Saturday, November 21, 2015

Demonising women

We live in the 21st century but sometimes we behave in ways that would put even the Dark Ages to shame. Ever since the news of the Imran-Reham divorce surfaced in the media, what we have seen is misogyny and nothing but. Reham Khan is being vilified left, right and centre. What exactly is her fault in all this, one wonders. Why is it that the divorce is being pinned on her and her alone? Some of the reasons being given in the media are: she is ‘ambitious’, she is a ‘working woman’, she is a ‘divorcee’, she has ‘political aspirations’, she wants to be in the limelight, among other things. One wonders if a man would be attacked for being a divorcee, for being ambitious, for working, for wanting to be in the limelight. No, a man would not be attacked for all these and more.

In her interview to The Sunday Times, Ms Khan rightly pointed out: “Both of us are divorced, but it seems [from the media] that I’m the only one. We’ve now both been divorced twice, but no one says that.”

Those who have read my views over the years would know I am no fan of Mr Imran Khan as a politician, but I have never commented on his personal life in public. For me, a person’s private life should remain private. I would not have commented on their divorce had it not been for the witch-hunt Ms Khan is facing post-divorce. As a woman, it appals me to see the kind of malicious rumours being spread about her. A divorce is an extremely private matter but when a political leader marries a journalist, it is bound to become news and when he divorces her, most people — especially in the media — do not respect their privacy. It may be unethical, but scandals sell, unfortunately.

A female anchorperson and a former colleague of Reham says that she is no great supporter of hers but at the same time she feels that some of the attacks on Reham have been cruel and misogynist. “It’s not about Reham, it’s about who we have become in our attitude towards successful women. Sadly, we are a country that has always vilified women in power positions, often by ridiculing them through sexual innuendos or portraying them as unethical, immoral, ‘ambitious’ women who should not have attracted attention by venturing into public life. There are many examples: Benazir Bhutto — one newspaper transposed her face on a naked model’s body and published it on the front page at a time when she was cobbling together the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy; Malala Yousafzai — when she stood up against the Taliban as a teenager; Fatima Jinnah — when she contested elections, etc. Either all the women who succeeded in Pakistan are witches, or we, as a nation, have only one way of looking at them: with disdain.”

We do not see news packages in the media about what our male politicians are wearing to parliament but we have seen countless such mocking news packages when it comes to female parliamentarians. Instead of focusing on the legislative work they are doing, our media obsesses over their make-up, their clothes, their jewellery, their handbags, their shoes and whatnot. It is shameful the way our media has behaved in a voyeuristic manner but it also shows that our audience, ie our society, has not behaved much differently. It is time to give Reham a break and respect her privacy.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mixing politics and cricket

There is a cricket series scheduled between India and Pakistan in December 2015 but due to the tense political relations between the two neighbours, nobody is certain whether it will take place or not. Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) officials — Chairman Shaharyar Khan and PCB executive committee chief, Najam Sethi — were recently invited to Mumbai by BCCI President Shashank Manohar for talks to chart the way forward. Shiv Sena members stormed the BCCI headquarters on the day the meeting was scheduled to be held, which compelled the BCCI to postpone the talks until after next Sunday’s match with South Africa. The Pakistani media is now speculating whether the series has been cancelled or not.

According to Mr Najam Sethi, if the BCCI had wanted to cancel the series it would have simply made the announcement and not called PCB officials for talks. “The BCCI preferred to dissipate the Sena protest by letting them into their office to meet Mr Manohar and then disperse rather than ask the police to resist the demonstrators,” says Sethi, adding that they have not ruled out the series as yet.
It would be extremely unfortunate if the bilateral series were to be cancelled. Cricket matches between India and Pakistan evoke strong emotions due to the history of these two nations and are thus the most-watched matches in the cricketing world. Cricket lovers on both sides of the border would miss an exciting series due to politics, which should be kept away from sports in principle. It is hoped that India and Pakistan will play the series with the aim of finding a solution in the interests of cricket.

The recent anti-Pakistan events in Mumbai are quite alarming and disappointing at the same time. Singer Ghulam Ali’s concert was cancelled due to threats, former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri’s book promoter was attacked, the scheduled meeting between PCB and BCCI officials was disrupted, ICC umpire Aleem Dar was withdrawn from the ongoing India-South Africa series after threats and Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar are not going to commentate in the ongoing series. Apart from these incidents, the rising level of intolerance across Modi’s India is giving the country a bad name internationally. It is also undermining the resilience of India’s secular democracy, which is based on the theme of unity in diversity and pluralism.

Pakistan has its fair share of extremists due to its official policy of appeasing militant organisations. We face the consequences of our flawed policies every day. Each terror attack reminds us how our ruling elite — both military and civilian — have failed us. India is going down the same path gradually. It reminds one of an old poem written by Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz, ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle’ (You turned out just like us).

Here are a few couplets from her poem:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Ab tak kahan chhupe the bhai
Woh moorkhta, woh ghaamarpan
Jis mein hum ne sadi ganwai
Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey
Arre badhai, bohot badhai

(Translation via Urduwallahs):

So it turned out you were just like us!
Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?
That stupidity, that ignorance
we wallowed in for a century —
look, it arrived at your shores too!
Many congratulations to you!

As a Pakistani who has always looked up to India’s secularism, it is sad to see it go down this path.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, October 19, 2015

The cost of justice

The Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan’s decision on Wednesday to maintain the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri by an Anti-Terrorism Court is being hailed as a landmark judgement. Qadri, who had filed an appeal for a reduction in his sentence, was earlier convicted for the assassination of Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer. Qadri killed a man he was duty-bound to protect, but shamelessly maintains he did the right thing.

According to Qadri, Shaheed Taseer had committed blasphemy by challenging the blasphemy laws and asking for the pardon of a blasphemy-accused, Aasia Bibi. Less than two months after Taseer’s assassination, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down. He, too, was vocal about the conviction of Aasia Bibi on alleged blasphemy charges.

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) did a great disservice to the justice system in March this year when it ruled in favour of Qadri’s application to void Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). While the IHC upheld Qadri’s death sentence, voiding his anti-terrorism conviction turned the murder of a sitting governor into a regular murder case. After the IHC’s ruling, the slain governor’s murder was no longer being considered a crime against the state and an act of terror.

Headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the three-member bench of the honourable Supreme Court has now overturned the IHC’s decision regarding the anti-terrorism charges. The apex court’s judgement has also given hope to many who thought the debate on blasphemy laws had died a silent death after the assassination of Taseer. Justice Khosa asked a pertinent question during the hearing: “Will it not instill fear in society if everybody starts taking the law in their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts?”

Yesterday, one of the top 10 Twitter trends in Pakistan was #IamMumtazQadri. Not only was it a shameful trend but it also showed how many in our society are willing to justify a murder just because it was wrongfully committed in the name of religion. Who can forget the way Qadri was garlanded by lawyers when he was presented before the court for the first time after the assassination of Governor Taseer. Qadri is also being treated like a VIP in prison.

For those of us shocked and saddened at the death of Taseer, the support for Qadri jolted us into realising that the actual ‘silent majority’ we thought was sane but did not speak up on such occasions for fear, was in fact the opposite. The real silent majority, which is not-so-silent-anymore, is in favour of mob justice and vigilantism.

In light of the Qadri verdict, the state must provide ample security to the three justices of the apex court as we live in a society where religious extremism prevails to an insane extent. One also hopes that Aasia Bibi’s case will be heard again and she will finally get justice. Governor Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti’s martyrdom must not go in vain. The debate on blasphemy laws must start again as these laws have constantly been misused. We owe this to those who died, for they sacrificed their lives by standing up for justice.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

The bad... and some good

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaikh, while delivering the Haj sermon on Wednesday, said that some people were trying to enforce their own agenda through violence and giving Islam a bad name. “Daesh (ISIS) is pursuing a path meant for destruction of the Muslim ummah. It has not spared even mosques and peaceful citizens. They are disfiguring the image of Islam,” said the Grand Mufti.

It is good to see that even a hardliner Islamic country like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking a strong position against ISIS but as a Pakistani citizen, one wonders if the Saudis could have been so thoughtful when it came to funding madrassas in my country, which have churned out not just jihadis but hardcore religious extremists. In their sectarian wars, they have made my country a pawn and we, the people of Pakistan, are bearing the brunt. ISIS is not the only group that has attacked mosques and peaceful citizens. The Taliban have done the same. They have not even spared innocent children; the APS attack in Peshawar is still fresh in our minds. The Taliban may be a regional problem for some, unlike ISIS that has become a global phenomenon, but the Taliban and their ilk are as bad as the ISIS. It would have been great to hear the Grand Mufti condemn all terrorists, including the Taliban. We cannot differentiate between terrorists and/or murderers just because of our vested interests.

On another note, there is some good news regarding cricket. As a cricket enthusiast and as a Pakistani cricket fan, the launch of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) is great news. The tournament will be held in the UAE next February. It is not being held in Pakistan due to security issues, as it would have been nearly impossible to get renowned international players to be part of the PSL if it was being held here. Our cricketers have not been part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) since the Mumbai terror attacks.

After the terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, international cricket stopped in our country until this year when Zimbabwe finally agreed to play in Pakistan. The Gaddafi Stadium was packed during the entire Zimbabwe series. Pakistani fans came out in full force to support their own country as well as Zimbabwe as a gesture of their gratitude. Now that the PSL has been launched, it will bring more excitement for Pakistani cricket fans. As Ahmer Naqvi wrote recently: “The [T20] format found a natural home in street cricket and the culture of night matches during Ramzan, and these were hugely popular in Pakistan’s cities from the ‘70s onwards, and later caught the imagination of the rural population too. In a way, Pakistan had a T20 culture at least 30 years before the format was invented. The fact, then, that the country has still not had a proper international-class tournament since is nothing less than a tragedy.”

The PSL is a great Eid gift for millions of Pakistani cricket fans. Here is to hoping that we can one day bring the PSL to our own cricket grounds back home.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Battle cries

India and Pakistan ‘celebrated’ the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 war last week. The celebrations on both sides of the border were at such large scale that it was nauseating to say the least. Those who questioned these celebrations were called ‘unpatriotic’, ‘traitors’, etc., when in fact they were the only sane voices out there. What are we trying to show by celebrating a war that resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides and put a dent in our economies?

Apart from the loss of lives, wars cause destruction, make people homeless, leave scars on the minds of those affected by wars, and push back countries for decades economically. No wonder civilised countries do not celebrate wars; they may celebrate the end of wars but they do not behave in a callous manner by ‘celebrating’ wars.

As Dawn editorial (‘Fifty years on’, September 6, 2015) notes: “A jingoistic Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to revel in India’s supposed military prowess. Meanwhile, a military stretched and under threat in Pakistan appears more interested in giving a befitting verbal and visual response to India than focusing on the domestic security challenge. It is a familiar, if distressing, cycle.”

My friend and fellow columnist, Smita Prakash, wrote a thought-provoking piece (‘War or peace: 50 years on’) earlier this week on the same issue in this paper. India and Pakistan have not learnt anything from history. The people of the Indian subcontinent do not need more jingoism in their lives — what they need is redress of real issues that they face every day. Instead of spending billions of rupees on these war celebrations, this money could have been better utilised had it been spent on education, healthcare, infrastructure, clean drinking water, public toilets and other such public service sectors. India and Pakistan also need to end this deadlock and start talking to each other. If government level talks are a problem right now, they should at least revive back channel diplomacy.

At former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri’s book launch ceremony in Lahore recently, Mani Shankar Aiyar — who was a keynote speaker at the event — said that in a war, nobody is defeated and nobody is a victor. He said that it is necessary for dialogue between the two South Asian neighbours to be uninterruptible as it is the only way forward. One should really adhere to voices like Mr Aiyar’s and others who do not have any vested interest and only want peace in the region.

On another note, Pakistan is beginning to go through yet another period of censorship. The Lahore High Court (LHC) has directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to ban the broadcast of images and speeches of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain across all electronic and print media. While one may not agree with the speeches of Mr Hussain, to put a blanket ban on his photographs or statements altogether from the media is wrong at many levels. Today it is Mr Hussain, tomorrow it will be somebody else. Censorship does no good to anyone. All it does is mislead people. We have been misled enough. It is time to put a stop to such steps.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, September 07, 2015

To talk or not to talk

My last column was about Pakistan’s Independence Day and how we are not really free when there is so much apathy for a crime as big as child abuse in our society. This week, I want to revisit how we are still not free, but this time in the context of India and Pakistan. These two countries have a six-decade-old baggage. From a bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent to wars on the battlefield to proxy wars to going nuclear, these two countries have hurt each other much to the dismay of many people and at the cost of social development, healthcare, education, etc., of their own peoples.

Will they, won’t they? This is what happens before every proposed Indo-Pak meeting and this is exactly what everybody was thinking before the NSA talks between India and Pakistan in New Delhi. From border tensions to war of words to the Kashmir issue, everything was pointing to the fact that both wanted an excuse to cancel the talks and were waiting for the other side to blink first.

“Both sides have succumbed to media pressure and behaved childishly,” says veteran journalist Najam Sethi. He is of the view that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif wanted to get a dialogue going and agreed to the five-point agenda at Ufa without any mention of the K word but when the Indian media began to crow about their government’s ‘achievement’ as one-upmanship, the Pakistani media lambasted the Pakistani government for missing out the K word, compelling it to revert to a zero-sum game in the NSA talks.

Many here are of the view that the Indians should have taken Pakistan’s revised stance on unconditional talks in their stride, like previous Indian governments, and got on with the talks by focusing on their main issue of terrorism. After all, the Kashmir issue is not going to be resolved by the mere mention of it in any talks. But they cancelled the talks and were made to look confused and directionless. Sethi says, “I think they realise this now and it would be good if they do not spurn an opportunity to talk to Pakistan on the sidelines of the UN meet in September. This will pave the way for the cricket series to be held in December, which will in turn pave the way for Prime Minister Modi to attend the SAARC Summit in Pakistan in early 2016 without any qualms.”

Instead of behaving like bullies in a high school, both neighbours need to grow up and act maturely. This is in the interest of not just two countries but billions of people and the entire South Asian region. Mian Nawaz Sharif is committed to peace with India, even at great personal risk, but Mr Modi’s government is still not sure how to deal with Pakistan. It is time to talk.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Crime and apathy

Sixty-eight years ago, Pakistan got independence from British colonial rule that led to the partition of the Indian Subcontinent – today (August 14), Pakistanis are celebrating our Independence Day. Every year, the ruling elite (military and/or civilian) pledge to make our country a better place but every year our problems increase. This year, too, things are no different.

One of the most shocking child abuse scandals has recently rocked the country. According to media reports, around 400 videos of child pornography were made involving at least 280 children in Kasur in the Punjab province. Instead of being jolted out of their slumber after this case came to light, the Punjab government, Punjab Police and some sections of our media went into an overdrive to downplay the horrific crime. From saying the actual number of children is less than what has been reported to denying it was child abuse, citing it as a case of homosexuality and consensual sex to mixing it up with a land dispute, the excuses being given to sweep this crime under the rug are shameful.

For a moment, let's assume that the number of children is way less than what has been reported in the media, does it really matter? And how can a minor have 'consensual' sex? Somebody who makes a child indulge in sexual activity is committing a crime. Period. Now let's come to the numbers. Even if one child is sexually abused while being filmed and his/her family is later blackmailed, it should be appalling enough. Numbers do not matter in this case. What matters is our ruling class and society's reaction to child sexual abuse.

If this had happened in any other country in the world, people would have come out on the streets demanding justice for the innocent victims. Here we have only seen the parents of some of the victims out on the streets. Human rights organisations, activists and some in the media are the only ones raising their voice while everyone else is concerned with saving the 'image' of Pakistan. This sort of apathy is why the parents and the victims took years to come forward.

As an editorial ('A tale of horror') in The News puts it: "The suffering of these people needs to be eased. There is only one thing that may reassure them – the shame is not theirs; it is ours as a nation. Whenever there has been a public discussion on high amounts of child sexual abuse in the country, it has been collectively shut up. We can begin to change that today by admitting: ‘shame on us’."

On this Independence Day, Pakistanis should reflect on why we feel no shame when child sexual abuse goes on right under our noses and feel angry when such incidents are highlighted in the media. Why are we so worried about image-building when what we really need to do is ensure that justice is served and these children and their families are provided psychiatric help and therapy? Their scars should be treated as our collective scars. If even our children are not safe from abuse, then there is hardly any point in celebrating our freedom.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Curtailing sectarianism?

I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp earlier this month with a group of Pakistanis. We have all read about the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust but none of us were prepared for the feelings that swept us when we set foot in Auschwitz. It had an eerie feeling to it and it felt as if the air was heavy with grief. When we visited the gas chambers and prison cells, one could literally feel the pain and terror on one’s skin. The visit was a sombre affair. When we left, I could not shake off the fear for a very long time. It also reminded me of the way members of the Shia community, especially the Hazara Shias in Balochistan, were being target-killed in Pakistan by the banned sectarian outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

On Wednesday morning, leader of LeJ Malik Ishaq was killed by the police in a gunfight when allegedly Ishaq’s supporters attacked a police convoy in order to free him near Muzaffargarh. Ishaq’s two sons, his deputy and 11 others militants were also killed in the gunfight according to the police. While this is the official account of the police, there are rumours that it was a pre-planned police encounter (read extra-judicial killing). In his latest Newsweek Pakistan piece, ‘Killing Stroke’, Ejaz Haider says: “Ishaq’s killing, going by sources within the police, is the culmination of a year-long debate within the establishment on whether Ishaq was more useful dead or alive. There were arguments on both sides.”

Malik Ishaq, a notorious terrorist who could not be convicted because witnesses were either eliminated or terrorised into not appearing before the court, was taken into custody a few days ago by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) for investigations in recent sectarian killings in South Punjab. Some people argue that Ishaq’s killing is quite symbolic as it would not have taken place without the nod of the establishment, which means that the establishment now wants to rein in sectarian killings. Others believe that the LeJ had a strong foothold in Balochistan, which was problematic for the new Pak-China Economic Corridor and also for the Afghan peace talks and that is why the establishment decided to get rid of Ishaq and the LeJ leadership.

Columnist and activist Marvi Sirmed says: “The death of Malik Ishaq, his sons and even the second-tier leadership of the LeJ is an intense blow to the banned outfit. It will take many years for them to recover from this.” Sirmed believes that it has basically been done because Malik Ishaq was moving closer to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) over the past few years and he was the harbinger of militant anti-Shia sentiment. Marvi Sirmed says Ishaq’s death will strengthen Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) chief Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi and with Ishaq’s death, the ASWJ will be mainstreamed as a legitimate political party (Note: ASWJ is a front for the banned outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan). “This is a bid to bring the militants of an anti-Shia sectarian organisation to the mainstream through ASWJ, which is now awarding tickets to its candidates in many constituencies for the upcoming local bodies elections in Punjab and Sindh,” says Ms Sirmed.

It remains to be seen whether the hydra of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan will be curtailed in the wake of Ishaq’s death or not.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)