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Dec 31, 2012 - published work, women    5 Comments

Death of a woman

The gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi and her subsequent death is a horrific reminder of how women are treated in this part of the world. Though the appalling incident happened in India, it made all the women in Pakistan empathize with their sisters in the neighbouring country because it could very easily be one of them. Things are just as bad, if not worst, for the women in our society and we realize that it is not just the six men who had committed that heinous act are the criminals. The societies that perpetuate the archaic notions of misogyny and make excuses for such acts by pointing towards a woman’s mobility or clothing are responsible for it.  

That rape incident did not happen in isolation. The crimes against women are on the rise, especially in our part of the world — be it rape, domestic violence, mental, physical or sexual abuse, threats of such abuse, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty to move around, to choose a life partner or to seek education or health care. Women are generally viewed as secondary citizens, incapable of making decisions for themselves. Women who dare to exercise that right are judged and at times punished by society for doing so. A fundamental attitudinal change in the way women are viewed by society is required. They are not viewed as active, smart, thinking individuals but as vessels that carry future generations during the gestation period, objects of desire or derision and the carriers of honour of the male members of their families.

One thing that comes to the fore in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case is the need to make ethics a part of school curricula everywhere and a part of a massive media campaign because we desperately need it. We teach useless skills in schools all over the world but what about the behavioural codes regarding women in public and private spaces? What constitutes acceptable behaviour and what is deemed inappropriate? Are they taught about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour or do they believe that they will be not be apprehended because society is permissive of their misdeeds and will let them go with the attitude that “boys will be boys?” Are they taught how to approach women, which should be a taught skill in societies as segregated as ours. Laws ensuring women’s rights and safety are necessary and should be strictly implemented but they can only work when society in general changes its attitude.

It is sickening to live in a world where a medical student is gang raped because she dared to step out in the evening and wanted to use public transport or a teenage girl, Malala Yousufzai, is shot in the head because she just wanted to go to school. They shouldn’t have to become either a victim or a hero; the Delhi girl should have remained a carefree medical student and Malala should have stayed the student whose biggest problem should have been acing her calculus exam. Instead, they have turned into symbols of courage and valour. At state level, we need legislation to be amended and better implemented to ensure the safety and participation of women in society. Collectively we need rule of law to ensure safety of all citizens, esp women. Individually, the least we can do is raise the next generation of men to respect women and accord them the same dignity that they seek as human beings.

First published in The Express Tribune

I did not want the first post of the year to be this grim and sombre but I guess we live in times when we are capable of being just that – grim, sombre and insipid. 

Dec 17, 2012 - published work, religion, TTP    7 Comments

How to stop worrying [about tattoos] and start [allowing more people to continue] living



If Pakistanis are good at anything, it is forgetting the core of a problem and going in pursuit of the frivolous. The recent case of this inanity followed after the weekend attack on Peshawar airport and the PAF airbase adjoining it.

The attack on the airport killed around ten people, including five of the attackers, and wounded dozens. It should have forced us to rethink the possibility of coming up with the alternative counter terrorism, counter-insurgency and intelligence strategies because the ones that are at present in operation are clearly not working.

One would have thought, or rather hoped, that the politicians, policymakers and defence strategists would sit down and try to come up with a long-lasting effective solution but no tragedy in this country is big enough to make us do that. However, a tattoo on the body of one of the slain terrorists has made every politically religious-minded person come out in defence of the TTP (which has already claimed the responsibility for the attack). It clearly indicates that our priority lies not in making the country secure for its citizens but in coming up with excuses that Muslims cannot kill Muslims and in justifying that members of the TTP cannot sport tattoos of fantasy and erotica genres.

From Mufti Naeem of Karachi’s Jamia Binoria to Professor Khursheed Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami to Tahir Ashrafi of the Pakistan Ulema Council, everyone has come out and said that a practising Muslim cannot have such demonic images on his body.

Their argument is fallacious and we know that Muslims kill Muslims all the time; they did that during the Iran-Iraq War, they have been at it since the Soviets left Afghanistan and they are doing it every day in Pakistan. Muslims can and do have tattoos — and with a 97 per cent Muslim population, the tattoo business is on the rise in Pakistan’s big cities. One must ask these gentlemen about the non-practising Muslims or those who probably dabbled in Goth rock previously and then were recruited by the Taliban. We know that nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

This is not the first time we have deviated from what is important and focused on the peripheral. The current adviser to the prime minister on interior has likened attackers in the past — in the case of the PAF Mehran Base — to characters out of Star Wars. Most of us joked about Darth Vader attacking the base but let us pause and pontificate about the feelings of the families of those who perished in the attacks and had to listen to supposedly responsible officials making a mockery of their loss by giving such statements.

ANP ministers in KPK celebrate Dileep Kumar’s birthday in Peshawar and Sind Assembly passed resolutions on Michael Jackson’s death. Parliamentarians in the Punjab assembly do not care about going after the religious extremists and terrorists present in the province, instead preferring to go after tax-paying cellular companies, their customers and their late-night telephone habits. If our parliamentarians cannot discern between the importance of a few hundred thousand teenagers indulging in late-night romance and terrorists involved in heinous sectarian killings and suicide bombings, then they perhaps should not be sitting in the august assemblies lording over our fates.

Tattoos on the bodies of terrorists, late-night phone packages and Dilip Kumar’s 90th birthday are not our concerns; the security of citizens and creating an environment that encourages healthy economic activity are. It is about time we focus on the fundamentals and ignore the frivolous.

First Published in The Express Tribune 

The dead terrorist with the “demonic” tattoo – photo courtesy Reuters

Here are some examples of shariah compliant tattoos

 

Dec 13, 2012 - published work    1 Comment

All is fair — when there is money to be made

The lives of the minority groups have been under attack in Pakistan for quite some time. Whether they are ethnic minority groups or sectarian, linguistic minorities or religious ones, everyone lives in the Land of Pure at their own risk, as the state has refused to shoulder the responsibility of protecting its citizens. Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shias and Hazaras have all been killed in the past and are still being killed. The latest is that now their properties are also under attack.

Last week, two such incidents have been reported. In Karachi, the Military Estate Office assisted a private builder in the demolition of a Hindu temple and adjacent houses in Soldier Bazaar on the pretext that the Hindu community has encroached upon land which does not belong to them. In Lahore, 15 gunmen attacked an Ahmadi graveyard in Model Town and desecrated more than 120 graves in the process. The community has been under attack for quite some time now but the mass desecration of graves with shattered tombstones and dug-up graves was a first. The watchman and caretakers were also tortured when they resisted this barbarity against the dead. According to the Asian Human Rights website, the attackers identified themselves as members of a banned religious organisation.

Let us examine the case of the Hindu temple in Karachi first. The temple predates independence and hence, it cannot be a case of encroachment. Secondly, under what law did the directorate of military land and cantonments act to demolish a property in an area that is not even under its jurisdiction? If anything, that piece of land belongs to the Evacuee Property Trust Board which has nothing to do with the directorate of military lands and cantonments. On top of it all, the Sindh High Court had issued a stay order against the demolition of the temple. The fact that no action has been taken against the directorate of military land and cantonments in the past one week points out that some of us are indeed more equal than the others.

It should also be noted that these incidents are slightly different from the regular run-of-the-mill attacks on minorities. Apart from the regular dose of hatred against a particular community, greed for land — which is a limited resource — is at the heart of these incidents. A 99-year lease is the longest possible term of a lease of real property under historic common law. In Karachi, a lot of land that was leased for the 99-year period is either up for renewal or will be soon. Those who deal in real estate have been eyeing the highly prized commercial plots in the densely-populated areas of old Karachi with anticipation. There is an insane amount of money to be made off these properties and if a few people, especially those belonging to minority communities are made homeless, they know that it will not amount to much other than a few headlines in the newspapers.

The desecration of the Ahmadi cemetery is a similar story. Had they been in a Muslim graveyard, desecration of those graves on the grounds that non-Muslims were buried in an area reserved for Muslims would have made some kind of perverse sense (not that I am condoning that behaviour) but to go on and attack a place reserved for the dead of a certain community reeks of plans to take over that property for financial gains.

First published in The Express Tribune

Dec 5, 2012 - published work    No Comments

Why we need Utopia in our dystopian lives

The 21st century society is a dystopian one. No matter what part of the world we live in, our lives are marred by a sense of doom — an apocalyptic foreboding of endings. If one section of the world is threatened by terrorism, be it in schools, workplaces, airports or shopping malls, the other is hyper-aware of political instability; if economy is collapsing somewhere, then the threat of environmental destruction is threatening lives and livelihoods in another. Even aesthetics, arts and culture seem rather tedious and are dominated by the neoliberal bottom line, which insists on dumbing it all down and says that if it doesn’t sell and appeals only to the lowest common denominator of society, it’s not worth anything. Does that mean that the 21st century society is doomed for misery and utopias are a thing of past?

The answer is a resounding no. The biggest problem that lies ahead of us is not the energy crisis or food security — though they are very serious concerns — but getting rid of this dystopian melancholy that permeates every thought and action of ours, hindering our capacity to look for solutions. This fatalism can only be cured by cultural energy which actually helps us in making any sense of the problem and our approaches to dealing with it — sort of creating a utopian escape route. Society in general, and thinkers in particular, need to consciously imagine this.

Thomas More first coined the term in the early 16th century to describe his ‘good place’. Perhaps, the first known example of utopia was Plato’s Republic, which was a social and political manifesto desirous of a perfect state. It is not just Plato but the idea of utopia as the driving force behind any radical social and political ideological change has been here all along. Take the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian Revolutions or the Taliban takeover in the 1990s of Afghanistan, for example. All these political movements were attempts to radically reconstruct society along lines set out in the ‘utopian’ thought of their thinkers such as Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and Ruhollah Khomeini, who thought society would benefit from a new, hitherto untried method.

In the present-day world, which is characterized by a sense of impending doom and pessimism, there still are traces of utopia around us, perhaps, because people will never cease to look for ways to run away from misery, poverty, disenfranchisement and apathy. The Islamic fundamentalism, the Christian Revivalism, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the efforts to save the planet, the quest to go back to socialism in Latin America are examples of our utopian desires. However, utopia is not as simple as imagining a good place because the challenge to change the world comes with its own set of risks and unseen scenarios as was witnessed in the case of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan — a nightmarish dystopia which represents the mirror image of the good place.

How does one deal with that? Picasso once said that that everything that you can imagine is real and we, too, can deal with this probability with imagination and idealism. Just because utopia originates in the human imagination does not mean it cannot work in reality. If history has taught something, it is that Utopian thought may have originated in fiction and philosophy but it has always managed to find popularity in the social and political discourse.

First published in The Express Tribune

To be a woman in Pakistan



Out of the four Pakistanis who made it to Foreign Policy’s influential Global Thinker’s List for 2012, three are women. Congratulations to those who made the list but irrespective of what Foreign Policy’s selection criteria for the list is (a 15-year-old student’s intellectual contribution to the society cannot be measured with that of a parliamentarian who has worked on important legislations affecting millions), it must be noted that in a country like Pakistan where women are constitutionally and legally considered of lesser worth, where they are valued less in cases of Qisas and Diyat, some are at least making a name for being fearless and courageous thinkers. They are doing things that one would not associate with people who are handicapped by their very state for being women.

Every citizen has a social contract with its government. The notion of that social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order where they are allowed to practise their religion, work freely and live in a secure environment. The state of Pakistan does not distinguish between its citizens when it comes to citizenship responsibilities. Women are expected to pay taxes when they are involved in economic activities, they vote in the elections and help select the government and are expected to observe the criminal laws enacted by one’s government.

However, the state of Pakistan does not deliver to its female citizens when it comes to equal rights. It is very unfortunate but the Pakistani constitution does not view women as equal and productive citizens of the country. The state views them as Muslim daughters, wives and mothers and values them according to their assigned roles in society — not as individual citizens with rights and aspirations of their own. Take the imposition of laws such as the Hudood Ordinance which gave control of a woman’s body and sexuality to the state and other members of her family. The fact that a woman’s role is considered a reproductive one and not a productive one in the society helps in reducing her worth and legally formalizes the gender inequality in the society. There is the Qisas and Diyat Law, or the Law of Evidence, which institutionalised a reduced value assigned to a woman’s testimony based on the assumption that a woman’s role in society is different, or perhaps less productive, compared to that of a man.

It is not just that but these legal and constitutional inequalities have also made certain types of criminal activities such as honour killings, domestic abuse and violence within families and tribes ‘compoundable’ — i.e., they are treated as crimes against the individual rather than as against the state.

Every year, November 25 is observed as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is usually observed in Pakistan as well. This year, it will be followed by a 16-day-long campaign called Take Back the Tech against gender-based violence. Campaigns such as this can only work when the women are allowed a level playing field which, unfortunately, is not the case in Pakistan. The very political parties who depend on their female voters to get to assemblies have continuously thwarted attempts to pass a much needed domestic violence bill in the parliament. If a country cannot acknowledge that a woman needs to be protected in her home, its government cannot be expected to protect her.

First published in The Express Tribune

From preposterous to downright ridiculous

American humorist Will Rogers said it a while ago but it still holds true. “People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.” What should get people thinking or outraged elicits a different kind of response these days among the voting population. With the kind of lives we are leading for past couple of decades, we have started taking things lightly as a coping mechanism. What used to be criminal is now laughable and what used to be stupid is now endearing. No wonder we scored that high on the happiness index, because there cannot be any other rational explanation for it.
Many people have sold volumes and have made fortunes by compiling Bushisms during Dubya’s 8-year rule. I am sure someone is doing the same in Iran with the pearls of wisdom of Mehmoud Ahmadinejad, though we have no way of knowing if that compilation will ever see the light of day. George W. Bush was not the only US president suffering from ‘foot in mouth’ disease. Republican candidate Mitt Romney was planning on firing the big bird (His plan was to stop giving subsidy to PBS which will lead to closure of Sesame Street and make Big Bird redundant) to decrease the domestic debt. Fans of the muppets plan to march the streets of Washington DC before the election to register their protest.  Romney’s brilliant plan is at par with Nobel Committee’s decision to give peace prize this year to European Union or our very own prime minister’s disorientation when he called 14-year-old victim of terrorism Malala Yousufzai who is a high school student and a national icon of courage, an IT expert during a parliament session. Being the head of the government of Islami Jamhooriya of Pakistan, one cannot even ask him what kind of quality stuff he has been smoking.
If any politician in Pakistan who comes even close to good ol’ George W. in terms of political gaffes and repeated faux pas, it is no-one but Senator Rehman Malik. From claiming to have seen surveillance footage of Darth Vader like terrorists to blaming majority of deaths in Karachi on wives and girlfriends in the city rather than the precarious law and order situation. I am surprised that Rehman Malik’s comment did not give birth to a “Real Housewives of Karachi” kind of a reality TV show. Last month, he made a statement about Karachi being the destination of choice for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban for vacations. Being the interior minister, he thought it was prudent to announce it in a news conference but he decided not to do anything about it.
With the passage of time, the delusion of grandeur is reaching epic proportions. Only recently, he decided to extend his jurisdiction to other countries and took credit for people being arrested in the United States.  Yes, Rehman Baba, formerly of FIA and now of Ministry of Interior, claimed the credit for the arrest of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the producer of anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims. When it was pointed out to him that Nakoula was arrested for violating his bail in another case, he persisted that it was his voice that reached the right quarters which resulted in the arrest. I mean seriously! How idiotic one has to be to take credit for an arrest which was a very minor domestic matter of another country?
If Dubya stuns everyone with the fact that he was a Yale graduate, Rehman Malik, too, was bestowed with an honorary doctorate degree from country’s premier university, Karachi University perhaps, for his famous one-liners about and apples and banana or his sterling recitation of Surah Ikhlaas during a cabinet session.
The other politician who is known for shooting off the handle is Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani whose unforgettable words “Degree tau degree hoti hai chahay asli ho ya naqli (a degree is a degree whether genuine or fake)” will go down in Pakistani political gaffe history alongside with the boobie groping video. It has become such a point of reference for mockery that everything from space adventures (On Felix Baumgartner’s Space Jump, “Jump jump hoti hai, chahe space se ho ya sofay se” — a jump is a jump whether from space or a sofa) to local politics (Letter letter hota hai, chahay Grade 11 ke boy friend ko likha jaye ya Swiss hukoomat ko — a letter is a letter whether written to the boyfriend of an 11th Grader or the Swiss government).
While we are it, the Marie Antoinette of Pakistan, former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, also needs a special mention. When asked during an interview that one-fifth of Pakistanis want to leave the country, the premier didn’t hesitate to respond: “Why don’t they just leave then?”
That nonchalant matter-of-fact response was followed by, “Who’s stopping them?” What followed that super glib response were an awkward silence immediately and a thousand memes on Internet after that.
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is famous for either scandals with underage girls or for paying them for their affections. The late tent pitching nomadic leader of Libya Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was also not particularly well known for his sanity and discretion.
During his last trip to Italy, he requested the Berlusconi government to meet arrange for him to meet 700 women from the world of ‘politics, industry and culture’ who he can preach about Islam — the list included a female minister who used to be a topless model. Not only did he make the request, the Berlusconi government was weird enough to entertain it! Apparently, it was not the first such incident and the Sarkozy government was also guilty of giving in to a similar request  made during his earlier trip to Paris.
There have been politicians like Sher-e-Punjab Ghulam Mustafa Khar or Khadim-e-Ala Mian Shahbaz Sharif who are known for being ladies man and a serial groom respectively, but if there is one politician who endeared himself to people for his buffoon like antics around women, it is the latter’s elder brother.
Who can forget the saga of one Kim Barker and how the Barre Mian tried to ‘iPhone’ her. Things did not stay the same after the whole debacle became public and an iPhone had lost the innocence of being just a gift — at least in Pakistani political domain.

Bilour the bounty offerer is the recent entrant in the exalted club of ‘The gallactically stupid and the damned’. Before he offered to pay the bounty of $100,000 for the head of the filmmaker who made Innocence of Muslims, he was infamous for single-handedly ruining Pakistan Railways and for the ownership of cinemas that showed uncensored clips during regular viewings.  Had it been another country, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour should have been investigated by the taxation authorities for possessing that kind of money because reports suggests that during the last fiscal year, the tax he paid was just a little over $ 1,000 (around PKR100,000). 
Last but definitely not the least is the most theatrical of all Pakistani politicians. He may not grace your television sets everyday but when he does, he does it for a solid three hours and entertains you to no end. Altaf Bhai’s performance in the chooran chatni video is the stuff of legends and his rendition of parday mein rehnay do was perhaps the highest rated — under duress of course — television performance ever. Even Katrina Kaif cannot rival that. 

First published in the monthly magazine Pique
Nov 20, 2012 - published work    2 Comments

Foreign aid is not the answer



Should Pakistan get aid and assistance from foreign sources? Living in Islamabad, it is almost impossible to imagine life without foreign aid, be it government projects, educational institutions, non-profit organizations or theatre productions (seriously!!!!), all are assisted by bilateral or multilateral support of one kind or another. Pakistan has done pretty well for itself in the aid stakes; it is the third largest recipient of British aid after India and Ethiopia and it is also the third largest beneficiary of US aid after Afghanistan and Israel. There is the European Union, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, other smaller European nations and multilateral organisations willing to lend a helping hand.

But if taxpayers of the donor countries are asked, the majority of them would consider it absurd to hand out the money to a country like ours for multiple reasons. For starters, we do not do the job for which we take money (such as counterinsurgency operations or universal primary education) well; secondly, we may not be a growing economy like India and Bangladesh but we are still considered a middle-income nation. If we have enough money to start our own drone development programme and hold arms expos, then people from donor countries are not that far off the mark when they call for a stop or reduction in aid.

But this is not the entire truth. Despite being a not-so-poor nation, we are home to some of the poorest and most malnourished people on the planet. The government has the capacity and resources to tackle extreme poverty, which makes it is less of a foreign aid issue and more of a domestic inequality and misallocation of resources problem. In Pakistan, the richest people are going home with a bigger share of national wealth than ever before, while the poor end up with even less; the taxation system is such that the poor — through indirect taxes — are subsidizing the lifestyle of the rich, who do not pay direct taxes on their considerable assets. Any efforts to restructure the tax system fail because of political expediency in a fragmented parliament.

If we do not really need the aid, then why do Western governments provide it? Foreign aid is not really driven by dreams of salvation and by the desire of politicians to appear compassionate, though that makes for excellent PR. It is generally driven by political interests and the desire to influence policies in recipient countries by bankrolling the projects for the government and by creating a favourable voice among other sectors.

The problem associated with the aid industry is that at times it forgets the very people it is supposed to target. It also focuses more on intangible skills rather than physical structural changes (there are more takers for gender-focused soft skills trainings than for a project supplying clean water to impoverished women). In addition, it makes recipient countries more reliant on aid, preventing them from working out their own country-specific answers.

For a country like Pakistan, seeking funding is not the solution; dealing with issues, such as tax evasion, corruption and money laundering can help deal with poverty. In any case, foreign aid makes up for a very small part of the national budget and generally benefits those who are associated with the programmes; maybe it is time to lose the support wheels and try riding the bicycle without them.

Published in The Express Tribune

Nov 13, 2012 - published work, USA    1 Comment

The impunity to hope



Four years ago, when President Barack Obama became the first person of colour to be elected as the president of the US, the world was hopeful that a lasting change would come along. We all know how that turned out but there are still some positives from that election and the current election, where President Obama was re-elected, which have shaped and will continue to shape domestic politics in the US. People are less divided across race and gender lines and vote on social issues; these lessons provide an example for other countries.

However, an Obama-like victory for any individual is next to impossible in Pakistan. For starters, the middle class that played a key role in bringing this political change in the US, is limited to a few big cities (mostly Karachi and to some extent Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Hyderabad) and it is fast shrinking given the energy crisis and economic woes of the country.

In addition, our politics is caste/clan/ethnicity-based. The election result of February 2008 is a clear indication of that trend. The PML-N with its Punjabi leadership did well in upper and central Punjab. The PPP with its Sindhi leadership did well in rural Sindh and the Seraiki belt. Pashtuns voted for their nationalist party, the ANP, and urban Sindh remained loyal to the MQM. Chances are that the new elections, expected to be held in the first half of 2013, would be more divisive as more actors of the same hue have entered the political arena.

Pakistan, perhaps, is the only country where democracy, tribalism and feudalism have coexisted and still continue to coexist. Our parliament looks more like a national jirga council, where most of the elected representatives are tribal and feudal heads with fairly dubious histories. More often than not, they try to stall any progressive legislation with impunity and pride, usually in the name of religion and culture.

The American people moved away from centre right politics to centre left politics when they voted for President Obama back in 2008 and again in 2012. There is no chance of that happening ever in Pakistan. To begin with, we don’t have a middle class big enough in numbers and the urban population is too attached to religion to embrace anything different. A country where original thought is shunned and a parliamentarian had to remain in hiding after proposing changes to the blasphemy law has a long way to go before it starts hoping for change.

In a country suffering from the worst leadership crisis of its history, religious obscurantism is at its peak, the education system has failed and the youth is apathetic; the only change that can be predicted is more chaos, unless we produce a leadership that gives the whole nation a chance to hope, like President Obama did in 2008. Unfortunately, we do not have the system to produce someone like him. With an absentee foreign father and a family with meagre finances, Obama was able to attend an Ivy League school on the basis of merit and finished his degree with the help of student loans. Sadly, that’s not the case in Pakistan. Forget admission of a poor kid to an elite school, we do not provide a level playing field to our children in the same family as most families prefer to spend more money on the education of the male child. In such circumstances, we want to remain tied to a distant past.

Should we even have the impunity to hope for a better tomorrow?

First published in The Express Tribune

Tales from the desi funerals

I grew up on a staple diet of Hollywood fares and have seen films like Four Wedding and a Funeral and Wedding Crashers, both of which projected funerals as perfect places to score with women. Unlike those romcom golds, our desi funerals are generally segregated and do not provide much room for romance to blossom – though some smart people do beat the odds and bond over the sad demise of a mutual acquaintance. Though they may not provide fertile grounds for romance, our desi funerals remain a fascinating place to see every stereotype unfold right before one’s eyes, be it the loud uncle, the religious nut job, the customary fundo khala, the modern visionary, the compulsive hugger, the prolific mourner, the head shaker and last but definitely not the least, the somber sage who will dish out advice on everything – from the quality of kaffan material to post burial rituals to reading out the deceased’s will and the phone number of a lawyer in case you want to contest the will of the deceased. Yes, the funerals provide an interesting peek into what our society has become and where it is going.

I ended up attending a couple of funerals recently and was struck dumb by the numbers of rishta-seeking aunties. These aunties are on the prowl for a girl for their sons, brothers, nephews and other boys of their acquaintances and will check out every single girl at the funeral, followed by an interview that can rival the Spanish Inquisition. Take this one rishta auntie at this particular funeral. Between asking questions about the girl’s education, her future aspirations, the number of siblings she had (I have been told that boys with prospects prefer small families for in-laws so that they can get the bigger share in the inheritance when the in-laws hit the bucket) and daddy’s financial status – gauged by careful questioning about his latest posting and the exact nature of his work – the rishta aunty went on and on about her health and her hemoglobin level. The poor girl who was fielding her questions – the girl could not have been more than 20 years old – was about to lose it when I sent in my sister to distract the rishta aunty. Hemoglobin? I mean, seriously? What’s next?

At every funeral you will also encounter a relative who will force his or her version of piety onto the rest of the family. If it’s a woman, chances are she’s from the Al Huda school of thought. You’ll know when she starts listing the bidaah or bad habits that good Muslims should shun. The bidaah could range from feeding the guests (duh!) to attending the funeral with a French manicure (OMG!) to plain old crying because as a good Muslim, you are not supposed to be overwhelmed by grief. Lesley Gore probably had these people in mind when she wrote her famous song “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…”

In addition to the Al Huda brigade, you have people who are hooked onto tales of weird funerals. Not only that, they want to corroborate their tales with elaborately fabricated occurrences that belong to the Tlism-e-Hoshruba. They will mention how the dead body weighs a ton (implying that the deceased was an incurable sinner), or how the corpse was emanating light (because the dearly departed was an exceedingly pious person) or how the grave smelling of roses and jasmine (which means that the dead person will have a 5,000-sq-ft mansion in heaven).

Funerals bring in their wake a lot of hugging and weird body contact – an uncle is petting your head while your mom’s aunt is holding onto your knees as a way of offering love and support, even as a distant cousin is trying a peculiar side hug – which makes a person who values personal space extremely uncomfortable. Surely people can wait their turn and offer condolences in a more restrained and orderly manner.

Then there are the chatterers. Despite the fact that they are here to attend a funeral, they will talk incessantly about everything which is not suitable for a funeral, and they will do this while they are supposed to be reciting ayats on fruit seeds. At the last funeral I attended, the chatterers were talking about Yash Chopra’s death and what it means for the future of sari-clad Bollywood heroines and the men who serenade them in the Swiss Alps; about Adele’s new-born baby boy and how she duped everyone into feeling sorry for her and her cheater of an ex while she found love with another man and was in the family way; and the implications of the Asghar Khan case’s verdict on the status of the Pakistani army.

Given how funerals are turning into multi-day affairs, a family member who has an event management business now wants to break into funeral arrangements. Planning weddings and doing corporate events is passe; the manager now plans to offer designer “life celebrations” and commemorative life-bio videos for his clients who want to leave for their eternal abode in style and add flavor to their own final farewell. This sounds like a great business model – relying only on the infallible logic that as long as people are being born, some of them will continue to die – and is bound to ensure a continuous supply of clients.

And you can never accuse the event manager of cultural insensitivity: he plans on offering services of professional mourners – not like old-school professional mourners who would bawl and do maatam and stuff – but something contemporary that has a family feel to it. (There can be aunties who will pose as family members and cry when prompted; bouncers who will be under cover as distant cousins and can be assigned the task of keeping the overtly pious in check; and groups of presentable youngsters who will recite Surah Fateha and the Quran for the deceased without looking like madrassa kids.)

Some people think funeral planning may not reach the greatness that the wedding industry has achieved in Pakistan because of the sacred element attached to funerals (and not weddings, evidently). I personally think that the easiest way to sell anything in this country is to add a touch of religion to it – be it Shariah-compliant banking or schools with a special focus on religious teachings. After all we are a country whose biggest chunk of travel expenses is spent on Hajj and Umrah. We are also the country that offers the opportunity to perform a 5-star Hajj with celebrities like Amir Liaquat Hussainn and Maulana Tariq Jameel (his market shot through the roof after his latest Hajj photo op with Bollywood star Amir Khan and famous cricketer Shahid Afridi).

We have seen the wedding industry going places by playing to people’s quest for individuality here in Pakistan. Now the funeral industry is poised for attaining greatness – and making some serious money – by making people realize that they can dictate the turn of events even after they are dead and cold. 

Originally written for The Friday Times 
Nov 6, 2012 - published work, Sandy, USA    6 Comments

The spirit of volunteerism



People with access to internet have all seen photos of people returning to their homes after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in USA and parts of Caribbean last week.  We have all seen pictures and footage of people helping others out in getting their lives back together. 
In the aftermath of a disaster, most people with empathy would want to reach out to the others and try and help them in whatever way they can. We saw it in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005 and in Haiti in 2010, the 7/7 bombings in London and the 2004 tsunami that affected many countries in Asia. A friend who lives in New Jersey wanted to volunteer in the disaster relief activities but did not know how she could contribute with two children under the age of three. Nonetheless, she was seen asking around if there was any place where children can also be taken for volunteer work. It is all very commendable that people want to contribute in whatever way they can to make the lives of others a little bit better. The difference between developed nations and others such as ours is that the spirit of volunteerism is seasonal and only comes out when we are struck with a disaster.
In most developed countries, there are established volunteer programmes and people are generally encouraged to take part in volunteer activities in their communities. School children volunteer, housewives volunteer, retired people volunteer in whatever way they can; they visit the terminally ill in hospices, work in soup kitchens or schools, help immigrants assimilate in society, manage traffic during rush hours in the towns where the town administration cannot afford full-time traffic police, help raise funds for their communities and assist in keeping the atmosphere clean among other things.
A country like Pakistan can benefit immensely from such a spirit of volunteerism. There is so much that needs to be done and there are so many people who have the time and ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate. There are many people who need to be taught how to read and write and other life skills, the state-owned schools and hospitals are always under-staffed and if a greater number of organized volunteer groups, which want to help others, step up to help build the skills of such people, not only will it help in meeting the human resource problem, it can also work as a stepping stone for establishing training programmes for those who want to enter a particular field.
Volunteerism does not just help a small group of people who are the direct beneficiaries but also works for society in general and the individual who volunteers. Their efforts build stronger ties of trust, harmony and reciprocity among its citizens through creating opportunities for participation for groups and individuals who would have remained either indifferent or on the fringes.
There are many groups in Pakistan where Pakistani volunteers can register and contribute in their own way; there is the United Nations Volunteers programme, the Pakistan Youth Alliance, the Pakistan chapter of the World Volunteer Web, The Citizen’s Foundation’s Rehbar programme, among others. There must be several other options in all the towns and cities of the country where one can contribute. Volunteerism is great; not only does it help in building societies; it also tells the volunteers that they don’t have to be rich, famous or perfect in order to make a difference.
First published in The Express Tribune
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