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Iqbal’s Muslim Superman

In the past 65 years, the idea of Pakistan has been academically and dispassionately discussed many times. Unfortunately, it has happened elsewhere, not in the country; which is kind of ironic, considering that it is one of the only two countries of the world that were created on the basis of ideology. Bearing in mind that the idea of Pakistan is not a popular topic of debate in the country, Rubina Saigol’s The Pakistan Project: A Feminist perspective on Nation and Identity is commendable, for it not only discusses the idea of Pakistan, but it does so from a feminist perspective, which is even rarer.

The book details historical perspectives on the cultural nationalism of Pakistan. What makes this analysis different from other such endeavours is that it examines the body of work of four pre-partition Muslim scholars who tried to come up with the idea of Muslim womanhood and Muslim manhood, following the anarchy and upheaval caused by the war of 1857 and the loss of the Mughal throne.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, though considered an advocate of women’s education in present-day Pakistan, was of the view that women should not be taught “geography” as they are not active in public spaces in any capacity (economic, political or social) in a non-familial way. The emphasis was on containment of women to the more traditional roles of mothers, wives and daughters.

The other writer whose writing Saigol deconstructs is Deputy Nazeer Ahmed. His novel Mirat-ul-Uroos is considered a guide on “how to be a good Muslim woman” for over a century and if its status in Pakistani pop culture is any indication (it gets remade every few years in a television serial and is part of secondary school curriculums), it remains extremely relevant. Saigol states that unlike Syed Ahmed Khan, Nazeer Ahmed believed that women should be taught secular subjects, because a well-rounded education makes them outstanding mothers and good administrators who run their homes smoothly. But he too believed in keeping Muslim women away from the public sphere. His book states many times that a good Muslim woman must never consider herself equal to a man.

Saigol concludes this section by discussing Muslim manhood, as imagined by Akbar Allahabadi and Allama Iqbal. Both consider Muslim nationalism rooted in past glories, machismo and conquest. Akbar Allahabadi blamed all the social and economic evils on women shunning purdah and entering public spaces, and linked nationalism with controlling women’s mobility.

Just like Allahabadi, Allama Iqbal’s poetry also glorifies the distant past of Muslim colonialism. For him, the idea of nationalism was rooted in the exploits of “mard-e-momin” — a Muslim man, or a Muslim Superman as Saigol likes to call him — of the past who conquered lands and had control over women’s sexuality. With British colonisation of South Asia, that masculinity was lost and could only be regained by reviving the glory of past Muslims; rediscovering faith and regaining control over sections of society that are not mard-e-momin, i.e. women  and children. Saigol firmly believes that these ideas of masculinity and femininity espoused in the poetry of Iqbal and Allahabadi have greatly impacted the gendered consciousness of Pakistan.

Saigol cites examples from Pakistani text books about how women have been viewed; not as direct citizens, but as subordinates to men who enjoy primary citizenship rights. As state and nationalism are both very masculine in the Pakistani context, men are its natural citizens who mediate relations between state and women. Saigol points out that in Pakistani curricula; citizenship is constructed around the concept of masculinity. The father is the head of the family; he brings home the disposable income, pays taxes and makes economic decisions. There is mention of respect accorded to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in the society, but not to women in general. Male identity has rights; female identity is defined in terms of duties, to ensure that they stay confined to traditional roles that enable social and sexual regulation.

No piece of academic literature that discusses feminist perspective on Pakistani nationhood and identity would be complete without a mention of how the constitution categorically denies its female citizenry some basic rights. Saigol cites the usual pieces of legislations like the law of evidence, Qisas & Diyat. Law of evidence considers the value of a woman’s testimony in a court of law half in comparison to that of a man. Qisas & Diyat also diminish the value of a woman’s life by half. Naturalised citizenship is also shackled with constraints of gender. A male Pakistani can marry a woman from any part of the world, and she would be granted naturalised citizenship. A foreigner married to a Pakistani woman would not be accorded the same right.

Saigol’s book is praiseworthy for many reasons. It not only critically examines the poetry of Iqbal — the national poet, hence an untouchable figure — but also quotes Azad’s prediction about Pakistan’s future Balkanisation. It raises questions that many in a religiously conformist state like Pakistan are afraid to ask. It questions the standard feminist perspective of viewing everything with a secular lens, and points out instances where women are trying to forge an identity within the religious framework — at times supporting patriarchy — but creating a space for themselves nonetheless. It questions if women should give up the idea of citizenship in a state that views citizenship in terms of masculinity. It questions the idea of creating a hostile Other in the curricula — usually a religious minority or ethnic minority — which gives rise to further masculation of the idea of state. She tackles a tricky subject without drama and comes out with an academically sound, cogent and coherent feminist perspective on Pakistani nation and identity. This book is recommended to everyone who is curious about Pakistani ideology, the role gender plays in the construction of that ideology, its historical roots and how that ideology came out of disorder and is creating more chaos.

But if The Pakistan Project should be admired for just one reason, in my opinion it would be coining the term “Iqbal’s Muslim Superman.”

Originally written for The Sunday Guardian

Book Title” The Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity

Writer: Rubina Saigol

Publishers: Women Unlimited/Kali for Women

Pages: 388 Rs. 650

A case of exploding ovaries

Back in the day when tumblr was launched, I checked it out and decided that it was not for me. I mean it was neither here, nor there. If I wanted to blog, I had my blog, if I wanted to microblog, I had twitter, if I wanted to post cute videos of kittens, I had my youtube account and if I wanted the world to know that I had a crap day at work, I had my facebook page. After lurking around for another 45 minutes, I decided to give it a miss and never went back.

Until earlier this year, that is.  A friend was conducting research on audience influence on creative processes on serialized television drama through social media and wanted my help to sift through data, contact some of the more militant fans, interview them and see the patterns of influence. Boy was I in for a surprise or what! What started off as a favour to a friend for an academic research turned into a social experiment in … wait for it … Fangirling.

The fangirls do a lot of things, they ship, they have feels, they get into shipping wars and they gif. They gif scenes from their favourite TV shows and they gif their reactions to whatever is happening in the TV verse. Gone are the days when a picture was worth a thousand words. In this day and age, only a gif is worth a thousand words. A static picture is valued at a lot less.

No, this is not a disparaging post. I have all the admiration and respect for fangirls and will write a more elaborate piece about them, but if there is one thing that guaranteed a laugh out loud response – at least from this scribe – it was the gifs with explosion of body parts – ovaries to be precise.

Tumblr taught me that handsome men have the capacity to literally explode ovaries. The fangirls explode their ovaries over everything. Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock goes snarky in his upper crust British accent, the fangirls explode their ovaries. Gabriel Macht’s portrayal of smooth lawyer Harvey Specter and his crinkly eyed smiles are usually followed by ovaries explosions. Ian Somerhalder brings out his vampire fangs in The Vampire Diaries and there is a general ovary explosion across the globe. Stephen Amell shows off his impressive abs in a shirtless workout session on the superhero show Arrow and the fangirls explode ovaries, multiple time (is that even possible?). All the cute guys that Mindy Lahiri dated in The Mindy Project equals to exploded ovaries. Tom Mison’s 200 year old Ichabod Crane’s complains about inflated taxation on coffee and donuts are also followed by exploded ovaries. Imagine an explosion like that one, there will be so much blood and gut all over.

 

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Men might watch Arrow for action and DC lore, women totally watch it for Stephen Amell’s abs and their ovary explosion abilities

holy fuckGabriel Macht in Suits

 

ian 2Ian Somerhalder, ovary exploder par excellence

 

Miller sherlock
Johnny Lee Miller does not need to go shirtless, his accent is enough to explode ovaries

Yes gif sets of these guys are usually accompanied with gifs of exploding ovaries

ovaries 0

 

ovaries 2  ovaries 4

 

ovaries 5

 

and my personal favourite is

 explosion

Anyways, while thinking about the exploded ovaries and scanning the newspaper; I came across a news that said that UK will be selling pig’s semen to China in an exorbitant £45m export deal. I don’t even want to think how David Cameron worked out this deal but that is a debate for another post – if I ever get around to doing that.

Unlike UK, most other countries produce swines that are not of four legged variety and cannot increase their foreign exchange revenues by selling their reproductive juices, which lead to a discussion among the ladies at work about the two legged creatures whose sperm would sell for a fortune. If the explosion of ovaries on tumblr is any indication to go by then all the names mentioned above would make a load of money.

A totally unscientific survey based on half an hour of tumblr search, water cooler gossip at work, two hour long phone conversations with girlfriends and random conversation with women on subway who moved away after responding to my query – giving me looks that vary from “who left this one out’ to “she must be locked in a padded cell” – reveals that people whose baby makers would fetch top dollar are Jared Leto, David Beckham, Portuguese footballer with killer abs (I am assuming that lady was talking about Christiano Ronaldo), Matt Bomer, (gay man with ridiculous good looks, decent manners and a university degree was the top choice) Captain America, Thor and Iron man (I guess Marvel has done such a good job of branding its super heroes that people refer to the characters instead of actors Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. Abhay Deol with his cute dimples was the only desi entry (but my unscientific sample had very few desi women and all the desi women have hots for super hero types).

When I pointed out the omissions such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney, I was told that they are too old (and promiscuous in case of Clooney) and while they might look good, for procreation purposes, the ladies might want to look for younger specimens who reportedly have healthier sperm – such objectification of men on the basis of age was quite refreshing if I may say so. The ladies who wanted to pay a high price for David Beckham’s baby makers were not shaken when it was pointed out that there is a very good chance that a David Beckham male offspring may inherit his squeaky voice. I guess there is no deterrence against the larger than life billboards of the man with washboard abs, killer tattoes and very little clothing – definitely a case of exploding ovaries.

 

Dear Facebook, some of us are more than our biology

Note: This is a rant.

What in the name of internet gods is wrong with FaceBook?

Just because I am a woman of child bearing age who has not disclosed her relationship status, all the suggested likes on my timeline are about dating websites, new moms groups, fertility clinics, potty training, beauty clinics offering to make me smooth and dewy by lasers of all kinds, yoga websites, clothing companies, fashion designers, weight loss website or weight loss website pretending to be women’s health website. I mean seriously?

According to Facebook, people like me have got to be looking for romantic hook ups with other people through dating websites. If they are not looking for their online soul mate, they must either be procreating or trying to procreate through the help of the aforementioned clinics, or trying to potty train their spawn. If you are done with all that, then you must spend a fortune to try and look like teenager with no lines around the forehead and no body hair. You are also suggested to like designers you cannot afford (seriously what percentage of world population can afford Prada or Michael Kors!). If you are done with all that, then it is suggested that you must join yoga or a zumba or an aerobic class because unless you are made to feel horrible about your physique and body type, your internet experience is incomplete.

For the record, I just want to state that I don’t do online dating or speed dating. I am not a mom, young or old. I am currently not potty training anyone and if I ever get down to doing it, I most definitely will do it without plastering it on Faceook. I would also like to state that women are people too and just like their male counterparts, they have body hair. The world will not come to an end if a few women like me refuse to spend $2000 to make their legs smooth and shiny.

Get your act together Facebook, some of us are more than our biology and the identity that is thrust upon us by the society. Some of us take pride in being human beings without predisposed characteristics. It’s about time you realize that women are people too.

 

PS: I live in Canada so this is my personal experience, women living in different parts of the world may have a different facebook targeted marketing experience.

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 

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

Oct 11, 2012 - PTI, Society    3 Comments

The zeal for rhetoric

Pakistanis are quite good at being critical, whether it is our personal lives or collective, we criticise with impunity and aplomb. However, some people and institutions, no matter how reprehensible and opprobrious their behaviour is, remain above question and mockery. Imran Khan is also turning into such an individual with perhaps, the most vocal supporters of them all.

The best thing that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in general, and its peace march in particular, has done is that it provided us with an insight into people’s minds (using social networking websites as a medium to gauge public reaction). It has always been a taboo of sorts to question the actions of the great Khan. Now, however, it has become impossible to make harmless jokes at his expense because “he is that man who is doing something while people like me who dare to question, mock or laugh at him, are merely sitting in front of our computers busy ‘facebooking’ or tweeting about it”. It’s as though until and unless you have accomplished twice as many feats as Imran Khan, the person (not the politician), you have no right to either question or mock his politics. Why must one be chastised or trolled for not liking a particular political figure or joking about him?

What is most ironic is that the people, who jump to defend the honour of the great Khan, fail to realize that they are doing exactly the same — judging someone while sitting in front of their computers — as they accuse others of.

It’s amazing how, by just supporting a politician — we still don’t know how many of them will actually get up and go out to cast their votes come election day — the fans of the PTI think they have done something worthwhile, which makes them more morally correct than other mortals for they have the foresight to pick the right candidate. Even when you feel like mocking them for their fervent zeal, you are told that you should not do that because at least the PTI is different from other political parties and Khan is the messiah.

If you are a person who is easily appeased by words, it is quite easy to support Imran Khan whole-heartedly, especially when he talks about ambiguous things such as sovereignty. What if he takes a stand on an issue that is polarising? What if, God forbid, Imran Khan opposes the blasphemy ordinance or calls for the declaration of domestic violence as a crime punishable by the local courts? What if Imran Khan declares Federal Shariat Court a superfluous body that should be dissolved? What if he supports the construction of Kalabagh dam? I know it is wishful thinking on my part and being a politician, Imran Khan will do no such thing, but it is something worth pondering over whether he will go against mainstream rhetoric and focus on things that really affect people.

In their heads, people seem to have already turned Imran Khan into this harbinger of change, which is okay, but we also need to question whether we are ready to be confronted by the truth. The public is happy with Khan as long as he is making noise about things we’re all against but we will never indulge in real and open debate about issues that matter because we are either not ready or not willing to tackle them. We are happy in our distraction that at least Imran Khan is talking about them.

First published in The Express Tribune. 

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

Aug 6, 2012 - rant, Society    10 Comments

Moral policing has found a new champion in Iftekhar Chaudhry


Arrggghhh!
As if we have not had enough of moral policing from our Mumanis and Chachis, teachers and professors, co-workers  and bosses, Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan decided to take action on behalf of a letter written by Former head honcho of Jamaat-e-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Justice (retd) Wajihuddin (seriously Wajihuddin Sahib?) against obscenity aired on TV channels. Justice Chaudhry believes that TV channels are spreading vulgarity and called PEMRA officials to the court to admonish them.
According to the news reports, the Chief Justice cited some offensive programmes and advertisements and said that one finds it difficult to watch them with family. However, I am saddened by the fact that he does not cite offensive programmes that one cannot watch even when one is all alone, let alone with the family and inquisitive children because they test the limit of sanity. Where was the suo moto when the Engineer Agha Waqar was going on about his waterkit and federal minister Khursheed Shah was raving about it? Why was it all not shut down because if you ask me, our national pride was in tatters when that travesty was being passed around as scientific breakthrough? I was so embarrassed to watch it that I literally hid my face. My nephew asked me if laws of thermodynamics can really be altered and I was even more ashamed to be a tax paying citizen of a country where a 12 year old was subjected to witness this litany and had to make sure that it was not true. 
I hope one of the obscene programmes that CJ took notice of is Maya Khan’s Ramazan show where she adresses everyone – men, women, children, adults, and green little Martians – with terms like mera bacha, pyaroo, golo polo and what not. Her conversation is peppered with many Hai Allahs and fake tears. Watching her calling a man like Nooruddin Bhai (he is an activist in his 50s who suffers from muscular dystrophy and has been working for rights of people with disability) pyaroo tested every fibre of intelligence, rationality and prudence in my body, but that is not considered vulgar because her conversation is interspersed with multiple references to Allah and Rasool and she wears a duppata on her head!
While CJ had PEMRA’s chairman in his court for this matter of obscenity, the CJ thought that he should also ask the PEMRA chairman (CJ had issues with him being just an acting chairman for over a year) about the programming on private TV channels who air programs about higher judiciary and ordered him to bring on all press conferences and programmes against judiciary before the next hearing. However he had no issues with programs that mock politicians of the country and call them all sorts of names because they are ‘popular’ and ‘in good humour’ which basically meant that TV channels are free to get as obnoxious and obscene with the politicians in name of popularity and good humour, but the judiciary stays untouchable. He rounded up his sermon observations by calling up on the TV channels to leave religion out of it. Looks like moral policing in this country found a new judge and champion against the heretics who enjoy the very very obscene display of something like a Bilal Khan video or women’s tennis.
If my twitter feedis to be believed, Justice Chaudhry told the PEMRA chairman that August personalities like Aurya Maqbool (a babu) and Ansar Abbasi (Journalist and former Jamat-e-Islami worker) will point out the incidents of fuhashi (obscenity) and PEMRA will shut it down. So basically, if CJ has his way – and he usually does have his way – dudes who have no business butting in broadcasting and have no experience in national broadcasting policies formulation will decided the content that will be allowed to go on air. At times I wonder if I live in a country that is a replica of Ayn Rand’s Foundtainhead and Mufti-e-Azam Iftekhar Muhammed Chaudhry is the Ellsworth Toohey of our times. Our tragedy is that we don’t have anyone to challenge the Ellsworth Tooheys of Pakistan.

PS: Not the most coherent post but I was kinda livid when I read about it.

May 11, 2012 - published work, religion, Society    3 Comments

The fatwa factory

There is so much that needs to be done in Pakistan that one does not know where to start. The country is suffering the worst energy crisis of its history; it is food insecure like never before and almost half the children in the country are malnourished and stunted. In short, we are teeming millions who cannot feed themselves, have limited access to energy and will be dumber and weaker in future because of stunted mental and physical growth of our children. At such a juncture of history, what is it that we do most? We issue fatwas promoting misogyny and obscurantism; against hygiene, education, health and progress.
The latest in the line of outrageous fatwas is issued by a former legislator. Maulana Abdul Haleem, of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman, came up with a series of misogynist fatwas, clearly detailing what should be the priorities of his political and religious followers. For starters, the fatwa declares formal education for women to be unIslamic. As just declaring the act of going to school and getting some education irreligious was not enough, he also had to reprimand the parents who send their girls to schools in Kohistan and asked them to terminate their education. He told them, in no uncertain terms, that failure to do so will earn them a spot in eternal hellfire.
The fatwa does not end here. It goes on to declare all the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the region as ‘hubs of immodesty’. He first blames the women working in those NGOs for mobilizing local women on health and hygiene issues and then calls on the local men to marry the unmarried NGO workers – forcefully if they have to – to make them stay at home. Maulana Haleem’s religious credentials are dubious at best as this is the guy who thinks growing poppy for heroine production is shariah compliant. 
In short, a former legislator issues random fatwas during a Friday sermon inciting hatred against a group of people (NGO workers) and declaring the constitutional rights of getting education for half the population haram and no one barring a few bloggers and tweeters raised an eye brow. A non issue like memogate which does not affect the life of any Pakistani other than our former ambassador to USA, gets yards of column space and thousands of minutes of airtime. A religious decree that can affect life and livelihood and future of many Pakistani is not worth pondering or protesting.
Had it been just one fatwa from one cleric in one remote corner, we would have had the luxury to ignore it. Unfortunately we churn out one religious edict after another for most ludicrous of purposes. If declaring vegetarian items like potato chips and hair implant services halal is considered viable marketing gimmick, then abduction of minor girls from minority communities also get a sanction in a fatwa (and a court judgment). Fatwas are so commonplace than even KESC had to resort to seek a fatwa a few years back to get people pay for the electricity. As KESC is still laden with hundreds and thousands of unpaid bills, we all know how effective that fatwa turned out to be. 
A country like ours can ill afford adventurism of any kind, but most dangerous is the practice of resorting to fatwa to get a point across. Not only it breeds a narrow and rigid view of the things, it does not leave any room for dialogue, debate and consultation, making us an even more intolerant bunch. 

Written for Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.
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