Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

Less than four months since the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistan has seen the Shikarpur bombing, the Peshawar Imambargah and Youhanabad attacks.

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

Much has been said about attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, and it is often that the violence against them is explained by brushing it into the general epidemic of terrorism afflicting the nation and country; violence that raging yet indiscriminate. Certainly, attacks on religious minorities do add to and reinforce the plague of violence in Pakistan yet they are not one and the same thing. The danger of this explanation is that it is a narrative which blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; specially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Ali Sethi’s recent article in The New York Times on the Youhanabad attack states:

‘According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.’

Moreover, although Youhanabad falls in Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency; he hasn’t visited it once since the attack. This does much to demonstrate the crass neglect and disregard prevalent in the ruling party’s leadership on the issue, aggravating the spiralling state failure at the cost of numerous Pakistani lives.

The extremist intolerance and hate that set off bombs in Youhanabad also bred further violence as two men were burnt alive by the resulting angry mob in broad daylight to the glare of photos being snapped and videos being captured through mobiles by the perpetrators.

As gruesome and reprehensible was the lynching, it is important to view the incident clear of the inevitable and intense emotions clouding it. Waqqas Mir, writing for The News on Sunday, offered the needed perspective:

“A mob is a mob and its violent actions need to be condemned for that reason alone. The religion to which violent individuals belong is not helpful in explaining the violence or, more importantly, controlling it.”

Religion can certainly not be held culpable in cases such as these which are clearly not specific to certain groups in the society if we are to recall that the savage lynching of two brothers in Sialkot happened not long ago.

However, the violent turn of events after Youhanabad revealed an equally important aspect contributing to the dismal position of Christians in the country: cultural and social.

The Youhanabad bombing and the mob that horrifically took the lives of two men spurred a rush of reactions. Soon some sentiments morphed into degradation of the Christian community in Pakistan.

Many expressed shock, outrage and despair at the incidents, yet a flurry of tweets and comments also ran along the lines of “chooray chooray hi hotay hain”. The attachment of choora as a disparaging and condemnatory label for the entire Christian community is neither new nor uncommon, and this was put to ample display during the ugly turn many comments took as the news of the mob murder emerged. Such is the extent of its use and commonality that choora rings synonymously with the Christian community in the country for many.

Language is the vehicle of culture, and inevitably, cultural prejudices.

Choora, a pejorative to belittle and degrade Pakistani Christians, is rooted in the utter lack of respect and recognition associated with those who have menial occupations in the society. The comments sought to shamelessly demean the Christian community by way of the label since socially and culturally, little respect is lent to the work of those who toil after the dirt and filth we leave in our wake, not quite different from this filth spouted at the Christian community; a religious minority whose members included illustrious individuals like Cecil Chaudhry, Mervyn Middlecoat, Justice Cornelius and Samuel Martin Burke who lived their lives for Pakistan.

The application of choora in its cultural context therefore ‘others’ Christians by degrading them as some sort of second-class citizens who are unequal to the rest. This is similar to the linguistic treatment of khawaja sira or khusras which is reflective of our societal treatment of them; in the form of exclusion; subjection to humiliation and jokes.

While to some these may ring only as mere words, they are nonetheless expressions of the deep-seated beliefs prevalent in many segments of the Pakistani society; cultural crutches for the bigotry that perpetuates prejudices against the cornered Christian minority. These reflect and reinforce prejudices that manifest as apathy towards their problems, grievances and pleas, and in the most extreme of cases, as bloody sores as in the form of Joseph Colony, Shama and Shehzad’s cruel murder and the Youhanabad bombing.

The white in our flag is soaked red and it is time it is reclaimed; but for that the state and society must work and change in unison; the latter must rid itself of cultural beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that sustain and perpetuate prejudices against religious minorities in Pakistan.

And for a start, we can all begin by challenging and changing the language of prejudice.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

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Rape and Speech


*Originally published in The Daily Times.

Rape.  A word whose four letters fail in doing justice to the gravity and intensity of the monstrosity that violates the physical, psychological, emotional, mental and sexual being of an individual for a lifetime.

However, in recent years, the appropriation of the word ‘rape’ as an adjective has taken on the form of commonality with widespread usage being quick to follow on both the internet and everyday conversations.

In line with the inevitable, the transformation of something into a commonality often renders the need to halt and understand its meaning, significance and implications nugatory; because they have been so easily accommodated into the linguistic or social culture that their true recognition escapes from our mental sight.

Similar has been the case with rape which is seen to be inserted in conversations to ‘lighten’ them up or convey the unfavourable intensity of a happening, especially by the youth of both sexes.

However, using rape as an adjective in supposed humour is nothing less than an acceptance and approval for rape itself; for what is being thrown into process by this practice is the effective normalization of the inhumanity of rape through its trivialization.

Using rape to describe the humiliating defeat of a sports team; to convey the extent of an exam paper gone bad have been heard or seen once by most, if not often.

By reducing an act as vicious, as cruel, as fiendish as rape to a source or adjective of amusement; its true nature and character is consigned to trivialization. It then appears to be an occurrence minor enough to be employed as a comical instrument.

Nadir Hasan, in his article titled ‘Rape and Rhetoric’ published in the Express Tribune on 23RD December 2010, wrote:

‘Whether through moral blindness, callowness or unfamiliarity with the issue, by treating rape as a provocation rather than an act of aggression we allow this attitude to diffuse throughout society. Think of how many times you have used rape as a punchline to a joke that nobody should laugh at, but too many do….One such joke may seem harmless but collectively they contribute to make rape seem like something less than a violent crime.’

With an Indonesian judge remarking that women may actually enjoy rape and a Microsoft employee making a rape joke at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), it is understood that this problem does not limit itself to Pakistan. However, this linguistic trivialization of rape is part of the wider rape culture and culture of violence terribly prevalent in places like Pakistan. It is an element of the rape culture that, as Nadir Hasan stated and asks to be reiterated, ‘treats rape as a provocation rather than an act of aggression’; that seeks to place the blame of the crime upon the victim instead of the perpetrator; that seeks not to stop rape but stop people from being raped; that seeks possible causes for the barbarity in order to explain it as an act that was reactive or unavoidable; in order to refuse its whole-hearted acknowledgement as a barbarity.

Rebecca Edwards, a rape survivor herself, wrote in her piece titled ‘The Funny Thing About Rape Jokes’:

[Upon hearing a rape joke or rape being used to describe something] ‘I am reminded of how my rapist laughed when he was finished with me.’

So the next time you think of or hear someone throwing around rape as an adjective and in petty humor, think of and remind them of 5-year old Sumbul who was brutally raped several times last year in Lahore and India’s Jyoti Singh, who succumbed to the savagery.

Think of the 10,703 raped in the past five years in Pakistan.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Chuura, Chaprasi, Chuurian and Khawaja Sira: Making a Nation out of Words


*Originally posted on The Friday Times’ Blog.

Words. They have the power to inspire and incite; uplift and daunt. From Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ to the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have wielded enormous influence and impact. Most importantly, they mould mindsets.

Often certain words, terms and sayings become such a commonality in cultures that their nature starts to elude people. Such is the case in Pakistan; questionable sayings, practices and customs that should usually arouse attention have become so imbedded in the society that they’ve become a part of us.

“Hum nay choorian nahi pehni hui!”  (We are not wearing bangles), that consigns femininity as derogatory is one that has assumed form of a very popular phrase amongst the tub-thumping, populist rhetoric in the political arena of Pakistan.  

Another popular example given to children to explain the consequences of deviance from or slack in studies is “Parho gay nahi tau chaparasi ban jao gay” or “Parho gay nahi tau cycle stand par lag jao gay” and so on.  

Those who sweep and clean our homes, roads, streets and country and those who toil at workshops are reduced to lowly figures of little worth, therefore, little respect. 

Consciously or unconsciously, this idea is implanted in the child’s impressionable mind.

Socialisation is defined as a continuing process, beginning in infancy, whereby an individual learns the culture of a society; the distinction between right and wrong; the social dictates of his or her gender; the kind of behaviour that is expected of him or her – in short, his or her social identity and person that inevitably is intended to conform to the social demands and be socially and culturally appropriate. This process of learning is often based on interactions between the individual and other members of the society, and language is the hinge of interaction.

It is through language that the beliefs and ideas of the society, even if they be social prejudices, the parameters of what is socially acceptable and what is not are conveyed and instilled into a child or individual which grow with him or into him as part of his personality and identity formation. 

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Linguistic anthropology is a whole interdisciplinary study dedicated to understanding the effect language yields on social life, beliefs and identity of an individual.

“Language socialisation is a concept we take to mean both socialisation through language and socialization to use language. Children and other novices in society acquire tacit knowledge of principles of social order and systems of belief  through exposure to and participation in language-mediated interation. Language use is then a major if not the major tool for conveying sociocultural knowledge and a powerful medium of socialisation.” 

Transgenders in Pakistan are also mentioned on the same lines, terming someone which is considered an insult and abuse, the words ’khussra’ and ’khawaja sira’ have been assigned the status of pejoratives just like the aforementioned sweepers and cleaners. A recent example of the usage was heard with the name of Khawaja Saad Rafique (FYI, to whom I bear no relation) by many of those who related him to the alleged rigging at NA-125 in the May 11th elections.

PAKISTAN-UNREST-VOTE-SEXNotwithstanding the fact that the transgendered are what they are as products of nature, their’s is neither a life one would wish to lead nor a fate one would desire especially in Pakistan where they are ostracized and degraded for what is beyond their being. 

Moreover, language prejudices may also acquire a religious colour skewed against people of a certain faith that translatte into stereotypes which may run into branding all Christians in Pakistan to be chooray, chaprasi or jamadars or possessing capabilities only fit to these. This is to be considered keeping in mind that these occupations have been debased into pejoratives.

It is instances and patterns like these that reproduce the rotten elements in our culture and society – as they have been passed down through language – : condescension of some classes against others; relative/occasional and situational employment of respect and regard towards others. In short, social decadence. 

The result is often witnessed at public places like restaurants where poor waiters are subjected to much impolite, crude and rude behavior by many or when domestic helpers are made objects of jests and jokes.

A nation can be judged vastly from its character and conduct which are, need I state, shaped by communication of the society’s ideas, beliefs, values, norms and mindset that constitute its culture. And language, is the vehicle of culture. 

All humans and individuals are equal and it is a demand of time that Pakistan transcends beyond the self-constructed barriers of class, ethnicity, race, sect, gender, regression and myopia. Place your words in your thoughts before letting them ride your tongue, measure their meanings, gauge their effects and consequences. thoughts and calculate their consequences for yourself and others. 

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For Pakistan to progress and prosper, the people will have to realize that change must not always and necessarily have to spring from the top but must also begin from within. Introspection, critical reflection must govern us first and foremost. We must be the regulators of ourselves for it is us that form a society from which the heart of a country, a nation is born. 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Dissection of a Trivial Argument: Ramadan or Ramzan?


*First published on the Express Tribune Blog.

Since the last few years, the arrival of the holy month brings with itself the ignition of a debate on social media in Pakistan; at the center of which is the usage of words for the month: the Urdu word Ramzan and Arabic word Ramadan.

Some tweets explain better:

“Beena Sarwar @beenasarwar:

You can call the holy month what you want. I’ll use Ramzan, rather than the corporatised, commercialised, Arabised, westernised Ramadan.

Fazeelat Aslam @FazleetAslam

If you’re Pakistani say Ramzan. If you enjoy continuing Zia’s mission and being a lemming, please say Ramadan. #lemmings

AM‏ @delhisultan

@AneelaBabar Today we say use Ramzan, not Ramadan. Tomorrow it will be something else. Where will these social dictates take us? @bdutt

Those on left side of this schism opine that usage of Arabic instead of Urdu words are a constituent of Arabic cultural imperialism and religious rigidity in Pakistan; commenting sarcastically how the country’s name itself should be changed to Al-Bakistan (The Arabic language doesn’t contain ‘P’ in it.)

While those on the right argue for using Arabic words to keep to ‘proper’ religious linguistics or holding onto Pakistan’s Islamic heritage; often ‘correcting’ other’s greeting of Ramzan to Ramdan.

An article in Guardian titled ‘In Pakistan, saying Goodbye can be a religious statement’ on a similar Khuda-Hafiz/Allah-Hafiz issue, says:

‘Until about 10 years ago “Khuda hafiz”, which means “God protect you”, was the phrase commonly used to say goodbye. But, in the past decade, “Khuda hafiz” began to be overtaken by a new term “Allah hafiz.

While languages change and evolve with time, and Pakistan certainly has bigger problems such as corruption and militancy, the alteration has unsettled liberals in Pakistan, who say it reflects a wider change in the country’s cultural landscape.

The promotion of “Allah hafiz” first began in the 1980s under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq when Pakistan was involved in the US- Saudi-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.’

The belief that this ‘religious linguistic propriety’, which included the introduction of ‘Allah Hafiz’ and ‘Ramadan’ in Pakistan’s lingual fashion, began with Zia’s campaign of cultural Islamisation does hold truth. It has inevitably led to these (words, phrases) to be seen symbolic of the infamous General’s Islamification drive or ‘Saudization‘ of Pakistan; which is the cause of many liberals and progressive-minded people objecting to their use today.

Although it is a question of precedence of subjects that needs to be reconsidered by them because Zia’s ideological influence is at its most dangerous when it exists from our madrassas, mindsets to our constitution, not in mere words or phrases.

Despite that, it is important to realize that with the flight of decades; these words became incorporated into the nation’s lingo and style of speaking in a manner that they are now viewed and used as ordinary as any other ones (for most); regardless or unknown of and removed from their background of Islamisation/Arabisation of the linguistic culture. This is particularly true for the young generation of today; that was either born in the 80s or grew up in an age where they were unable to notice the process of lingual transformation that was being attempted through a state-fuelled campaign.

It is questionable whether the application of a few phrases or words cause or be a testament to some ‘rampant Arabisation’ of  Pakistan presently and to assume that all who like using the Arabic word for Ramzan are proponents of degradation of Pakistan’s own, distinct culture, lingual establishment and imposition of an Arab one, is preposterous.

Many use either of the words out of pure personal preference or habit. To be fair, Urdu as a language faces more threat of perishing at the hands of the colonial era inculcated sense of inferiority amongst us which has manifested itself in the ’Angraizi complex’, or the paramount significance that this society grants the English language over Urdu.

On the other hand, to believe that the occasional usage of Arabic words lends one more religiosity or ‘Muslim-ness’ is equally absurd. Those possessing this outlook need to review it, too, because respect for religion rests not in a handful of words but in actions, behaviours and attitudes.

Does addressing Allah as God make one a lesser Muslim?

Intentions behind uttering something and its essence is what matters most; words and expressions may differ.

The aforementioned points, thus, should validate how trifling the apprehensions and perceptions and their basis are for both of the groups. To be so vehemently opposed to the usage of either ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramadan’ by any, on the account of the stated views or any other reasons, is irrational and in contrast with good sense.

Let everyone have the freedom and choice to pick their own unit of language up, without forcing or prodding others to conform to each other’s self-defined mediums of ‘appropriate’ expressions.

The people of Pakistan need to stop making a mountain out of this molehill and quit attaching such alarmingly grand nature to it; of cultural foist and religious inaccuracy.

While Pakistan gets mired in troubles of far great and disturbing kind, debate over ’Ramazan’ or ‘Ramadan’, only gives prominence to the penchant amongst this nation with its preoccupation with the trivial.

~ Hafsa Khawaja