Books with alternative narratives launched

Published in Dawn here

ISLAMABAD: Huma Siddiqui, 47, an electrical engineer by profession, has been looking for a job since 2008 with little luck.

It’s not that Ms Siddiqui is incompetent. She graduated from the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore in 1997 and then joined the Pakistan Air Force. She was ranked the best all round performer in her course.

“I had to resign in 2008 because I was pregnant and it wasn’t possible for me to work. I had two children, so I devoted all my time to my children at home and raised them,” Ms Siddiqui said at the launch of two books, held at a local hotel on Saturday.

Eight years later, Ms Siddiqui started looking for a job, but couldn’t find one. “There should be some mechanism to bring women who leave their jobs for their children, into their field and give them the opportunity to play a role in the development of the country. They should not be ignored because they are women,” she said.

Ms Siddiqui is one of many doctors, engineers and other professional women who left work after they married. This phenomenon was discussed during the launch of ‘Navigating Feminism: Fight by Fight’ by Aisha Sarwari. Ms Sarwari is a member of the USAID communications department, and has authored her first book.

Some participants asked whether women who leave their jobs are a burden on society and the national exchequer.

Moneeza Hashmi, a TV personality and the daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, said that although she believes that women should work, she would prefer that an educated woman raise children rather than an uneducated mother.

Ms Sarwari said gender discrimination was what pushed her to write the book, which featured over 20 incidents and stories of women who had suffered or excelled.

She added that women should work together, because they could accomplish a lot collectively. She said the internet will be a game changer for women, as it provides them with the opportunity to contact people.

Benazir Income Support Programme chairperson MNA Marvi Memon said things had started to change in favour of women.

“A lot of legislation for women has been made. I was alone while working for acid legislation, but then women from all the political parties became involved. We are making progress in this fight. We should push other women to work,” she said.

Rakshanda Naz, an activist, said Pakistan’s laws are discriminatory, and added that working women are a soft target for militants and those who oppose their work. However, she said things are changing as the literacy rate in girls is increasing.

‘Between Worlds: A Pakistani’s Quest to Forge Meaning’ by Yasser Latif Hamdani was also launched at the event.

Mr Hamdani, a writer and lawyer, said he has been trying to create an alternative narrative for the betterment of society.

“Some elements try to project Quaid-i-Azam as a biased Muslim, but this is not correct. Mr Jinnah never allowed the exclusion of Ahmadis from Muslim League,” he added.

In response to a question, Mr Hamdani said the 1973 Constitution is not a document of consensus because minorities were not involved in deciding that a non-Muslim cannot be a head of state.


Book Review: Relatable face of feminism

Book review of Navigating Pakistan Feminism – Fight by Fight written by Aisha Sarwari was published in The News on Sunday here

Arshed Bhatti March 6, 2016

Real life stories of women who got perished, who were triumphant, and who still are holding the fort of resistance and defiance

“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.” Simone de Beauvoir

In Pakistan, the fate of women keeps hanging by the uncertain hooks of men’s whimsical, elastic and mutable stances of control, care, affection and aggression. These men are fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, husbands, and sons. Then there are faceless, nameless persons, both men and women, who as volunteer proxies of fathers, brothers and husbands contribute to collective, paternalistic bidding against all women ensuring that the tormenting flow and presence of coercion and control do not break.

Aisha’s essays help us navigate through the recent and real life stories of women who got perished, as well as those who were triumphant, and those who still are holding the fort of resistance and defiance.

“We need, above all else, to be taught how to love without death”, is a lament with which Aisha Sarwari, the author of Navigating Pakistani Feminism ends her moving piece that she wrote following the brutal killing of Farzana Parveen inside the Lahore High Court in May 2014. “Farzana Parveen’s killing must trigger change for women” is one of the 42 reflective articles and essays that embody the book which offers accessible account of women’s shine, struggle and suffering in Pakistan.

“On hearing the news of Farzana’s killing, I felt a betrayal; and I decided to pick up the fight myself,” she says while talking about her book that followed a personal rage to do something, something real.

The book was launched in Islamabad on Jan 30; and was attended by eminent women’s rights activists and advocates. It was moderated by Moneeza Hashmi and chaired by Marvi Memon.

“I never intended to publish my writings in the form of a book, but it happened incidentally when I was looking for publishers for my husband’s book, and the publisher (who published his book as well) was looking for feminist writings from Pakistan,” she says.

The 42 pieces and an elaborate introduction of the book take us through the dark, bright, grey, some delightful but mostly tragic and ironical labyrinths of socio-political maize of Pakistani society, polity, patriarchal mindset and omnibus phenomenon of subcutaneous asphyxia that compels women to breathe their existence either very quietly or in fits and starts.

If we bifurcate the disabling and enabling conditions which deny or can allow women in Pakistan a life of equal opportunity, dignity and choice, these essays and articles protest at and contest all of them. Domestic, and fatal, violence against women in the intimate spaces, with many faces and forms, comes out as the most upsetting and debilitating occurrence. The absence of mobility on one hand, and no control over reproductive or recreational choices on the other form disabling bond that fetters women’s unabated walk through their own lives. Sexual harassment, which many men feel naturally entitled to, and a collectively dispensed moral policing that exercises itself through institutional and individual acts, formulate an invisible to the unaware eye but very palpable and omnipresent glass-cages. Aisha not only helps us (all men, and many women too) see these, but also feel their choking.

“If you are lucky to have two right men in your life, your father and your companion, then the life and journey of a girl and a woman is very different, very pleasantly different,” said Aisha.

Both in the book and in personal conversation she emphasises the critical importance of a woman’s say in her reproductive rights. On the debate of ‘who controls women’s bodies’, she goes deep inside, both literally and metaphorically, when she asserts, “woman ought to be the incharge of their uteruses.”

Aisha Sarwari is the affable activist who believes in ‘fight by fight’ engagement with laws, customs, norms and traditions — and the custodians of these, i.e. men. She believes an incremental but continual change will provide impetus to sustainable transformation for women in Pakistan.

“All I would like to see around in Pakistan is that alternate lifestyles and choices by women are allowed to exist. Women are allowed to breathe, and they can love, smile and protest without fear,” she states.

Although it’s a book of non-fiction, the way Aisha weaves and tells the stories of real women in and of Pakistan, it reminds one of last year’s Indian movie PK. What PK does to the mindless following and internecine practice of religion and faiths, by telling stories of humans we can relate to, her book does the same to patriarchy amidst us and its ramifications around us.

Navigating Pakistani Feminism brings to the fore a real, relatable and affable face of feminism. The articles and essays are a delightful read, perhaps because they are written with forceful compassion, deep conviction and intimate empathy. And they quite amiably convince a reader that women in Pakistan are equal beings in all manners and by all means, and they must be treated as such.

Navigating Pakistani Feminism — Fight by fight (A collection of essays)
Author: Aisha Sarwari
Publisher: Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi, 2016.
Pages: 162

Arshed Bhatti
The author, a former civil servant, is a political analyst, and a song writer. He can be reached at

Book launch: Navigating Pakistani feminism, a page at a time

Published in Tribune here

ISLAMABAD: The cause of feminism in the country is a fight because when women are being killed, raped, being led out of school, subjected to domestic violence and discrimination at work, it is indeed a fight.

This was stressed by author Aisha Sarwari at the launch of her book titled ‘Navigating Pakistani Feminism: Fight by Fight’.

At the launch on Saturday, Sarwari read a few excerpts from her book and said that the internet is a game changer for women. “There has to be literacy in order for women to operate the internet but it is a huge harnessing vacant force that women can leverage for reproductive, health and mobility rights because today even the educated women are not aware of their rights and what it is to be a truly empowered woman,” she added.

In response to a question of how we normally carry on after hearing about a five-year-old being raped or a bombing at a girls’ school or a young couple being shot for honour just because they wanted to get married, the author said that there are always two things one can do with their experiences in such a scenario. “One is that you can choose to be overpowered by it and second is that you can choose to do something about it,” she said.

Sarwari stated that she used her writing as a tool to express the angst about what happened. “This is the first step towards understanding the broader context of what change requires”.

Talking about the ways in which change can be brought, Aisha said that we need men who are advocates of women empowerment. “The amplification is much more when men are on the pedestal advocating for women’s rights, as compared to when women do it,” said the author.

Rakhshanda Naaz, a women’s rights activist, highlighted that shrinking spaces is major issue for Pakistani women. “Women are constantly facing that the spaces where they had rights to go are being taken away from them. Women had the right to go into the field, they were mobile but mobility is the major issue and restriction for women today”, she said while stating that the state’s policies still do not encourage women to stand up for their rights.

Marvi Memon, PML-N MNA, supported the title of the book and said that it is indeed a fight. “I say so because it takes a fight to stand up for legislations that support women and empower them. And it has been a beautiful struggle because there has been progress,” she said.

She also added that it is important for us to promote such books for general awareness. “This needs to be read and we should push other women’s work. Women need to stand up for each other. The empowered women of this country need to show the way to the less empowered ones,” she said while speaking about the ways to achieve progress on this fight.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2016.

‘Navigating Pakistani Feminism: Fight by Fight’ launched

Published by the News on Sunday here

With the premise that resolving the big questions on women’s rights, the Pakistani society will be on a progressive trajectory, leading women feminists gathered here at a book launch on Saturday.

Aisha Sarwari’s book, ‘Navigating Pakistani Feminism: Fight by Fight’, was the centre of discussion among veteran feminist Moneeza Hashmi, lawyer and women’s activist from KP/FATA, Rakhshanda Naz and Pakistani politician, Marvi Memon. While presenting their point of view, they laid down the need of a turn-around in the way women are treated in the country especially among those that are part of the informal sector.

The panellists agreed that without Pakistan providing legal and cultural protections for women, they will continue to face astounding levels of violence and harassment both in the domestic and professional spheres. Pakistan has among the worst maternal mortality rates, violence against women rates and ranks second last on the gender equity scale globally.

Moneeza Hashmi talked about the need to recognise that there needs to be a unified voice against the subversive forces against women. “We are not here to only answer the conceptual questions about why feminism is important in this country, we are also here to say that women need to speak the same language and make the same noises because they are disadvantaged in the same broad way by those who feel we belong in the shadows,” she said.

Building on the idea that Pakistan was envisaged as an inclusive and modern state by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Yasser Latif Hamdani in his book “Between Worlds; A Pakistani’s quest to forge meaning” that was launched simultaneously,  argues that a Pakistan that does not safeguard its minorities and gives them equal rights as citizens is not a Pakistan worth having. The author is a columnist in the national press and lawyer by profession.

Expressing his optimism for the future, Hamdani said that with enough cycles of democracy, there is hope that Pakistan might fix some of its structural problems and become a modern and progressive state that it was envisaged to be.

A call to relook at what our children are learning

Publius Flavius cautioned us to prepare for war at a time of peace. The attack on Army Public School on December 16, 2014 is perhaps war for us as a daily presence, but how prepared are we against the thinking that perpetrates violence against children even now?

Terrorists murdered 144 of Pakistan’s young children, one of them a little girl and we felt its reverberations into every aspect of our lives. The state awakened from is slumber and was forced to turn towards the menace of extremism that thrived in its recesses. The army fixed its crocked compass and waged war on the Taliban. Parents perhaps never ever unthought the APS attack every time they would drop their kids to school in the morning. Children woke up with nightmares. No amount of regurgitating its harrows can help catharsis the pain. The real fear, however, is that these assaults on our children catch on.

Nowhere in the world have there been more attacks on school children than in the US. Researcher and avid writer Malcom Gladwell references Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter’s research on individual behavior during riots. In this research Granovetter talks of this concept called the threshold – The automatic ability of people in the madding crowd to be violent after the first psychopath makes the initial violent move, followed by others, one after the other. He talks of the referencing that goes on among even the most benign people to act out in violence because the cultural narrative of the time defines shocking violence against the weakest and most vulnerable. Since Sandy Hook’s 2012 attack on elementary school children, there have been over a hundred and forty school shootings in the United States.

If this is true then we have every reason to awaken; continue the war on the enemy; obsess over that fateful day and to wake up in a sweaty nightmarish state. If this is true we must also realize that it makes all the sense to work tirelessly to stop that next attack that the APS attack is likely to sadistically inspire. We must certainly not apply the ad hocism that Pakistan uses as a policy on the issue of our children’s safety and protection. To date, schools around Pakistan do not have the security measures that require it to make it unbreachable by possible terrorists.

Suppose for a moment that it is not only about building physical walls between our children and terrorists, then the challenge is even more expansive. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) a few months ago released a music video with the theme of taking measured revenge from the enemy by educating their children. Though a poetic misfire, this also fails on the count of being only partially accurate. There needs to be a concerted review of the content that our own children (not just the children of terrorists) are being taught in schools.

As a country that revised its school’s curriculum in the 70s on the lines of religious indoctrination – schools and madrassas both are jihadist factories – we have done nothing to toss out the garbage of self-righteousness. This is cannon fodder for the killers of our children who are erroneously thought to be from among psychopaths but in fact are from among our own milieu. The ISPR video should have demanded a revision of our own children’s school curriculum where only one specific brand of Muslims deserve to live.

Malcom Gladwell says invariably the form of these “riots” or instances of violence become more and more self-referential and more ritualized. What I would like to press is that we are a cesspool of possible violators whose threshold factors are very low. Our own schools produce the thinking that deemphasizes human values and inclusion.

The country has no capacity to face another APS like blow to its diaphragm. We have not only lost investments we have also had a considerable amount of brain drain and fleeing of expats after that attack. All this takes our country back years, restricts our influence both geopolitical and national and also intellectually stiffens our thinkers and opinion makers.

There are enough out these in the media, particularly the Urdu press that have taken the APS attack as an opportunity to play on the fears of Pakistan’s people – warning them of a dooms day scenario unless they become more exclusivist and inward. They play up their own brand of terror. There should be a special place in hell for them.

For now, we need to relook at our children’s books if we want to put an end to the increasing threshold of violence.