Tagged with " Pakistan"

Commuter chronicles

There are people who have used public transport all their lives and then there are those who drive to work come rain or hail. As someone who drove the length of Shahrah-e-Faisal for most of her professional life, the idea of sitting in a subway, reading a paper and getting to work without hurling curse words at fellow drivers was quite fascinating for me. So when I moved to Toronto, I decided that I wouldn’t buy a car and very happily got in the queue to buy my first monthly pass, blissfully unsuspecting of the jungle that is the underground.

I was expecting the usual suspects when I first started commuting through the subway: loud snorers, pesky cell phone talkers (only on the buses and not in the subway for obvious reasons), people with multiple kids who have no control over their own offspring, and loud gossipers. Well, I encountered them all and then some more.

There is a whole new category of commuters I opened up my eyes to once I started commuting regularly by the subway: the expert make-up appliers. These are women who whip out their lipsticks and apply them without mirrors. Sometimes you see some painting their nails while balancing their morning cups of coffee, others decide to moisturize major parts of their body in front of an audience. Once a woman asked me to hold a small mirror for her because she needed both her hands to apply mascara perfectly. While I was holding the mirror – because how can one refuse a sister some vanity – she told me how this seriously loaded single guy was coming in for a deposition at her office and how she wanted her lashes be in mint condition to ensnare him with her womanly wiles. I should point out that that the phrase ‘womanly wiles’ is not really a part of my vocabulary, it was the woman with the mascara who used that term. I was suitably impressed – both with her make-up skills and her repertoire of womanly wiles.

Some people catch up on their TV viewing on the commute back from work. You would spot people watching new episodes of Mad Men, True Detective, Agents of Shield or one of those many vampire/zombie shows on their tablets. It is like an unwritten rule of subway commuting, for the morning commute, you either read the newspaper or hold on to the caffeine of your choice like your life is depending on it. You gossip, watch TV, look bored, play cross word puzzle or just randomly stare at people during the evening commute. However, one day, I spotted a woman watching ‘How to lose a guy in 10 days’ on the way to work – in the morning! Watching Kate Hudson is generally painful but watching her before 8.00 am is masochism of next level.

The other day I was sitting in the subway when a woman complimented me on my earrings. I thanked her and checked which ones I was wearing. Turned out, I was wearing a pair of golf club earrings that my sister got me when I was in high school. She then asked me if I was a golfer. When I told her that I’ve never played golf, she was offended and said that I should not be allowed to wear something that beautiful if I was not an avid golfer. I did not know how to respond to that. She then asked me if I would sell her those earrings. By this time she had started scaring me a bit so I just took them off and told her she could take them for free (they are quite old anyways). Genuinely offended at that she told me she could not take off things off a person (though she had no qualms in harassing a perfect stranger for wearing a golf club in her ears despite not being a golfer). I then put my earrings in my pocket and told her that if it was any consolation, I have earrings with daggers but that does not mean I am an international assassin. That weirded her out enough to leave me alone. I bet she tells people during lulls in dinner parties that she met a brown international assassin in the subway once.

My trend of attracting old ladies of all kinds at airports and airplanes has followed me to the underground train world. I have met my fair share of old ladies who have asked me about ways to use phone apps, download songs on one’s phone and its effect on the data plan, complain about their grandkids who do not talk on phone like normal people but just text. I wanted to tell them that they should count their lucky stars that their grandkids still talk to them and do not insist on snapchat but held myself back because that would require a fresh round of explanations.

There are some other people who would love to tell others how open-minded they are, at times embarrassingly so. Apparently the best way to tell perfect strangers how you are not a narrow minded wasp (White Anglo Saxon Person) is to whip your phone out and show them highly inappropriate photographs of you canoodling with your boyfriend of colour. I mean why are Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian judged for doing it in front of the camera! I think half the world’s population would like the other half to know that they are getting some.

There are some of those nosey types who shamelessly read whatever you are reading on your phone. At times, you want to scream at them, “Take your own phone out asshole!”

 

Last week, a very cheerful guy sat next to me in the bus. He smiled and said hi, I responded with a smile and a hi. He then commented on the good weather and told me how glad he was that I was in Canada and not in my country. Now, I know Pakistan is not really a choice tourist destination but it stung a little, so I asked him why he was particularly glad that I was not in my country.

“Oh they raped and killed and then hung two girls in your country, right?  At least you are safe here,” said he waving a copy of Metro (the free newspaper that is available at every subway station and bus terminal in Toronto) in my face. I agreed with him that it was indeed a tragic incident but not one that happens to all the women in India. I mean it’s a country of 1.2 billion people and more than half of them are women who are obviously not dead. I then told him I am not an Indian. “Oh so what country are you from?” he asked, and when I told him Pakistan (should’ve known better) he smiled even more and said, “Ah you are from the country where they killed the pregnant lady with bricks. That’s tragic too.” The man’s cheery tone as he rattled off this latest piece of tidbit to emerge from my country forced me to get off earlier than I had to, quickly trying to put as much distance as I could between me and his joyfully morbid fascination with tragic deaths in South Asia.

One day, I just happened to pick up Foucault for light summer reading and I swear I was not trying to be a pretentious shmuck. I always had to read him under duress and I believe that one ends up hating the best of writers if they become part of the syllabus, so I picked his ‘The Order of Things’ and was reading it in the bus when a really old man sat down next to me. He started off with no preamble.

“You look like someone who has been to a college, right?”

“Yes, far too many if you ask me,” I replied.

“Yeah, like you have some kind of masters degree?”

“I actually have two masters degrees,” I grimaced.

“So you must be one of those people who do nothing but make quarter of a million for going to college for many years,” he looked at me as if I am responsible for shrinking his retirement investment or something.

I have a lot of patience for older folks but if someone overestimates my finances, it does get my goat. I mean If I was making that kind of money, wouldn’t I be driving a BMW convertible and not listening to his crap!

I hate driving and I realize I hate public transport with the same gusto. I now want Harry Potter’s broom to take me places. A flying carpet would do as well.

First published in The Friday Times 

Apr 22, 2014 - Bollywood, Books, rant, romance    No Comments

The Taliban Cricket Club – a book that ticks every Bollywood cliche known

Life in Kabul has become a sellable literary genre of its own. The success of hauntingly beautiful The Kite Runner opened the flood gates and there is no stopping since then. From fiction to nonfiction to memoirs, if the book mentions Kabul, women abuse and Taliban, chances are that it will get a publisher or two with some decent marketing budget. If a book as shoddily written as Kabul Beauty School can triumph at international best seller lists, then The Taliban Cricket Club should be considered a master piece but boy, is it a bad book or what!

I generally have no love lost for all things Afghanistan and Kabul, probably because I have lived too close to most things described in those books and also because I have been to Afghanistan and I always find the book version of Kabul very unreal and caricature like. I picked up The Taliban Cricket Club at the local library during the T20 World Cup when I was feeling homesick and missing cricket and live tweeting and cursing with my friends and fellow compatriots because that’s always so much fun (and heartache when your team lose). The book, however, turned out to be a major disappointment.

For starters, the introduction of Rukhsana as a spirited young journalist ticked just about every cliché that ever existed about spirited young female journalist. For a person who has been that spirited young female journalist, I found it to be majorly yawn inducing. When we are young and spirited, we do not think everything through like Rukhsana, we do things because we believe in ourselves and the power of written word and the naivety that it can bring about the desired change, but I digress.

The plot is simple. Taliban are ruling Afghanistan and things are awful. One day, they call all journalists, including our brave protagonist Rukhsana, to announce that they are keen on developing an Afghan cricket team. There would be a local tournament with local teams and the best of the best would make up for a national team which will first travel to Pakistan to get trained and would then tour the rest of the world. According to the book, no one in Kabul knew how to play cricket except for Rukhsana, which is the biggest bull shit ever because Pathans from both sides of the border have been mingling each other for long to not know about cricket.

How does our heroine know so much about cricket if she grew up in Afghanistan and living under Taliban? Well, for starters, her childhood friend and betrothed had friends in Lahore who taught him how to play cricket and he in turn taught Rukhsana and then played with her in their compound. Secondly, she went to college in India and played for her college team in Delhi which apparently made her an expert on the game. Rukhsana comes up with the plan to teach her teenage brother and her cousins to play cricket so that they can escape Afghanistan and brutal Taliban regime.

Apart from the rather weak story line, there are things that irritated me to no end about the book. One was this four page long tirade about how cricket is a genteel game that epitomizes fair play and equality. I wonder if the writer is not familiar with competitive sport that is cricket these days. What he wrote about is an afternoon friendly match in a rural England after Sunday lunch where everyone is bit mellow after food and a pint or two of beer. It is not the game where Hansie Cronje lost his life, Mohammed Azharuddin lost his reputation and young Mohammed Amir lost his career but I digress again.

The other thing that got my beef (no pun intended) was Rukhsana’s mother asking her to get vegetables for ‘quorma’. As a person who has cooked ‘quorma’ innumerable times, the only vegetable used in that dish is onion and that too to make gravy. The writer should’ve checked quorma recipe if he really wanted to include that in his book, it would have been better if he had not named the dish or just called it a stew. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but I do get irritated with lazy writing like that.  Is it too much to run a google search when you are writing a book?

If there is a protagonist in the story, there has got to be an antagonist. Zorak Wahidi was that villain – at times so cartoonish that I ended up picturing Teja and Crime Master GoGo instead of this fearsome bearded Taliban minister. When summoned, Rukhsana went to see this minister of vice and virtue with her teenage brother and her cousins. The whole scene where he killed a couple for adultery in front of them and how some other Talib dudes ogled at her brother had me rolling my eyes instead of feeling the terror and muster sympathy for them. As if random killing was not enough, the villain had to seek our heroine’s hand in marriage because that’s what evil villains do, seek hand of fair maidens in marriage when they get a break from killing random people.

Like a true heroine, Rukhsana is not without her share of better suitors. There is Shaheen, her well mannered, well educated, banker childhood betrothed living in USA. He is perfect on paper and Rukhsana kind of knew that she would end up with him but she declined a formal engagement not one but four times because her heart belonged to someone else – an Indian dude – a documentary film maker named Veer. I mean seriously? Have we not all seen Veer Zara already?

The chapters about her learning cricket and them dating in India were meh! Their first kiss was bleh! There was a page long text about Rukhsana’s awakened sexuality and maturity with that one single kiss in the back seat of a cinema in Delhi at the ripe old age of 17 and it was so corny that I wanted to scream like a banshee. I mean Hello! That Veer guy missed an opportunity to bottle and sell the essence of his kiss and becoming the next Ambani.

Among other things, the book tells us that Pakistanis are generally bad people. I know that there is not a lot of love lost between Afghans and Pakistanis but the way it was written, it was clear that it was not written with an Afghan perspective but an obviously Indian one. A good writer needs to find a voice for his or her characters, not force his own voice onto them. Mr Murari – the writer – obviously failed to do that.

In the end, it was the Indian love interest Veer – the man with magical kisses – who came to Kabul to save the day and win Rukhsana’s  team the cricket tournament which enabled them to get to Pakistan and then run away to other parts of the world. As he was an NRI, he had a wad of Benjamins to help the poor Afghan cousins of the heroine to get them to their desired parts of the world. The fact that the captain of the opposing cricket team was named Waseem (the bad guy of course) and had played for a club in Rawalpindi was not lost on the readers.

The writer Timeri N. Murari is apparently a big writer in India but this book was absolute shit. I can totally picture how he came about the plot. It must have been one long weekend when he watched both Lagaan and Veer Zara on TV and then some news about Talibaan and had some bad idli and sambar and thought, I too can write a saga comprising of various countries and escape from Afghanistan and become next Khaled Hoseini. I mean it has cricket, inter faith cross border romance, Taliban and a feisty heroine, what else would the public want? Errr how about some originality, research and some heart. Honestly, it was one of those stories where you end up rooting for the villain which in this case was the Taliban minister for vice and virtue. Yes, this book made me root for a Talib and that is quite a feat.

I would give this book half a star for the effort it must have taken the writer to sit down and write all 336 pages. The story is clichéd and predictable with boring uni dimensional characters ad really bad narrative. You want to slap the hell outta the protagonist by the end of it.

May 16, 2013 - Personal    3 Comments

Losing Home …

Back in December, I was asked to contribute to the memoir section of  a special edition of  Sugar Mule – a literary magazine. The issue  is titled No Place Like Home – Borders, Boundaries, and Identity in South Asia and Diaspora.

I am glad to share that the issue is out now and I have written an account of my parents’ forced separation following the War of 1971 and independence of Bangladesh, it is called Losing Home.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mar 26, 2013 - published work    2 Comments

The trouble with Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

Jan 22, 2013 - published work, women    5 Comments

Making informed decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published in The Express Tribune.

Jan 7, 2013 - published work, women    19 Comments

The importance of sisterhood



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

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

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

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

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

Dec 31, 2012 - published work, women    5 Comments

Death of a woman

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

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

Dec 13, 2012 - published work    1 Comment

All is fair — when there is money to be made

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

Dec 5, 2012 - published work    No Comments

Why we need Utopia in our dystopian lives

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

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