Tagged with " Pakistan"

To be a woman in Pakistan



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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

From preposterous to downright ridiculous

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

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

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

Foreign aid is not the answer



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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in The Express Tribune

Nov 13, 2012 - published work, USA    1 Comment

The impunity to hope



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Express Tribune

Tales from the desi funerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spirit of volunteerism



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

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. 

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

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