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Jun 11, 2012 - published work, Sindh, women    11 Comments

The real Qaum ki Betiyan

Courage is not confined to people with college education living in fancy houses, it resides within every person but very few are brave enough call upon that reserve and make a difference – to their lives and to the communities they live in. Shabana and Nazira are those who not only have oodles of courage but they challenge others to call upon their reserves as well.
Shabana is a social mobilizer working with rural communities in Mirpur Khas (For Takhleeq Foundation) and give them basic training on a number of issues ranging from health, hygiene to start up businesses and gender rights. Once she was holding a meeting in the house of a Muslim woman and a few Hindu women also came in to attend it. One came with her toddler who was thirsty and asked for water. The host initially tried to ignore the child’s request for water because she did not want a low caste Hindu boy to drink from her glass but when the child repeatedly asked for it and other people also asked her to get him water, she brought him some in a dirty broken cup. The child refused to drink from the dirty broken cup and started crying. The mother of the crying child was frustrated and slapped her child to discipline him while crying herself at the humiliation.
Shabana was quietly viewing the whole incident but did not say anything. She asked the hostess to get her some water and when she brought it – in a fancy glass – both Shabana and the child drank water from it. Some women were scandalized but most just watched Shabana sharing the glass with a Hindu boy and then cradling him in her arms during the discussion with the group. After working for 16 months in the community Shabana’s perseverance, patience and courage has made such differences that the women eat and drink from the same plates and glass and some have even saved up enough to start their collective businesses.
Nazira – another woman of courage – is a low caste Hindu from a village in Southern Sindh; married off at 15,  and like all women from poor disadvantaged families, she too grew up malnourished and without education. Her husband was another poor man who has never been to school and had no ambition in life. He would only work when he feels like it and would expect Nazira to provide food for the two of them by earning wages as a farm worker. By the time she turned 16, Nazira has had her first child, a boy, and she was bewildered with the ever increasing responsibility that she had to shoulder – as a wife, a mother and the sole bread earner of the family. She has had two more children – another boy and a girl – in next five years while working full time as a daily wage worker in farms and other people’s home. When she has had her daughter, she told her husband that she is not going to have any more children. Her husband, a lazy man who worked sporadically and that too to just support his personal whims,  refused to agree to it and tried everything – from coaxing her to beating her black and blue but she remained steadfast in her determination and sought medical measures to ensure that she does not procreate any more. The husband just upped and left afterwards, leaving her to fend for herself and her three children.
Nazira is 27 today and is working as a labuorer for a community infrastructure development programme run by an NGO (Care International) with regular income, medical insurance and a saving plan which helps her save money for future investment. She has lost her home in rains last year but she is happy and content. Her oldest son goes to school and the second one will start it later this year. She has some livestock and looked up by the women in her community as a courageous woman who has worked hard in changing her life. Many other women – both Hindu and Muslim – adopted family planning measures emulating Nazira.
Shabana and Nazira may not be called heroes by many but what they are doing is amazing at many levels because it not only challenges unhealthy practices in our society but also give the communities much needed role models. They are the real quam ki betiyan, who are quietly working, contributing to the GDP, contributing to the society and bringing about the real and much desired change.
Nazira and her two younger children in front of her shack, the eldest was in school when we met

Originally written for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version

Jun 4, 2012 - published work, Sindh    7 Comments

Fate and fatalism

If I am asked to use one word that describes Pakistanis most accurately, I would be compelled to respond with ‘fatalistic’. No other country has faced as much and varied chaos — natural and man made — as we have; from drone attacks to floods, targeted killings, earthquakes, suicide bombings, honour killings, disease, poverty and everything in between, we have faced it all and still go on with our lives in a business-as-usual manner, believing it to be “God’s will”.

Most Pakistanis have a defeatist approach towards doom and death. Yes, death is inevitable, but the way we readily accept it in all its forms does speak volumes about the fatalism that pervades our society. It can be said that such a stoic approach to life is a coping mechanism for the majority. This attitude stops us from being proactive about bringing positive change and makes us unprepared for things like floods, fires and earthquakes. And while such an attitude helps us get through these disasters, it also ensures that we live in the worst possible conditions and somehow continue to exist despite everything.

The preponderance of matters related to religion in all spheres of life has also contributed to this aspect of fatalism. For instance, Shah Waliullah, a Muslim scholar from the 19th century, who has heavily influenced scholars in the Indian subcontinent, declared fate to be a fundamental article of faith and that anyone who disbelieved it should not be entitled to be called a Muslim. So, in order to retain purity of faith, acknowledgement of everything as a God’s way of testing humans is accepted, be it corrupt leaders or a broken down administrative system, or young children dying.

I recently visited a village in Hingorno near Mirpur Khas, where stagnant water around a cluster of houses stood like a sad reminder of the devastation that the floods brought in last year. Quite a few of the villagers lost their homes and almost all had lost assets like livestock and furniture. Except for one family, all others have rebuilt part of their homes despite abject poverty and some even have saved up enough to buy a goat or two. I was later informed that the neighbours in that poor village have decided to contribute some money and labour to help that family build a room before the next rainy season.

It may not be much but this, I think, is the saving grace of Pakistani fatalism: a commitment to one another and the spirit of community. Most of us are mindful of the fact that while our life stories are heartbreaking, that of our neighbour’s might be even worse.

But can I really blame the people of Pakistan for their stoicism? Would I retain any glimmer of hope if I lose my house in floods, a son to hepatitis C or a daughter to childbirth? What if half of my family is blown up in a bomb blast during their yearly shopping excursion in the city before Eid? How can I live through the trauma of being caught in crossfire between militants and the armed forces and see my friends and family die all around me? How can I ever hope to not die and get on with my life? I, too, will need repeated doses of fatalism to survive.

Resignation to one’s fate is a necessary evil and, perhaps, a powerful tool of survival but one must ponder if this is what is stopping us from taking charge of our individual and collective lives and preventing us from bringing in the changes that we need.

First published in The Express Tribune.

Stagnant water that stands four feet deep a year after the rains in Hingorno