Saving Pakistan

Published in Daily Times on April 14th 2014

Both Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe believe there is one way of saving Japan from the slowing growth rate because of an aging population and shrinking labor force. That way is to increase the number of women in the workforce. The recent IMF report, “Can Women Save Japan?” says women in career-track jobs, could boost economic growth.

Pakistan is number 8 on the frontier economies according to the ranking provided by Bloomberg Economist Intelligence Unit in this month’s issue of Bloomberg magazine. Pakistan shares this ranking with Romania. Morgan Stanley’s Tim Drinkall believes that Pakistan has instituted policy changes that will trigger faster economic growth. It is largely believed Pakistan is grossly underperforming for many reasons such as terrorism, but other factors constant an increased integration of women in the workforce can have Pakistan turbo its way ahead on the frontier economies ranking and even join the emerging economies ranking.

About 18 years ago, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows were disproportionately directed to developed countries and in 2013 approximately 60% of FDI inflows are to emerging economies.  Asia is rising and Pakistan can rise with its tide, provided we adopt those very practices we need to and abandon those that are pushing us to the abyss of a desperate scavenging economy.

In Pakistan women don’t just hit a glass ceiling because they are perceived to exit out of the workforce in their child bearing years, instead, here women face a wall when entering the workforce to begin with. The struggle of getting women in the board rooms is a more momentous one; before this we need to allow their resume to be accepted by recruiters in the first place. Likewise the colossal wage gaps that exist between men and women is again a fight that comes later, first we need to battle for women’s contribution to be compensated at all given the feudal servitude that exists for women domestic workers.

The struggle for gender equity, wherever it starts must begin at the religio-cultural perception of a woman as a product of a man’s will or whim.

The few women who finally make it to the professional workforce are asked by their in-laws to leave when they are married. There could be no greater reinforcement of the above premise of women being a product of men. We may as well have emerged from a rib.

There are however those mortal women who out of their will choose to return to Pakistan armed with a posh accent and an ivy league or such equivalent degree, get married and instead of enterprising some great idea, choose to design bags and shoes. The opportunity cost of circulating money within a social elite class as opposed to vertically across strata is huge. The symbolic message it sends to the ideal of women unifying for a singular cause is even worse.

With advanced countries like Japan in a state of panic because they need to increase their women participation from 60% to at least 90%, we ought to be in a state of absolute panic because we have only about 24% participating in the Pakistan workforce. Given the astounding numbers below the poverty line this dismal number is even more alarming and a greater cause of concern.

Concern rarely begs for a sense of responsibility. No one talks about the elephant in the room of growing Islamism bringing all such women’s integration efforts to a screeching halt. There is limited media air time, efforts and funds dedicated to this cause when the government is negotiating with a group that believes that a women even appearing in public space is an act of sacrilege.

There needs to be a realization that central to this crisis is women: their ability to make decisions and above all be economically empowered. It has tremendous implications on the health of our future. This is not negotiable, unless of course we want to lose our economic feet to stand on, and cripple our foreign and domestic policy. This hurts men and women equally.

Women’s empowerment is the only thing that can save Pakistan. It needs to be catered with more urgency than the attention we pay to moralizing society.

Media Spin Cycle

Published in Daily Times on April 6th 2014

Appeasement knows no bounds in Pakistan. The interior ministry has released Taliban prisoners in a “good will” gesture. As we have it, there is no uproar that these mass murderers will roam the streets our children play in. Instead the Speaker was asked by the Jamat-e-Islami to call the Information Minister’s attention to obscenity on Television advertisements. They say these ads with women are threatening to “spoil our Islamic society.” I beg to be corrected if I understand that their priority is to fight skin and not terror. What is it about supple creamy skin that is more of a national security threat than bomb blasts, assassinations and body mutilations?

The media gurus, those who are not being shot at, are finding it tough to question this absurdity. Others are taking advantage of the discord, fear and chaos to provide a new bogyman everyday on prime time television and Urdu newspaper columns. They have imagined that the lowest denominator of the masses live in Tora Bora and want only to emulate Mohammad Atta. They have imagined that everyone in Pakistan needs validation from the priests, comprising of mentally unstable psychopaths they honour by calling on their talk shows, ending with shouting matches and inflated ratings.

In this assumption, the media has given not just space and authenticity to the religious fascism and the rigid calls to conformity it demands, but it has also increasingly helped it to be mirrored by the restless middle class. With living rooms reverberating fatwas, it is difficult to imagine anything outside the fold of a sacrilege-obsessed populous.

Society at any given time hounds those it feels are working against its dominant social values. Yet sadly, the media in Pakistan is manufacturing dominant values borrowed heavily from the plague of rabid religiosity.

In the US in 2010, we had the case of resignation of Shirley Sherrod from the position of Georgia State Director of Rural Development at US Department of Agriculture. She was practically framed by the spin-cycle of journalists and politicians who demanded her resignation for what seemed like racist remarks. Her clarifications were muddled under the frenzy of right-leaning talk show hosts like Bill O’Riley on Fox News who named and shamed her and wanted her out. When she was asked to leave by the Obama administration it turned out her remarks were not racist but in fact the blogs that broke the story were only outlining the audience’s reaction to Sherrod’s story and not her comments themselves.

The febrile atmosphere that surrounds holy cows of any society can be dangerous and paralyzing – in our case the stakes are higher, one doesn’t just lose livelihood, one loses life – as evident with Salman Tasser’s murder by his own elite guard after he saw media admonish Taseer as a protector of a blasphemous Christian woman.

Also in our case one can hardly take recourse to law as Shirley Sherrod did. The judicial system here is paralyzed when it comes to making judgements about those who are slandered or framed if the opposition is holding up the Islam-in-danger banner. This is perhaps why those recently insinuated as being foreign agents by our equivalent of Bill O’Riley, chose to remain silent against the onslaught.

Emboldened by the fact that no one speaks out, these shows went ahead to make ludicrous claims about NGOs in general and Internet freedom organizations in particular. Among the claims was that NGOs based in Pakistan were getting foreign funding and were driving a foreign agenda in Pakistan; that much of this money was unregulated and unmonitored and hardly used for the ultimate aim that it claimed to provide interventions in.

Crisis-struck Pakistan, from the floods to the earthquakes that have devastated the country in this past decade has got saved by interventions from abroad via established NGOs. These vilified NGOs were the ones that were able to mobilize without wasting funds in new administrative set up costs. If we cannot make a substantial case for the development sector, (and the contributions are tremendous), we should at least have the shame to be grateful for those thousands of Pakistani souls saved, fed, healed in those times of need, which we could never service on our own.

The media spin is more dangerous than a political party giving McCarthyist cries of saving the country and its honour. It is more dangerous because there comes with it the wave of frenzy bound madmen who have not learned to differentiate between authority and truth.

We must demand that our airwaves and newspaper real estate is spent on the real emergency: of education, health, economic development and governance.

What makes a hero?

Published in Daily Times on March 30th 2014

I was at a social media event in 2011, in it an expert from the US was talking about how he follows news in Pakistan.

“I just follow @razarumi and I know what is going on in Pakistan – what is going right in Pakistan and what is going wrong in Pakistan. I don’t need to follow anyone else. He has the pulse of the country on his timeline.”

I remembered thinking to myself: that’s the kiss of death, having an American consider you a hero.

What makes a person a hero?

Of course you need the right personality; the ability to articulate; the charisma; the depth of knowledge, general and in your field of work; the poise to handle difficult situations and the nerve to stand up for what’s right in times of crisis.

In Pakistan you need more than just these leadership 101 traits.

You need to have a death wish manifested in the form of a deep burning passion, almost an obsession to claim for others those rights that you cannot imagine humanity without – fundamental rights and human rights – the right to worship freely and to be guaranteed equality in status by the state.

In Pakistan, to be a hero you must also tread that dark and dangerous place they call oblivion. Although you may have a following, you really don’t have support: those few worthy souls who can protect you, those worthy souls that would pour their own blood where you pour yours. They would be enough people to light a silent vigil in their rooms for you afterwards, but would not echo what you say when it is bright and lit up.

In Pakistan to be a hero you have to do away with that very need for legacy, because you know you may not be there to see posterity though. So you shout your outrage against violence and mayhem in the storm, not knowing who’s listening, not sure if your words are reverberating in the hearts of the youth, those you hope will raise the flag in the future.

Here, you have to befriend violence, not just the kind that gets your driver killed while an attempt on your life is made, but the kind that appears in the form of hate speech from college campuses to boardrooms. Social media amplifies this violence against you and not just your thoughts.

In Pakistan, you have to struggle, so hard, to live in the grey while your universe imposes a strict binary: secular and religious, bought-out and religious, foreign-funded and religious, atheist and religious. This enormous vacuum sucks you in to convert you into a construct of society, ably aided with low literacy, hardly any education and a curriculum of warped religiosity.

In Pakistan, a hero must have an endless supply of hope, optimism and resilience. Not just the kind that amasses a few protest rallies in  the scotching heat or the freezing cold, but the kind that seeks to go down to the common person who needs to hear those lone alternate voices. A hero is the man who opens himself up to the vile rawness of this nascent electronic media and its sinister ability to scapegoat you.

In this trying decade’s Pakistan, a hero is someone who engages with individuals via Twitter, convincing, reinforcing, reminding and persuading to see their sense of identity in a different way. A hero is someone who does the scariest thing to create change – he gets involved.

Raza Rumi was attacked in Lahore, bullets sprayed on his car as he left the station where he hosted his talk show on TV. His driver is now dead, may his soul rest in peace, and guard injured. God almighty kept Raza alive. Maybe it is time, a time for Pakistan’s heroes to make it through the darkest assault because their voice needs amplification.

He treaded along the path of journalism knowing well that the environment in which he operates would sooner or later attempt to halt him.

Raza Rumi is not just a hero; he is everything Jinnah’s Pakistan stands for. May he live long and prosper. May Jinnah’s Pakistan prosper.


Our claim to this day

The chaos, disorder and mayhem the country finds itself in is mostly because many did not attend a formal classroom, and those few that did were coached on curriculum that left the raison d’etre of our country to be interpreted by bigots and war addicts.

It is Pakistan day, on this day 74 years ago we chose to give our independence a voice. Our determination of not being subjugated by the tyranny of the majority came to life and we asked that there be a separate state for Muslims. However, this resolution included a specific section on the rights of the minorities in this construct of Pakistan. It called for their safeguard, and for the same rights being granted to them as would be to any Muslim.

This sinister inability of our people, years later, to be unable to understand that these two components – demand for a country for a community and the protection of rights of other religions within that community – are not separate but intertwined and one is a logical extension of the other. To demand for one ’s self what you cannot envision for the other is not just plain selfish, it violates the very principle of justice that requires objectivity and utmost fairness.

It is by following this thread of political objectivity that our founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah appointed Pakistan’s first Law Minister to be Jogendra Nath Mandal.

The grand symbolism of that decision was lost with his death. The textbooks took over and our children read that there was a single enemy; it was vicious, violent, barbaric, oppressive and miserly. The enemy was the conniving Hindu that had butchered Muslims by the thousands during and before the partition and therefore we sought our independence in 1947. It stopped at there and did not provide on the context of the violence that was everywhere on all sides.

If the first few decades after partition helped foster this hate, the rest of the decades led on by the Afghan war and the rehashing of our curriculum, with help from friends in high places, now has a narrative of a Pakistani Muslims living in a global minority with their way of life attacked by external forces. At the end this is a frothy concoction of anti-Hindu Talibanization that creates more hate, fear and intense insecurity and results only in a violent blow back.

Specifically our literature, both in the classrooms and those distributed at unregulated mosques and madrassas link Hinduism with paganism and a push to have its existence be a threat to Islam. Thus, a dwindling 7 million Hindus in a burgeoning country of about 180 million Muslims become a foreign body.

No surprise then that a Hindu temple was burned down by a mob in Larkana on March 15th 2014. No surprise that while the Hindu community celebrated the Holi festival while throwing colour powered on each other an extremist mixed the colour with acid causing three people to be rushed to burn units. No surprise that this community lives in the constant state of high alert and on the mercy of a trigger-happy majority. Any member can be framed under the pretext of having committed blasphemy. Anytime. No surprise then also, that Hindu women are forcibly converted to Islam. Often many of these cases of forced conversions go unreported. The real numbers are higher, the humiliation even more so.

To survive the message this peace-loving vibrant community is told to adopt is to go invisible.

Is this why we made Pakistan, so we could wear the hat of the bully, the hegemon, the oppressor?

The only solace that can be offered to this community concentrated mostly in Sindh, is that any right thinking person, any minority community, any woman, child and essentially anyone other than wahabi sunni males are all in this fight with them. We are in it together. We will all either go down together, or fight this menace bottom up.

There is another way to do it as well – top down. It is the government’s responsibility to protect its minorities, especially at times of the plague of religious extremism. Those who desecrate places of worship must be brought to justice, those who forcefully convert must be punished, those who falsely accuse anyone of blasphemy must be made examples of. All religions are sacred under this flag.

It is only if the governments declare a policy of zero tolerance for this systemic violence against minorities that we will truly be able to claim a part of this day and its vision.

 Published in Daily Times on March 23rd 2014

On behalf of women

Fayyaz Ul Hassan Chohan from the party of our hopes, PTI went on television on March 13th 2014 and when asked to comment on polygamy answered by telling a ludicrous joke about a man and his two wives. These women bickered. They were first threatened and eventually controlled by their husband. Not only was it not funny, it was tragically painful for any woman who cares about her rights and her voice in society. The obsession of our people with the concept of one man and multiple women competing for his attention falls back on the concept brought to civilization at the advent of agriculture where you buy fidelity of a woman or various women in exchange for security. Security from what, one may ask. Security from a patriarchal society where women are commodified, degraded, put on national TV in the form of jokes. It all really comes a full circle.

While commenting on the women’s cricket team, Shahid Afridi, the man responsible for raising the Pakistani flag high after many victorious matches found it important to emphasize that women had a talent in their hands that was well suited for cooking. It is no small mercy that this man is not in charge of anything that pertains to the economics of this country and that his opinions are not binding, but still it is a roaring insanity that a person with that level of influence should box up women based on only what their hands are good for: serving. Women do not belong in a kitchen any more than men do: There is food there, everyone belongs in it. Our women’s cricket team probably does more for our women’s rights than many such caused organizations put together because it is colossally empowering to see a woman use her talent, her discipline, and her strong body unabashedly for something public and above all representing the country. What nerve to reduce these warriors into makers of chicken karhais. Not every woman dreams of disappearing into the cloak of a dark and dingy kitchen. That is probably just a male fantasy coming from the same place the joke did.

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) which could be said to be like the moon-sighting committee for eid and just as limited in its abilities and tools, has also found it important to issue an opinion on, yes, you guessed right, women. And yes, this council, although was supposed to have a women representative, has none. So again, we have men talking about what women should do and not do. Women have no say in their husband’s second, third or fourth marriage, says CII. When you have no opinion you might as well be invisible.

Is that however what our egalitarian and equity based faith teaches us?  Does it tell us that the first word divinely revealed, read, was only revealed for men, or can women too, read and determine their own path to the Almighty? These questions, which every Muslim woman will ask herself and her society will have a long awkward silence because the people who have been nominated to decide their faith are completely at odds with our founding fathers vision. Allama Iqbal believed in Islamic modernism and in his interpretations, polygamy was both outdated from the context were it existed and also against the grain of the need for the faith to evolve in order to be eternal.

Another founding father the CII has insulted is Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The CII did this when they opined that underage marriages are permissible. Jinnah worked tirelessly to pass the Child Marriages Restraint Act, one of his many steps towards empowering women of this region. It is no surprise that the very same lot who opposed Jinnah have now become the leaders of the movement that is hell bent on turning us to the dark ages. Illustratively, Pakistan’s teen girls die in the thousands while giving birth, because not only is their age not a consideration when marrying them off, neither is the need to space children out. According to UNICEF 17% of women have children before the age of 18. Considering the population of Pakistan these numbers are swollen and catastrophic. On whose heads do these deaths lie?

The least we can do is not give this barbaric practice religious sanction.

It is 2014, Pakistani women are soaring the skies in F16s, conquering the Everest, winning the Oscars and by large numbers outdoing their counterparts in standardized examinations. In rural Pakistan they have supported the economy in agriculture and in the homes, bringing up children at the same time. They are not voiceless beings to be marginalized at birth. Be aware of the time they avenge the burdens that society has put on them for eons.

For a merciful future, stop speaking on their behalf.

Published in Daily Times on March 16, 2014

Finding domestic workers a chair to sit on

When 2013 was ending, Obama effigies were burned in India, there were demonstrations by Indian Americans outside the New York consulate where Devyani Khobragade was deputy consul general for India and the Indian press was wild with accusation of racism by the Americans. Devyani Khobragade was strip searched and said to be treated like a common criminal by the NYPD. This had launched a diplomatic war between the US and India that is only now settling. As a Dalit, this high ranking official was an Indian success story that had claimed to have bid farewell to the rabid system of social stratification.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, Ms. Khobragade was paying her nanny USD 1.32 per hour which was drastically less than USD 9.75 required by the US government. The nanny also claimed to have been overworked to about 100 hours a week.

One is reminded of Malcom X’s words on the house negro. So many of us, Indians and Pakistanis cut from the same cloth, having faced an imperial power and other persecutions eventually all become unjust to those less privileged because we “dress better, eat better and live in a better house.”

When this week, GEO TV on its show GEO TEZ invited a domestic worker to the show, they decided by some logic to have her sit on the hard floor, while other guests sat on plushed up sofas on the very same set. Then they ran the show on air.

If there was any evidence that the estimated 8.5 million of domestic workers were making their way up in Pakistan, this one snapshot defined the ceiling they hit. Conversely, people who are advocates of terrorism and murder are invited to prime time shows with boundless respect by the Pakistani media. The valour we are ready to bestow on the committee representing the Taliban is telling of what yardstick we use to measure value. Even more telling was the absence of outrage on this undignified act by GEO TV from the self-professed enlightened community: No apology followed. None was demanded, of course.

Majority of the domestic help in Pakistan are women and an astounding 91% have been sexually harassed or abused by their employers according to the Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA). The tolerance for this practice is shockingly high by both men and women “masters.” A large number of the domestic help are minors — we had the case of Shazia Masih in 2010 where this 12 year old was raped, tortured and murdered. The perpetrator was not brought to justice.

Minors are paid crumbs compared to the work that is demanded from them. One would often see in malls and restaurants these children, debasingly called servants; caring for privileged kids but being removed from the family by physical space – They are good enough to be trusted with their children but not good enough to be fed the same food or sat on the same table. The excuse carries that they are better than what they would have been.

Alternatively, because domestic help are so financially lacking, they have lower ethical standards, and hence should be pre-emptively treated like criminals: with suspicion and loathing. Many households would treat Pakistani help differently and their Filipino nannies differently. The reason: The latter have legal protection and more importantly are symbolically elite.

The government has been guilty of perpetrating this antipathy for domestic help. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan launched, right after his appointment the Islamabad specific Household Servant Registration drive. Yes, servants. For this, NADRA officials went door-to-door in leafy streets asking people to “help NADRA secure your home, city and country.” The premise again being that domestic workers are potential thieves and crooks and their benevolent employers must safeguard themselves by registering their domestic workers. From the information this form sought, it was clear that it was only enough to be able to round them up if a theft occurred. Sadly it made no attempt to record their hours or pay.

Enough legislative protections exist: Employment of Children Act 1991; Minimum Wage Ordinance 1961 and the tabled Domestic Workers (Employment Rights) Act 2013. The enforcement is necessary and requires a cultural shift towards domestic workers as people without whom the economy would have no wheels.

As a start, let us raise them to sit on chairs.

This Oped was published in Daily Times on March 9, 2014

Ending Jamshed Dasti’s War

Jamshed Dasti, it seems does not have a degree, but that’s not the only education he lacks. The ilm of Bullay Shah, the one where you quit fighting with the devil and fight your nafs first, is also absent. You’d think as a son of the Punjab, a grass roots politician who outdid large feudals of Muzaffargarh, he would know more of the latter edification.

Emboldened by the courts letting him become a Member of National Assembly despite his earlier bar, and having jumped many political party ships, he has now joined the moral policing brigade. He has in the assembly claimed to have a video which exposes parliamentarians living in the Parliament Lodges of having consumed three million rupees worth liquor in a year, to have called dancing girls to the lodges and to have frequently invited women of ill repute.

Where does one start? If there is such a video, the exposure of this piece of technology to tarnish the reputation of your peers is a tremendous breach of privacy laws which in our country is a far cry to enforce. Nonetheless it is a breach.

The other slightly minor issue is that, if this is fiction, to seek some publicity, it is slander. And that is a crime: you know the thing that is punishable in this world and not the after world. Perhaps even less minor because given that the Taliban are looking to eliminate the “citadels of vice,” when and where they find them, it is actually the equivalent of putting a bullseye on the lodges and its inhabitants.

This country has a tradition of hurling accusations at anyone you don’t quite like, exposing the rant to a wider, wilder audience and waiting for the wolves to descend on the person. The power must be exhilarating, probably worth much more than the drunken stupor three million rupee worth liquor can provide. It doesn’t end here, once the prey is mutilated by the self-professed soldiers of God; the perpetrators are celebrated on our streets and mosques. In this way, one becomes a legend. So, it’s not entirely Dasti’s fault to want this glory. It is above all, easy.

It is entirely his fault though to have, at a time we are anaemically crawling towards a national consensus on an anti-Taliban policy, created a diversion in the form of a measuring exercise where we start weighing the moral character of our politicians. It doesn’t help that it is a supposedly the same strain of alleged wickedness that a post-Taliban world would be free of. The oversimplification by enforcing a sense of duality is most unfortunate, because it not only confuses but also denies us the clarity needed to name the enemy.

We need to stop struggling with the notion that the authorities ought to punish sin, defined by a social construct, articulated sometimes by the Dastis, and at other times the Taliban whom we have given legitimacy by pleading to come to a negotiating table. We need to instead allow the moralizing to be done by individuals at their level, or at best at their community level.

The fact that there is no media outrage on Parliamentarians not doing enough for education or health, and a disproportionate scandal when turns out they drink or frolic is telling of our priorities. In the end, it is a shame.

The book of law will protect Pakistan from the abuse of scripture, from any scripture’s abuse. It will protect us from the middlemen who corrupt, stagnate and plunder our spirits. We need to cultivate that spirit which creates better progress indicators for our country. Reported just the other day, Pakistan is now the country with the greatest number of first day child deaths.

But can we expect those without a college education to know how to fix this?

 This was published in Daily Times on March 2, 2014