Eqbal Ahmad: An Ethic


It has been 20 years since Eqbal Ahmad bid farewell to this world.

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In 2011, in an article of his, the late Christopher Hitchens termed Pakistan “a land virtually barren of achievements.” I read it and I, a 16 year old, was outraged, seething with rage. It was then that I decided to write a blog to show that the Pakistani nation had produced its fair share of achievements, pride and glory in every field. And so I began to do a little research of my own.

It was during the course of that research that I came across the name Eqbal Ahmad, “a distinguished intellectual, prolific writer and journalist, widely consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world.”

I was fascinated. And even more so to read that the great Edward Said had penned a moving obituary for him in 1999. He wrote, and I quote,

Eqbal Ahmad brought wisdom and integrity to the cause of oppressed peoples.”

Who was this man that the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky praised lavishly? Why was it that I knew of Edward Said and not Eqbal Ahmad, despite him being one of our own? I began to read him and so began the chapter of my utmost admiration for him.

Eqbal, for me, was and is an ideal.

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Born in Bihar in either 1932 or 1933, Eqbal Ahmad migrated to Pakistan as a young boy during Partition and went on to study at the Forman Christian College. He then earned his PhD in the late 1960s from Princeton where he studied political science and Middle Eastern history. As part of his doctoral dissertation which focused on labour movements in North Africa, he travelled to Tunisia and Algeria.

It was in Algeria that he became involved in the Algerian Revolution, meeting and working with Fanon and also becoming a member of the Algerian Revolutionary Council. After the success of the revolution, he was even offered an opportunity to join the first independent Algerian government but he refused. According to Edward Said, Algeria was a turning point for Eqbal Ahmad’s life which formed “an almost instinctive attraction to liberation movements, movements of the oppressed and the persecuted, causes of people who were unfairly punished — whether they lived in the great metropolitan centres of Europe and America, or in the refugee camps, besieged cities, and bombed or disadvantaged villages of Bosnia, Chechnya, south Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran and, of course, the Indian subcontinent.

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Eqbal Ahmad was a vocal advocate of the Palestinian cause (an advocacy that left him alienated and isolated; not one of his colleagues would sit with him during lunch at Cornell), and a prominent and vehement opponent of America’s intervention and policies in Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, In 1971, he was part of a group of anti-war activists, the Harrisburg Seven, who were tried on the charges of a failed conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger.

Eqbal Ahmad then went on to teach at Cornell University until 1968. In 1982, he joined the Hampshire College as a tenured professor where he taught until 1997. He befriended, influenced and collaborated with thinkers such as Chomsky, Said, Howard Zinn, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fredric Jameson and Daniel Berrigan.

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His knowledge, thinking, observations and experiences lent him a remarkable grasp on global developments, leading him to be “consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, activist leaders and policymakers around the world” and allowing him prophetic foresight which identified, among others, the disaster the American exploitation of Islamic fundamentalism against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan would bring, its terrible implications for Pakistan, and the the devastating consequences which would follow any military action to remove Saddam from Iraq.

In the 1990s, he began shuttling between Pakistan and the U.S and began writing for Dawn, while working to establish a liberal arts college named after Ibn Khaldun in Islamabad. The project, however, was wrecked by political realities in Pakistan:

“In the early 1990s, he was granted a parcel of land by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government to build an independent, alternative university, named Khaldunia. The land was later seized by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, reportedly to build a golf course and club.”

Previously in Pakistan, his criticism of military and political actors and policies had irked powerful quarters. He was a fearless critic of authoritarianism, militarism, political corruption, nuclear arms and extremism, and an ardent advocate of democracy, peace, self-determination, social justice and egalitarianism.

output-f_large-e35f94bab0216ee21afad6c020f6a45aEqbal passed away in May 1999 from colon cancer. Upon his demise, “editorials and newspaper columns published around the world quickly paid homage to a unique and fearless thinker. Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote “Palestine has lost a friend”, while the New York Times, whose Vietnam and Palestine policies Eqbal had forcefully criticized, admitted that he “woke up America’s conscience”. The Economist described him as “a revolutionary and intellectual who was the Ibn-Khaldun of modern times.

While we are unfortunate to not have him among us anymore, the possibility of turning to him still remains; because while the issues of our time may be slightly different from that of his, the ethic he embodied, espoused and exemplified beckons for us to adopt and cultivate it. This was an ethic of being a global citizen in times of myopia and division; of refusing binaries and bigotries; of fighting oppression, imperialism, injustice and employing scholarship in the service of these causes; and of speaking truth to power both at home and abroad. It is after all, a testament to his intellectual honesty and principles that during the Harrisburg 7 trial in the United States, he penned his famous Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat in 1971 which was a letter of protest and condemnation of the Pakistani government’s military operation in East Pakistan. In it, he wrote:

“I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army.”

His was an ethic of truth, a truth that transcended boundaries and borders.

His advice and call to action for the younger generation was,

“Number one, read. Number two, intervene. For God’s sake, let us not be only consumers of information. Each person knows some truth – and I really think that almost anyone who is listening to you and to me right now has some knowledge, some truth, some understanding of the world, that is different from that of the dominant media institutions. The moment you find that your truth clashes with what is being peddled as their truth, intervene.”

His was an ethic of intervention, action and practice.

Eqbal was generous enough to leave behind an ethic, an ideal and an education for all to freely embrace, and which, in today’s global and local moment of confusion, censorship, suppression of ethnic movements for constitutionalism, the rise of the right wing, and clamour, is all the more important to revisit and learn from.

And at the end, it is up to us to honor this ethic and its legacy, and to recover its phenomenal promise, power and possibility.

So here’s hoping we turn to Eqbal Ahmad, for to turn to him is to turn to an ethic of supreme intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual responsibility, intellectual independence and imagination. To turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to engage with an ethic of love, empathy, solidarity, of thinking critically and of thinking fearlessly. And to turn to Eqbal Ahmad is to know that not only is this ethic possible but incumbent upon all of us.

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For those interested in learning about him, please do refer to the following resources:

  1. Confronting Empire; Eqbal Ahmad interviewed by David Barsamian
  2. The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad
  3. Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia
  4. Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar
  5. The Eqbal Ahmad Center for Public Education
  6. The Transnational Institute
  7. Eqbal Ahmad Fan Page
  8. Google is your friend: search for Eqbal Ahmad and you’ll come across articles such as this and this here and there. Lots of fantastic speeches of his available on Youtube too.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Why The #MeToo Movement Has Missed Momentum in Pakistan


*Originally published at Himal Southasian. Unedited version below:

As the #MeToo movement steers ahead with momentum across various parts of the world, Pakistan remains largely unaffected by it. Far from making waves, the movement has hardly made ripples in the country.

5ad871cd9d50aPerhaps the only prominent case relating to the movement in Pakistan has been of famous model, singer and actress Meesha Shafi coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of fellow musician and actor Ali Zafar. Zafar denied the accusations and subsequently filed a defamation suit against her, while numerous celebrities rallied to his support. In fact, his film Teefa in Trouble, released after the allegations were made public, was screened in theatres all over the country and ended up raking in more than 300 million.

Pakistan’s entertainment industry has not stood unresponsive on the matter of sexual harassment, with scattered statements emerging from within it, but more in distrust than in support of #MeToo. Model Sadaf Kanwal recently remarked disparagingly about the movement on a prime time talk show, declaring that she had never faced sexual harassment or abuse and going on to say that, You know aap ke saath Metoo jab ho, tab boldo. Baad mai aap ko yaad araha hai metoo, So I think jab ho boldo. (You know, when you have a MeToo incident, say it then. Why are you remembering it later? I think when it happens you should say it.)”

Kanwal’s remarks cannot be seen in isolation and indicate a greater malaise at play when it comes to the matter and conversation of sexual harassment in the country.

Why has #MeToo remained a murmur rather than taking the shape of a movement in Pakistan?

This is not without cause.

Stigma and Sanction

Foremost among these is the taboo and stigma surrounding sexual harassment in Pakistan. Any disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse, including child abuse, is considered shameful and a source of indelible stigma and dishonor for the victims or survivors, and their families. As an issue which is preferred suppressed and hushed up by the society, any public conversation about it then becomes inevitably inviting of backlash. The social repercussions for any individual braving their trauma to air their story are deeply undesirable; spanning subjection to blatant vilification, malicious mud-slinging, victim-blaming, outright threats and even ostracization. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse must routinely confront and counter vehement efforts to dismiss, doubt and demean their harrowing experiences.

Condemnations and repudiations of Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar have often commonly been based on the argument that she was simply doing it for “cheap and quick publicity,” thereby trivializing sexual harassment and recasting it as a mere ploy for attention-seeking. That even Meesha, a celebrity who has successfully featured in Hollywood, Bollywood and Lollywood films with an established career as a popular musician, wasn’t spared this charge can only offer a brief view of what an ordinary woman would have to endure were she to openly voice her allegations or ordeal of sexual harassment.

Legal Hurdles

In addition to the oppressive social and cultural treatment of the issue, the legal framework in Pakistan does not aid the creation of an environment conducive to any fight against sexual harassment. Fatima Anwar, a member of Pakistan’s legal community, draws light to the the degree of difficulty involved in taking sexual harassment cases to the courts. “We have basic penal code provisions against harm and laws against workplace harassment, but we do not have a distinct and separate law that directly addresses, criminalizes and deals with sexual harassment as a whole,” she says. It was due to this particular legal loophole that Meesha Shafi’s case against Ali Zafar was rejected as it was pursued under the existing Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, in view of which her relationship with Ali Zafar could not be deemed as being one of employer and employee. Fatima elaborates that “the evidentiary standards, if the case does not pertain to penetrative rape, are very flawed. Sexual harassment rarely happens in broad daylight with multitudes of witnesses, therefore it is usually the word of the survivor against the attacker. Factor into this the institutional sexism of the courts, the internalized sexism of judges and the widespread harassment within the legal profession itself, and you realize that the likelihood of a conviction for a sexual harasser is very low.”

With scarcely any social and cultural structures, or even legal recourses, in place to offer support or redress to victims of sexual harassment, many women in Pakistan choose to keep quiet than to battle the backlash accompanying any disclosure of the distress they may have suffered or continue to suffer.

Feminist Fissures

Another hindrance to the full exposure of sexual harassment cases in Pakistan is grasped by writer Rafia Zakaria, who identifies the fissures, even within feminists, which contribute to the weakness of the movement in Pakistan: “When faced with an actual #MaiBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence or silence.” Hamna Zubair, an editor at Dawn newspaper, argues “film and entertainment industry’s response to these harassment allegations reveals how, once again, issues of justice and equality in Pakistan take a back seat to the social and financial entanglements of the upper class.”

That class associations, fraternal feelings and financial interests trump a staunch commitment to causes is an indictment of many people in Pakistan and the pervasive parochial tribalism which prompts them to frequently jump to the defense of many solely due to their shared belonging within a group; reducing their faithfulness to social justice, egalitarianism and activism as lip service, and genuine solidarity an act contingent upon convenience.

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Dr. Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who writes on gender, Islam and women’s movements in South Asia, opines that “we still have a long way to go when it comes to a wider understanding and sensitivity around sexual harassment. Sadly, even in circles that one would think are progressive, there is little understanding or acceptance of the seriousness of the problem of sexual harassment. While awareness is growing slowly, one would need a wider critical mass of people who are receptive to claims of sexual harassment in order for a Pakistani #MeToo movement to really take off.”

Risking Liberties

A third barrier to galvanization around the #MeToo movement in Pakistan is tied to its potential for being employed to bolster a reversal or restriction on the limited liberties many women are allowed to avail in society such as the freedom to study and work or even mobility in public spaces. Any surfacing of instances of sexual harassment, especially in educational institutions, workplaces or public spaces, is taken, by many, as vindication of the traditional and conservative ideas which call for confining and sequestering women within the four walls of their homes and prohibiting interactions with members of the opposite sex. The argument goes that it is precisely to prevent such unpleasant and unwanted occurrences that religion and culture instruct women to stay in the safety and comfort of their homes under the watchful and protective gaze of their fathers, brothers or husbands, and not venture beyond it unless absolutely necessary. For many women, revealing an experience of sexual harassment, may be used to remove and bar them from the spaces and locations of the occurrence altogether. To disclose, therefore, is to risk hard-won but fragile and precarious liberties. Disclosing instances of sexual harassment or abuse in consensual relationships would endanger these women further since dating is often explicitly forbidden or looked down upon. Consent ceases to be central when the focus shifts to your involvement in a relationship or space that you weren’t supposed to be in, in the first place.

Earlier last year, student and social-media user Ushnaa Habib took to Twitter to collect, compile and publish a stream of anonymous accounts of sexual harassment, many of which named well-known individuals as the perpetrators. Recalling her decision, she describes that “it took an immense strength from the women’s side to even consider opening up. The fact that they wanted to remain anonymous still breaks my heart because the fear of what men will do to them is far greater than you and I can imagine. There were screenshots and testimonies I could not even post, because of how scared the girls were. [But] the main role here, I think, is of the family. Every single girl was scared of her family and not necessarily the men they were naming. They didn’t want their mother and father to find out. But those with supportive families, were fierce and blunt.” Going public with experiences of sexual harassment is then accompanied by the very real fears of reprisals and fear of bringing shame and dishonor to the family. Moreover, such disclosures can be used to advance and implement curtailment of intermingling with the opposite sexes and a limitation of the liberties available to women.

Pushing for Change

Despite the lack of traction gained by the #MeToo movement in Pakistan so far, attempts to change the situation continue in the country through the painstaking efforts of women’s rights activists. Dr. Nida Kirmani provides the reminder that “women’s rights activists have been working consistently and persistently on the issue of sexual harassment for years. It is because of them that we have gotten as far as we have in terms of having a law in place at the national level and some formal mechanisms in particular institutions. The discussion of #MeToo should be seen as part of that wider movement. We have a long way to go, but I see a lot of rays of hope as well in terms of the older and younger generations of feminists working separately and together to lift that stigma and silence and create an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak out and actually get support.” And although Ushnaa Habib eventually found herself at the receiving end of numerous threats, including those of rape and death, in the same spirit of creating an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak it, she maintains her belief that she “did the right thing.” Similarly, Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation which seeks to combat cyber-bullying and make the internet safe for women, has been in the process of compiling the names of pro bono lawyers willing to facilitate victims of sexual harassment. Renowned director and actress Angeline Malik has also launched the #InkaarKaro (Refuse) initiative that hopes to spread awareness regarding sexual harassment and its various forms, bring people together and “allow them to share their stories and assure them that if they feel they have ever been wronged, there are many others here to support them.”

The results of the #MeToo movement may be uncertain in Pakistan but what is for certain, however, is that it has given rise to a moment that has brought the subject of sexual harassment to the fore; and made possible at least some conversation about it, even if limited or even if uncomfortable, and even if it is a conversation on the movement’s negligible impact itself. #MeToo may not be Pakistan’s defining moment in the uphill struggle against sexual harassment and abuse, but even the silences which rendered the movement largely mute in the country, ironically and piercingly also rendered visible painful everyday risks and realities for women here.

-Hafsa Khawaja

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