Aisha Sarwari on BBC World on Maternity Leave in Pakistan

 

Aisha Sarwari, Co-founder of Women’s Advancement Hub (WAH) talks to BBC World about women in Pakistan balancing family and work.

The challenge remains for working women that as they feel financially strained, they have few safeguards from employers. Whereas the law mandates 3 months of paid maternity leave, the private sector is at discretion to do as it pleases and often women are fired after they fall pregnant.

Despite a safety net of social links that help raise children, women find they have a crisis balancing work and family. The men however do not participate or help in the caregiving industry.

 

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Aisha Sarwari quoted in Daily Mail on Jirgas

“It’s an honour-based system and there’s nothing more dishonourable than the rape of a woman within your family,” explained women’s rights activist Aisha Sarwari.

The men of the aggressor’s family must be shamed through the loss of their women’s dignity, Sarwari explained.

“That’s the balance of power in these communities, which makes sure that women are some kind of collateral.”

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-4764918/Women-collateral-Pakistan-jirga-justice.html

Aisha Sarwari in Newsweek Pakistan

PAKISTAN’S POPULATION BOOM

Giving women more of a choice in the matter could help, argues Aisha Sarwari, a feminist activist who has previously written on population and women’s rights. “Access to birth control for women can be a game changer,” she told AFP. “Ultimately the impact is that there are more resources to go around … Empowered women have fewer children, and this creates a mindset that leads to prosperity within families that is likely to be emulated across communities.”

Read More: http://newsweekpakistan.com/pakistans-population-boom/

Revenge rapes need to be punished harshly

A 400-year-old panchayat system is meant to protect only men. Men alone reap benefits from this system that operate out of the formal legal system of Pakistan. This is a system that proliferates male privilege. The same system made up of all-male village or tribe elders who make it up the ranks by their wife beating, philandering and social equity credentials often decides what calamity befalls women of this country. A particularly putrid one in Multan district decreed that a 16-year-old girl child is to be raped as a punishment for the rape her brother carried out.

This 16 year old’s brother had earlier raped a 12-year-old girl while she was cutting grass in the field. Justice under the panchayat system is based on a creed that commodifies and undermines women’s human dignity. It is based on a system that takes women’s consent away from them and places it securely in the hands of these tribal elders. It punishes men who transgress by punishing their women. “Their” is the operative word. Women belong. Men own. Women are subservient. Men dominate. Women are victimized. Men victimize. Women have to be the honor of the man. A man can be dishonorable and have no harm fall on his own self. There is impunity for transgressions against women.

It is a brilliant system that works to ensure that men fester, prosper and thrive. Where women are shut down hard after they whimper.

This time around though, the women did whimper a bit harder. Some noise was made because there was now a mechanism of noise. There was a Violence Against Women Center in Multan where the families of both these young raped girls registered an FIR. They had a grievance. The right to have a grievance was taken away from women before, and now under a new law, this is given back to women.

Revenge rape should technically mean that the man who raped a mere child should have been raped himself. In a misogynist culture like ours it means his sister, also a minor gets raped.

This tells us that for the panchayat it is a more cruel punishment to the rapist to see his sister raped. Therefore, having your sister, so called dishonored, is worse than your own death.

The idea that women hold their own choices and reputation in their own hands is an alien concept. This is why when the panchayat was grudged for doing what they did they were flabbergasted and unaware of where they had gone wrong. It is how it is always done: this was their defense. They knew no alternate universe because a woman is either a mother or a whore, with heaven at her feet or a fallen woman unworthy of a pulse. The space between these two extremes is unimaginable for these men.

There were reports suggesting that it was the women who implored the Panchayats to decree that the rapist’s sister is raped by a mass of men. This is painfully troubling on so many levels, if true. Women have been brought down over eons to a place where there is zero sympathy for their collective rights. They have been brought to a point of low self-esteem that they defer to the male code to function. They have outsourced their agency to the men, to their husbands, sons and fathers and to the panchayat.

How do we unlearn this subjugation? How do we hold up our sense of womanhood and call a violation a violation? How do we recognize that we have a contract with the state and a crime against us is a crime against the state?

The Violence Against Women centers are a start. This is where these two girls are now sheltered. This is where the Chief Minister of Punjab may visit them. This is where they may receive justice. This is where they will find out that all perpetrators of this crime, including members of the panchayat will face up to 25 years of imprisonment or even a death sentence.

Will this be revenge to the rapes of these two girl children? Probably not enough to restore them to their original state psychologically, but it will be a start to send a sure message to this marred country that women are not property, they are equals to men.

This is a revolutionary idea for now – One that Panchayats will have to die to find out.

 

 

Careem’s rishta aunty reinforces patriarchy

The rishta aunty is the biggest omen of patriarchy. She reinforces the segregation of sexes and takes the agency of young women into her own hands by choosing who young women will spend the rest of their lives with. Probably pushed to the sidelines of society all their youth that have a lot of retributive feelings towards the world, which they then take out on young women who remind them of their lost youth. Their entire lives the biggest decisions they could make was to buy their choice dishwashing soap after many failed attempts, or to choose when to stop co-sleeping with their teenage sons. Therefore this power over other young women is like their crack cocaine – giving them a rush of a lifetime.

They love watching a young suitable girl meekly walk into the rishta room with a trey of tea and pastries that she herself made for the judgment and ridicule. They love scanning a young woman like a lioness watches grazing deers in the Serengeti. They love asking a young woman probing questions like a forensic doctor cuts open a cadaver in a mortuary. They love picking on flaws of these young women – too talkative, too short, too dark, too nervous, too uneducated, too educated, too dull or too intelligent. There is so much subjectivity at play that young girls don’t understand what they did wrong to be rejected by a suitor who also goes though the same intermediary rishta aunty.

If rishta aunties were anything to write home about, or were even matchmaking fairly decently, there wouldn’t be these many episodes of stove burning, acid burning, domestic violence and harassment that women face across Pakistan regardless of any factor and there certainly wouldn’t be these many women in need of philological attention.

Instead of extinguishing the rishta aunty culture, the corportaes want to establish it. Careem, the Uber ride-sharing app of Pakistan, has now introduced a rishta aunty sharing option while you ride. It is ingenious as a marketing strategy, but only if you care about men, for whom the rishta aunties provide a way of checking a social equity box. The men for whom the world’s other wonders are open nonetheless, rishta aunty or no rishta aunty, marriage or no marriage. This service is an abomination to all women, not just independent and free-thinking women.

Women are rarely given any choices. The one choice to marry the person they are compatible with is only an urban and upper middle class phenomenon that leaves out majority of Pakistani women. Even when women are allowed the veto on not marrying a man selected for them, there are so many social and religious and cultural mores to abide by that it’s much easier for them to just fall back on the heinous rishta aunty culture – at least that way when all goes to hell after the marriage young women may gather some pity because it would not be all on them. These young women who choose their own spouses have to face hellish wrath if the man turns out to be incompatible. There is so much blame.

Whereas the men have an infinite list of physical attributes to give the rishta aunty as she ventures out to look for a suitable girl, the girl is only on the receiving end of the onslaught of demand. She cannot by any means ask for a stud muffin with an understanding of all things existential no matter what she does.

This is how it apparently works: The rishta aunty moves her domain of question-asking and objectification from the drawing room to the car. This time, rather than spectators who belong within the family, a stranger, the driver, is witness to this intellectual and emotional stripping down of a young girl. Whoever designed this needs to go to the school where they train you to be an Aztec.

It is 2017, Muslim women have won the field’s medal, Pakistani women have scaled the Everest and won Oscars and still none of that is enough. When will you stop diminishing women?

 

Dyslexia will push us back if we let it

I grew up in a school where corporal punishment was the norm. Another norm was I being on the receiving end of it. Teachers were almost always displeased at my reading and writing ability.

It took me longer than my classmates to read a passage. Words seemed so altered that they spelled differently in my head. I remember being made fun of often by peers and teachers. I remember the humiliating label of being called lazy. I thought perhaps my eyesight that was weak but even after I wore glasses, things made little sense cognitively on the blackboard. Math particularly was so daunting that I’d break into cold sweat each time the teacher walked in the class.

Turning left or right made the same sense to me when finding my way home from school because it was all a maze anyway. I felt this way, and with this feeling a spectacular kind of shame too, as if together bundled up like two tracks on a railway.

I had what experts call a specific learning disability (SLD) that makes the Broca’s area in my brain process what I see differently from a more healthy brain. It is also known as Dyslexia. As more awareness grows about Dyslexia, young girls such as my younger self are finding a word to shield their sense of inadequacy with. As will young boys.

It took me a US college education to be assessed as dyslexic after my English paper was returned to me underlined in red throughout with the professor insisting I get texted for dyslexia because my spellings were so horrendous. Even then, I would be told to check again, because just maybe, it wasn’t dyslexia, but that I was plain stupid.

Now for young girls like my former self there is a whole month to commemorate – October. There may not be brown girls yet, but there are white poster girls like Erin Brocovich and Keira Knightley to look up to.

There are popular yesteryear Bollywood movies like Tare Zameen Pey by Amir Khan that humanized the story from the angle of the sufferer. From the perspective of a boy child pitted against parents who make academia an Olympic sport.

Growing up dyslexic is like having a disability but without the pity and the perks. In its invisibility lies its greatest harm. I felt threatened by anything remotely academic. Getting a passable grade in Calculus, Statistics or Philosophy for that matter meant it would take twice as long and thrice as hard because I’d have to repeat things over and over.

Looking back, the one thing that got me to a passable reading level was my mother’s intervention. When she knew I was struggling, she taught me a few tricks. One was that she taught me to sound words in my mind’s ear. The other was the ability to break words into architectural blocks so they can be frozen as separate entities and put back together in my mind by my mind’s ear. I learned orally. I’d read notes to myself and learn by hearing them.

Without knowing it, my mom was somewhat following the techniques experts are using to help teach learning tools to dyslexic children. Some children are visual learners, for instance. Dyslexic children need to find what works for them.

In my research, I have come across a new program to be launched by the KP government to help 178,972 dyslexic children across KP. This education intervention aided by DFID is to first help with early detection via assessments. In a pilot study, turned out that 7.8% children were dyslexic in 15 schools with mild to severe levels.

Under this pilot there is to be training imparted to 16 master trainers; a train-the-trainers program targeting 272 teachers from 136 schools across 4 districts and a mass awareness campaign for parents and teachers.

These alone cannot be enough. I doubt that someone would have intervened in my case with only these aids. This is perhaps why there is an equal push in KP to bring about changes at the policy level – to make dyslexia assessments compulsory upon each child’s entry into the formal education system; to allow for teaching techniques especially for dyslexic kids; to allow them extra time during assessments and also to have a vigilant system that monitors their academic progress.

We need teachers to understand dyslexia. We need them to be kind with this understanding. We need them to put in the extra hours on the children who struggle. For this, not just in KP but across Pakistan, there needs to be such programs. Who knows what world we would be living in if Einstein did not find a way around his dyslexia?

Another woman politician, same Khwaja Asif

Misogyny, in Pakistan is largely a bipartisan exercise. However, with Khwaja Asif’s recent tweet about Firdous Ashiq Awan joining PTI and insinuating that she is a “newly acquired dumper,” he made PML N take the cake for misogyny. I won’t be surprised if secretly, he’s gloating, along with his haggard cronies, who undoubtedly make him feel like he’s 007. Except that toxic masculinity is loathsome, disgusting and so 1970s.

As a 15 year professional, I once walked into an all-male meeting where many wanted to know what I cook best. The systematic effort that is made to strip any semblance of power from women, regardless of how much of it they have, is a lauded male sport here. The higher women go, the more men seem to have permission to attack them. Remind them that they belong indoors, safely away from public space, because public space is male territory.

Firdous Ashiq Awan and Shirin Mazari, who Khwaja Asif called a “tractor trolley,” are not the exception, but the norm. Khwaja Asif many years ago called a woman MPA who limped slightly, a “penguin.” I wrote against it then. He’s done it again, and here is my second piece that only proves that shame is not a viable weapon against the patriarchy, perhaps only violence is.

Someone like Khwaja Asif will only respect people who can hurt him. Sadly, when women parliamentarians, the 21% of the whole lot have fought way too many Khwaja Asifs to be where they are. In the end the joke is on him – and his immense male privilege, his class privilege, the comfort that comes from being part of a majority in a country that only salutes majoritarianism.

Not only is sexism adopted as a go-to strategy across party lines, by both men and women, it is largely a global phenomenon. We saw Hillary Clinton face its wrath in this year’s US elections. Some predict that is what cost her the election – she didn’t reject feminism, didn’t make her feminism palatable enough, acceptable enough, as if she were making crème brûlée and not rooting to be at the helm of the world’s biggest power house.

Therefore, women in power, it isn’t surprising, adapt to the anti-woman culture by rejecting feminism. They say they are not like the men-haters and the bra-burners. They are just there to make a real difference to all people. They say they are pro-men. Blessed be the fruit. They say, acknowledging that they are in politics but that at first they are good homemakers. Maryam Nawaz is slightly stung by this phenomenon.

Fact remains that the Maryam Nawazs are still shamed, still ridiculed and still undermined. The commentary is still going to be how they carried themselves, what they wore, how doe-eyed they looked and ultimately how unworthy.

You’ll never see men judged by such high standards of scrutiny. They could show up to a press conference with a questionable blotch on their suit and it’ll go unnoticed, may even get a bravo. After all bravado is maleness.

Khwaja Asif’s comments against women politicians is violence itself. Unjustified violence. Aimed to put women with power in their place, to delegitimize them, to remind them of their worth, to unsettle them, to rattle them, to humiliate them publically, to ridicule, and yet none of it is going to change the fact that men like him are on their way out. The biggest victory for these women who get scape gloated and shamed is that they are paving ways for younger ones who will enter politics with the speed of disruptive technology. They are charting a path in time that thankfully leads to one direction.

One day he’ll wake up and he’ll realize it’s 2017. Nothing sadder than an old man whose James Bond fantasy smells strong coffee.

 

 

 

The Anti-Harassment Diva of Pakistan

“I can’t fade.” Tanzeela Mazhar is the woman who took a man down on charges of harassment in the workplace. She has so much of what young people today call swag. When she walked in to meet with me this is the last thing I thought she would say.

These are words that are both triumphant and also telling of the vulnerability women face when they come out of their shell and expose a man for bad behavior. She wore printed pants, a baby pink printed scarf over a button down white shirt and matching pink lipstick. She looked like she had dressed for TV as a role of an anchorperson.

She played this role in Pakistan Television for about a decade. “You have to be on air. That is how you make it as an anchor.” Which meant that all the time her boss, the man she accused, pulled her out of the limelight for turning his advances down, she was in career oblivion. Her boss would not just be a sleaze, he would come on to her physically, touching her, making her feel unsafe. “What matters is how small someone made you feel.”

Yet in Pakistan what matters is what physical harm was actually done, what the backstory is and why a woman brought this on herself. A gross culture of misogyny, of victim blaming and of sanction over the violation of consent, Mazhar has become the voice of women who have emerged on the other side of an anti-sexual harassment campaign with both her dignity and sanity intact. The latter was a real struggle. There were propped up charges of blasphemy on her to frighten her into quiet. When all else failed the right wing, which was squarely in the accused pocket, said that she enjoyed favors from her boss and is crying foul when they stopped.

“Somehow if a man abuses his privilege and doles out favors to women he preys on the fault is the woman’s and no one would point a finger at him for overstepping his authority.” In this culture of vile neglect of a woman’s narrative, Mazhar has dared to ask questions. Very uncomfortable ones and that too publicly. She asked them on the very medium that she commands: The media.

She recorded a series of video logs where she asks why women are not believed when they complain against lewd behavior, unwanted sexual attention and violation of physical boundaries. “This is a place where minors are raped. Yet we are more secure believing the best about men.” She recorded this and put it on social media. It received over 400 retweets and likes on Twitter.

There has been overwhelming support from women and even among young men for her bold work. It points to the fact that the new Pakistan is bone tired of the old order. Since her expose, many women have come to her and told her horrific stories about how they were harassed, then silenced.

Mazhar took her complaint to the ombudsman for harassment. Unfortunately despite a recorded conversation between her and the accused clearly proving his culpability the committee ruling was that there wasn’t enough evidence. “I didn’t want to knock on the court doors only to get another turn down of my voice.” Instead she beat him at the age-old game of credibility denting that society pits against women. She spoke out so vehemently and so loud with so much data that the truth was out there no matter what some committee felt.

For ages men have set the tone. They have laid out the verdicts. They have charred the course and decided who gets to speak and whose voice doesn’t count. Mazhar refused to give that power to anyone else. “People tried to tell me what I feel, where I was at fault and what I must do.” When women break the shell the go-to process is to think on their behalf.

Mazhar’s biggest disappointment: women. “I’ve propped up so many women, yet only a handful publicly supported me.” Even those women who were harassed by the same man hung her to out to dry on her own. There was support, sure, privately, in the dark.

Dark is how it is best the struggle is described. First, the battle for your story being heard. Then, afterwards, the battle of getting the story to be believable. Mazhar’s family supported her but not without peril. “As a girl who fetched water from the river in her childhood, the conservatism was a river I almost drowned crossing.”

 

She wouldn’t swap the journey for anything though. When I asked her if there was a class issue in her fight for justice: without a doubt. “It was so much more easier to dismiss me.”

Women like Mazhar would have been avoided like the plague, but she didn’t let that happen. She takes selfies and posts them to tell that silent constituency that is watching her: “There is no way in hell I am fading.”

I have been harassed several times. I have never had the courage to speak up like Mazhar. When we met I felt my voice was handed back to me. I first heard her speak at a conference where I tweeted her immortal words. “We must shame men who think women who work are fair game.” This is me, helping her staying alive in our consciousness as the darkness of silence engulfs us, and helping her do what so naturally comes to her – become the relatable face of women’s strength in Pakistan.

 

Mashal Khan’s Lynching in Pakistan points to a bigger loss

A tragedy always has a greater one lurking behind it. Waiting to descend like a slow mist over the aftermath of what is the first strike. Pakistan however has had a series of them. When Mashal Khan was dragged through the corridor of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, he kept pleading and asking his assailants not to hurt him because he did not commit blasphemy. His assailants eventually became his killers. When they were were lynching him, he was professing his love for the Prophet Muhammed. He kept begging to be taken to the hospital. Tragic, but the aftermath even more so.

Pakistanis are now investigating and finding reasons to prove that he was pious and therefore lynched when he shouldn’t have been. In other words, there is a public acceptance of lynching in certain circumstances. Others are glad it happened because, where there is smoke there is fire. A few even think that intellectually curious people like Mashal Khan deserve this fate and must be made a lesson out of. All three cases tell a tale of a country that is deeply diseased; hemorrhaged in its cognitive abilities and cannot chose which path to take tech progress takes over their medieval thinking – amplifying bigotry, sectarianism and religious extremism.

To label is to be reductive. We may call this extremism but it is in fact a long-standing policy of the government to witch-hunt people they don’t like. Almost like genocidal maniacs they arrive too late to make a statement against such blatant jungle rule. Otherwise they could easily declare mob lynching a criminal offence and try them swiftly in anti-terrorism courts – courts that come in handy to crucify people they label anti-state. If a mob takes it upon itself to kill a student accused of blasphemy, and the authorities stand by, it is hard to understand what writ there is left of the government, if at all.

Fear is the go-to emotion in Pakistan today. Every right-thinking person has terror gnawing at them because if they condemn Mashal Khan’s murder then they call to questions their own credentials as good Muslims – Supporting an alleged blasphemer is just as terrifying a prospect as being killed by stones. For good reason too – the state made little ado about a handful of disappearances of prominent bloggers and journalists in the country over the last few months.

Proving both their sanction and their warning. So palpable, that we now refer to the disappeared as a state of mind. When we want to know why someone isn’t writing their newspaper columns or closed their social media accounts we are told they have disappeared. Neighbors, extended family, people whom you shamed in the past all become potential snitch, potential accusers who can get you killed. It is McArthyism. It is the Argentinian state in 1976-1983. It is Nazi Germany. Except that no one is talking about it so it is glacial as it is horrific.

Routinely members of the Ahmedi sect are rounded up in false up blasphemy charges. Rimsha Masih, a down-syndrome girl from the petrified Christian community was accused of burning pages of the Quran in 2012 and was almost on death row when somehow her life was spared. In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri, the security guard of Punjab’s sitting Governor Salman Taseer, killed the man he was sworn to protect because he said Taseer was a blasphemer. Taseer showed his support to a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is still in jail because she dared to squabble with Muslim women who likely framed her on blasphemy charges. Though the blasphemy law in Pakistan is a tool to settle feuds and grievances and disproportionately and makes victims out of non-Muslims, but Muslims are just as afraid of its far-reaching tentacles.

Muslims for whom innovation, invention, brands and art have been elusive and removed, one ultimately understands why. There is an all-pervasive, ever present threat facing anyone who is non-conformist, even in the most benign sense. Our Galileos are elsewhere. As are our Einsteins and our Steve Jobs. The opportunity cost that this nation pays for the fear against freethinking could pay off world debt thrice over.

So the biggest tragedy then of mob lynching Mashal Khan is that people are going to find ways to justify it; explain it or say it was a case of mistaken identity. All of which is not the truth – the truth is that it is 2017 and the government in Pakistan allowed a mob murder, because people perceive, almost with surety, that they will get away with it. A lot of missteps; bad judgments and impurity towards crimes have to brought them to adopt this perception.

This can be undone, symbolically at least, if the men who did this to Mashal Khan are brought to justice. Sadly, out of the three leading parties only PML – N, the sitting government can do it. Maybe, just maybe all that opportunity cost of the progress we could have had, slows down.