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Mother tongue and the other tongues

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Human beings are designed to either want things or to want to do things. Most have a list of things they would like to do or get or achieve before they hit the bucket. It can range from wanting to walk the Appalachian Trail to wanting to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to having 17 wives and over 100 kids. (I’m not joking: there is actually a person in the UAE who is doing this, and that too with government funding.)

My own wishes are a bit more prosaic and don’t require me to walk through a country or hike to a mountain peak or procreate like crazy. One of them is to become multilingual.

There is merit in learning languages other than the one you grew up speaking. (This applies especially to speakers of English, which almost everyone speaks these days.) I don’t want to learn a new language because it would look cool on my college application – been there, done that, multiple times – without ever knowing a third language. In fact, I already have three degrees and if I even think about going back to school (which I secretly do), my sisters will commit me to a mental institution. The doctors at the mental institution will have to coin a new term for my disease which would sound something like “addicted to being a student so she can do all the peculiar stuff she wants to and stay unemployed while pretend to pursue academic excellence”… but I digress. I also don’t want to learn a new language just so I can be known as that “crackpot who can speak Ukrainian”; there are enough reasons already for me to be classified as a crackpot (Ukranian or no Ukranian). I don’t even want to be called a well-rounded person because I am a well-rounded person. As a matter of fact, I need to turn some of that roundedness into muscle, but I digress again. My problem is this: every time I decide to learn a new language, something happens that puts me off it. It is either a series of unfortunate events or a horrid person or my lack of perseverance or a combination of it all, but I am yet to master a third language – I have checked, sarcasm doesn’t count as a language, although it should, given that it is the Esperanto of our time – and I am digressing yet again.

Anyone who knows me knows my love for Ghalib. When people land in Delhi for the first time, they want to eat food at Dilli Haat or see Qutub Minaar or have their pictures taken at Laal Qila. I went to pay respect to Mirza Ghalib at his mazaar. Abba (not the Mama Mia fame 70s pop act – I call my father Abba) used to say that in order to fully appreciate Ghalib one must know Farsi. And so I always wanted to learn it to understand Ghalib better.

But my 45-day trip to Iran – I was working on a travelogue for a TV channel – stripped me of all the love and affection I had for the language. All I can now remember is the haggling I did in grammatically incorrect Farsi at the Grand Bazaar of Tehran and how the Irani actor who was working on our project complained that he had been sexually propositioned by a Pakistani actor and how I first had to placate him and then requested him not to register a complaint in a weird mix of barely-there Persian and English with a few Urdu and Punjabi expletives thrown in for my personal satisfaction. I had to do that to get out of that country without getting entangled with law enforcement agencies because we were told that homosexual advances are considered a non-bailable offence in Iran. I wanted to learn Persian to appreciate Ghalib’s poetry more and ended up groveling to a guy for not reporting an incident of sexual aggression – something I don’t believe in – to save my skin along with that of my crew. That took care of my fascination with Persian. (Now I only throw random phrases of Farsi in the middle of arguments to sound learned.)

As a child, I also wanted to learn Arabic because I naively thought it would guarantee me a place in heaven. Growing up generally and dealing with a Saudi stalker at university who refused to register the fact that no amount of petro dollars would make him popular with normal folks took care of my childish enthrallment with Arabic (to say nothing of the visions of paradise associated with the language). The fact that I can still fool my European friends at Dubai airport into believing that I know Arabic by reading the flight schedule in the language also played a part (why learn a new language when people think that you know it already?).

Another language I have toyed with is French. I hate snooty waiters at French restaurants who correct my pronunciations. I dream of going to a French restaurant and ordering Soupe au pistou, Boeuf Bourguignon and Salade Niçoise without fumbling once. Back in college, I tried speaking French with my friend Frédéric but every time I tried take the name of a dish, he cracked up and dashed my hopes of holding my head high in a French restaurant and proudly order escargot borguignonne – the thing is that I don’t even eat snails, I only wanted to order them, without repeating the word thrice to make sure that waiter got my order.

Back in college I lived in student halls and when we got a brand new community room with a huge TV (I graduated 9 years ago, so that TV was a big deal) I wanted to enjoy that too. The problem was that every time I would go there – and I tried sneaking in at 3 a.m. – the room would be full of Greek students watching football. I had to give in eventually and learned to appreciate football with them. Not only that, but I also learned to enjoy Greek food, how to order it in the lone Greek takeaway in the neighbourhood and all the choice swear words in Greek that people in my building used to hurl at their teams when they would not do well. If I ever end up attending a football match in Thessaloniki or Athens, I would be totally at home out-swearing the wildest of sports hooligans. They say – and I don’t know who “they” are – that if you know how to swear in a language, it is half the battle won, so perhaps I can say that I “get by” in Greek.

Unfortunately, proficiency with Greek cusswords is not a skill I can list on my Linked In profile and hope to increase my chances of landing a high-paying job. The way things are in Greece right now, that will probably make me eligible for an economic bailout.

I think it is time I get serious about learning a new language and I have decided to concentrate on Spanish for various reasons. For starters, I have actually attended one La Liga match in Madrid.  Secondly, I have seen all Pedro Almodóvar films. Thirdly, I have always wanted to sing along Spanish songs and what can be a better incentive to learn a new language than singing along the songs that you liked but could not understand.

Hola Español, Here I come.

Originally written for The Friday Times the image is also reproduced from The Friday Times

Passing desi-isms as sage advice

Most people think that they have this one major problem and if they could change that about themselves, they believe their lives would improve drastically. Some people think that if they lose weight, or manage their anger or embrace spontaneity, their lives would be better. In my case, it is my lack of ability to say no that always ruins it for me. If I somehow manage to say the golden word NO, I end up with so much guilt that I actually regret making the right decision.

If only someone was teaching a course on how to politely say, “Please God, No”, “Not my problem” and “Whatever!” without losing friends and alienating people, I would jump the queue — and I never jump the queue, despite being Pakistani from all sides of the family — to sign up for that course.

The problem gets even more intense when you move to a new country. Unless you are moving to Outer Mongolia or Chilean Highlands — and I have my doubts about Chilean Highlands — chances are that you will encounter your fair share of desis, who will try and interfere with your life, dish out counsel when none is sought and try to sell you things and services that you have no use of. Saying no to that is not just difficult, it is almost impossible.

Everyone who has the opportunity to move to a country will probably meet people from the old country who may or may not help them get settled. When someone from our part of the world — I mean South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular — moves to another country there would always be loads of people from the home countries dishing out desi-isms and passing them on as sage advice.

There will always be people around you who would want to guide you in your job search — they probably have moved to that new country 15 years ago when the job market was drastically different — and easier to break into — but they will try and force their opinion on how you should carve out a career in your adopted country and will offer you a ten dollar an hour job at their father-in-law’s super store selling biryani masala and Bollywood DVDs to bored desi housewives.

It does not really matter that you are trained as a lawyer or an IT professional or a speech therapist, they will tell you that everyone goes through this because they have been through this.

Some of them will not only suggest that you take that butchery course from your local community college but will also have the cheek to say that you will enjoy it because it is so different from what you have been doing before – you could be an Economist in your old country but they would not care. You feel like practicing some of those butchery skills on them and ask how in the name of everything that is holy and sacred can a vegetarian with two post grad degrees ever enjoy being a butcher?

Some of them will tell you where to rent an apartment and whom you should rent it from — it would almost always be some relative of their wives trying to con you into getting a smaller/smellier apartment in name of desi camaraderie and brotherhood.

Telling them that you have decided to share an apartment with a Jamaican co-worker close to your workplace will result in high dramatics. From telling you that your mom will be disappointed in you for spurning their amazing offer to making you feel horrible about not renting their space as they kept the apartment vacant for you because they knew your brother’s mother-in-law’s neighbours back in 1980s.

You being the ungrateful FOB not only decided to move in with your co-worker but you choosing a black person to share your living space will be taken as a personal insult. There will be implied or explicit racism — depending upon how integrated they are in the society — and they will regale you with tales of how someone they knew lived next to an apartment where one of the residents — almost always a black person — slit the throat of his/her flat mate and robbed them off their worldly possessions.

You try telling them that your Jamaican friend — a widowed lady of 55 — has only decided to share her apartment because she is suffering from an empty nest syndrome and is a fine upstanding, law abiding taxpaying citizen but they will continue to shake their head and make you feel bad for not taking up their offer.

At times like this, renting the smellier apartment seemed like the easier thing to do. If you happen to take them on their offer of renting an accommodation owned by a desi person, you are in for a treat. For starters, three previous tenants would still be getting their bank statements and phone bills and other assorted mail on that address and would want you to hold onto their mail so that they can pick it up whenever they feel like it.

When you try to tell them that they need to update their contact details with their cell phone service provider and their bank, they would give you the hurt look which basically says, “Et Tu Brutus? Can’t you just pick my mail from the box?” and you who perhaps wanted to scream “Please Gawd, NO!” agree to keep picking up their mail for foreseeable future.

Picking up the mail is less of a hassle because you do it once a day; the bigger threat to sanity is your land line phone. If the phone is registered in your desi landlord/landlady’s name, chances are that you will be inundated with offers of Quran classes for toddlers from dudes who call you behen or baji. When you try to tell the telemarketers that there are no toddlers in the radius of 600 sq yards and you do not wish to avail their services, they will try to get you to buy an online course for yourself so that you are saved from the eternal fires of hell.

This is not all, if your landlord has an Arabic sounding name, telemarketers who do not speak a word of English will call you and try to sell you channels running Turkish soaps dubbed in Arabic and you end up wanting to tear your hair out. As you are not bound by desi code — and the fact that they barely speak any English — you can scream and shout and let it all out at them.

I once spent some time in Slovenia with friends and found the lady working in the kitchen of the hostel where I was staying giving me seriously dirty looks. My Romanian friend and the lady found a common language that they both could speak — Italian — and asked her if she had a problem with me.

The cleaning lady was a Greek woman who assumed that I was Turkish and felt obliged to hate me. When my friends told her that I am from Pakistan, her demeanor changed and she became friendly to the extent that she offered me special hidden jams and freshest fruit for breakfast. You just cannot pull that in an English speaking country where everyone knows Bollywood, chicken tikka masala, our track record with women’s rights and the fact that one Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan for many, many years.

There are times when you get exasperated with all the desiness around you and you wonder about your decision of leaving home because there is no escaping the sights and sounds from home and you yearn to escape it all but that, too, passes away and you learn to coexist with it — at times reluctantly, and at times, wholeheartedly.

I remember once spending some time in Ukraine without seeing another person of colour and was ecstatic when encountered all things desi at Dubai airport after weeks of not seeing it. No matter how keen we are for integration in the new land or how insulated we want to be, a certain desiness will always stay with us, no matter where we live.

First appeared in June 2013 issue of Monthly Pique

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

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As a reader, I am not particularly fond of the term ‘coming of age’. As a writer, I try not to use it at all because what can be more clichéd than using the phrase ‘coming of age’, but if one reads Mohsin Hamid’s latest book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” one is forced to use a term as corny as this.

Let me start by saying that there is no love lost between the author and I. I found his first book rather ordinary. Hamid was descriptive in Moth Smoke and his protagonist was odious, obsessive and had no redeeming qualities. He became introspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist; the tone was improved greatly and the monologue in which the novella was written dominated the reader in such a way that it required great effort to see beyond the protagonist’s point of view. With ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ Hamid presented his readers with a prose that is beautiful, lyrical and profound.

Guardian called him Pakistani Fitzgerald – I would not call him that because the respect I have for Fitzgerald is the kind that is reserved for dead people who are way out of your league. Mohsin Hamid is not that – for starter, he is alive, a fellow countryman and much closer to me in age. But he sure is in a league of his own – heads and shoulders above most other sub continental writers who put far too much emphasis on the story and a lot less on nuance, tone and style.

The book is about an unnamed character that moves from an unnamed village to an unnamed city, attends an unnamed university and falls in love with another unnamed character in Rising Asia. The defining feature of this book perhaps is the fact that it is written in second person.  The writer talks to ‘You’ in the book and you are not really sure if he is talking to ‘You’ the protagonist or ‘You’ – the reader. It engages the reader in a way that they feel like a part of the narration – at times even a character.

The appeal of the book lies in its style for its story is fairly common – there is rural urban migration, boy meets girls, boy falls for girl and of course there is that rags to riches element as well. The style transcends the story, its characters, its period and its location. The characters did not have names or addresses which gave the text a whimsical feel and brought the reader – no matter what their age, location or the reality is – closer to the protagonist.

The characters are believable, relatable and it was perhaps the only book I have read where I – the reader – had empathy for each and every character of the book for there were no heroes or villains. The woman who wanted to be with her husband in the city, the boy who was sent to work as an apprentice at a spray paint shop to supplement the family income, the girl who escaped her family, the boy who understood the loneliness of his widowed father, the widowed father who did not know what to do with all the spare time he had and the woman who wanted to win the affection of her husband and then completely lost interest in him are all real people – even the minor characters are dynamic and have many sides to them.

There are three main female characters in the book and though they all belonged to different generations and approached life differently, the common factor was that they were braver and ballsier than a lot of men around them. Women in Hamid’s book are such amazingly fierce and independent characters that you cant help but root for them – even when you do not agree with their course of action.

The book is more enjoyable because of its contradictions. This is a novel but it is written like a self-help book with appropriately titled chapters such as “Move to the City”, “Don’t fall in Love” and “Have an exit strategy” and it does not let go of any opportunity to mock the self help genre. It praises the vitality of youth but has just as tenderly dealt with old age, frailty and mortality. There is a subdued longing for a love that got away and admiration for a spouse in a marriage of convenience. There are dreams tinged with pragmatism and practicality laced with romance.  It values the connection that a person has with his clansmen and with his land but it also appreciates the anonymity that comes with abandoning the roots and relocation to a bigger city.

Some books start well but loose the plot later, some peak in the middle and some have great ending. This one starts with a promise, maintains the momentum throughout and ends just as well as it started. Last paragraph of the last chapter has dealt with death not as something morose or romantic but as a transition that is keenly anticipated because the life before that death was well lived.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia satisfies a reader like very few books do. It is a love story; it has action, drama and elements of political thriller. Most refreshing is its moral ambiguity, everything that is produced in Pakistan is sermonized to the extent that all joy flies out of it, Hamid’s characters are as free of such restraints as they can be in Rising Asia.

The first lecture of Creative Writing 101 would tell you to write about what you know best. Most writers do that and excel, they deviate from what they know and do not do too well. For instance, Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini was in great form in The Kite Runner because the book had traces of a life he has lived but he fell flat in A Thousand Splendid Suns and his characters became a sad combination of cliché and caricature – if that is even possible. Hamid is amazing because he is at his best when he writes about something that is quite far removed from his own life experiences. His background is urban and cosmopolitan – unlike his nameless protagonist – and he probably has never set a foot inside a public university in Pakistan where getting a room in the boys hostel means bowing down to the student wings of the political parties yet he nailed the details, the aspirations, the fears and the emotions perfectly.

Though a novel, ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ did become a self help book for me for it tells me how to write a poignant story and how to be ruthless with one’s own work because it is fairly obvious that the writer has written a lot more but chose to present his readers with this edited version. Such restraint is admirable in anyone but more so in a writer. I was a reluctant reader and read Mohsin Hamid’s first book three years after it came. He got me interested in his work with the second one and completely won me over with the latest offering. Needless to say, this one comes highly recommended.

Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the unedited version

 

Hopping over – from one channel to the other

During a journalism course that I was teaching to undergrad freshmen, they asked me which TV anchor I consider most respect worthy. I thought about it for a minute and named people like Iftikhar Ahmed & Hamid Mir of Geo. The students were probably intrigued and asked me why. My response was quite straightforward: for starters, they are proper journalists who have been practicing their craft throughout their professional careers and did not switch to television journalism from filmmaking, practicing medicine and selling used cars. Secondly, they have not jumped ship at any given opportunity and stayed with the same organization for most of their careers. It may not be as important in other professions but building a trust worthy brand is of utmost important for a TV anchor.

Why do TV anchors and presenters switch from one channel to another? Some say they do it because they want more editorial freedom, some say they move to bigger channels because they want their voice to get to more people but the sticking factor — though most would not admit to it — is a fatter paycheck.

There is one TV anchor who has probably broken all records by working in five different channels — Geo, ARY, Express, Dunya, Waqt TV and is now almost a done deal at a new one — in the last seven years (I wrote this piece way back in January, that guy is now with a brand new channel – the person who will guess the name will win a watercooler).behind-the-frontline-1360574117-5161

Generally, people who stick to a channel are respected more than those who hop from one channel to the other. Sticking to one channel also helps the anchor build a programme and a brand which is built upon both the anchor and the channel’s reputation. For instance, the audience knows that it is Hamid Mir who does Capital Talk but if you ask them about the programme that Dr. Shahid Masood is doing, they probably will not even know what channel he is on these days. There are other anchors, who have stayed with the same channel like Kashif Abbasi but he may not enjoy the same pull for other reasons.

A journalist associated with print media says she has stopped watching current affairs programmes because the anchors keep switching from one channel to the other and she finds it unnerving. She is not in a club of one; one of the regular complaints that people in the media industry have about these changes is that they are superficial and almost always about money. They never bring any noticeable change to the content of the programme; at times, they would even put up the same set and even the exact replica of their old programme. Such anchors enjoy the same respect among their audience as politicians switching loyalties before election time.

According to Munira Cheema, a media analyst based in London, politicians may change their political affiliations out of change in their ideologies or because of the clan pressure but anchors who lynch these politicians for switching sides do it for money alone.

Experts also say TV anchors should not even be called journalists because most did not cut it in their field. They were doctors, practicing advertising and were running businesses before the electronic media boom hit Pakistan and they seized that opportunity to build their personal clout. One even had the dubious honor of directing Meera in a Lollywood film. Now, they may have journalists working in their teams but most of us know that they are not journalists themselves and would probably move on to more lucrative opportunities. Nusrat Javeed who hosts Bolta Pakistan at Aaj news calls them showbiz personalities because calling them journalists would be factually incorrect.

There are anchors, who think that they are more important than their message and believe their viewers would remain loyal to them and simply switch with them to their new programme/channel. Perhaps, they could do with a reality check: most people who enjoyed success in one channel could not repeat it in other channels. Asma Shirazi’s programme enjoyed much higher ratings in Samaa but things have changed for her since she moved to Dawn News and her programme does not enjoy the same ratings as it did with Samaa although she did recently win an award for the best female anchor.

Talat Hussein was a name to be reckoned with when he was with Aaj News. Who can forget his back bending heroics in the newsroom when he tried to dodge the bullets — those who have seen AAJ Tv’s Karachi office would know that a bullet would have to ricochet around thirteen walls before it can reach the recording studio but I digress — and emerged a hero. He moved onto Dawn News and then to Express News but people still associate him with AAJ because of his award worthy performance on May 12, 2007 where he conducted a live transmission from underneath the desk.

Some even provide major comic relief with their constant hopping. Back in the day when I was working for Geo, a news reader who moved in from another channel asked his audience to continue watching AAJ News — his old channel — while he was reading news at Geo. He did not stay there for long and is now onto his fourth channel as a newscaster.

A former journalist and media enthusiast Zeenia Shaukat believes that the corporate set-up of our news organizations is hurting the news business. “Pakistan is following the global media regime where rather than presenting content to the audience; the media presents audience to advertisers. So it is natural for corporate media to make an effort to attract top presenters to make their content more competitive not for the audience but for the advertisers,” Zeenia Shaukat says.

Pakistan’s media channels function as corporates and ‘switching jobs’ of talent/human resource is a normal part of a corporate culture. What really needs to be debated is that if media should actually act like a corporate entity treating and promoting information as a “product” and if journalists should see their job as merely that of “producers of information”. This is important because information is a public good and not a product!

Seeing the work of the existing TV channels, it appears apart from their logos and graphic designing, there isn’t much difference amongst these channels in terms of the content being offered.

All current affairs shows, mostly led by well known anchors, follow the same line, present the same range of opinions, invite the same range of guests, and their take on issues is more or less similar.

Besides, there is heavy emphasis on presenting sound bytes and quotes that create a buzz so people are running after that instead of going after content that is informative and coherent.

As far as channel hopping is concerned, anchors do take the lead from politicians in the quest for plots and other financial gains; they are also changing loyalties like them and have it much better than the politicians as no-one calls them lota like the politicians. Let’s see for how long will it last.

Originally written for Monthly Pique. The image is also taken from the magazine.

Mar 26, 2013 - published work    2 Comments

The trouble with Pakistan

Ask anyone, from your corner paan wala to a TV anchor to the accountant who does your taxes — if you pay any — to the babus who run the bureaucracy to the leaders of political parties; everyone knows what ails Pakistan and they all have their versions of solutions to these problems. The trouble is that no one is willing to implement the solutions they talk about, be it the paan wala, the tax accountant, the bureaucrat or the politician sitting in the legislative assembly.

The list of problems is fairly well-known and well-discussed. It is the security and law and order situation, the dismal economic growth rate, the high unemployment rate, the non-payment of taxes, the energy crisis, the very high population growth rate and the lack of a decent agricultural policy to feed the ever-growing population.

These problems are not new and have been around for most of the country’s population’s lifetime. We know where they have sprung from and where we should start to address them but we still do not do anything about it.

Take the security situation, for example. After every other terrorist attack or target killing, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or other outfits like it, claim responsibility for the act but are never apprehended. The civilian government may make the right noises but the powerful establishment refrains from taking any decisive and long-lasting action against them because it considers some of them as ‘strategic’ assets, which might come in handy when dealing with enemy countries. Some mainstream political parties look to them for political support, votes and organised workers during elections; the courts and the judges fear for their security so not many verdicts are passed against such elements. We know of instances where murderers are let go off on grounds of insufficient evidence by the courts. When the institutions that are supposed to protect the people, end up protecting those who are killing the citizens, the problem is never going to get solved.

Everyone knows that our tax-to-GDP ratio is depressing and direct taxation is one of the lowest for an economy this size. To make up for the lack of direct taxes, the PPP government tried to introduce another indirect tax — the value added tax — a couple of years back but faced opposition from the PML-N and the MQM, the parties with urban voters. The PPP is not too keen on agrarian taxes because these affect its leadership and many do not pay income tax. The PTI and the Jamaat-e-Islami talk about a reformed tax system which will remain irrelevant as long as they are not in parliament.

The country is a ticking time bomb with the highest population growth rate outside sub-Saharan Africa but no government seems to be interested in tackling this issue; our main concern remains things like Article 62 of the Constitution and the piety of the prospective election candidates. Even if the economic growth rate miraculously improves and the government starts spending on human development sectors, the population growth will wipe out any gains made unless this problem is addressed as a priority matter.

Some may say that all institutions of the state, including the armed forces, the civilian government, the bureaucracy and the judiciary seem to have priorities that apparently put their own interests above that of ordinary Pakistanis. That remains the biggest problem with the country.

First published in The Express Tribune

Jan 22, 2013 - published work, women    5 Comments

Making informed decisions

The current session of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly has been in session for almost a month; one would think that a lot must have gotten done in the assembly in terms of legislation and discussing matters that affect a large number of people residing in the province. And while a lot did get done, many matters that affected the women of the province were either brushed aside or were not addressed properly.

One case in point is the Elimination of Custom of Ghag Bill 2012. The Elimination of Custom of Ghag Bill 2012 was presented on the directives of the Peshawar High Court to promulgate a law. Under the custom of ghag, any man can publicly declare a woman to be his and that makes her unmarriageable for other men, restricting her right to choose a life partner. The new law makes the act a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence.

According to the law, the violators can be punished or imprisoned for up to seven years. Though the original text of the legislation called for punishment of seven to 14 years, the punishment was reduced to the maximum of seven years. This is a clear and present problem in the province and constitutional petitions have been filed to stop the practice and criminalise the offence.

The assembly also reneged on another piece of legislation affecting girls. Ministers, who publicly lent support to the cause of elimination of child marriage, opposed the Child Marriage Restraint Amendment Bill when it was introduced. Though it was moved by a member from the treasury benches, MPA Munawar Sulatana, it faced resistance not only from the opposition members but also from the treasury benches.

The bill aimed to increase the legal age of marriage for a girl from 16 to 18 and the punishment in the Child Marriage Restraint Act. Unfortunately, the bill was opposed, citing the reasons as flimsy, since ‘the approval of this bill will create a new debate and more issues in the province’ to the factually incorrect ones such as ‘there is no age limit for marriages in other Islamic countries’ to the evergreen excuse of rejecting anything progressive by calling it a “western agenda”.

There are certain activities that only adults are privileged to participate in. In most countries, the age for obtaining a driving license is 18 — a time when a person is supposed to have finished high school and attains adulthood. Similarly, the right to choose an elected representative is also reserved for people over the age of 18 because anyone under that age is considered to be too young to fully comprehend the responsibility that comes with voting. If people are supposed to wait till they turn 18 for something as simple as driving and voting, then how come they are allowed to get married at younger ages when they are unable to make informed decisions either about choosing their life partner, starting or raising a family or financially supporting it? The medical complications that underage girls face after early marriages and pregnancies are an altogether different spectrum of the story.

It is about time our lawmakers stopped making the same old excuses of the imposition of  ‘western agenda’ and started making laws that affect the well-being of a very large group of young persons who will soon be their voters. This will not only help in increasing female literacy and improving family planning efforts, but there will be long lasting health and well-being benefits for that section of the population.


First published in The Express Tribune.

Jan 15, 2013 - published work    1 Comment

Looking at the bigger picture

Activism in Pakistan is generally inconsistent and sporadic. People stand up and raise their voices after tragedies and calamities have become front page news but very few individuals and groups persevere and continue with their efforts for their chosen cause.

The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) is one such organisation, which has been working for workers’ rights in the country for over 30 years. Many of us were traumatised by the fire that took the lives of 262 workers at Ali Enterprises in Baldia Town last September, and demanded immediate action, like the arrest of the owners of the factory and revamping of the way the labour department works but soon moved on to other issues. PILER, which has been advocating greater investment in terms of interest and stakes in workers’ safety and well-being, sought another solution. While an indifferent state and an employer unconcerned with the safety of its workers bear major responsibility for the tragedy, it also tried to involve international buyers, who were a part of the supply chain and tend to benefit from the cheap labour provided by Pakistani workers.

The German buyer, KiK, was engaged in a dialogue to not only seek compensation for the victims of Ali Enterprises, but was also involved in a plan that worked towards building a long-term workplace safety regime for Pakistani workers. Clean Clothes Campaign, an international workers rights group based in Amsterdam, collaborated with PILER to commit a judicious compensation amount. KiK recently signed an agreement with PILER to make an initial payment to the victims and their families of one million dollars in order to provide immediate relief and to negotiate a long-term compensation package with all other involved stakeholders.

The compensation payment initially seeks to focus on those workers’ families, which have not received any assistance because the victims’ bodies were unidentifiable, and will focus in later phases on those rendered disabled and hence unemployable and others who have received some state compensation. PILER has requested the Sindh High Court to constitute an independent commission to oversee the compensation process and determine all necessary details for the purpose.

KiK’s initiative has helped establish the responsibility of buyers in the production system of Pakistan. This may be the first time that buyers have come forward to take responsibility and made a commitment to ensure future safety of workers. It works to their benefit as well because it makes more sense to invest in a prevention regime rather than participate in fire-fighting at a later stage after their reputation and credibility has suffered.

In addition, PILER has filed a petition, which demands that a judicial commission headed by a high court or a Supreme Court judge be constituted to give its findings on the causes of the industrial fire tragedy; assign responsibility and liability to government officials and departments responsible for negligence, and failure over a timely response to the fire; determine compensation for the families of the victims; and make recommendations for the avoidance of such industrial tragedies.

It takes sustained efforts to keep an issue alive and to ensure that things change. PILER’s effort tells us that we need consistent and continued effort if we want to see things get better and to also look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on narrow and short-term gains. Things will only change when people collectively ask the state to move away from non-issues and demand its attention and focus on the taxpaying, GDP-earning voters.

First published in The Express Tribune

PS: I have had the pleasure of working with Karamat Ali of PILER and believe him to be one of the few good ones. Those of you who live in Karachi and have some extra time, please help the good folks at PILER in whatever way you can. There are not many places where you can work with people who can still inspire you, Karamat Ali and B.M. Kutty at PILER are those rare people who make you believe that you can make a difference.

The Turkish Invasion


I thought I was keeping abreast with what is happening in the entertainment world by downloading the latest episodes of Homeland and American Horror Story and listening to the Top 40s on the radio but I found out that I was wrong.

My bubble burst during a trip to Karachi in December where I realized that I have been practically living under a rock in Islamabad and had no idea that we were facing what is now called Turkish invasion. 

Nope, the Turks are not attacking us — they are one of the few countries who still tolerate us — it was the Turkish soap that everyone was watching, talking about and obsessing over. From my sister’s maid to my friend’s teenaged sister to my adult male cousin, Ishq-e-Mamnoon (or Aşk-ı Memnu as it is written in Turkish) was all the rage with everyone.

My sister’s maid wanted to know if the characters on the soap are Muslims and if they will burn in the eternal hell fire for drinking, wearing western clothes and for their permissive attitude towards pre- and extramarital sex.

My friend’s sister was obsessing over the hotness of the male lead and had his face on her desktop which was a vast improvement on her previous crush (Justin Beiber hogged the screen the last time I visited their house).  

My adult male cousin who markets television software for a TV channel was also talking about it. He sat me down and ran through the economics — like how the first channel bought the soap for just $900 per episode and how the copycats are forking $5,000 per episode after the first one turned out to be an off-the-chart hit.  

As if that was not all, I ended up witnessing a protest by Television Producers Association in front of Karachi Press Club against foreign content. 

Things went crazy during the telecast of the final episode and my timeline — both on facebook and twitter — was so full of Ishq-e-Mamnoon, I ended up googling Turkish soaps that are or will be aired in Pakistan and it turned out that most of them have the same actor. 

He is that guy.

Till now, my experience with Turkish television was limited to watching some of it on long bus rides from Istanbul to Izmir and then from Seljuk to Konya – that, too, without subtitles — during a visit to Turkey. My friend Sam and I made a guessing game of the dialogues and storyline. The one we watched was the Turkish version of Grey’s Anatomy and yes, Turkish doctors were way hotter than anyone on the American series, but I digress. 

When I came back from Turkey, no-one asked me much about the people — it was always about the places — but ever since Behlul (the male lead of Ishq-e-Mamnoon played by Turkish actor Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ) graced our television screens, every woman who is hooked onto Ishq-e-Mamnoonwants to know if Behlul was a fluke or do other Turkish men look like him.

It is not just the young ones; aunties who were in love with Ashar of Hamsafar just a few months ago have now forsaken their affections for him and have moved on to the taller and blonder Behlul.

If a man can capture the fantasy of an entire nation with a name as ridiculous sounding as Behlul — it rhymes with mehlool — then he should be commended for pulling it off. 

If you thought that it was only women who were watching it, you had it all wrong. This Turkish soap was just as popular among men and I have actually heard a few of them discussing the ladies of the cast with as much gusto as teenage girls reserve for boys of One Direction.

The Turkish beauties

When I asked a socialite why she is obsessed with Ishq-e-Mamnoon— I only caught part of the last episode and the dubbing was a major letdown — she retorted, “What’s not to like?”

When I asked her to elaborate, she went on, “There is a gorgeous man torn between what is right and who he loves, he is conflicted and in pain, what can be more engaging than that.”

I agreed with her, a distressed good looking man is television gold because every woman who watches him wants things to go right for him. “And if the male lead was not enough of a reason, I watched it for clothes and accessories,” she added.

I have been told that ladies with disposable income have planned shopping trips to Istanbul to buy baubles by the designers featured in this soap, many a fashion blogger from Pakistan have even listed the names of the designers that Pakistani buyers should look for when they are in Turkey.

A web designer who does not watch anything else on the local television but watches Ishq-e-Mamnoon thinks the reason the Turkish soap broke all ratings record is because it had fresh faces. “I have been watching the same actors doing the exact same sh*t since I was in diapers. Back then, they used to romance the ladies with their real hair, now they do it after getting follicle implants.”

Serious pontification and discussion with a friend who is pursuing a doctorate degree in England on Pakistani television content validated this claim. From Noman Aijaz to Faisal Qureshi, from Shahood Alvi to Aijaz Aslam, they have either been under the knife for follicle implants or sport a toupee. The only people who still have all their hair are Adnan Siddiqui and Humayun Saeed but they, too, have been at it since I was in grade school and that happened in last century — like literally.

The best bit that I heard was when a friend who is pursuing PhD in Canada (yes, I have very learned friends; they all either have doctorate degrees or are pursuing them, I am considered barely literate amongst my friends) was cornered by a Hijabi lady at a dinner.

She was asked about her plans of finding matrimonial bliss with a suitable partner and her prospects of landing one in Canada — she is over 30 and according to most married women with children in Pakistan, ovaries of every unmarried woman over the age of 30 are dying a lonely miserable death.

As the lady knew that Pakistani men would not want anyone over the age of thirty — unless she happens to be Mahnoor Baloch — she was persistent in her queries about the suitable men for her in the frozen land of Canada.

My friend who was a little perturbed by the inquisition tried to put a stop to it by telling her that there are no desi men where she lives and obviously, the Hijabi lady would not want her to end up with a gora

The aunty thought for a while and said that after watching the Turkish soap, she has realized that there are other kinds of Muslims out there and as long as my friend ends up with a Muslim — even if he happens to be a sharabi kababi Turkish or Algerian man — she is okay with it.

Who would’ve thought Turkish invasion would bring a change of heart and an overall acceptance for bad boys among ladies of Hijab. If airing just one soap has done this, imagine the hell that will break loose if they start airing two or four of them simultaneously!
This picture is added solely for the benefit of female readers and has absolutely nothing to do with the text



PS:This was written sometime last month, now there are three Turkish soaps that are being aired from three different channels. We don’t know if they are as popular as Ishq-e-Mamnoon or will impact the hijabi ladies as strongly as Behlul did. I did manage to catch the first episode of Manahil and Khalil and though the play was a bit of a meh, I found the tickers with text messages sent to the TV channel about the Turkish Hottie most hilarious. Azra from Lyari wanted Behlul’s phone number and Zareena from Khushab wanted to have dinner with him. The boys in Lyari and Khushab will have to up their game if they want to have a chance with either Azra or Zareena. 

Originally written for Monthly Pique, I like them Pique people, not only because they pay on time and well, they call me a major league blogger.

The misogynist narrative on Hum TV



The gender-based discourses on Pakistani television may not be very dynamic but the way they are discussed leaves one to ponder if those who are at the helm of the affairs have any idea about the impact of their careless deliberations on the subject.

Take the case in point of a television serial ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’ airing on Hum TV these days. Only last week, the male protagonist of the story picked a fight with his girlfriend about her clothing and a direct quote from the play said, “if you had seen her clothes, you would have known that she was a walking invitation for harassment”. In times like these, where there is global protest about women’s clothing and how it has no relevance to the sexual violence they face, here is a drama where a protagonist — who is extremely popular among women — is telling women that yes, their clothing invites men to harass them. In case anyone is wondering, the woman was wearing a sleeveless top with a shawl draped around her shoulders.

This was not the lone case of misogyny in that particular play. The protagonist also had issues with the mobility of his female family members. He wanted to impose a curfew for his sister and wanted his mother to seek the permission and approval of his father before she could leave the city on a work assignment. He said repeatedly that “he is a man and can go wherever he wants and whenever he wants and women cannot do the same”. While it may be a reality in our society, reinforcing such ideas in the guise of propriety and religiosity is shoddy and has consequences for the audience. What disappointed this scribe even more is the fact that both the writer and the producer were women and that the producer has a personal history of struggling for her rights.

Our television plays seem to glorify the role of women who are situated within the four walls of their homes, sacrifice their happiness for their families and do not complain if their husbands beat them or take second wives or are just really horrible to them. Those who are financially independent, situated outside their homes and interact with men who they are not related to are the bad ones. This does not only judge all women who choose to interact with others in the public sphere, but also presents a distorted version of reality to women who stay at home, that all those who do step out in the public sphere do so after compromising their morality.

Ours is a society that is used to either lecture or indoctrination. It is a society where powerful forces indulge in monologues and there is hardly any room for dialogue. We do not open up conversation on gender; we tell people what is appropriate through Islamic programmes, television dramas and literature and expect them to follow what is told.

It is about time we challenge the television narrative that focuses on taming female sexuality and identity, and glorifies the sacrificial women whose ideal sphere of activity is the private space and is critical of those who venture out in the public space and implies that they do it at the cost of compromising their morality and roles assigned by religion. In any case, the concept of a stay-at-home woman is a very urban middle class one and if half the population had stayed at home, the economy would have collapsed a long time back.

First published in Express Tribune
Jan 7, 2013 - published work, women    19 Comments

The importance of sisterhood



Last week, I wrote an op-ed for Express Tribune on what needs to be done in the aftermath of Delhi gang rape. I wanted to write a lot more but was constrained by space I am allotted in the newspaper.  The piece did not receive many comments either on the Tribune’s website or my personal blog where I cross post my work, but I got a lot of emails. Some from regular readers who liked my ideas, one from an Indian grandfather who wanted a safer Delhi for his two young granddaughters. Some emails from women in Pakistan saying that things are worse in Pakistan and that at least Indians are protesting and have taken to streets and had this incident happened in Lahore, we would not have even known about it. A few emails came from sisters from across the border appreciating the support and concern from their neighbours. I want to thank you all for reading it and feel humbled by your responses. 
While people generally appreciated what I wrote, I got a few emails and tweets (all from Indian men) saying that I should focus on women rights violations in Pakistan and leave India to Indians. One even pointed out that I have never written about the plight of Hindu girls like Rinkle Kumari and chose to write about Jyoti Singh Pandey. Another likened me to Ajmal Kasab and said some choice words about Pakistanis butting in their noses where they are not needed.
Indians with narrow nationalism are not the only one who question what I write. I get asked by Baloch dissidents why do I not write about them, I get asked by the pan Islamic zealots why do I not write about atrocities in Gaza and American aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I do respect anyone fighting for liberty and dignity, I am not a professional bleeding heart and would not write about everything that is the hot topic of the day. I don’t touch Baloch issues because I feel I am not equipped enough to write about them and there are far better writers who take on that cause in a much more effective manner. I don’t write about struggles in Bahrain and Palestine because they are far removed from my reality and writing about them just for the sake of writing about them is kind of pointless. Honestly, I feel flattered when people tell me or expect me to write on issues that matter to them – as if me writing about them would make a difference – but it is impossible for anyone (unless that person is Ansar Abbasi) to write about everything under the sun so I refrain from doing that. 

As for the Indians who believe I should first write about the Rinkle Kumaris of Pakistan, I do feel very strongly about the minority rights and have written about them repeatedly, but Jyoti’s plight moved me like Rinkle’s couldn’t. Probably because as an urban resident of a big city who has used public transport and faced threats like harassment, insecurity, robbery day in, day out  on the streets of Karachi, I empathize more with Jyoti than with Rinkle and feel strongly about it. It may not be correct and perhaps Rinkle deserves the same attention but as a writer, I feel more confident when I write about things I strongly believe in or empathize with. Perhaps it is my inability to transcend the personal but that is who I am and that is how I write. 

I also want to point out the importance of sisterhood to those who are willing to understand that women draw strength from each other and if one of them stands up to reclaim their space or seek their rights, others also stand up either in support or to claim their respective rights. I may not benefit directly from the rights movement in India right now, but if the rape laws get amended in India, I would be cheering up for my sisters there and will try to campaign for similar change here in Pakistan.

As far as significance of sisterhood is concerned, let me share a recent example. A fortnight ago, my elder sister and I were flying to Karachi. The plane was packed and the flight attendants were busy serving the passengers. My sister pointed out that a man sitting in the lane in front of us is trying to get fresh with one of the flight attendants. I too started following their conversation. Initially it sounded like a bit of harmless chit chat, then he started asking inappropriate questions and the flight attendant became uncomfortable. She moved away quickly but then every time that girl would pass our section, he would stop her and ask her for something. When she went back to the galley, he followed her and said something to her after which her facial expressions changed and we gathered that it must have been something very improper. Let me also point out that she was very young and probably joined the airline recently and was not sure how to approach the matter. I was quite incensed and wanted to take up the matter but my sister said that we should not intervene and let the flight attendant handle it. Though I was not too happy with it, I said okay.
A couple of minutes later the man who was harassing the flight attendant started chatting with his family member on the other side of the aisle with their bodies hanging out making it almost impossible for the flight attendant to move without touching them or addressing them to move. My sister who asked me to practice restrain lost it at the temerity of those two Lotharios, and asked them if they can stay seated properly so that the others can move freely. The main aggressor turned to my sister and asked her to stay out of it at which I too lost my cool and told him in no uncertain term what kind of a creep he is preying on a young girl who cannot tell him off because of her professional duties and just because she is serving him tea and coffee does not make her his personal chattel and how any woman who works in public space is not there for his unwanted advances. When he said that I am insulting him, I said, even more loudly, that yes, I am publicly humiliating him so that other women should also see how one should deal with a cretin like him and everyone on the plane should know what a miserable excuse of a human being he was. At this point, his mother who was traveling with him but was sitting separately went up to him and asked him to be quiet. A senior citizen suggested that he should be handed over to the airport security. Most encouraging was the fact that no one including the man’s family stopped us from standing up for the flight attendant.  
A few minutes later the senior flight attendant who was at the other end of the plane came up and asked him if he was harassing the junior flight attendant and told him off that he may have bought a ticket but that does not give him license to misbehave with the staff.
When the flight landed in Karachi, it took a little bit longer than usual for the doors to open and for the passengers to disembark. We found out that the senior flight attendant had called the ground security staff who detained the harasser from getting off the plane. The senior flight attendant at the gate who was seeing the passengers off thanked me for standing up for the junior flight attendant. My sister and I don’t know what happened to that guy after we left the aircraft but what I do know is that incident helped a lot of women.
All the flight attendants got to know that passengers barring one view them as individuals with right to dignity at work. The junior flight attendant drew strength from the incident and I am sure that if anything inappropriate will happen to her in future, she is now better equipped to deal with it. Other women who witnessed the incident learned that keeping quiet is NOT the answer and when you raise your voice, things change. My sister who has lead a very sheltered life stood up for someone else. Not only she felt great about that afterwards and had a sense of accomplishment, she understands me better and respects my need for this crusade. That man and others who witnessed the incident will think twice before doing something like that because they know that someone might retaliate and tell them off. All in all, one stood up and other sisters drew strength, lessons and understanding from it all. 
Sisterhood is important and I dedicate this post to all who understand it and stand for it. Misogyny is best fought in company of the sisters who are fighting it out on their own turfs no matter what part of the world they live in. 
PS: This is a rather long personal rant, apologies if you did not know what you were getting into before you started reading it.  

PPS: Express Tribune Blogs took this one after it was published here with a couple of additions. It can be viewed here.

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