts.

With this march of terror, fear and suppression, that draws strength from the standard repertoire of reasons such as religion, “national ideology” and “national security”, it has now become necessary for all concerned citizens to recognize this reality and organize to protect those who fight for our freedoms, and vigorously preserve the spaces and liberties we are entitled to.

Further space and freedoms must not and cannot be conceded in the face of this rising tide of regression, repression and pressure, for there is only more beyond a surrender to them.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Return to Pakistan


I’ll say it again, the casualties of terrorism in Pakistan have been many. The sense of loss is perennial. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

I look at my city, and I am often unable to recognize it.
The Lahore I knew was a Lahore of basant, concerts, cricket matches, festivals; a city constantly throbbing with life. Lahore today is the beating heart whose loud, wild and festive rhythms are muffled and arrested by high security alerts, barbed wires, check-posts, fences, and high walls. Arrested by an architecture and landscape of fear and insecurity, mirroring the one we have come to construct, and navigate through everyday, in our collective mind.

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So many of us have spent the past few days and weeks pondering over and expressing how unwise and misguided holding the PSL final in Lahore is, and yet this return of cricket, this event, even if temporary, even if carefully orchestrated, even if precarious in the possibilities it offers, swept away all the supposed rationality, skepticism, cynicism and sense with which we argued. It was impossible to escape the significance of the event and the overwhelming emotions it brought it: the jazba, the junoon, the frenzy, fervor, joy, excitement – of a beloved’s return, of the recovery of something lost to where and to whom it rightfully belongs, of that persistent pester that refuses to die and continually tugs at the heart for embrace: hope.

And what happened in Lahore embodied it all today.

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The crowds, the dhamaal and Dama Dam Mast in the stadium, the electrifying spirit, the joy, the celebration, so beautiful, powerful and symbolic. That we remember Sehwan. That we celebrate Sehwan. That we are all that Sehwan represents. That we will not bow.

That this, this audacious defiance, is Pakistan.
That all is not lost, that we refuse to surrender.
That one day, we will prevail.

Call it what you will, a distraction, a silly show, but God knows we needed this. This was not a triumph against terrorism, it may change nothing, it may have been the extremely short-lived return of international cricket to Pakistan, but for a few hours, it was the return of millions of Pakistanis to the Pakistan they knew, the Pakistan they remembered, the Pakistan they miss.

May we come to see a time where the normal is no longer nostalgia, where this yearning for the normal is no longer normal. May Lahore and all of Pakistan once again pulsate with the celebration, joy and peace witnessed today.

(Also, may Lahore Qalandars have mercy on Fawad Rana and us, and atleast make it to the semi-finals in future editions of PSL….)

Thank you, PSL. Thank you, all policemen, officers and officials who helped make this happen.

Congratulations Peshawar, Warka Dang!

PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!

-Hafsa Khawaja

Panchayat and Jirga Justice?


*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

A married woman recently set herself on fire in Gujrat upon learning that she was pregnant as a result of being subjected to rape by the order of a panchayat.

In Rahim Yar Khan, a nine-year-old girl was given as Vani to a boy of fourteen as a settlement of a murder dispute by a jirga.

In Umerkot, it was reported that a case of gang rape was “settled” for a compensation of 30 mounds of wheat.

In the capital, a bill called the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill was passed by the 23 members of the National Assembly who were present that day, in hope that it would lead to “a speedy resolution of petty civil matters and reduce the burden of litigations on the courts.”

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This bill provides legal and constitutional status to jirgas and panchayats. This ADR system is set to settle 23 types of civil and criminal disputes.

Jirgas and panchayats have often been the purveyors of archaic traditions, customs and inhumane practices, which the three cases above only offer a glimpse of.  And it ostensibly in view of this that the government has proposed a number of alterations and adjustments to jirgas and panchayats which the bill contains.

The bill proposes the appointment of mediators or panels of ‘neutrals’ in districts who will, after consultation with the high courts, be drawn by the government from “lawyers, retired judges of superior and subordinate judiciary, retired civil servants, social workers, ulema, jurists, technocrats and other experts..”.

However, it is a point to ponder whether the conflicting parties and the people of the districts will accept the authority of the jirga and panchayat if its leaders are not drawn from their own milieu and their decisions are not in line with their entrenched local traditions and local values, such as those of honor. There might also exist the possibility of opposition by the local elders and elites, which have traditionally constituted and headed these jirgas and panchayats, to this replacement and dislocation of their authority. There may also come into being or already exist parallel jirgas and panchayats which will further contest and complicate the process. Therefore, it is essential for the government to have a plan in hand for ensuring acceptance of the appointed mediators’ authority, adherence to their decisions and neutralizing potential opposition and conflict.

The Law Minister had added that the disputes will “be settled with consent of both parties in the dispute and if any woman feels that she is not being given justice, she can move the court.” It is here that the main issue arises. Alternate mechanisms for justice are important, but it is also necessary to keep the nature and character of jirgas and panchayats in view, which have been notoriously misogynist.

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[Excerpt from an Express Tribune report]

Last year, 16 year old Ambreen was hanged and her corpse set ablaze in Makol on the order of a local jirga after it was learnt that she had facilitated an elopement.

In 2015 in Kohistan, a local jirga’s order for the murder of five women after a video of them dancing at a wedding emerged, made it to international news. One need not elaborate at length the long list of verdicts and orders given by jirgas and panchayats in Pakistan that are repugnant and obnoxious to basic human rights, especially with regards to women. It is precisely for this reason that women’s rights organizations have voiced concern regarding the passage of this bill. The Women’s Action Forum has termed ADRs “in the patriarchal and socially unjust and unequal conditions that prevail in Pakistan” as unacceptable.

To carry on from the Law Minister’s statement, if at the end of the day an aggrieved party has to take the route of the courts, then how exactly is the provision of a legal cover to these panchayats and jirgas a step in the direction of speedy resolution of issues and a lessening of burden in litigation?

In her article on jirgas in 2015, written in wake of Ambreen’s case coming to light, lawyer Sahar Bandial located the need for jirgas and panchayats in the “inaccessibility of and delays in the dispensation of justice by the formal legal system.” Her conclusion is echoed by Abuzar Salman Khan Niazi in his comments to Pakistan Today on the passage of the ADR Bill:  “Justice delayed,” he pointed out “is justice denied. And where a property case can take up to ten years to reach resolution in a court of law, a communal gathering or jirga could bring the matter to a conclusion in a matter of weeks.”

It is evident that Pakistan’s mainstream legal system possesses a plethora of problems and burdens, which necessitate that it is streamlined, and in the meanwhile, alternative avenues for dispensation of justice are provided.

However, attempting to provide legal status to institutions as deeply problematic and flawed as jirgas and panchayats seems to be a solution thought in haste, without a thorough examination of their nature and without an elaboration of the mechanisms to ensure the dispensation of justice by these in its fullest measure. That this bill was passed in the National Assembly by a mere 23 out of the 342 members also tosses its legality into doubt and emphasizes the elected representatives’ scant sense of duty and regard for the institution.

While the passage of the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill in the Senate is uncertain, the possibility of the dispensation of justice in its fullest measure by jirgas and panchayats, given their history, the existing social and cultural realities and power structures they operate in, the questions given rise to by the provisions in the bill itself, remains equally doubtful.

-Hafsa Khawaja

It Hurts, Deeply


*Originally published on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

It hurts, deeply.

Lahore. Quetta. Mohmand Agency. Peshawar. Sehwan.

I wonder, will we ever live without this sense of fear and foreboding? This anxiety and fright of you or your loved ones stepping out of the house only to be separated forever.

One of the ways I spend quality-time with my younger sibling is to go to the cinema with him. There have been times when we’ve been there and I’ve been struck by anxiety, and seized by apprehension. What if someone blows this place up today? What if terrorists burst in here? Where is the nearest exit that I will be able to push Abdullah towards? How can I hide him? No, he’s too tall now to be hidden. What will we do if something happens? We shouldn’t be here. What if something happens? What if?

I wonder.

But I am distressed when he goes to school too.

I worry.

I worry someday the Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, or other monuments and places of historical and cultural significance might come into the focus of terrorists. I worry my historical and cultural heritage will be irrecoverably taken from me.

Because nothing is sacred, nothing is certain.

This sense of fear, the sense of loss doesn’t lurk in the dusty corners of our minds, they loom on our hearts, crushingly. 

There are texts and emails every now and then. Identifications of potential targets. Security alerts and warnings. Places to be avoided. Emergency drills to be conducted and participated in. Fears to be grappled with.

For how long?

Normalcy eludes.

I thought nothing was left there to break me further after Peshawar, and yet we learn that what is shattered can be broken further. The past few days have reminded me of the 2008-2009-10 days, when we had ninety suicide attacks and five hundred bombings in a single year.

I thought we were past this. I hoped we were. I prayed we were.

The rising death toll. The need for blood donations. The full impact of the attack. The same old condemnations. The same old rhetoric. The same old statements. The same lies, the same passing the buck, formation of commissions, orders for inquiry etc. Until another attack. And repeat.

50,000 and counting.

We have come to a point where the names of cities are symbolic of the violence, loss and tragedy they have borne. Peshawar is not its history, Peshawar isn’t Fort Bala Hisaar, Peshawar is not Khyber Pass, Peshawar is not its heritage, its beauty, its culture, Peshawar is the APS Attack.

Quetta is not Quetta, Quetta is Hazara killings.

Cities are no longer cities, they are signifiers, signposts of tragedies. Of losses borne, of lives mourned.

The violence, the loss has subsumed everything.

The casualties of terrorism go even beyond the lives. They are tragic ruptures in what was once our cherished collective and celebrated cultural and social life and identity. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

Everything is a reminder of what we face. There is no distraction, there is no relief.

I am at a stage where I shut myself from social media when a tragedy occurs. Because I am a coward, I can no longer face it. I am selfish, because I don’t want to.

I am tired.

Where does one summon the strength from when all is sapped?

I can shut social media for a while, but I cannot shut torment and turmoil of my heart.

I think of the lives taken, I think of the promise held by their presence in others’ lives; the promise held by their existence for Pakistan; a promise betrayed.

I think of the healers, teachers, sportsmen, artists taken from us, who were never given the chance to know it themselves. I think of the ordinary person toiling all day to put bread on the table of his family, wanting to just return home at the end of the day. I think of the love, warmth and hope plundered from multiple lives and generation with the robbery of a single life, in a single moment.

I wrote this before, I’ll say it again:

There are times when I want to escape Pakistan, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to the suffering in this land, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that its suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you, Pakistan, have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

It hurts, deeply.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Ominous Signs


*Originally published in The Nation.

At least six activists have been reported missing within a week.

The editorial in The News was correct in emphasizing “that the near-simultaneous disappearances are linked since all four of the activists shared the same approach, were critical of government and establishment policies and were prominent online and on social media.”

The space for expression and dissent appears to be increasingly shrinking and shriveling. That notable individuals like Salman Haider, a human rights activist and professor at Fatima Jinnah University, can vanish in broad daylight from the capital is a frightening revelation that people’s prominence and profiles can offer no protection or deterrence from the danger and threat of disappearance.

A few weeks back, a small and peaceful demonstration by the Democratic Students Alliance in Lahore, organized in response to the Islam Bachao rally taken out earlier, was stopped and the participants detained at the Racecourse police station for several hours. This crackdown on the peaceful practice of basic constitutional rights and freedoms, along with recent developments, is a grim start to the new year for the country.

Pakistan’s civil society is neither ignorant nor impervious to repression. In fact, it has possessed a history riddled with struggles against censorship, suspension of civil liberties, arbitrary arrests, and persecution under the various dictatorial regimes. However, to witness the revival and replication of these measures and instruments during the stint of a democratic government is an alarming, outrageous and deplorable stain on its claims of a democratic character and credentials.

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A glance back at the last two or three years also yields a bleak picture associated with a deteriorating situation spanning academic freedoms, press freedoms and civil liberties in the country.

With regards to this, a profile of Mohammad Hanif in the New Yorker aptly captured the constraints of the English-language press in Pakistan and encapsulated a series a incidents related to their breach:

“The Pakistani press corps works with a strange mixture of privilege and constraint. Pick up one of the better English-language newspapers—the News or the Dawn—and you will find penetrating coverage of national security, poverty, and governmental corruption. But, beyond shifting and mysterious boundaries, no journalist may stray without risk. In 2010, Umar Cheema, who had written about dissent within the military, was picked up by men in police uniforms who were widely presumed to be I.S.I. agents. They shaved his head, sexually humiliated him, and dropped him miles from his home, with a warning to stop. The following year, Saleem Shahzad published stories asserting that the armed forces had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in a canal.”

In 2015, a scheduled panel discussion on the “history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was forcibly booted and cancelled after ‘external’ intervention.

In 2016, there occurred the passage of measures such as the Cyber Crime Bill and the move to condemn Cyril Almeida, after much fuss and furore, to the Exit Control List, after his report on civil-military relations.

It is both interesting and worrying to note that discussions within spheres such as a private, often touted as elite, university in an urban provincial capital, and a leading English language newspaper, which were previously considered largely off-limits to state encroachment, now risk subjection to the control of a state, a political, military and intelligence establishment, that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any sign of dissent or criticism.

If the disappearances of these activists has been orchestrated in order to stifle criticism of state institutions and policies, it a short-sighted move since, in addition to protests and rallies across cities, the disappearances are being covered by major national and international media outlets and human rights organizations.

Dissent, criticism, difference of opinion, and activism are critical for a living society, and central to a robust democracy. It appears, however, that some state organs or some actors in the country wish to stem these in their myopic drive to steer Pakistan into ruin.

The sudden spurt of blasphemy allegations and accusations of being “anti-Islam” directed at some of the missing activists also poses a perilous situation for them even if they are recovered, since the mere suspicion of blasphemy is enough to continually and permanently endanger an individual’s life in Pakistan.

It is still hoped that the activists will be recovered safe and sound, however, even if they return, the climate of fear and intimidation engendered by their disappearances will remain. The message of these disappearances is hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

A strongly-worded editorial in Dawn brought to light an important assumption and accusation operating in this entire issue:

“The sanitised language — ‘missing persons’, ‘the disappeared’, etc — cannot hide an ugly truth: the state of Pakistan continues to be suspected of involvement in the disappearance and illegal detentions of a range of private citizens.”

The matter of “disappeared” and “missing” persons began in Balochistan, and today it has reached the capital. There is no escape for the state from this, for it is either complicit or it is incompetent. And for the rest of the country, these are ominous signs.

-Hafsa Khawaja