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The Jerry Springer-ization of Pakistani talk shows

Reality TV is big business in the West and audiences tune in to watch traditional Reality TV (competition or game shows, voyeuristic shows, makeovers or self improvement shows, social experiment shows or shows on paranormal or supernatural phenomenon) in big numbers. Reality television stars like Kim Kardashian make more money by just tweeting about the events they have been to and products they use than most folks do by working forty hours a week after at least 4 years of college education (some of us are stupid enough to get a masters degree or two)
In Pakistan what has surpassed the traditional Reality TV and other forms of entertainment is the genre and sub genres of talk shows. On paper, an ideal talk show should have the right balance between spontaneity in and control over interactions of its participants, between realism and representation, the gendered dimensions of the programs and the role of the hosts and the quality of arguments on the shows. The reason a talk show should be cognizant of all these factors is because a talk show is fast emerging as a mediated space for public participation and debate. Not only that, it also provides an opportunity for the expression of voices that are otherwise excluded from the media. Whether it is through live audience sitting in the studio, telephone call ins, emails and opinions on the social media forums, audiences are participating in television content like never before.

A quick look at the talk shows produced in Pakistan reveals that most of them – news, current affairs or entertainment variety – tend to ignore the factors they should be mindful about and are turning into trash reality TV. Talk shows generally fall in the categories of public discussions, therapeutic and conflict talk shows. However, we in Pakistan have political talk shows where instead of keeping a balance between spontaneity and managing the control over program, a host actually encourages the conflict between the participants to garner more eye balls. Morning shows that specifically target female audience perpetuate misogynist stereotypes with impunity. There is hardly any significant representation of marginalized groups – most participants and hosts regularly use the line “Akhir ko hum sab Muslaman hain” (After all we are all Muslims) which not only negates the existence of the religious minorities in the country but also encourages homogeneity of the society as a desired goal. We have early and mid morning shows that telecast live exorcisms turning a talk show into Reality TV – of the worst variety.
Those of us old enough to remember The Jerry Springer Show from 1990s and 2000s recall it as the lowest form of Reality TV which seemed to count on the stupidity of it audience for high ratings. Unfortunately most of the Pakistani TV content in general and talk shows in particular are copying the formula of creating brash, in-your-face and emotionally excitable content. While Jerry Springer was flagrantly and self-consciously trash television, Pakistani talk shows still believe in their righteousness and suffer from an acute case of a sense of self aggrandizement.
As a country where other forums of public discourse are severely lacking, the important of public debate in the media assumes more significance. Unfortunately, commercialization and need for higher ratings has resulted not only in subliminally low brow television but it has also begun to represent public opinion rather than to provide public space for the emergence and creation of diverse public opinion. It is high time the creators and producers of talk shows become aware of their responsibility, it is not just television for ratings, it is shaping the public and private discourse on matters relating to politics, society, gender and rights of the marginalized. 
Originally written for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version. 

Too young to wed

United Nations (UN) agencies are generally criticized for not doing enough but they should be commended for coming up with quality research from time to time, which can and should serve as harsh reminders to governments across the world that they need to get their acts together. The UN Population Fund recently released a report titled “Too Young to Wed” on child marriage, which should alarm all governments in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The two regions have the highest and second-highest percentage of women, respectively, who are married off before they turn 18 years of age.

International conventions declare that child marriage is a violation of human rights because it denies children the right to decide when and who to marry. A country like Pakistan, which is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), needs to align its local laws regarding child marriage, as both conventions categorically state that appropriate measures will be taken to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, such as child marriage.

The evils of child marriage are many. For starters, it cruelly snatches the childhood away and thrusts a child into adulthood well before her time. It directly threatens the health and well being of young girls as complications from pregnancy and childbirth are cited as the main cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19. As the numbers of girls who are married as children grows, the numbers of children bearing children will increase and deaths among young girls will rise, further deteriorating the child and maternal mortality rates.

In the case of Pakistan, religion is also cited as a reason for child marriages as it is considered advisable to marry girls off soon after they reach puberty. This, however, is just an excuse. Medical science tells us that puberty only marks the beginning of a gradual transition into adulthood. Religion also asks its followers to educate their children and to follow the path of moderation and if any attention is paid to these other two recommendations, child marriage would become a distant dream.
Girls’ vulnerability to child marriage increases during humanitarian crises when family and social structures are disrupted and many parents marry off their daughters to bring the family some income or to offer the girl some sort of protection. Humanitarian workers noticed a surge in child marriages during the internally displaced persons crisis brought on by the floods of 2010 and 2011.

The child marriage issue is central to many development goals. By dealing with just the child marriage issue, governments can work towards closing the gap in the Millennium Development Goals of eradication of extreme poverty, achievement of universal primary education, promotion of gender equality, reduction in child mortality, improvement in maternal health and better ways to combat HIV/AIDS.

Our own government needs to start a multi-pronged strategy to deal with this issue. First, all provincial governments need to be fully committed to criminalising child marriage and streamlining local laws according to the CEDAW and the CRC. They not only need to invest in female child education but also must invest in campaigns to encourage the maximum number of parents to enroll their children in schools. Contraceptives should be easily and readily available and most importantly, decent employment opportunities should be made available for both parents. A family that can feed and educate its children is less likely to marry them off.

First published in The Express Tribune

Social networking is a bitch

Social networking is a bitch. There, I said it.
Let’s admit it. Most of us have a facebook account with around a couple of hundred friends, but we interact with very few of them on a regular basis. The rest are just there to remind us that we have miserable existence; our paychecks are tiny, our lives are grey and our love lives are insipid. 
I don’t know about others, but I have people on my “friend’s list” who are constantly vacationing in exotic locations, land high flying jobs with Fortune 500 companies even in the times of recession, attend exclusive fashion galas, are part of peace keeping missions in remote war torn areas and have flings with extra ordinary and interesting people while they are stationed in those remote war torn areas and … wait for it … walk the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival.
You know what is most ironic? The last status update was from a masochist whose sole aim in life was to get married to a heroin addict and get beaten by him every day when she was 19!
I am sure that I lead the most boring, soul less and miserable life among all the people I know where the most exciting part of my day is watching videos of Faisal Raza Abdi and cats playing with babies on YouTube (at least that’s what I used to do when we had YouTube, I now stare at the computer screen and think about those cat and baby videos). 
At times I yearn for good old days when we had limited access to the web were not constantly trying to prove to others that we matter. The competition between friends and family may remain gentle but social networking at workplace is brutal.
When I started working for a newspaper, we only had access to office email system and no web browsing on our office computers, before anyone screams how we used to get anything done without the internet, I would say the old fashioned way. We would get off our chairs, step out and gather info on spot to write our stories or we do that via phone if we are too lazy or pressed for time. Fast forward a decade and it is unheard of that a decent workplace would be without high speed internet. What’s more, most allow access to all kinds of social networking websites for their employees. 
It’s not that most employers are bursting with goodwill for their employees and want them to have fun posting on wrestle mania’s facebook page or tweeting about the aloo gosht they just had. I have a strong suspicion that the employers are onto something and they want their employees to feel miserable about the better lives of other people, fear impending unemployment and even more misery if they fail to do their jobs. This will keep them in line without using any untoward strategies and ensure productivity. 
In my previous workplace, we had a guy who was supposed to assist us with IT related stuff but whenever you would call him, he would not pick up his phone. When you go to his desk, he would be half lying on the chair with thick head phones on and would be watching something, if not that, he would be chatting with his girl friend. One day I wondered aloud why can’t he do that at home, another colleague told me that his wife and two kids (he had a third kid later) would probably cramp his style. I think employers also allow social networking at work to ensure loyalty and uninterrupted employment of the workers who are cheating on their wives. 
Another reason why employers allow you access to social networking site is that people think that if you are not on facebook, you must be at least anti social or at worst a batshit crazy person. You need proof of that; the dude who shot people after The Dark Knight Rises viewing in Colorado or the Norway mass murderer Anders Breivik, both did not have facebook profiles. 
It is ironic that now both of them have Wikipedia pages and its content cannot be controlled by them. A cousin who wanted to bolster his intellectual credentials by not using any of the social networking websites was told to sign up asap while applying for an FMGC firm in Singapore, they do not hire people without facebook accounts and the HR manager is supposed to have full access to the employees’ facebook pages.
Apart from official prying that HR does on behalf of the employers, colleagues too snoop through social networking websites. Back when I used to work for an international organization, the pay slip for the month of August was the most anticipated pay slip of the year. Out annual increments used to be announced through August pay slip and we would get to know if our increment would be a measly 3 per cent, a respectable 10 per cent or a whopping 18 per cent. We were also advised to not share our financial details with other colleagues but everyone would soon gather all the details. How would they find out; through facebook updates of course.  If the status update is gloomy, it’s likely that the person got the derisory 2 per cent raise and if the person is splurging on a sushi dinner with the spouse, chances are that he is the lucky one who got the 18 per cent increase. 
Some employers discourage the use of social networking websites during work hours, their reasoning is simple. They don’t want people getting wishful and dreamy eyed looking at the photos taken at those exotic vacations by the facebook friend on company’s time. Personally, I would love that, why because slacking is our national method of whiling the days away and social networking just makes it just easier. I want people to make an effort to be slackers, if they cannot put time and energy at their work, the least they can do is make an effort to slack. Secondly, I would love it if people like that IT guy would be caught by their wives.  In any case, with smart phones starting from Rs 9000 and cheapest possible internet rates, slacking  sorry, social networking on your own dime would not you cost you much. 
Originally written for monthly news magazine Pique 

The other martyrs

Martyrs are valued anywhere in the world because of their valour, courage and bravery. In Pakistan, they are valued because they help in setting the public image right, secure votes and feed our national sadism that responds only to death, misery and destruction.

Let us start with political parties. Most political parties, barring various factions of the Muslim League, boast about their ‘shaheeds’. Everyone mourns the death of their party members but is perhaps secretly thrilled by it as well because we, as a nation, practice politics on the basis of the number of shaheeds per party. The Pakistan People’s Party, with the ‘shahadat’ of two former heads of the government, is at the top of the food chain and has won elections by asking their voters to atone for their leaders’ death by voting them into the assemblies. Others do it to lesser degrees of success. Case in point: every transgression of the ANP’s leadership is countered by tales of personal losses incurred by people like Mian Iftikhar Hussain. Mian Iftikhar’s loss of his only son and nephew to terrorism is extremely tragic but it cannot counter the irresponsible behavior of people such as Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour who announced a bounty for the man behind the anti-Islam video, for short-term political gains.

The armed forces also need martyrs to feed the bogey of the ‘other’ and justify their existence as well as the huge drain they are on the country’s meager resources. Ever since the war against home-grown terrorists began, nothing worked as well for them as coffins shrouded with the national flag, images of children left behind by the fathers, mothers mourning deaths of their sons and father stoically professing that they would be happy and proud if they lose their other son for the country.

One martyr who does not get either the same amount of reverence or the same coverage in our media is the much-maligned policeman; the policeman, who gets killed every time a group of terrorist or miscreants want to play hooky with the security of the country. In the battle for Islamabad’s red zone last week, Islamabad police came out most harmed — apart from the country’s image, that is. Not only did policemen suffer injuries — 55 policemen were wounded on September 20 alone in Islamabad — but the mob also set fire to their check posts and vehicles, destroying their records and valuable public property, which was paid for by taxpayers. The religious parties and organizations that are fed on the populist rhetoric wanted blood and wanted to march all the way to the US consulate, but it was the capital police that stopped them and perhaps helped the government in averting an international crisis. One can only shudder to think what would have happened had the mob reached the consulate. The very next day, three policemen lost their lives in Karachi when a similar mob was busy looting and burning the city, while many others got injured.

Policemen form the first line of defense against terrorism and many have lost their lives or limbs fighting them with old, outdated and inadequate weapons. They are asked to fire tear gas without proper safety equipment, sent to deal with deadly opponents under prepared and paid a lot less than other security agencies with inadequate pension plans and medical insurance. On top of that, they face public ridicule every day. Though their services are generally below par and there is much to be done to improve their performance, it is time we start honoring our police force for doing what they are doing right.

First published in The Express Tribune

Sep 21, 2012 - published work, Satire    3 Comments

Do you have a boss obsessed with dating websites?

The Dilbert principle says that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do least damage – management. Scott Adams – the creator of Dilbert – was spot on when he said that anyone who has ever worked in an office has endured a boss or two who made life a tad more difficult for those trying to survive the office without tearing their hair out. If one has lived and worked in Pakistan, the chances of encountering an ego maniacal boss with a wispy comb over and unmistakable god complex are higher than usual.

Like many others, I too have had my share of peculiar supervisors. They were not entirely horrible, and I never harboured a secret desire to bodily harm them, but if someone out there is writing a book about strange bosses, I am quite confident that I will be able to contribute a full chapter on the oddities that I had to endure as a professional minion. Some bosses go from this end of the spectrum to the other in 15 seconds flat, some are slackers, some are narcissistic prima donnas and some are all that and more.

At the beginning of my professional life, I had the misfortune of working under a boss who was quite insecure about her age and beauty. Her day would start with stories about how random men stop and tell her that she is mesmerizingly beautiful, how everyone thinks her daughter is actually her sister and her husband is her dad (major yikes) and how she was a glowing teenage bride who outshone the jewels she wore. She was actually quite a looker, a collection of human colours that have been tweaked and adjusted to present a perfect reflection. (Of what? Of something…) Being a person who would go to work in yellow canvas shoes, her efforts in presentation made me admire her even more and I made it quite obvious to her – at times just to get her to stop going on about her long list of admirers – that she is a walking-talking bombshell, but she never took the hint. I recently ran into her and found out that she has changed her focus and instead of regaling everyone with tales of her beauty, she now churns out stories about her family’s regal nawabi past. I still can’t decide which one is more painful to endure. 

Everybody must have encountered at least one annoying colleague who quotes Dell Carnegie and Stephen Covey. Sadly, I have had a boss who would do it all the time. He was a motivator par excellence who would throw one corporate cliche after another with a smile that can rival a professional toothpaste model. From rolling out the ‘2.0 branding’ for a campaign to giving you a ‘heads up’ to ‘paradigm shift’ to ‘sweating the assets’ to ‘vertical markets’ to ‘SWOT analysis’ to ‘throwing a curve’ to ‘synergy’, he would just never stop. I am willing to bet everything I own (which is not a lot) that synergy is the lamest word ever in the English language and no one, except perhaps Deepak Chopra, has ever used it outside of a corporate conference room. There were times when I wanted to scream that we work in a service industry – a factory of the new millennium – where industrious drones like me brand, market, strategize and make money for other people. Our collars might be white but our paychecks are insipid and our outlook towards life is definitely grey, something that cannot be altered just with corporate speak. I once seriously considered handing over my resignation to this boss, citing abusive usage of corporate speak as a reason. I did leave that job soon afterwards, and I never cited that in my resignation letter, but I think my prime reason for leaving the job was the abuse of jargon and the plastic smile.

Some bosses are into over sharing. One wanted me to know how sloppy her husband is; the other – a divorced man – wanted me to know that he has scored with two girls in a day. However, it is still better than what someone I know had to endure when his boss walked into a weekly meeting wearing a T-shirt that said: “Oh Sh**, I am in Love.”

I also had a boss who preferred 20th century modes of communication. He would never respond to any email, so you would have to call him and tell him that you have written to him and would like some feedback. He would then ask you to read out the e-mail over the phone and would finally give his feedback verbally. Once you went ahead and completed the task at hand and it turned out well, he would kick you off the project and take credit for it, but if there was anything wrong with the turnout, he would go around saying he had nothing to do with it and unless you were a fan of 1980s spy movies and used to record phone conversations just for kicks, you wouldn’t have any proof that he actually gave you the go-ahead in the first place. He now has a super cushy executive post in a multilateral bank and the moral of this episode is that blaming others for botched jobs and taking credit for someone else’s work will take you far ahead in life.

Last but definitely not the least was a boss who was a Carrie Bradshaw wannabe. She would have been an asset to a magazine like Cosmopolitan but was wasted on a mainstream publication in Pakistan. She would discuss relationships, men, hair, hair products, shoes and other accessories in no particular order, which was fine by me. After all, who doesn’t love a boss who gossips with you about men and fashion? What was slightly disturbing, though, was the copious amount of time she would spend on dating websites. She was perhaps the only person I know who had as her homepage. Until recently, I thought she was the strangest boss ever, but then a friend texted me to say that her boss has started singing ‘Sheila ki jawani’ in the office. Can anyone top that? 

First published in The Friday Times 

Sep 17, 2012 - published work, religion, women    6 Comments

A woman’s clothing is her own business

Barring random news items and a few opinion pieces, the Hijab debate has never really been part of the national narrative of Pakistan. Those who wanted to wear hijab/niqab/burqa wore it and those who preferred the traditional shalwar kameez duppatta chose that without any problem. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran or Turkey, there never was governmental coercion or pressure on women to go for particular type clothing or to ban a particular type of clothing in state institutions. A woman’s clothing was her own business as it should be anywhere in the world. However, things are changing and with the celebration of World Hijab Day which had tacit approval of the government and the patronage of the first lady Nusrat Pervaiz Ashraf who presided over the Hijab Conference organized by Jamaat-i-Islami, things are moving in the direction where state is turning partisan.

The first lady of Pakistan, during the aforementioned conference supported Muslim women to wear a hijab, saying that women could do what they wanted as long as they respect the “limits set by Islam”.

The first lady’s speech encourages women to follow the ‘limits’ set by Islam, but no one can agree on what it entails; one school of thought believes that there should be no hindrance to anyone’s education – including women – while the other believes that women should only be allowed access to education if there are segregated educational institutions for them, right up to the higher education. Another school of thought believes that women need no access to higher education as their true calling lies in maintaining a household and raising children. If the speech of the first lady is carefully viewed, she perhaps supports the third version of ‘limits set by Islam’. In her speech, the first lady urged women to strengthen the ‘family unit’, which she said was central to Islamic teachings. As if this was not all, she also regretted that “Pakistani women were starting to forget how important family and hijab were.”

For starters, there is no direct relationship between a woman’s hijab and her care giving responsibilities towards her family. Secondly, Pakistani women have not forgotten how important family is for them. If anything, family interferes with their performance at work because of the overwhelming demands of their families on their time. Thirdly, positioning hijab with better motherhood and more fulfilled family life puts the women who do not wear hijab but are just as, if not more, concerned about their families, in an uncomfortable situation in a homogenous society like ours.  If such views gain official state patronage, it can and will act against the women who do not abide by this particular view.

The first lady ended her speech by calling Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto “role models” for Pakistani women. However, she failed to point out that neither Benazir Bhutto, nor Fatima Jinnah followed those particular limits she so favoured in her speech. Both Ms. Bhutto and Ms. Jinnah were highly educated women who studied with men; they did not limit themselves to raising children or their families and had highly visible political careers. Ms Jinnah was so dedicated to her political career that she did not even marry and have a family of her own and Ms Bhutto was back in her office a fortnight after giving birth to her second child. Last but not the least, neither wore a hijab but favoured the traditional Pakistani dupatta. 

There are many issues that plague Pakistani women that can do with the attention of the first lady; it would be advisable if she focuses on them instead of the hijab/duppata debate. 
First published in The Express Tribune

PS: The comments that are posted on the Express Tribune website are priceless, there are at least two which basically say that hijab is NOT a choice. Pretty interesting, eh?
Sep 14, 2012 - published work, Satire, Society    6 Comments

A liberal arts degree or a foreign nanny are the new status symbols

Throughout the history of mankind, there have been certain things that were considered socially desirable, hence much sought after. Acquisition of land has always been a way to show and wield power, being hefty was considered a status symbol as late as early 20th century. The desire for lean and healthy bodies is a relatively new phenomenon as is revealed by the paintings of all the grand masters and their not so thin subjects. 
Like elsewhere, status symbols have undergone a massive change in recent time. Gone are the days when having a huge house and decent cars were enough to impress neighbours, relatives and acquaintances. The modern demands on rich and well off are too many and oh so varied. For instance, if you happen to live in Islamabad, an enormous car with special number plates tells everyone that you have arrived. In Karachi, people are not that taken in with giant modes of transportation, the must have accessory is a foreign nanny for the young ones. If you want proof, just crash any kitty party at a local club and you will find more than half the ladies who will be accompanied by the maids from The Philippines or Sri Lanka. If you are rich enough hire maids from countries other than Sri Lanka or Phillipines, your social stock will rise phenomenally. A friend’s sister in law recently visited from Dubai and along with her came her one year old daughter and her Georgian maid. Imagine how she was looked up by the ladies of luncheons in Lahore (though there were a few snide remarks about her husband wanting to have a few private moments with this bombshell of a nanny) sporting a blonde nanny who was singing lullabies in a foreign language.
Once upon a time, a visit to your uncle’s home in London or a trip to Chicago to attend cousin’s wedding would grant you legitimate bragging rights but not anymore. Trips have to be exotic and out of ordinary if you really want to boast about them. Traveling to London or New York is is passé, vacations to Turkey and Malaysia – in fact anywhere in Asia barring Japan, Korea, Bali and Mongolia – are downright middle class. If you are doing Asia then it has to be something extra ordinary and very special, like staying in cave hotels in Cappadocia, going snorkeling in Maldives or saving a rain forest in Indonesia. Adventure trips in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam and Thailand can also get you some brownie points if your social set is young, courageous and daring. 
If you plan to travel to Europe, then visiting Disney Land in Paris just won’t cut it anymore. The travel has to include off beat places like Bucharest and it has to be eco friendly. It does not matter that you have installed 20 air conditioners in your home in Lahore and have massive carbon foot prints by flying to Dubai to attend the premier of latest Shahrukh Khan blockbuster, but if you are touring Europe, it has to be a eco friendly trip. The top destinations that the well heeled are cooing about are Machu Pichu, Galapagos and Angkor Wat. If you go to Machu Pichu and camp, you will not only be exotic but it will also be a socially acceptable way of slumming it.
The affluent people in Pakistan also think that traveling is a privilege that is reserved for them. I have actually overheard an old lady in Islamabad Club who wondered if they give passport to people living in G-9!
Another must have accessory – if you are young, hip and ‘liberal’ is a gay friend. Perhaps people have seen too many reruns of Sex and the City or they find the likes of Ali Saleem charming or they have genuinely embraced the alternative life choices but I have heard ladies boasting about having a gay best friend. If you are the religious type and having a gay best friend clashes with your religious beliefs then having a spiritual leader in another country is also considered very desirable. Going to your village peer is something that your dadi used to do; things are a tad different in 21st century and you owe your spirituality to a dervish in Turkey, a scholar in Jamia Azhar or a Mufti in Malaysia.
Gone are the days when you boast about getting your child into Economics program in University of Chicago or Electrical Engineering in Cal Tech (rich people do not boast about getting their children admitted to local schools, sending a child to LUMS is like committing social hara-kiri, the LUMS students who think they are cool just live with the illusion of cooldom)), the new black among the academic types is a small liberal arts college on east coast. Of course it is still prestigious if you can get into an Ivy League college but a degree in cultural symbolism (is it really a discipline) from The New School in New York is like ultra cool.
Wanting to be musician to be cool is so last century; dudes likes Junaid Jamshed and Ali Haider  have been there and done that. In any case, every kid has a guitar strapped to his shoulder these days. If you really want to stand out among your crowd the new way to do so is to become a published author. Being a writer can give you unassailable superiority over your peers and even if you happen to publish your own book about your cat ten years ago, reminiscing about your book signing tour to three Liberty stores remains a valid point of discussion.
If you really want to reach the heights of social ladder, it is advisable to get a massive – preferably the military type – vehicle, hire a Russian maid, go to Machu Pichu and camp, have a gay best friend or a foreign spiritual guide, get yourself or your child – depending upon your age – into those tiny schools and get a useless degree in ancient Greek linguistics and write a book about either camping in Machu Pichu or learning ancient Greek and you will be fine – for life.

Originally published in the September Issue of monthly magazine Pique

Sep 11, 2012 - published work    2 Comments

No planning for natural disasters

After being hit by torrential rains and consequent floods that devastated the country in 2010 and 2011, one would have thought that the government of Pakistan and its people would be better prepared to deal with the rains with the arrival of monsoon this year. Considering that the monsoon hit us a little later than usual, one would have expected a better level of preparedness. Unfortunately, we see our provincial governments and municipalities still floundering and at a loss about the responses.
The extra time provided to us by Mother Nature — instead of the usual July, the rains hit us in the month of September — has not made much of a difference and if news reports are to be believed, as many as 69 rain-related deaths have been reported so far. Many more can be expected to die in the coming weeks as the critically injured will succumb to their injuries and more will perish in the rains that have been forecast for the next couple of weeks.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has stated, as late as September 9 that rivers are not expected to flood but, inland flooding can and already has, wreaked enough havoc in some areas. Cases of roofs collapsing because of rains and electrocution in urban centres have already been reported. The deaths may not be directly caused by the flooding but it is directly related to poor preparedness for a natural calamity. Similarly, landslides in the mountainous areas also cause rain-related accidents. We may not have experienced river flooding as yet but cases of inland flooding have been reported in Lahore, Rahimyar Khan, Hyderabad and Quetta. Inland flooding occurs when rain in an urban area exceeds the sewer system’s drainage capacity, as a result of which, water accumulates in the surrounding areas causing flooding.
Many canal breaches have also been reported. The provincial governments need to take their irrigation departments to task and ask them about the status and schedule of canal cleaning and fortification of embankments that is usually due before the rainy season.
The problem with Pakistan’s disaster management programmes is that there is more emphasis on disaster relief and disaster response and a lot less emphasis on disaster prevention measures. Countries that are more prone to natural disasters have only been able to minimise this problem by aggressively pursuing the prevention path over the years. Japan, Australia and the Philippines have amazing disaster prevention and disaster mapping programmes. Every major city in Japan has a city specific prevention and relief programme which is stated on their metropolitan websites. These projects detail everything from weather outlook to flood maps to evacuation routes and other services for the general public. If similar plans are to be replicated in Pakistan, it is necessary that flood-prone areas should have a disaster prevention map to identify the flood risk, the nearest safe areas and probable evacuation routes beforehand.
Those who would argue that Japan is a rich country and can set aside a vast sum for prevention should note that other impoverished countries have faced disasters better than the likes of the US. In 2001, a devastating hurricane hit Cuba but the people and the government were prepared. The death toll was limited to just five people, while more than 700,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters.
It is not just money that is required for disaster prevention and preparedness; it requires planning, long-term commitment and political will and vision to bring about sustained changes in the way we view problems and disasters.

First published in The Express Tribune

Social media and humanitarian assistance

The Arab Spring has forever changed the way people will view social media in the context of political change and citizens’ active participation in bringing about that change. But politics is not the only arena where social media has made its presence felt. It can and has been used by a lot of humanitarian aid organisations and UN agencies in garnering support, as well as rallying people, securing funding and creating buzz for work that is helping millions across the world.

Last year, Doctors Without Borders launched an online application on the World Food Day that enabled supporters to donate their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for 24 hours to help the organisation in its fight against malnutrition in children. Back in 2010, a single tweet from a television host in the US, which was re-tweeted a few thousand times, made it possible for the US air force to work with Doctors without Borders and land its planes in earthquake-hit Haiti. Twitter deemed it the most powerful tweet of that year. Other organisations that have a huge social media presence and actively engage with people across the world everyday include the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, the UNHCR and Islamic Relief USA, among others.

There is no disputing the role of social media in promoting social development and humanitarian aid, but it is also very important to know how to use it to serve the cause best. Social media teams do not work in isolation and must always be integrated with the press and public outreach programmes. It is also very important to strategise the use of various social media forums and decide which information goes where and why. For instance, Twitter, the microblogging site, is more useful if the idea is to get a lot of people talking about something and creating a buzz for it, but Facebook is more suitable for long-term engagement to a cause or an aid organisation. It is imperative that people working in the field understand their communication objectives and use appropriate platforms to spread their word, engage the public and influence policy.

If selecting the right social media platform for your communication need is most important, selecting the right tone for your message according to your platform is the next most important thing. A sharp and witty tweet can work wonders in getting the message across but it will require more nuanced interaction with the audience on your website or Facebook page to keep them engaged. How YouTube channels and Flickr accounts are used and integrated with other social media tools also determines the success of a cause, campaign or humanitarian intervention. I was part of the education emergency campaign last year. With the help of sharp tweets that tied the cricket World Cup and Shahid Afridi to education needs in the country, we managed to create quite a lot of Twitter buzz, which was backed with an interactive website, an active Facebook page along with a very informative YouTube channel. This year, during Ramazan, the World Food Programme in Pakistan launched the #fightinghungerRMZ campaign on Twitter and sent 30 bloggers to spend a day in one of its camps, which helped in the generation of locally-raised funds for the cause.

It must be noted that a social media campaign is only as good as the work done on the ground. A successful social media campaign does not guarantee success in the real world; it only supports the people who are actually providing help and assistance to those in need of it.

Originally written for The Express Tribune

Aug 28, 2012 - published work, religion    1 Comment

Who gets to define the Muslim way?

Pakistan has many kinds of Muslims; not only there are many sects but there are also multiple factions within these sects. Though not many but some have started to question the Wahabi ideology in connection with the rise of the militant Islam, however, not many people are questioning the social impact of such an ideology and how it is affecting our collective behavior.
The past couple of decade has witnessed an increasing number of middle-class and upper class urban Pakistani women actively turning towards this brand of Islam – through schools like Al Huda – and they influence their families and their circle of friends to this particular religious framework that they work towards actively constructing a particular kind of culture in Pakistan which they say is the pure Islam – free of all the foreign influences or bida’at. The bida’at could range from wedding festivities to Sufism to co-education among other things.
The question that should become part of popular discourse in Pakistan but has not been given due attention is who gets to define what is local and organic and what is foreign and intrusive?
The Wahabi interpretation shuns something as simple as a birthday celebration as foreign concept or a mehndi function which is deemed un Islamic and bida’at and a legacy of living with Hindus.  Basant is a festival indigenous to Punjab marking the advent of spring. It dates back 3,000 years and has traditionally been celebrated by people of all the religions in Punjab. Though local and organic, it is erroneously linked with Hinduism, and disowned as both un Islamic and foreign. However, adoption of abaya, which is clearly a Saudi import, is not considered foreign at all. Sub continental women observing purdah have traditionally used a big chador, in fact women in urban Khyber Pakhtunkhwah still prefer a chador over an abaya, however an abaya never faced the same hostility as that of the festival of basant.

The curriculum has helped this discourse in Pakistan, the history books that say “when we came or ruled the subcontinent,” they provide factually incorrect information. Barring a few who are the descendents of the armies of Mohammed Bin Qasim or the Mughals, most of the people of Pakistan are descendants of those who were already living in the subcontinent. Negating centuries old civilization for an identity that is still in evolution is not only untrue, but can have catastrophic consequences for the society.  The elimination of local practices on the basis of their being un Islamic and foreign reflects the adherence to a particular interpretation of Islam and people upholding this interpretation as the truth are not only negating the religious experiences of different kinds of Muslims, but also the history of the land, creating a culture based on beliefs and practices that originate from outside the land.

Another term that needs to be academically and socially questioned is the use of the term ‘Muslim way’. Can there be just one way to be a Muslim when Muslims are as geographically diverse as they are – from Indonesia to Nigeria and beyond? Can one live with a sole primary identity? Is the primary identity of being a Muslim is so exclusionary that it leaves no space for other competing identities, be they region based or ethnicity based? Must a cultural identity be mutually exclusive with that of a religious identity?  Aren’t human beings complex beings who are supposed to have layered identities? 
Originally written for Express Tribune, though they chopped the last paragraph away.