Shehri Pakistan: Citizen Empowerment through Design and Technology


*Originally published at Charcoal and Gravel.

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In early 2017, Arafat Mazhar was struck by a particular question: what makes human rights-based advocacy so ineffective in Pakistan? He reached the conclusion that many, if not all, such initiatives rely too heavily on a framework of human rights and an associated vocabulary that is not internalized, understood or readily accepted by the vast majority of people in Pakistan. The public is an ideal target of the emancipatory potential of such discourse however, they remained incapable of accessing it. Something as foundational as the constitution did not have an adequate local learning resource. It was then that he and a few other people decided to produce an animation to explain the constitution with an indigenous setting and characters. The purpose was to highlight the notion that knowledge of the constitution can inform people of their rights and can help safeguard those rights.

And so began Shehri Pakistan in April 2017.

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What is Shehri Pakistan?

Shehri Pakistan is an organization geared towards imparting accessible civic education and constitutional and legal literacy through online animations in Urdu and other regional languages. It seeks to untangle democracy, governance, and bureaucracy for the common man and to promote comprehension of an individual’s central relationship with the state under a democratic system; that of citizenship. In the same spirit, it is dedicated to cultivating the ideal of an informed, active, participatory and responsible practice of citizenship in the country.

Subsequently, Shehri Pakistan has organized extensive campaigns featuring informative and entertaining animations and posters on several fundamental rights, on the different tiers of governance and principles of democracy, and on responsibilities of the state and citizens. Ranging from Passing of the Law; Workers Rights; How to Exercise Your Right to Information; Your Right to Due Process and Fair Trial; How to Vote; What is the Constitution; Right to Clean Water; Tertiary Care Hospital Guidelines and many more. Keeping abreast of national developments and events, they also produced, in the lead up to the recent elections, a string of videos offering explanations of different electoral and government-formation processes, structures and institutions. More recently, they rolled out their latest video on How to File an FIR. Apart from these animations, Shehri Aaj is another feature which is essentially a series of informational and critical videos that delve into issues and subjects of civic education, democracy, governance, and social problems, linking the information presented in Shehri animations to persisting problems and concerns in local communities. So far, more than 70 videos have been created as part of Shehri Aaj, some of which pertain to Transgender People and their Voting Rights; Low Voter Turnout; Animal Rights; Mental Health; Acts of Election Violence; Rights of an Arrestee; Appropriate Police Behavior; and Traffic Rules. They’ve been able to garner over 19 million views, with the most popular videos relating to the Rights of Domestic Workers; Treatment of Police with Citizens, and Problems Faced by Coal Miners.

Moreover, Shehri Helpdesk, an initiative run through Facebook, has responded to hundreds of queries on public and legal concerns. On top of this, Shehri Pakistan’s outreach program continues to organize regular sessions on civic and citizenship education in various public and private schools in Lahore.

In a little over a year, Shehri Pakistan has established a robust digital presence on its Facebook page and amassed nearly a million followers, while disseminating its content to 42 districts, with a total poster reach of 15 million, engagement of 8 million, and a video reach of 50 million.

 

 

The Idea

Arafat Mazhar, founder and director of Shehri Pakistan, explains the idea behind Shehri Pakistan candidly. In his words, when a vast majority of your population is unable to access the relevant vocabulary, discourse, historical framework, and sociocultural context to comprehend the fundamentals of human rights and democracy, it becomes pointless to discuss these systems. In order to further these, it is necessary to educate the people in a way that is palatable for them. These concepts and ideas exist on paper but not in actual comprehension and currency among people.

Shehri Pakistan is a unique initiative not only because it engages with a demographic which is usually excluded from human rights discourses, i.e. the vast majority of Pakistanis who consume information in Urdu and consequently finds the constitution, democracy, and principles of human rights alien, but also because Shehri presents this complex often inaccessible information in simple Urdu using local motifs, visuals, characters, and situations.

 

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Similarly, there is a lack of emphasis on citizenship in Pakistan that the organization seeks to redress. “Shehriat, for the majority of the population in Pakistan, mainly pertains to the fact, experience and reality of living in the country, not the values embedded in the concept, such as equality of citizenship or rights and responsibilities,” says Fatima Anwar, a lawyer at Shehri Pakistan.

The role of Shehri Pakistan is then designed to rebuild the discourse and idea of shehriat as both a set of concrete values and a crucial practice; to locate the place of the citizen within a democratic structure of governance and model of life.

There are still, however, distinctions to be made and lines to be drawn for the organization. “We don’t do advocacy since our aim is education. Our video on the Separation of Powers, for example, is not directed towards any activist goal but simply an awareness of how the state works, or should ideally work,” adds Arafat. Shehri Pakistan is deeply committed to familiarizing citizens with the existing system of governance and the workings of the state that large swathes of the population otherwise see as an alien or complicated sphere that they lie outside of. Engendering a sense of integration and familiarity with the system could inevitably push people to participate in it, appeal to it, and hold it accountable. “We hope that the Pakistani public will eagerly engage with and use our educational resources. And it is heartening to know that it does happen. Recently, we received a message on our page from a follower who narrated how he adamantly refuses to pay bribes to the traffic police since he now knows the actual process of depositing the challan courtesy our animation on Traffic Rules,” expresses Rasti Farooq, Campaign Design Officer.

The Team

Some members of Team Shehri Pakistan at their LMM stall earlier this year

Shehri Pakistan originally started as a team of five people but currently comprises a team which numbers no more than twenty people. The team includes individuals from vastly different backgrounds who have crafted the interdisciplinary nature of its unique approach; combining research, design, and technology in order to provide accessible civic education using indigenous iconography and local paradigms. From lawyers, political researchers, designers, animators, and artists to even musicians and actors, the team is integrated in its commitment to Shehri’s values and objectives but it is incredibly diverse when it comes to individual interests, disciplines and skill sets. (Fun facts: one team member was part of the band that won this year’s Pepsi Battle of the Bands; another team member is an actor who is part of the local theater circuit.)

Collaborations

Shehri Pakistan has forged multiple collaborations with numerous organizations on various issues. This has included partnering with Facebook in the latter’s campaign against fake news and to prevent the spread of false news and information by disseminating localized tips for improved news and digital literacy among Pakistani Facebook users; partnering with the Chief Minister Punjab’s Special Monitoring Unit on the subject of healthcare and the rights and responsibilities of patients; working with Bolo Bhi on the Right to Information; with the Child Protection Bureau on a series of posters on child abuse awareness for parents, teachers and children; and with the National Commission on Human Rights over a series of animations based on fundamental rights. In addition to organizations like Rabtt using Shehri Pakistan’s material in their programs, the circulation of its content has been helped by the interest shown in it by official accounts of the Government of Pakistan on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which specifically shared the videos from the organization’s election-season campaign.

Looking Ahead

For the immediate future, Shehri Pakistan has planned a host of programs and projects ordered around the singular goal of branching out from their prominent digital presence to a presence on the ground. A major new project is Shehri Pakistan’s own legal aid clinic called Shehri Wakeel. The project is already operational in Lahore and provides free or low-cost needs-based legal services such as filing bails, litigating cases, and drafting legal documentation. “We realized the need for substantial, on-ground legal aid when Shehri’s followers started messaging us about their personal legal troubles. For example, we had run a long online campaign on labor rights in Pakistan after which we received a host of messages from working-class citizens whose basic rights were being violated on a daily basis. It was not enough to tell them the law was on their side, they simply could not afford lawyers and lived with the threat of losing their source of income if they pursued legal action. At first, we tried to refer them to other organizations only to realize the dearth of legal aid options available to citizens in dire need. We decided we wanted to fill this gap ourselves–it was a logical extension of the legal literacy work we were already doing online,” Fatima explains.

Furthermore, Shehri Pakistan’s pipeline contains animated short films, the provision of civic education in madrassas, a comprehensive civic education textbook, and the development of an educational and informative mobile app for adults, young adults, and children. This app will contain all of Shehri Pakistan’s content as well as role-playing games for perspective building, Shehri Lughat, a 24/7 legal helpline, and a virtual parliament in which users can debate legislation as members of parliament.

As Shehri Pakistan drives forward with its outreach, collaborations and an array of new projects and plans, it remains resolutely animated and steered by the simple but significant idea which forms its motto:

“Aik bakhabar shehri, aik baikhtiyaar shehri hota hai.”

-Hafsa Khawaja

Resenting the Public in Public Spaces


*Originally published at Timsaal.

The class divide in Pakistan is frequently documented in figures, percentages and statistics. Yet the divide is not in want of numbers when its evidence can be located in an everyday spaces and attitudes.

Recently, a Twitter user commented about witnessing a woman glaring down a man in a local mall by loudly expressing her disgust towards the “ghareeb aadmi” of his kind venturing into such places.

The incident could be brushed as an isolated outburst of a rude individual, but not quite. It is illustrative of a wider phenomenon: the deeply-held classist and elitist entitlement and resentment in urban public spaces.

“Mahol kharab kardia hai in logon nay”

“Mahol kharab kardia hai” is a thinly-veiled expression for the elitist inability to share space with the “aam awaam.” The classist elitism is driven both by a revulsion for the lower classes or perhaps any class below the upper middle and upper class, and an open desire for exclusion of these “others” to maintain a monopoly of certain territories. This classist and elitist territorialism appallingly hinges on asserting that the right of ownership, access and participation in certain spaces lies and is retained in the exclusive domain of a single group, while quite literally asks for the class divide to be enacted and reinforced on ground. In such an imagination, members of the lower, working or even middle classes, and members with rural backgrounds, are “cheap”, “tacky” and “paindu” in their attire and ways; polluting the ambience of places conventionally associated and visited by the urban, affluent and educated sections of society.

The case against the public intermingling with lower socio-economic strata is also often couched in a language of fear and risk of harassment and hooliganism in public spaces. But it remains to be emphasized that the repulsion directed at the sight of people from lower classes sharing a space exists even if these people are with families. It is not harassment but their ways, mocked as “cheap” or “paindu” for how they dress or carry themselves, their Punjabi, their broken-English or lack of English, which elicits this. On the matter of harassment, it is offensive and baffling that one would associate it with a particular class, especially with the lower classes which are already greatly stereotyped and demonized in our society: “lazy”, “chor”, “paindu”, “jahil.”

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Any woman can attest with absolute certainty that harassment is not a class problem. We’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in various public spaces, even in ones entirely visited by men of the seemingly “educated” and “refined” classes. When it comes to harassment, what we have is not a class problem but a gender problem. To reduce harassment to class is a dishonest and dangerous narrative.

Packages-Mall-Inner-ViewIt remains to be proven, however, how a class, with its superiority complex and faux sophistication, entitles its members monopoly over public spaces. And it remains to be reminded that all persons in this country have an equal right to enjoy malls, parks, events and whatever else there is. This is especially important considering the present situation: the ubiquitous fear and danger of security risks have considerably throttled cultural and recreational life in the country. Gone are the days of frequent concerts, festivities and cricket matches. A careful attempt at revival, however, has begun since the past few years with the opening up of certain narrow channels of entertainment: restaurants, malls, cinemas, and occasional festivals.

Public spaces and events as they are, they’ve allowed various segments of the urban population to access and participate in them, but as much of a breath of fresh air this has been and as welcoming as the democratization of public space should be, it has been accompanied by the aforementioned discontentment in certain quarters. Although several classes still remain barred from accessing these spaces and events due to the limits of familiarity and financial affordability. But ask those who remain repulsed, wronged and affronted by this development and images of an utter disaster would be conjured up. Who let these hordes of the hoi polloi into our idyllic abodes of privilege and into spaces which must only belong to us; the most special, the most cultured of them all. After all, haven’t you heard how fluently we speak English?

This segregation of the poor from the prosperous, which is often proposed for existing public spaces, events and activities, already concretely manifests itself and is enforced by the construction and maintenance of various housing schemes like Bahria Town and DHA which are, in effect, gated communities that do little to welcome and accommodate but a particular class. The entire landscape of such housing communities is oriented and designed to attract and entertain the rich or the rising. Take parks and tracks, for instance. Access to many of them is contingent upon memberships, the fees of which are often hefty and unaffordable except for a particular lot.

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The situation is compounded by the abounding suspicions and caricatures about the poor within these areas. Earlier this year, mass texts purported to be from Defence Housing Authority Lahore circulated among residents, cautioning them against allowing their domestic help from interacting with other workers in the neighborhood to “control the increasing number of thefts and other social evils.” The poor are welcome in these housing schemes and communities, but only to be sequestered in servant quarters, under the strict surveillance of their sahabs and bajis.

Even keeping aside the posh housing schemes and communities, which “often deploy a mix of methods in constructing space and regulating the flow of undesirable bodies”, the case still stands. Ammar Ali Jan, in fact, traces the development and management of Lahore itself as an urban space to specific colonial and post-colonial calculations and objectives which converged at “render[ing] the poor invisible” and the creation of  a “demarcation….between the elite areas of the city and those that contained Lahore’s working people.” Clearly spatial demarcation and confinement of the poor precedes, but aggravates, the exclusion from the few public spaces and recreational facilities that the poor too can avail.

But while the socio-economic gulf may be replicated and reinforced structurally in the design of the city as an urban space and elite housing communities, that does not trivialize the weight of exclusionary mentalities and behaviors which desire and drive away those of the lower and marginalized streams from the few places and areas they may be able to access, even if they are unable to participate equally or frequently in them. The arrangement of urban spaces ought to be critically interrogated for the exclusions they foster, but so do individual attitudes. The next time you find yourself wincing at the sight of someone from a different class visiting or occupying the same space as you, stop and reflect for a moment the discriminatory, demeaning and disdainful nature of your prejudice.

The reasons for denying members of different classes the right to enjoy public spaces, events, activities can be endlessly contrived, but their underlying classist and elitist nature cannot be denied. There is a long route to take if such frameworks of thinking and inhabiting spaces are to be overhauled for a truly inclusive society but a few steps towards it are both necessary and significant. It is crucial for people to learn to see and truly treat, with respect, those separate from their class as equal human beings and citizens who have the right to occupy and share spaces, comfortably participate and claim visibility in them. Although the acceptance of such a perspective may still prove to be tremendously difficult for some.

-Hafsa Khawaja

نڈر


نڈر

This was Asma Jahangir.

Attacked on every front that there was; that of her character, her morals, her faith, her sense of loyalty to Pakistan.

Called an agent, a traitor, a blasphemer, and every imaginable and unimaginable label and epithet from the many heaps and streams of hate, misogyny and abuse in this country for the condemnation and demonization of an individual.

And yet, there she stood. Undeterred, unfazed.

نڈر

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“A senior lawyer from Lahore, who does not wish to be named, declares: “Asma Jahangir is working on a specifically anti-Islam agenda and she is getting foreign funding to do that.” The same lawyer contested the Lahore High Court Bar Association election as Asma Jahangir’s nominee but he could not win. “The liberal lawyers did not vote for me because I have a beard and the religious, conservative ones did not support me because I was backed by Asma Jahangir,” he says as he explains how she divides the bar along ideological lines. “She is part of the Illumanti, a secret organisation controlling the world,” he then proclaims.

“When Asma Jahangir decided to contest the election for the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president in 2009-2010, she faced stiff opposition from many sections of the society, including newspapers and television channels. The media campaign against her was led by the Jang Group’s senior reporter Ansar Abbasi and it focused on projecting her as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Six years later, the same media group engaged her as a counsel to represent it before the Supreme Court.”

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There she stood. Fierce.

Shouting at the top of her lungs on issues and matters that people in this country quivered and continue to quiver to even whisper about. Speaking truth to all the powers that be, all the powers that reign and trample many under their tyranny.

She took on the mullahs and the army. The holy and the mighty of Pakistan. She took on the politicians, the judges. The powerful and the many.

And she minced no words. Biting, blunt and brave.

To do so as a woman in a society not used to such a woman, that actively castigates and looks down upon such a female figure, was doubly dangerous; risking her reputation, her personal safety and even her life.

نڈر

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“This is Asma Jahangir’s style — mixing the legal with the polemical. She knows how to make her presence felt, using calculated aggression, wit and sharp one-liners. For a woman in her 60s, just over five feet in height, she is acutely aware that she cannot afford the other side to dominate.”

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She was an icon for so many of us, especially women.

Amidst the many invisible fetters and fears we wear and parade as conformity to conventions, to traditions, to myopic notions of womanhood and femininity and propriety, which limit and lower our voices, which regulate our tones, which ask us to be careful, to be docile, not to stand out too much, not to draw attention to ourselves, to concern ourselves with nothing beyond the home, to never question, to never stare someone in the eyes, to never disturb things, to bend and break but to always let everything run as it is, and amidst a society and culture that asks us to live and pass in the silent shadows of the night without notice, Asma Jahangir was a fascinating force of defiance, courage and inspiration.

She feared nothing and none. Her voice was loud, it resonated. She tore through conventions and silences. She marched with her head held high. She was not going to hide, she was here to stay.

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And there she stood. For women, for minorities, for those denied justice, for those denied a voice, for those silenced, those comfortably unheard. For democracy, for our rights and freedoms. There she stood and battled, in words, in actions, on the roads and the streets.

And we watched in wonder.
Could there be such a woman among us?
Could we be such a woman?

نڈر

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Asma Jahangir is the woman I aspired and aspire to be. Or at least a fragment of her self and life, for none of us can ever truly be her.

As heartbroken I am, I feel privileged to have been conscious of her life and work, to have witnessed it in admiration and awe. To have had the chance to look up to her. To learn from her. To question, to shout, to speak truth to power, to stand by what you think is right.

نڈر

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“Munizae had just started her first job as a television reporter for India’s NDTV in 2005 when in May that year Asma Jahangir, along with other human rights activists, organised a women-only marathon in Lahore to highlight violence against women. There was serious opposition to the idea by religious parties and groups. On the day of the marathon, the police attacked participants with batons, kicking and dragging them into police vans and taking them to the Model Town police station.

When Munizae arrived at the site of the marathon, the first image she saw was of her mother with her “clothes torn off, her bare back exposed — being manhandled by police officials”. Her reporter colleagues had smirks on their faces. They looked at Munizae from the corner of their eyes. She felt embarrassed — more than that, she was shocked, traumatised.

Asma Jahangir’s husband was out of the country at the time. He immediately came back, only to see Asma’s bare back on the front page of a newspaper. Munizae broke down and cried when she saw her father but Tahir Jahangir was unfazed. If anything, he was proud.

Asma Jahangir was later transferred to jail from the police station. When Munizae got there, she saw her mother “in the same shirt, now stitched up with safety pins”. She was “shouting and essentially leading a protest in jail”.

Nothing, it seems, can ever stop Asma Jahangir from being what she has always been.”

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Today, neither a life nor a light, but a raging fire has gone out.

Rest in power, Asma Jahangir. There was none like you before, and there will be none like you ever.

نڈر

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The State of the State


*Originally published in the Daily Times.

A mere twenty-four hours after the country observed three years since the APS Attack of 16th December 2014, a blast struck the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta during Sunday church service, killing several and injuring dozens. Pictures of the scene of destruction within the church soon spread; spoiled, smashed and shattered Christmas decorations with the forlorn figure of a Christmas tree still standing in between.

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As the National Action Plan lies in fractures and fragments of its failure, the situation continues to deteriorate for minorities in the country as they continue to be gunned down, their places of worship targeted, and their communities used as fodder for sordid political performances.

Only a few months ago, Captain Safdar attempted a grab at political relevance in a manner only a disgraced and insignificant political actor capable of headlining solely through corruption scandals can.  Railing against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, he declared that “the Ahmadis are a threat to this country, its Constitution and ideology” against whom action is warranted. This was not the first time Safdar applied the time-tested tactic of resorting to religion and conjuring a threat to Islam and Pakistan for easy political mileage and rehabilitation of a damaged political standing.

In February 2012, he made a speech at the Istekam-e-Pakistan Conference in Lala Musa where he expressed support for Mumtaz Qadri and mentioned that “the first conspiracy was hatched against Pakistan when Sir Zafarullah Khan was made foreign minister.” Sir Zafarullah Khan, who was one of the leaders of the Pakistan Movement and the architect of the Lahore Resolution, was appointed the country’s first foreign minister by Jinnah himself. Did Safdar think Jinnah conspired against Pakistan? Through his principled and distinguished diplomacy, Zafarullah Khan elevated the newly-created state of Pakistan with dignity and respect among the nations of the world, and emerged as an eminent advocate for the Muslim World and the Third World which earned him honor and recognition from around the globe. However, some consideration and compassion can certainly be spared for Safdar and his ilk who devote most of their meagre grey matter to the swindling of state resources, dodging of NAB references and acquisition of apartments in London, leaving little for education, knowledge and decency which would familiarize them with such facts, history and realities

Safdar aside, the recent turmoil unleashed by the the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan’s protests cannot be dismissed in any consideration of the state’s approach towards hardliner groups within the society either.

Neither bigotry was new to the disgraced captain nor was extremism new to the crowds at Faizabad but the placement of both these incidents side by side is necessary to illustrate the shambolic state of affairs regarding minorities in the country and most importantly, the underlying foundations that support it in the form of the state and its institutional attitude on the matter.

Safdar-prisma-min-681x454While Captain Safdar’s venomous tirade against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan drew condemnation from several quarters, the diatribe was essentially enabled by the prevailing criminalization of the community’s faith and identity and the constitutional sanctions for their discrimination and persecution. Even the protestors at Faizabad had demands that tied into existing acts and measures such as the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act, and the ostensible end to their agitation, which also included the bizarre act of releasing protestors and parceling out cash to them, was contentiously brokered by controversial state actors signaling other tensions within the state apparatus and balance of power. Such groups and incidents are only bolstered and buttressed by the establishment of religion as a handy and convenient resort and refuge for the coward, guilty and powerful in a state and society where its exploitation finds fertile ground for the reaping of plentiful gains. This includes the weaponisation of blasphemy allegations, and the scapegoating, targeting and demonizing an already persecuted community, which also serve as effective diversionary tools when political pressures and scandals surge. This is only facilitated by the traction these ideas and tactics find in a country where scapegoating and hate-speech against minorities is a legitimate and popular exercise in vying for votes and power, and where pandering to the religious right and partnerships with militant sectarian outfits are acceptable electoral strategies.

It would be absurd to expect state, government and political authorities to lead the charge against these incidents when these institutions, authorities and actors are at the forefront of enabling them in the first place, with constitutionally enshrined persecution in the case of the Ahmadis, and the institutionalization of the frequent deployment of religion as a prop and ploy otherwise. And without changes in this political culture, and the institutionalized frameworks and state policies which accommodate, adopt, enable and empower elements that endanger the lives of minority communities in the country, Pakistan will continue to be held hostage to the violent and vicious vagaries of bigotry, extremism and intolerance and their many willing and eager adherents who will leave us with no recompense or redress to look to.

– Hafsa Khawaja

A Body of Burden


 “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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The female body. The female form. The female figure.

To be a woman in this country is to be constantly, painfully and unusually conscious and aware of a great many things: so conscious of every part of your body; deeply aware of the demands made upon you for its every movement, move and motion to be calculated.

An oppressive consciousness and awareness.

Sit in a certain position, don’t sit in a certain position; don’t lean too much, don’t slouch so much, don’t sit cross-legged. Don’t talk in a certain tone, don’t laugh too loud.

Constantly survey and check yourself.

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It is as if the female body is a burden to be carefully carried and shouldered.

To possess a female body is to exist for and in multiple bodies. You are responsible for your own morality, and that of the other – that of the male. You check yourself and so you check the other. By possessing the vice of a female body, you bear the burden of their imaginations and their impulses. If the gaze or some misfortune falls onto you, you invited it for it is your responsibility to bar it, not that of those who cast it onto you.

You exist with the burden of that gaze on you and that gaze defines how you carry yourself.

It takes nothing but a moment to realize just how these burdens have sculpted you and your persona in the public space. I hold a deliberate and constant scowl on my face, head high, and my walk brisk. It is my way of denying and deterring those prowling leers and stares, of resisting the vulnerability that comes with my skin and whose fear crawls on my skin.

Of leers, jeers, and harassment.

And yet I know it can prevent little. My mere emergence in public visibility is what makes me far too prominent itself. Just being there is what draws attention, I need not create a scene. I am the scene.

The female body is oppressive for the expectations, fears, threats and oppressions heaped onto it are what it heaps onto you.

I catch myself unconsciously glancing at my dupatta every now and then, adjusting it even while it is adjusted. I find myself unconsciously straightening my kameez even when it already is, to make sure its corners aren’t turned, to make sure they cover me fully.

It is a constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

embodying-indus-lifeI sit in the car and get uncomfortable when a car or motorcycle veers too close to my window. The proximity is unsettling for the proximity of access of sight is unsettling. I grab the black shades and fix them over my window amid a sigh of relief. There, I am now hidden. Phew.

I step out and it is a struggle to keep my appearance…in order. I can’t hide here.

How can you possibly feel naked with clothes?

How can your own skin induce fear, vulnerability and discomfort in you? How can it induce a desire for invisibility in you?

An invisibility from the leers and stares that pierce right into you, that frighten and unnerve you. Leers and stares that stalk you with a perverse pride, entitlement, insolence and impudence, and with a complete sense of the perverse power they are, which are undeterred by one’s detection of them. The detection only emboldens them.

How do you come to feel uncomfortable in your skin? How do you come to feel uncomfortable by your own skin?

You see the leers and you survey yourself in worry, is the dupatta in place? Is something wrong? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? I quickly sling my bag or purse on one side to slump over my legs, while the dupatta falls over the other.

How do you keep prying eyes away? To what extent can you possibly hide yourself? What more can you hide of yourself when the imagination encroaches and penetrates all that is you?

What can I do when I am uncomfortable by my own skin? When I made to be felt oppressed by own biology?

I wonder what it feels like to be in the public and to have a mobility unhampered by an agonizing consciousness of every part of your body, a tiring and grueling consciousness that presses itself on your mind.

How does it feel to not be ashamed of your anatomy?

How does it feel to not want to shrink?

How does it feel to not be stalked, surveyed and to surveil yourself?

How does it feel to just wear your skin without wanting to peel it off, shroud it, or fix it?

How does it feel to not be a woman?

I wonder what it’s like, while the corners of my dupatta and kameez tug at the corners of my mind. Is the dupatta in place? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? A constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

You Are 70 Today


You are 70 today.

This journey hasn’t been easy. You’ve stumbled, staggered, suffered along the way. You’ve grown old, and with age your problems have only aggravated. You are as stubborn and slow as a seventy year old can be, your bones creak and ache more, and it hurts doubly: to see you in the state and to feel that state ourselves.

We are, of course, joined at the hip.

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I have my complaints, I have my shikway. Take it as the grievance of child to his parents.

And I speak for many of your children when I say this: we too have grown weary with you, as often do children when tasked with the constant and careful care of their weak, old, obstinate parents.

You take one step forward, and two steps backwards. An unchanging, painful cycle.

Maybe it is our fault too. It is, after all, not easy having 200 million children; half try to tear you away in one direction, and half pull you to another.

It is remarkable how you still stand today.

We truly are an unruly, a frustrating bunch, I admit. And we wrong you every day.

And yet you too have wronged many; instead of taking them under your wings you have refused, abandoned, disowned, hurt and ill-treated groups of your children for being different, for not being in the many: The Shia, the Hindu, the Christians, the Ahmedis, those in FATA and in Balochistan; those who think differently, those who see differently, those who question. With no fault of their own but the fault of their being.

Perhaps senility has crept onto your mind too soon. You are too difficult to put up with.

There are times I want to shout at you, there are times I want to scream, and too often have you made us cry, mourn, and despair.

How odd that log kia kaheingay is your mantra, and yet how badly some of your children have turned out to be. So full of intolerance, so petty, so small of heart and mind, and so mean.

Perhaps it is natural to descend into madness with children like yours.

There is mayhem in your home today, and fear prowls about with whispers of God’s decision to forsake you. The home is a circus of clowns, swindlers, serpents, and merchants of malice; playing to the din and drums of hate, injustice and insanity. And they devour you, the weak, the poor, the different in your brood.

You writhe with injury and anguish. And so do we.

I wish to run away sometimes. I do give up sometimes, I despair. I get tired of you; your many children, our differences with each other, our bloody squabbles, quarrels and your dastardly spawn. And yet I always return.

You’re 70, you’re stubborn, and you’re unimaginably demanding and difficult, and yet I am unable to let go of your hand. After all this is what you, while narrating that story of culture and values, taught us anyway regarding the elderly, the old, those who raised you:
Izat. Ehtaram. Farmabadari. Shais’tagi. Sabr.

For each one of us who roams the earth, there are three Makers. The One who breathes life into us, the one who brings that life into the world, and the world that life is brought into.

Each divine.

Each make us. In ways we know and know not.

And you were the third.

You, my Maker.

You gave the rhythms to my pulse, the history, heritage, and culture I wear as my skin, the metaphors; the idioms, the languages that make my many voices; the poetry, the folklore, the melodies etched in my breath; and the joy, the pride, the pain, you have taught me and I carry as I live with you, and as I love you.

In the cradle of your world my life began, and with my burial in your bosom it shall end.

You, my Maker.

You’re 70 today.

It has not been easy, for you and for me. For all of us.

But let us hold on tight to each other, to the promise of a better tomorrow.

Let us be kinder to one another for we are all we have.

And there’s a lot of healing, working, fixing and fighting to do.

Pakistan, you’re 70 today, and there’s a long way to go.

It will be arduous.

But somehow, some day, we shall make it through.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

The Internet Under Attack in Pakistan


*Originally published on Fair Observer

It has been two months since Mashal Khan’s brutal murder. Amid great shock and outrage, many hoped that this would mark a turning point for things to change in Pakistan. Things had to change after this, they believed.

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And indeed there has been a change. There is now official license and pursuit for replications of the ghastly incident: a social-media witch-hunt and increased crackdown on alleged incidents of blasphemy and dissent.

Last month, text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority began circulating nation-wide warning that “uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on internet is a punishable offence under the law” and calling for such content to “be reported for legal action.”

Rather than adopting caution and carefully defusing the growing incitement and agitation over blasphemy, especially after such an appalling incident, the government has decided to vigorously charge right into it by actively encouraging the use of the blasphemy law and expanding its stretch to social media.

THE RULE OF LAW

A few weeks back, the first death sentence for blasphemy on social media was handed to 30-year old Taimoor Raza by an anti-terrorism court. The allegations of blasphemy emerged after Raza engaged in an online Facebook debate on Islam with an individual who later turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. The sentence was given by an anti-terrorism court and should occasion debate about the bizarre logic of an anti-terrorism court dealing with cases of blasphemy and its subsequent implication of blasphemy being tantamount to terrorism.

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Since the past few years, the internet and social media in Pakistan have surfaced as vital spaces for expression of critical views of the state, the government and discourse on various issues confronting the country, especially those that are deemed sensitive or left uncovered the media such as Balochistan, attacks on religious minorities and the Blasphemy Law itself. These were spaces long considered safe from the eye and intervention of the state and government; and free from the taboos prevalent otherwise regarding such subjects.

The disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers earlier this year, however, shattered this illusion. And the recent series of developments have only served to cement the realization that the internet is no longer safe but at the center of a dangerous witch-hunt and crackdown on dissent.

The creeping state spotlight on social media has been given a more threatening tint by the association of blasphemy with it.

It is also important to remember that after their disappearance and recovery, blasphemy accusations were hurled at the bloggers, which indicates increasing pervasiveness of blasphemy accusations for silencing people and for justifying harrowing acts like disappearances.

MISAPPLICATIONS

One of the strongest criticisms of the blasphemy law pertain to its use for personal schemes of vengeance, vendettas, petty conflicts and property disputes. But rather than curtailing the blasphemy law’s use and abuse, an official invitation and initiative for its use on social media only expands the potential for them. It must also be noted that the internet and social media are murky waters where, among other things, fake profiles, harassment and stalking abound and the possibilities of framing people can easily arise in relation to both concoctions of blasphemous content in someone’s name and harming them on that basis. The numerous profiles posting blasphemous content under the name of Mashal Khan that came into view after his death only attest to this. Navigating such a territory for the government will not be an easy task and poses peril for Pakistani internet-users. 

The danger of an increasing emphasis on blasphemy on social media and the punitive measures designed against it lapsing into a clampdown on dissent and criticism of powerful segments of the country is also not insignificant. And while these developments may be attributed to the influence or strength of the religious right, the existence of draconian laws, and the age-old aversion of the political and military establishment to criticism, but the pivotal role played by the Interior Ministry in actively creating these developments can no longer be discounted.

nisarThe Interior Minister’s constant pandering and cavorting with extremists and sectarian leaders is common knowledge. Recently, however, he has also taken to stress upon a number of sensitive issues to create a case for greater internet censorship and control. His efforts have included invocation of the sentiments underlying the Blasphemy Law, warnings of bans on sites with blasphemous content, instructions to the Federal Investigation Agency to act against “those dishonoring the Pakistan Army through social media” and announcements of new rules and measures against online anonymity. These have not been without significance.

Only a short while back, some social media activists and supporters of the opposition party PTI and even supporters of the PML-N were detained by the FIA on the basis of the fresh instructions to the FIA and the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act.

A report in the Guardian on the matter quotes an FIA saying that “his agency had orders from the interior ministry to interrogate, and seize laptops and phones, without warrant” and that they were “authorized to detain anyone, just on suspicion.” An allegedly official list with the names of social media users and activists who are being monitored for their comments against “national institutions” also did the rounds on Twitter.

The surging tide of these developments and the proliferation of these problematic measures and repressive acts involve dangerous ramifications upon which suggest an increasingly bleak future for free speech, public criticism and opposition in the country. They also demonstrate the weakness of the government’s commitment to public freedoms and its own democratic credentials.

This suffocation of spaces for robust debate, dissent and a healthy discourse by the cultivation of a climate of fear is certain to foster intimidation, harassment, abuse, and violence. After Mashal Khan, it seems the Pakistani government itself has stepped in to lead attacks under the cover and with the cudgel of blasphemy but for the purpose of clobbering dissent, freedom and opposition.

-Hafsa Khawaja