Eclipsed by the sword

Published in Daily Times on July 13 2014

Operation Zarb-e-Azb has cost Pakistan at least two billion dollars thus far. This, according to one of Pakistan’s most astute military commentators who is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan army, Samson Simon Sharaf. The operation’s effectiveness is now being doubted by military strategists because terrorists seem to have found sanctuary in neighbouring Afghanistan well before the war in North Waziristan started. They say Pakistan is now getting a taste of its own medicine given that it allowed terrorist havens to fester in North Waziristan and Balochistan while Afghanistan struggled with its terrorism problem. The rationale for this double game from Pakistan is one that I have heard all my life: strategic death — sorry — strategic depth. And so, while we have our entire national security focus on the Indian enemy, let us examine what it has cost us.

Approximately seven to eight million children are out of school in Pakistan. This means that one out of every 10 out-of-school child in the world is from Pakistan. According to the Pew survey on Muslim attitudes towards extremism, an astounding 15 million people in Pakistan support terrorism. Juxtaposed together, it is apparent that these out-of-school children will keep adding to the numbers who support extremists. We need not be social scientists to understand the correlations well. Despite this understanding, we choose to neglect our posterity even when sending a child to school costs between two to 20 dollars a month. This means that this war alone could send a billion children to school for a month. In an educational experiment in Africa, it was mandatory to send children to school for a month. After the programme was discontinued, parents still chose to pay out of their own pockets to continue their children’s education.

It has probably taken you a minute to read this far. This is the time it takes for a child in Pakistan to have died from preventable diseases — from expanded programmes on immunisation diseases (EPI), diarrhea and acute respiratory infection (ARI). Every minute that passes, a child has died here. According to the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), more than 400,000 infants die in the first year of their life alone. More than half of Pakistan’s children between 12 to 23 months have not received recommended vaccines. Both the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and the journal of the Pakistan Medical Association in their reports quote that it takes between $ 15 to 24 to fully immunise a child. This means that this war alone could immunise 83 million children.

Our nation is like that pre-pubescent child with a mind that cannot grasp the concept of differed gratification, analysis or mature decision-making. It is only though a systematic investment in education and health that nations can progress and become self-sustaining. The number of people this war claims to protect from terrorism is minuscule against the inevitable forces of nature that will create death, disease and extremism in no particular order, if we continue to adhere to this uncivilised doctrine.

This war was necessary but let this be the last. Let us be preventive in our approach towards war as we ought to be towards disease. Let us, at the very least, not inject in our already emaciated arm the lethal dose of religious extremism. This drug has been used time and time again by our strategists to manipulate the double games of war we play with our neighbours and allies. They cite that weary term called ‘national interest’, under the garb of which many tragedies take place. Like any drug, it lights up our experiences and then sends us to the depths of despair.

There are models for us to follow around the world — Turkey, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, all who may have had their fair share of developing world challenges but who have all focused on the two central human development indicators to jolt them out of dependency. They have connected to the world though trade and ingenuity and are walking rather than crawling — this means millions have their bread and butter. And, in the end, is this not what the ultimate objective of the sword is?

The misery for which we did not prepare

Published in Daily Times on July 6th 2014. 

Chances are that about 600,000 of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), also known as the internally ‘disowned’ people of North Waziristan, will need more than a few tonnes of wheat, which the army is supplying to them in cookie cutter packages as they flee the war and Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Also chances are that they do not appreciate moving from their homes where drone attacks, aerial bombing by the Pakistan army, routine attacks from the Uzbeks and crossfire between the army and Taliban were not enough to drive them out. They probably had nothing on them but their pride as they left their homes and now, having to stand in long queues for handouts, even that has been scrapped.

One wonders why it seems like the government went into this unprepared. Years of dragging their feet in a war that was ultimately inevitable is the cause of this unpreparedness. The result: lack of planning and mayhem. Who suffers? The people do, particularly women and children, the sick and the old.

In a sane world, it would have been obvious that groups that challenge the writ of the state must be dealt with. In this world it would also be obvious that foreign and local militants supported by a vast network of funding and arms, from Karachi to Uzbekistan, would fester while we turned our faces, and that one day the soul of North Waziristan would need to eventually be exorcised. It would be apparent that even those like the Haqqani network, who we were using for that archaic cancer-like concept called strategic depth, would need to be asked to terminate the contract.

The nerve though, of all stakeholders to be surprised at the now large humanitarian crisis as a result of this war! Just as in South Sudan the floods have festered the misery of the IDPs there, in Pakistan it is the sweltering heat that has brought the IDPs to their knees. If their journey on foot for hundreds of kilometres was not enough to break them, the scene at their destination, of absolute crisis, was. Three IDPs were severely injured in what seemed like a battle for food at a distribution point in Bannu when police baton charged them to stop them from scuffling.

What pundits called an opportunity for the government — the hope that the migration would allow for a renewed drive to stem out polio from the region — has now come to a screeching halt as refuseniks demand that their children not be vaccinated. Is this a surprise too or did we wishfully think that the IDPs would run to polio drops camps despite internalised fear and indoctrination by the Taliban against the anti-polio drive? Where are the programmes that worked on an advocacy campaign for these people for the health of their children? Where is the urgency and the need to enforce what is nothing less than an international crisis? Only this year alone, FATA has reported 66 polio cases and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has reported 15. This is not the time to powder the nose of this crisis. Nor is it time to sell to the world the misery of these people though photo-ops. It is a time to admit that this part of the war was not given the priority it needed.

It is time to acknowledge the state of emergency in the north. As a result, we must take from wherever the aid comes, from the private sector, philanthropists and donors like the UN’s World Food Programme under twinning with USAID. And, as aid pours in, it makes sense to allocate it though channels that already exist, rather than wasting money in administrative set up costs. The army and local government already have established centres that work well but need to be fuelled with more relief. Likewise, given the security scenario, it is understandable that the local government has mandated No Objection Certificates (NOCs) for the establishment of relief camps. This also is a laudable step and may help to limit pro-Taliban offshoots from infiltrating the relief activities under the garb of religious organisations.

We cannot fail these people. The war depends on it. It is a war we must win, for posterity. For the weary hearts of our jawans that have given way fighting the sinister forces against the state. And, more importantly, for the promise that this country holds while its competitors join the emerging world.

Peace comes in many forms. This is an opportunity, yes, for polio advocacy, resettlement after the clean up and a new exposure for the IDPs to better standards of education, but above all it is a chance for Pakistanis to unite and let IDPs know that they are a part of them. It is, after all, the missing sense of connectedness that isolated them and pushed many among them to join forces with the Taliban.

Give what you have most of — it will go a long way for this country.

The cop-out revolution

Published in Daily Times on June 29th 2014. 

The Punjab police’s brutality against Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) workers was unpardonable. It led to 11 killed and over 80 injured. With all the hunters of our people out there, the police being part of the list is a blow to our already splintered spine. However, while we grieve in solidarity, let us not forget that the revolution he talks about, and the one that the media gives tremendous airtime to, is one that spells disaster, at least for half of Pakistan.

He is either completely ambivalent or deliberately callous toward the war that is waged on women in Pakistan. When they are hung from trees their rapists go free because of Islamic interpretations that support their acquittal, underage girls die in childbirth and this finds sanction in the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), women are beaten routinely in households they slave for, they are murdered by their own families outside courtrooms and when they cannot, because of cultural oppression, marry out of their choice, then we have not just a mere problem, but a war.

I say ‘deliberate’ because the focus on women he has is entirely misplaced. He said in one of his sermons: “The devil expresses itself first though clothes and makeup. Makeup is only for the benefit of your husband and not even for your parents. Do not tailor big necklines, short sleeves or fitting clothes. This is haram (forbidden) and the path of the devil. A man is judged by his actions but women are judged first by what they wear.”

When Tahirul Qadri, the deliverer of our freedoms, asks women to cover up, whom exactly is he protecting women from? Correct: from men. From those men, specifically, who hate women and want to punish them for their existence. From misogyny and from patriarchy. Want to bring a revolution? Change this. Do not tell the victim to shrink, to become invisible and to recoil in some fold in a black hole.

It is easier for him to devote a lot of his time to the inches of cloth women have around their waistlines and hemlines. He has asked women who wear fitted clothes to burn them. God forbid, in a post-Qadri world, the women will be thrown into the pit along with the clothes. It does not matter if you are Shahidullah Shahid, Mullah Omar or Tahirul Qadri — you want women to suffer. Specifically, Tahirul Qadri and his ilk want women to suffer through the guardianship system they preach: through this brutal control of one human being over mobility, education and work, intellectual and individual expression and needs, over another. Wherever there is control, there is abuse and oppression.

Had Tahirul Qadri cared about the abhorrent gender gap in Pakistan, he would have known that there are more pressing issues that need correction. Had he paid attention to the insurmountable challenge to the population explosion that feeds extremism by conflagrating poverty, he would know the first place to start would be to empower women. To give them a voice and enable control over their own fertility, not just through decrees but through real on ground change. He probably did not opt for this because it takes real hard work to build a national consensus over the really explosive problems of society — the stuff real revolutions are made of.

The ‘intersectionality’ of women in this region should be considered before any decrees are made attempting to provide solutions. Women in Pakistan have the huge baggage of cultural misogyny from centuries ago. They have to face obstructions from narrow interpretations of religious texts and, ultimately, economics does not allow them the legs to move out of their cage.
Self-professed leaders, narcissists and borderline psychopaths want that cage shrunk in 2014, right when the world is opening up horizons for them to level the field. Oppose the Taliban all you want but it is easy to see a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Tahirul Qadri said he brought all his shoes from Canada when he came. That is excellent news, especially for him. He knows what to do with his revolution: walk it back to his home. He will need all his shoes.

Drinking soup with a knife

Published in Daily Times on June 22nd 2014.

Now that the army, backed by the government, albeit hesitatingly, has waged war on the terrorists, one feels like there is some oxygen to fill one’s lungs with. The question is if Operation Zarb-e-Azb is merely a reactionary hit to break down their stronghold in North Waziristan or if it is a long thought out strategy to dismantle the entire insurgency. Are they attacking the tactic or are they eliminating the source? If it is the first case we may as well all try downloading visa forms to countries were the roads are wide and the lawns manicured. In the second instance, we can stay but not without asking if that itself is enough.

There is a greater war on superiority that has to be waged even more vehemently. This is what has provided the cannon fodder to insurgency, provided the Taliban with no shortage of devotees: brainwashed and enraged. This enemy has festered in this region we now call Pakistan for as far back as one can go. The warnings against creating a cesspool of complex groups began when the Objectives Resolution was passed and Sris Chandra Chattopadhyay stood before those passing it and said: “I also say, what is in the name? Name may be given to mislead people but it will smell of theocracy.”

The central conflict is our pull towards stating that the divine will be supreme and furthermore that the divinity of the Muslims will be supreme. He warned that the craze for having Muslim exclusivism in the country and its laws, one day would result in only a particular sect of Muslims left to define the laws and that the rest would fall out of that definition. Since then, aided by successive democratic governments and the Zia era, the noose has tightened around non-Muslims. And that was okay because many were not on the short end of the stick. Every man entering any army institution or public education system was first educated about the superiority of his faith and was provided a flowing list of the murtids (apostates). These people now make up a considerable part of our country and its executing bodies.

A war is no war without a re-education of this society — a reframing that demands that Muslims are part of a milieu on the same path as those who wish this country well, regardless of religion, caste or creed. We need a Pakistan where the role of women is defined by women, where questions of science are answered unadulterated with scripture, where reason and rationality are supreme and, ultimately, free thinkers and critical thinkers are the ones moving the country forward. Where we do not just tolerate our minorities.

Sris Chandra Chattopadhyay again: “In my conception of state where people of different religions live, there is no place for religion in the state. Its position must be neutral: no bias for any religion. If necessary, it should help all the religions equally. No question of concession or tolerance to any religion. It smacks of inferiority complex. The state must respect all religions: no smiling face for one and askance look to the other. The state religion is a dangerous principle. Previous instances are sufficient to warn us not to repeat the blunder. We know people were burnt alive in the name of religion. Therefore, my conception is that the sovereignty must rest with the people and not with anybody else.”

Jinnah, our founding father, categorically denounced the option of a theocracy for Pakistan. He expected the principles he founded the country on to be upheld. Never in his wildest nightmares would he have thought that it would be members of the minority community who would have to defend and plead for their rights as he had once done in United India.
This war has to have interventions from all pillars of the state for it to strengthen its spine. It has to identify the enemy, even those within, even those we birthed, otherwise we will be drinking soup with a knife.

Farzana Parveen’s killing must trigger change for women in Pakistan

Published in The Guardian on May 29th 2014

On 27 May 2014, as Farzana Parveen lay dead on the uneven floor of the Lahore high court, it was not easy to ignore the blood-stained brick next to her. A chador she had worn that morning covered her crushed head. Police investigators said that members of her family had attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks. Farzana was three months pregnant.

This murder stands out among the 900 honour killings committed over the past 12 months in Pakistan because it happened at the very place she had come to seek justice. She was apparently killed for doing something that was her right according to the law – marrying the man she loved. She was there to record her statement against a false allegation from her family that claimed that her husband had kidnapped her. If her husband hadn’t escaped the attack, he too would be dead.

The crowd had looked on. This is what Pakistan is increasingly becoming now – a country of 180 million or so onlookers. The papers reveal one violation of human rights after another, and women are mostly the targets.

Perpetrators of honour crimes mostly try to justify their acts by appealing to religious doctrine. This is ironic. In pre-Islamic days, daughters would be buried alive. Islam put an end to that ghastly tradition. Now, those with the same pre-Islamic thinking just stone women when they are older.

If one were to plot the human rights violations on a graph, 2014 would likely form a spike. The geopolitical situation is not helping – neither is the choice to negotiate with the extremist Taliban. With the kind of discourse flooding our newspapers and airwaves, it might as well be the terrorists calling all the shots.

No surprise, then, that there are only muffled cries from an anaemic civil society. People are now afraid of putting their necks on the chopper of protest.

With around eight million more women now in the workforce than there were 10 years ago, one cannot help but hope that it will be women themselves who will break the archaic mould they are forced into, and that it will be financial independence that will eventually free them from oppression.

These numbers, however, are less impressive when compared with those who have no access to an education in the first place. Although a demographic dividend of the kind Pakistan has – over 60% are below the age of 30 – is a blessing, the kind of education emergency that exists could send the country to the brink, making it a curse. Pakistan ranks second in the world for numbers of children out of school.

What can change this inevitable downward trajectory is a clear involvement of the international community with Pakistanis – a people-focused engagement – be it through developmental programmes, education via the media, or giving law-enforcement agencies the teeth they need. The key is more engagement not less.

It was Simone de Beauvoir who said: “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself – on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.”

We need, above all else, to be taught how to love without death.

The writing not on the wall

D-Chowk is the protest spot of Islamabad. It looks like a place where the earth has churned up concrete barriers and barbed wires. On one of the barriers, someone had graffitid: ‘Stop Shia genocide’. A few days later, it was black charcoaled, later it faded and the graffiti was visible again. Then it was white-outed, and that faded too. Eventually, some zealot, after obvious concerted effort, scraped it out altogether.

This is the capital, so the schema behind supporting the continuation of Shia genocide is a bit benign. Not the case with Taftan.

In Taftan on June 8, 2014, terrorists, suicide vests and all, blew themselves up in a hotel where Shia pilgrims were staying. Some of those who survived were sprayed with bullets. The final death toll was 30, including women and children. This national tragedy was morphed in the tiny tickers on news channels because of the Karachi airport attack. There are those in the media too whiting out the graffiti.

How do genocides begin? The first stage is a systematic dehumanisation of the target group.

In a report on hate speech on the internet, local advocacy organisation Bytes for All revealed that the group against which there was the highest quantity of hate speech recorded were the Shias. Our internet is again a milder form, reflecting our biases; the real hate speech happens through loudspeakers in mosques and in the pamphlets that are distributed after sermons that essentially glorify a certain mainstream brand of Islam and demonise the rest. Shias have always been easy targets.

The Hazara Shias have been particularly vulnerable because they are also an ethnic minority with easily distinguishable features and are relatively isolated. They also have few friends in high places. With a faith that is built on the reverence of those who faced persecution with moral courage, Shias are the least deserving of victimisation. Not that anyone ever is. Almost to their disadvantage, they are forced to practice the patience and fortitude only some of the greatest examples of Islamic history have had to face. They should not have to face this also because we are living 1,400 years from that persecution and also because the state has a constitution that is supposed to protect its citizens from genocide.

Terrorism is, unfortunately, a reality that anyone in this age needs to accept. The problem, however, comes from the numbness of our hearts as we turn off our inner humanity and tune into exclusivism and superiority. This mentality, now growing, helps create an aura of tacit approval for those carrying out these acts. Others, more mentally deranged, create their own franchise of terror in support of their ideology through arms. The government seemingly has no resources to contain terror, which is a product of incompetence and misplaced priorities. This has astounding and tragic implications in terms of lives lost, but it is not deliberate. What is unforgiveable, however, is their lack of leadership, lack of decisiveness and ineptness in the art of a counter sermon. However, they are not alone in supporting the pogrom.

The opposition, instead of providing the uniform voice that holds the spirit of the nation together, has instead dangerously ventured into narcissism on turbo. The ‘we-would-be-in-power-only-if’ narrative is both inconsequential and completely ignorant of the survival tools the country needs. The cure for less democracy is more democracy, and democracy does not just mean win, it also means synergise.

No one from the top party leaderships has condemned the Taftan tragedy with the fervour needed. Politicians, too, white out the graffiti. Jaishul Islam, a banned outfit, gloriously claimed responsibility for the attack in Taftan. Someday this group will take over a piece of our country, graffiti with the blood of minorities on its walls, which will be a pro-genocide message, some of the current prime time television evangelicals will have deputy positions in that political formation, women will stay indoors and come out in chadors (coverings) only to be shot in the head, girl children will stay home and boy children will take up jihad.

What seemed like Fox News dystopia for Pakistan is now a growing reality.

Holier than thou misogynists

Published in Daily Times on June 8th 2014

Acid burned, honour killed and choked, the Pakistani women who make the headlines are literally out of a nightmare. Like Farzana Parveen who recently was murdered by her own family with bricks outside the Lahore High Court, there are many such stories that expose the rot that society now seems to have ingrained. Only a few stories of these stories make it to the press, more than a thousand a year do not.

After writing about honour killings in the international press, I got feedback mostly from men in Pakistan condemning the act and clarifying that they indeed support women’s rights. I do not believe most of them. Although men are quick to be outraged at the extreme stories, they often are perpetrators of misogyny in their own spheres of influence. Expression of a patriarchal ethos does not come in two kinds: good or bad. It is all bad. It is bad enough to be a national crime because it pulls back developing countries like ours already decades behind in a competitive global economy.
There are ten common identifiers, a checklist of sorts to separate the misogynists from those who are truly supportive of women’s rights. There is no better gauge to test this than evaluate how men treat their women kin. First, the politics of housework is the first determinant. A misogynist most often will segregate the kitchen as a female territory, and extend this superiority over laundry or cleaning. It is shameful if this happens in a household where women stay at home but it is appalling if it happens if both spouses work and the woman gets to wear the crown of double duty. Women who work often have to over-achieve domestically because society penalises them for having their own career independence.
Second, we are a tragic nation for having fathers that do not raise kids. This too is left to be a woman’s role whereas it is clear that this is a learned and conditioned construct that is a norm in most civilised societies. Furthermore, when raising girls, men have a Pavlovian way of rewarding girls for being submissive and punishing them for what in any boy would be a sign of intelligence. Our concept of ‘good girls’ are those who sit quietly in the corner and do not challenge the status quo.

Third, most men think the decision for a woman to seek employment is theirs and not the woman’s. Women are either asked to sit at home after an education or asked to discontinue work after they get married. Likewise, women who choose not to work cannot be sent off to do so. This may be a news flash but again the decision cannot be anyone’s but hers.

Fourth, stereotyping women is one of the most common practices. Not surprisingly, last week a large development organisation conducted a seminar on women journalists and a self-confessed senior anchor said that women often get their way to cover stories because they always resort to weeping. In a hall full of people, this man got away with reducing those experienced, professional women journalists of this country to manipulative dimwits. There is a breed of men who waste no time dismissing women, their capabilities, opinions and protest into the realm of overt emotionalism.

Fifth, most men are also employers in Pakistan, and if and when they finally choose to hire women, they most often choose to pay them below market value, even when these women prove themselves competent and efficient. This is draconian: research proves that women are more likely to spend on health and education than men. Sixth, given that most domestic help in the country are women, it is absolutely preposterous if one is to document the abuse that happens against them. Here, both women and men are guilty of this classist marriage with misogyny.

These women need to be treated equitably, which in real terms means treating them with more dignity than an average person deserves; instead the opposite happens. Seventh, there is rampant unwanted sexual advances happening, which finds open cultural sanction. The ‘no-means-yes’ doctrine is fiction not fact and no does mean no. Be it teasing or workplace sexual harassment there is really no place that women can find sanctuary when they step out of the house. Eighth, there is a reason why it is women who have uteruses.

They need to be the ones determining how many children they want to have, if at all and at what intervals. There can be collaborative decision making but it is the woman who has the override. Looking at the population explosion, it certainly does not look like women are calling the shots. Ninth, women are ultimately the ones to decide how to dress. Unfortunately, this column is not concerned with the fashion choices they make, but the decision about if they should cover up or not. Just as wearing the burka, hijab or niqab is her choice, so is not wearing it.

Tenth and most unforgiveable is limiting women’s mobility. Yet, women Pakistan-wide live in this imaginary jail. It is not enough to be outraged by honour killings. Clearly men need to ask themselves how they themselves perpetrate the notion of honour.

It is also not enough to eliminate just one word in the term ‘honour killing’. Both those words need to go.