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.”

17620090_10212800518356153_5008944078782522803_o

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

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

Pakistan’s Fatal Revolution Viral


Having been dragged by the horses ridden by politicians and military despots through the mud for 63 years, the notion of a revolution has not failed to enter the mind of Pakistanis as a saw to cut and break free from this chain of humiliation manacling them.

Recently this feeling and thought has become stronger in Pakistan by the intensity of its pervasiveness fueled by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Pakistanis reason the absolute and dire need of a revolution in their country by stating how either they’re in the same or worser conditions than that of the two Arab nations.

 

 

One might question them, have they followed the events or studied the situations in both the aforementioned countries? Egypt is under the tyrannical rule of an obstinate dictator since he assumed power on October 14, 1981.

With an already-imposed Emergency Rule since 1967, Mubarak exercised his totalitarian muscle a great deal by depriving Egyptians of their basic human rights, suspending their civil liberties, stunting their social growth, curbing any freedom especially freedom of expression by strict and savage means   with an era that ensued of fraudulent elections, inflation, poverty, political persecutions, unemployment, corruption and illegal arrests. Om id Dunya has been survivng under a brute.

Reflecting was the case in Tunisia under the grip of Ben Ali.

While inflation and poverty et al maybe the similarities between Pakistan and Egypt, there’s a visible contrast in between which includes the chiefly important political landscape and the Civilian-Military imbalance of power.

People in Pakistan demand a revolution but a revolution against what? A Government they themselves elected in 2008? What a farce!

 

 

If its to remove the ‘American Puppets’ that ‘have sold the nation’s dignity’, who elects them again and again after getting carried away in the flow of emotionally-charged election speeches of the puppets? The very Pakistani nation now rallying for an uprising!

Pakistan suffers and continues to do so but largely because of the nation itself (minus the years of the forcibly saddled authoritarian rulers to our backs).

With an attitude of placing petty allegiances to parties over the country, dangerous divisions into sects, ethnic separations, indifference towards the erosion of Pakistan’s heritage, abandonment of culture due to sweeping shame felt in owning it and a despicable and damaging ‘conspiracy mindset’ that is developing which ascribes anything that happens in the land of 796,095 kmof area as a work of ‘vile foreign forces’ – to rife dishonesty from the farmer to the Parliament and a frazzled moral and social fabric – Pakistan in no way can afford or requires a revolution with these  inadequacies.

The entire world has witnessed the surreal, perfect religious harmony amongst the Egyptian Muslims and Coptics during the January 25 revolt. While Muslims prayed, Christians formed a human ring around them for protection.

When the Muslim Brotherhood members raised Pro-Muslim slogans at Tahrir Square which implied that Egypt was for Muslims only, they were stopped by Egyptian Muslims who declared Muslim and Christians are all Egyptians and a new shout:

“Egyptian people here we stand,

Muslim Christian hand in hand!”

During the prayers at the Square, priests and imams prayed for Egypt together. When the Imam was leading the prayers, Christians’ repeated after him in louder voices so that all Muslims could hear.

Even gender boundaries transcended as women and men prayed together.

Can this ever be the case in Pakistan where there is a stark wave of subliminal intolerance being infused into even the minds of the educated? Had it been that Muslims and Christians had stood together to pray, the Mullahs would’ve raised the cry of blasphemy and a deluge of fatwas would’ve swept the country. Had they seen women praying with men, threats would’ve tumbled down upon all those who participated in it.

Egyptians showed their awe-inspiring sense of nationhood by forming committees to clear the areas where they protested every morning after millions had gathered there the night before.

Groups were organized to guard the museums and properties and possessions of people, while all those who were skilled in their professions came running to provide help and assistance to their fellow countrymen – such as the doctors who aided the injured freely.
Does Pakistan need a revolution to adopt this spirit?

Did not this nation pull down Musharraf?

We’re not worthy of a change with our stagnant ways which smell of stench.
And thats where and what we have to change.

With the nation sunk in disagreements and tiffs,  wide possibilities of religious exploitation leading to extremism, some insisting the system of democracy should continue and the others pressing on Khilafat to be installed, even if a revolution takes place – anarchy, looting, killing would envelop the country and all hell would break loose with the advent of a civil war.

Pakistan would fall apart if a revolution takes place.

The solution is to let the democratic system go on, no matter how defected it seems to be currently. It will naturally strengthen the vital organs of the state (Judiciary, Media etcetra) to an extent that they start ironing out the loopholes in the institution of democracy itself in Pakistan, clearing the path for it to operate as it should.

 The failure of individuals in the system to deliver should not make one ascribe those to the system.

Too many times in Pakistan’s history have democratic governments been overthrown and at the end, such a mess had been carefully crafted that it proved to be the perfect excuse for the boots to come marching in.

Systems can not be overhauled for individuals. Democracy is a culture along with being a system, that needs to be cultivated. It requires time which this nation, that has resisted years of several dictatorships, refuses to give.

To see how democracy functions if facilitated with patience and continuity, one must not look any farther than India.

The nation must also aim for unity, an evolution, an intellectual revolution and aspire to establish the values Jinnah and Iqbal had wanted for their Pakistan.

 

Pakistanis must change their attitudes and themselves along with rationally analysing the situations to bring about a difference in their country, for virals can never be the remedy for any ill, in this case, the ills of Pakistan.

– Hafsa Khawaja

The Burqa and Burqini Threat


 

 

So the French Parliament finally passed the law against the burqa, igniting many controversies and anger from the Muslim community. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority but the sight of fully-veiled women remains rare. Only 1,900 women wear a niqab, 90 percent of them under 40, according to interior ministry estimates.President Nicolas Sarkozy set the tone in June when he declared the burqa “not welcome” in France.
 
The French government is concerned over the burqa as they believe it is threatening their ‘values’. The point lies, isn’t France supposed to be secular? Tolerant of all religions and the people who follow the prescribed practises of their faith?
 
Even some Muslims second them,  they acknowledge the Quran preaches modesty, but they believe that it doesn’t say that you have to cover your face. This is not a requirement of Islam or the Quran according to them, also believing that the burqa is giving birth to radical Islam.                   

                                                                                                                                         
How can one determine whether all women who wear it are forced to wear it?
Though it can not be denied that many women are forced or dictated by their husbands or men of their house and their society to wear the burqa but every woman who wears a burqa anywhere in the world can certainly not be classified as one being oppressed to wear it. Muslim women do have the free will to decide what they want and alot of women who wear the abaya, burqa or niqab, wear it on the basis of their free will.                                                                                         

                                                      
The second point given by those Muslims in regard of their support for the ban is that the Quran preaches modesty but it isn’t in the Quran or Islam to cover the face or wear the burqa. One of the major reasons that they feel the burqa should not be considered related to religion is that it is not among the 5 pillars of Islam. This is absolutely absurd.. The 5 pillars of Islam are indeed an integral part of a Muslim’s life but so are Hadith and Sunnah. Why are Muslims  forbidden from committing adultery or ordered to help the destitue ? These may not be part of the pillars of Islam but part of the Quran.                                                                                                                                       

Islam may not preach the covering of the face but as there are 72 sects in Islam so are there numerous schools of thought in it. Each follows practices and traditions that they have derived from their interpretation of the Quran. Some consider the burqa as a necessity and entwined with the sacredness and sacrosanctity of religion.
Such sects and schools of thought can not be ignored in any country.

Wearing a burqa does not mean that one promotes radical Islam or the ‘Islam’ of the militants. This is sheer bias and discrimination.
How is France threatened by the burqa which is worn by a mere 1,900 women of the Muslim majority that resides there.

Columnist Masooda Bano once wrote an article in ‘The News’ that how would we feel if French women came around our streets and roads wearing mini-skirts, wouldn’t we ban them from this? For it will destroy our culture. This made me muse but after alot of pondering, I came to the conclusion that mini-skirts are fashion accessories not associated with religion as in the case of the burqa, which is considered a symbol of religious holiness.

Leaving alone the ungraspable problem of France with the burqa, it has already banned the hijab from being worn in schools etc in 2004. In regard of that the Human Rights Watch stated that the law is “an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice”.

Exactly what threat or fear does the wearing of hijab cause?
The leader of Sarkozy’s right-wing party in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, has already presented draft legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public on security grounds.

The Netherlands and Austria are considering a ban on the full veil, while Denmark said it would limit the use in public of the burka and niqab although stopping short of an outright ban.

The question is not only about the burqa but religious tolerance. It’s about all other forms of practices that are associated with religion. The veil exists both in Christianity and Judaism. Is that a ‘threat’ to French ‘values’ too? Will they be banned too?

Ironically, freedom of religion was one of the 17 points in the ‘Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen’ demanded and formed after the French Revolution stated as:

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.”

As in Point no. 4,  any action which does not harm anyone is free to be practised by anyone. So on what grounds of harm or threat is the hijab or burqa?

Point no.10 is the most significant for the arguments in favour of the hijab and burqa, that no one shall be shackled on the basis of their religion in case it does not disturb public order.

It should be known to France, that the burqa is not a tradition or merely a culture but part of the religious culture of the second largest religion of this world, Islam. Religion is a matter of paramount importance, respect and sacredness.  And Islam is not just a religion but a way of life.

Freedom of religion is also enshrined in the French Constitution. The question arises? Where is the implementation of this?

 One can not force someone to draw a veil and neither can someone force someone to abandon it.

 

Moreover, France also seems to disrelish the ‘Burqini‘ , wearing which seems in no manner as threatening, an act of defiance or transgression of French values. It is a mere dress that Muslim women chose to wear to preserve and maintain their circle of decency that they must. 

“It was described as the perfect solution for Muslim women who want to swim but are uncomfortable about “revealing” bathing suits.”

The afore-mentioned lines are the only reason behind the Burqini. In what way does it affront the French? Why are those who wear it, disgracefully thrown out of pools or reprimanded?

Isn’t it usual for a person to have his reservations, aversions or opinions about certain things? If indeed some women do not wish to wear the Bikni or expose their faces and head by wearing the Burqa and Hijab to guard and follow their Islamic values, why is it deemed anomalous and shunned?

 

 

Had it not been for Islam being associated with these two dresses, one is left to think if the Burqa and Burqini had been show-cased at the Paris Fashion Week as an adornment for beautification or style , would they have still been banned or become the vogue? It is without any doubt, that this ban is a strangulation of freedom and an instrument for alienation.

 

France must remember that any proposed ‘liberation’  (that they base these bans on : stating that they are ‘liberating’ Muslim women ) can never be imposed on people. It is an oppression in its own right.

 

The French banned the burqa, the Swiss the minarets. It is even reported that some countries are musing over banning halal food.  These countries claim to be the torch-bearers of tolerance, human rights and freedom and development but what we see from the mind-set of their Governments is the portrayal of narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy and arrant ignorance of the basic rights of humans and disrespect for cultural and religious diversitywhich has sprung from their misunderstanding and wrong interpretation of Islam. Not only are they closing in on a peaceful practise but displaying discrimination and prejudice against a religion and the Muslims community. It is a shame and an out-right example of the growing Islamophobia in European nations.

– Hafsa Khawaja