The Bill and the Need for Cultural Currency


*Originally published in The Nation.

There has been much outcry and uproar. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called it an instrument for victimization of husbands, and suggested that the government should’ve just declared the ‘husband as wife and wife as husband’. Muhammad Naeem of Binoria has lamented it and linked it to the Nawaz Sharif’s promises to the West for bringing a ‘liberal nizaam’ in Pakistan and an attack against our ‘culture’ and ‘values’. There have been protests and condemnations.

Such has been the reaction elicited from the conservative and religious right in the country by the passage of the Bill for Protection of Women against Violence 2015, which criminalizes violence against women and carries comprehensive remedies and recourse for victims of violence, in the Punjab Assembly.

The vehement opponents of the Bill are proponents of an idea that not only trivializes the occurrence and prevalence of shameful ills and stains on Pakistani society, such as domestic violence, but also believe that it is actually the uncovering and exposition of these ills that really brings bad name to Pakistan and its ‘culture’. They would rather that women be beaten and assaulted in their homes, acid thrown on their faces, buried alive in the name of honor, than let their cries be heard or their wounds be healed.

Yet this reaction is symptomatic of a larger malaise within Pakistan’s culture and society that the Bill has merely managed to reveal. It is a malaise that considers violence against women a legitimate and acceptable force to maintain the stability, sanctity and honor of the family and home; violence as a ‘natural’ instrument of exalted masculinity to ‘straighten a woman up’ or ‘put her in her place’. This is cemented by the presentation of the malaise as a matter that strictly belongs to the private sphere, to the degree that even to speak on violence inflicted upon women is considered a breach of the so-called sanctity of the private. Thus, it may be that the izzat of the home is by a woman, but the woman herself has no right to her own izzat.

Only recently it was reported that a man in the village of Lakha Luddan divorced his wife after she got him arrested for inflicting torture on her.

In light of the existing situation, the fervid opposition to the Bill among certain groups and segments in the country underscore something much greater: the need to create cultural currency for change and reform in Pakistan. Since laws cannot operate in a vacuum, legal strides on issues such as those of domestic violence must be accompanied by efforts to conjure cultural acceptance and traction of the ideas underlying the laws to complement and enforce their strength.

Nazish Brohi sharply captures the predicament confronting women in the country: “Women across Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to face an old ultimatum: they can either claim citizenship of the state or membership of the community. Appealing to the former means expulsion from the latter. Once you go to the police or courts or shelters, there is no going back into the family fold.” This separation between the sphere of the state and the sphere of the private defines a great segment of opposition and anger directed at the Bill by many groups which consider it a breach of space and an encroachment of the exclusive rights such a separation bestows upon the private space i.e dealing with women. This division of spheres aids the aforementioned argument of the sanctity of home and family, an argument that Ammar Rashid of the Awami Workers Party was quick to point out was an “age-old misogynist ruse; used to deny women the vote hundred years ago”, which is being invoked by those targeting the Bill as a dangerous device that can potentially trigger the disintegration of families and its eventual disappearance in society.

One wonders what exactly goes on in the cherished institution of family that such a bill threatens by threatening to expose and punish.

It may perhaps well be true that ideas embodied in legal initiatives, of violence against women being a crime, percolate through to larger society but a top down change must be augmented by the creation of congruent values below in order to render it effective and powerful. After all, a woman brought up to believe that to remain silent in face of violence is to maintain honor would seldom think of appealing to laws. And it is this silence that men make their power and impunity. Therefore, as important as it is for the government to ensure the momentous passage and implementation of the landmark bill, it is equally, if not more, important to undertake a serious and concerted campaign to culturally diffuse the value held at heart of the bill and overturn existing toxic ideas and perceptions centered on the acceptability of violence against women. Such a campaign will have to involve the state and government’s engagement and collaboration with the civil society; and the utilization of means and mediums which resonate with the larger public, such as films, dramas, advertisements, lectures, educational activities, and even religious authority.

To stand its ground against the blackmail and bluster of the religious right protesting the bill, and to dispel ideas that incite and justify violence against women in the first place, are both arduous and uphill tasks for the government but tasks necessitated by the realization that such regressive groups and abhorrent ideas have held the country hostage for too long, and Pakistan must be freed from their shackles if ever to move forward.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

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

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~~

Blasphemy in the Name of God


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently visited the family of the Christian couple burnt alive by a mob in Kot Radha Kishan for allegedly desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. He announced Rs5 million as compensation for the bereaved family as well as 10 acres of land. A three-member committee has also been ordered to investigate the matter. Although commissions and committees in Pakistan have come to represent a confirmed course for consigning an issue to oblivion, the inadequacy of the aforementioned measures resonates for larger reasons.

Earlier this year in Gujranwala, an angry mob set fire to a house killing three Ahmedis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.  From Ahmedis, Hindus to Christians, religious minorities in Pakistan are vulnerable and widely exposed to threats, intimidation and violence. This is a reflection of not just crass state failure but an alarming societal disease.

Shama and Shahzad Masih

Pakistan faces an underlying, entrenched disease that can neither be cured with ‘compensations’ of millions nor commissions. A disease that has been manifesting itself as several bleeding sores on the national body in the form of Gojra, Joseph Colony, Gujranwala and now Kot Radha Kishan.

It is astounding how, in a society as intolerant and violent as Pakistan’s, where the state is impotent in its protection of citizens, individuals of religious minorities can even gather the audacity to commit blasphemy in this glorious bastion of Islam where pious believers are ever eager to reconstruct hellfire as done with Shama and Shahzad Masih.

The brutal murder of the couple, which has left behind three little children, has all the elements that perpetuate such cruelties; which are ironically, blasphemy itself in the name of God.

It is reported that the mob was incited by a local cleric, much in line with what is the custom in such cases. Just as PM Sharif has instructed the revision of curriculum in national institution to inculcate values of constitutionalism and democracy in order to defeat the dominant narratives resulting from decades of military dictatorships; narratives of hate and extremism emanating from the loudspeakers of mosques and teachings at madrassahs must also be countered. State-licensed campaigns and clerics united by an ideology and purpose of fostering harmony, tolerance and inter-community peace must also be considered. Pakistan’s madrassahs and masjids have become breeding grounds of hate, bigotry and intolerance which, until effectively monitored, checked and combatted, will only lead to need for further Zarb-e-Azbs in the future.

Writing for Dawn, Cyril Almeida points out another important aspect of the victims of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: ‘Blasphemy victims are disproportionately the marginalised: often poor, mostly the wrong denomination and always vulnerable.’ Almeida further mentions that those in the national and social mainstream are not threatened by such instances, which is why ‘the system doesn’t need to swing into action and correct a perversion.’

More importantly, Hassan Javid’s article, published on the 9th of November in The Nation, on this recent blasphemy case echoes with the banality of evil in Pakistan:

‘However, focusing solely on these actors [the military, government and extremist organizations] obscures the fact that there is a ‘banal’ aspect to the bigotry and hatred that we are witnessing around us….it is ‘normal’ people who are increasingly complicit in these unspeakable acts of evil. Shahzad and his wife Shama were not burnt alive by Taliban fighters or sectarian extremists; they were tortured and killed by the people who lived and worked around them. The mobs that attacked Gojra and Joseph Colony were not comprised of foreign fighters sent to Pakistan by Al-Qaeda; they were ordinary villagers and citizens who presumably went back to their families and homes once their dark deeds were done.’

pakistan blasphemyThis involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism confronting Pakistan.

Pakistan faces a glaring reality marked by discrimination, bigotry and blood that screams to be seen; which the state and society both deal by averting gaze from. Therefore, to constitute commissions, order probes and register FIRs is merely to bandage an infected gash than treating it. The country can no longer do without systematically addressing and reviewing laws, chief of which are the Second Amendment and the Blasphemy Law (a proposal which is seen as blasphemy itself in Pakistan’s increasingly intolerant and polarised society), which sanction or condone such wanton violence and barbarities. The murders of Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and the dangerously absurd allegation grounded in blasphemy recently hurled at Khurshid Shah for his remarks on the term muhajir merely emphasise the wide dangers to which this law and its ideological popularity open doors to. Pakistan can also not ignore the urgency to battle extremism and bigotry on the ideological, societal and cultural fronts. Until that happens, the murders of Shama and Shahzad will perish in the same old cycle of media coverage, commissions, committees for investigations, muted protests and outrage; and eventually, collective national amnesia. Until then, Pakistan shall continue to be disfigured by a diseased society with deceased humanity committing blasphemy in the name of God.

~ Hafsa Khawaja