Girls at Mosques

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women’s fingers were cut off if they wore nail colour. There was a ban on women riding motorbikes. They were publicly whipped if anyone could spot their ankles. In Pakistan, most Jumma khutbas (Friday sermons) may not outright call for women’s public stoning, but they do obsess repeatedly over the subject on what ‘your women’ can or cannot do. The listeners may not hear the caveats in the sermons. So how do they act the doctrine out?

In Rawalpindi, a stone’s throw away from this country’s capital, anunknown gang has stabbed over 30 women in public since February this year. This story has not even got its usual share of condemnation and outrage from the government, let alone a high-level committee to investigate the matter and dish out severe punishments to the perpetrators. In fact it seems like it is inconsequential that a nurse called Anum Naz from among these 30 women succumbed to her injuries and died; that many women who survived are unable to function or that many women in the city are crippled by fear and have been denied permission by their families to pursue education or employment.

Totalitarian states make it a priority to control women’s fertility by confining them to the private quarters. We are not totalitarian. Our women make it to the Olympics. In semi-totalitarian states, the government looks the other way when women are stabbed because, well, women are not powerful enough to hurt the government, that’s for sure, but also because women apparently ‘bring it upon themselves’. No one is breaking and entering a house of any woman on a prayer mat and killing her. So if you want to save your lungs from a puncture, you know what you’ve got to do.

Well, we want control. Over both our prayer schedules and the content men get to hear in sermons during their congregational prayers, especially when these pertain to women. It is time to challenge the notion that somehow interpreting and passing down God’s decrees is a male-only domain. We can at the very least ask the government for regulated content in mosque sermons. When it comes to religious content, there are two kinds: the woman-hating and the woman-empowering. We choose to believe in the latter and that is only fair.

We also want our time for play. We want to go visit a friend when she graduates. We would also like to go to the local parlour to shape our eyebrows. Standing on the terrace and putting clothes to dry is such a 1980s way to get hitched. We want the coffee shops and the wedding dances. So just stop stabbing us. You’re standing between us and a jolly good time.

Public places are generally designed for men in Pakistan. Women are typically harassed by groping, abuse or stares the moment they step out into a domain where commerce, entertainment or leisure are arranged in a male-centric manner. My contention is that everything about this stems from keeping women out of sacred places, like mosques, in the first place. It only follows that if it is justified to keep women out of mosques or any other place of worship for whatever reason, those reasons can very well expand to the public space in general because the same stakeholder controls that space too.

There is a fantastic movement by the name of Girls at Dhabas that encourages women to stop by at local teashops to sip some chai. We need a similar initiative for places that make it their business to regulate women’s lives. Women’s divorce from the spiritual realm is at the root of the segregation of the sexes, which is in fact at the root of all discrimination and oppression. If the women Islam holds in high esteem have been involved in businesses, wars and migrations, then it’s only befitting that we can approach an imam with a list of questions about our status in society and have a discussion about it.

It was often said that women in the West were unprotected by the honour codes of our society, hence their need for pepper sprays and the panic buttons on their smart watches. All honour is fake honour. It never worked for them; it’ll never work for us.

No second chances

The murder of Samia Shahid, a Bradford resident who had a second marriage against her family’s will, is like being in a repetitive nightmare. It seems so familiarly eerie and without escape. Punjab Police, lead by a watchful committee summoned by the Chief Minister, now say her death in Pandori, Punjab was not a natural one like they first said it was. They say Samia was asphyxiated and the bruise on her neck shows signs of strangulation. Naz Shah a Bradford West MP who is personally pursuing the case and has written to the Prime Minister about it wants Samia’s body, which had a swift burial, exhumed and investigated fully.

What will be discovered after the autopsy is something everyone knows: Her family who are suspected to have killed her; her first husband who is at large; her second husband who has also got death threats and all Pakistanis. Like I said, this is familiar and inescapable. Everything points to this being an honor killing.

The state is interested in making sure it doesn’t embarrass itself with such high profile cases. What is does to prevent this is soft peddle around the famous cases, such as this one, then go back to being complacent for the small fish. The reason these murders keep happening is because the state fails at its measure of force. There is no muscle flexed to whip the wrong doers into line so no one ever tries it again. The problem is that they don’t follow the doctrine of no second chances.

In a Pakistan where no second chances are allowed, male lawmakers would not call their female lawmakers sexist names and continue to sit in parliament. In such a Pakistan the mob that burned to death a young teacher in Muree for rejecting a suitor, would not be at large. In such a Pakistan over 1000 honor-killings would not be reported on average every year. We shudder to think of the unreported numbers.

In a society where all freedoms, authorities and laws make men comfortable, anytime women define their will, it is considered an aggression – however micro. The reactionary murders of women, burnings or cuts and scrapes are then easily rationalized. This is a country that celebrates the valor of the brother who killed social media celebrity Qandeel Balooch. This is a country where educated young graduates celebrated the father who attempted to murder his daughter in Sharmeen Obaid’s film – A Girl in the River. How do we go from crowning murderers to empowering women without the state giving all offenders a clear message that wrongs against women are wrongs against the state?

We don’t. Instead the onus is said to rest on women. Why don’t change their state? Let’s just say that women are petrified. Not much transformation happens when self-preservation is a constant state of mind. The bolder women are eaten up, devoured by the hyenas this state protects. So we hide in corners, speak in monosyllables and look the other way when men oppress other women in our families, in our workplaces and in our parliaments. Sometimes we even join them in the oppression.

Last few weeks, Pakistanis have been rejoicing over the fact that a mocha-skinned native of this country who adopted America as his home showed Donald Trump some daylight stars. Khizar Khan who’s Pakistani-American son served in the US army, waved a pocket sized US Constitution to Trump and asked him to read it. We need a Pakistani Khizar Khan to wave the Pakistani constitution to its premier.

There are guarantees of equality in Article 25, 26 and 27. There are promises of no discrimination based on gender. Lets face it. If a Khizer Khan were to wave such a pocket edition of the Pakistani constitution, he’d be booed out, ostracized and worse, ignored.

The only way for people to snap out of the recurrent nightmare of honor killings is for the state to behave as it is under contract with its citizens to behave – give no second chances to murderers – To treat killing as killing. To severe the invisible but strong tie of women’s right to be individuals with the need for men to determine some shifty social status.

Thank you Qandeel

I feel the same way about Pakistani society failing its women as I feel about land mines – someone is bound to get maimed, pretty regularly. When Qandeel Balooch was drugged and strangled by her brother, I was abroad. What is worse than Pakistan failing its women is getting the news when you are on another continent. The distance adds to the misery. I could have held up a protest banner that echoes her #OneWomanArmy slogan. I could have signed a petition. To me, she was a feminist, not just a social media sensation.

In her death, Qandeel Balooch did just as much as she did alive. The opposite of death is vitality and she was so full of it. She tweaked, she let out husky noises and most of all she offended the sensitivities of men who believed in the oft-lived double life of craving her while condemning her – Fully comfortable in the realm of cognitive dissonance. I know many men who believed that their religious sensitivities were insulted by Qandeel. I also know many women who felt unnerved and threatened by her. Men can continue to wallow in their hypocrisy, it’s the women’s reaction that greatly disappoints me.

One particular women I was acquainted with went ahead to mouth the words: “good riddance” about Qandeel’s murder. She forgot that no one with a beating heart should be straggled to death with the violence that perhaps even barbarians don’t deserve. Qandeel was just up to some mischief. This is the one thing women are not allowed to have. It is only reserved for men. As women condemn Qandeel, they also forget that she is the one who bought them some more sacred space to be themselves.

In a body shaming culture, women are now freer to be who they are because of Qandeel. In a body hiding culture, women can expose slightly more than their eyelashes. In a culture that believes women are an afterthought, they can now occupy slightly more room than just the vanilla background. In a place where women’s voices are reserved for funerals, they can be more mainstream. Where everything boring was associated for women, there is now this obscure thing called fun.

Or there was fun, until she was honor killed.

About 500 or so women saw this fate only this year. This is a number that can fill an auditorium. Some men who felt that his honor was hinged to women’s behavior took their lives. It is time that we cut the tie between women actions and men’s dignity. As alien as this concept it, it is the only way forward – Unless we want the war on women to continue unabated.

To the women who were threatened by Qanteel and feel she was no feminist icon I ask: are they better off now? Now that a woman with a social media presence that spread into the millions is murdered, they can be sure ordinary women are more accessible to their killers. Now that a woman who wore her sexuality on her sleeve was choked to death, they better adopt the culture of permission-seeking from their male guardian as a standard procedure. Qandeel was only buying them their own freedom.

That kind of courage only comes from deep cuts. Qandeel was married off at 17 to a man who in her own words treated her like an animal. When she tried to escape her fate, her family did not support her. Somehow, in what is not short of a miracle she liberated herself, literally and figuratively. Financially too. In her liberation, she exposed the hypocrisy and rot in our society. In her death she helped us discover that there are some women whose morality allows them to cross many religio-cultural boundaries and also justify it, yet on the other hand they condemn Qandeel for her own lived experience – A case of pot calling the kettle.

In her quest to do a striptease for our cricket team if they won, she was really telling the world that she has thrown away the ownership of any man over her. Her freedom dance was premature.

Rest in peace, Qandeel. I have come back to a country that is reeling in confusion. I have come back to a country that is also now questioning its slippery laws and its lopsided victim-blaming tilts. It’s reviewing if its ok for murderers to get off the hook thanks to a pardon. For that small victory in dark times, we only have Qandeel to thank.

Where is our next women Prime Minister?

After a referendum in Britain where it chose to exit the EU, Theresa May, was swiftly the Prime Minister. David Cameron exited and she constitutionally took his place.

Britain has a woman Prime Minister and simultaneously a Muslim of Pakistani heritage Mayor of London. A win that clearly emerges from its centuries old democratic tradition and not from what our people rely on: influence. This is perhaps why our marginalized communities remain on the fringes.

Theresa May may be a proponent of tough terror laws and stringent immigration policies, her politics is not the point entirely. The point is that children in the UK, both boys and girls, will grow up knowing that having a woman Prime Minister is not just possible, but done, once again. A woman at the head of affairs running the country from its economy and investments to what policies govern its working class, talks volumes about how its not a question of if but a question of why not.

Malala Yousufzai said, “We will not accept a world where decisions about our future are made in rooms girls cannot enter.”

Sadly on our side of the world, women are kept behind closed doors where none of the decisions take place about anything substantive, except maybe the type of bread to have that day. We have such stubborn conservatism in this country that I bet it will survive a nuclear holocaust, the kind that will be left behind with the cockroaches.

Whereas Theresa May has identified that the wage gap between men and women in the UK must go, our challenge in Pakistan is that we want women to be seen. In some of our cities particularly in KP and FATA women aren’t allowed to take their kids to school, get milk or God forbid scout for economic opportunities.

The world is changing. We find that it is no longer defined by the values and preferences of as early as the 2000s. LEDs are going out of market, taxis are being replaced by Ubers and women are becoming more competent than men in many fields. Thankfully for the rest of the world the world is more fluid.

Inclusion of women in leadership positions means more productivity, more representation and more transparency, at the least. It also means respite from the ultra combative nature of men’s politics. It means a move towards inclusion and hopefully sustainability.

Men who prop men into positions of power do it at the expense of women’s silence. This creates a vacuum and those always must get filled.

The Suffragettes however warned us that women’s deeds and not words determine their feminism. Many in the UK find May’s policies lacking, particularly for women, even though she is propped as a “woman’s woman.”

From our more external perspective, May’s Prime Ministership is both a joy for women and somewhat of a taser gun. Its time we move 50% of the boys out, decade by decade. Its time Pakistani women are given the turn they deserve for the top positions.

On a recent Facebook post of a large Pakistani conference with an all male panel, I congratulated the organizers for excluding the entire cadre of women leaders in the country. They protested by saying they don’t care about optics and being fashionable. I both cringed and smiled – cringed because reducing equal representation to a game of optics is both unfair and unmindful of men’s privilege and I smiled because it is about time men start thinking its fashionable to have women included, because only then will be bring back the cool in equality.

Teresa May, whatever her politics may be, is a huge boost to the woman’s movement globally, without its pettiness. If her politics is bad, let it be, after all, how come men have the monopoly on making bad choices and somehow women are held up only to standards of perfection. The thing with leadership positions is that you can’t get it all right, and its about time that we are ok with women not getting it all right all the time, or even most of the time.

When our woman Prime Minister, the first one in the Muslim world, Benazir Bhutto said, “Democracy needs support, and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies,” perhaps she also meant that Pakistan could use 10 Downing street to lend it some inspiration – this time for once again, getting Pakistani women to at least start thinking about being Prime Minster.







Khwaja Asif should not get away with it this time.

Everyday sexism is much tougher to decipher. It’s difficult to call it out because it is cloaked under cultural subtext of humor, satire or plain smart-Alec talk. When women world over are trying to be nuanced about how to put an end to it, here in Pakistan, it is being institutionalized on the floor of our house. Blatant and for everyone’s viewing.

The sitting government’s parliamentarian addressed an opposition party (PTI)’s peer as a “tractor trolley” and said she should work on making her voice more feminine. Sadly, this uncalled for sexist attack on Shireen Mazari by was marked by not even a slap on the wrist by the speaker of the house.

Rather than evaluate the lame responses in its aftermath, let us talk about why this happened in the first place. It happened because when Khwaja Asif first insulted a woman of esteem it was forgiven as soon as it was forgotten. We have very large hearts as a society when it comes to offending women. We let it go instantly. Everything is palatable.

In 2002-2007 when Mr. Asif was in the opposition he insulted Ms. Mehnaz Rafiq of the treasury bench by calling her a “penguin” because she had a slight limp. Mr. Asif’s fascination with defining women’s bodies to animate or inanimate objects is better left to personal fetishes. It has no place in a parliament where there is sacredness about moral standards to protect the weak.

Even Benazir Bhutto in her hey days was not spared the sexist comments by none other than the overused prime time TV guest Sheikh Rashid who is known to have made inappropriate comments on the color of her clothes.

The problem is that women don’t go by the male code: You are as powerful as how much you can hurt me. Women reject the power derived from might, but this is not to be confused by the moral authority women can have over a schoolyard bully. Therefore, just because you can get away with a take down of a woman more often than not, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will each time.

Increasingly people want to see leaders with girth of character, not shoddy shot-fused temperaments. Khwaja Asif may be at the top of his political game now, but when he exists, he will be remembered for what names he called women.

He dared to go down the same path of putting women in a place he deems below him, all over again because when it happened before there was no outrage from women as women.

Even now, the unified voice across all party lines against this assault is missing.

By asking that all women should come out and side with Shirin Mazari I am not advocating female tribalism of any sort. We can disagree with her politics and also go to the extent of disapproving her actions but under no circumstances is it acceptable for any woman to take an attack on her country’s woman parliamentarian lying down.

With honor killing as rampant as it is, with the number of girl children being elbowed away from the education pie and with the astounding figures on our maternal mortality, women cannot expect any protections if the women representing them are being degraded publically – and the violators get away with it every time.

As a truly Pakistani gimmick, Khwaja Asif has come out with an apology today. The seriousness of it, or lack thereof is evident that the apology was very half-hearted and that too not to Shirin Mazari directly. She has rightfully rejected it. There is no such thing as un-stabbing, no such thing as un-insulting and no such thing as unlearning your place in the pecking order.

The food chain defining the VIP culture that Mr. Asif enjoys is a fast changing one. He’ll do well to go back to the shore and adjust his misogynist sails before setting off into the sunset.

No population control without women at the reigns

Of all the reasons why women should be included at all levels of policy-making, the fact that 800,000 children die in a year in Pakistan is the most critical one.

This country thrives on knee-jerk reactions but has glacial speed when responding to catastrophes. Our family planning arm is as good as a cholera-infested sewer with Pakistan missing its family planning targets, again. It didn’t even miss it by a few thousands but by an increase of about 4 million. You can fill 10 football stadiums with that number.

Just like an incorrigible child, Pakistan is daring to make a new projection by 2025 that it will miss again because of one thing only – Women in Pakistan are not in command of their uteruses. Their husbands, their mother in laws, their mosques and their poverty is.

We have secured the last place in the region in terms of average births per women. Nepal and Bangladesh are ahead of us. We fault our religion, but Iran didn’t let it come in the way, which just goes to show that once again our call to tradition is just a guise for our laziness and incompetence. Iran made contraceptives widely available at all public hospitals and clinics.

There must be something that should differentiate us from bacteria. We really should stop breeding because the more you are the better the odds for the species. There has to be a more revolutionary reason for having kids than that – because they look cute in tiny Disney castles, because they can rock at Lego, because they may become astrophysicists or because they can outdo counterparts at CERN or NASA or Broadway, perhaps?

This culture we so pride ourselves in, throw young girls into the institution of marriage without as much as a lecture on where the uterus is located and how menstruation works. There is only a proliferation of shame. There are only hushed voices and battered rebels. No one tells a young girl – don’t become a mother unless you figure this weird thing called life first. Don’t bare a child unless you are in a safe environment. Don’t become a serial mother just because you can’t enforce child spacing rules with your spouse.

The right to say no is practically non-existent for women here. Be it what to have for family breakfast or when to have children. Women breed until they bleed out, they keep having a chain of girls until they have that gold plated son most likely to be an entitled brat. They keep trying to gain some prestige in society until they have enough humans bonded to them by some overbearing code of honor. No surprise then that most women in hostile familial situations are asked to keep staying until the kids grow up and protect them. Like watching the grass grow.

Its unlikely that the women I define above will turn around but what I want to do is call out the policy makers, the politicians and the self-professed revolutionaries to pause. Halt whatever they think is more important (Religious leaders taking selfies with internet sensations, calling ex-diplomats treacherous or having border wars), and for the sake of the 40% of this country under the burdensome rock of poverty, get behind the family planning cause urgently.

Ever since Zia-ul-Haq we have cowed down to religious leaders giving family planning an unIslamic label. No God wants to wish a caravan of birth on a country where only about half are attended by a skilled medical practitioner. The misery and the blood have turned this region into a hellhole.

The state of women in this country was never a cause for alarm. This Ramzan, this blessed holy month, has seen more honor killings gore than ever. Yet, sooner rather than later, we will have to give our women, rural or urban a better way out to becoming a vending machine without a maintenance contract. They wear and tear. They feel hurt. They want to spend more of their time caring for a child then tending a heard. They feel care fatigue.

Dr Zeba Sathar, the country director of the Population Council of Pakistan in her research said that about 7 million women in Pakistan want to space births or no longer have children but that they are unable to do so. Those are 7 million rabbits in a cage for all practical purposes.

Continue to disempower women and good luck to trying to get this country to emerge into an economic survivor. Out of the 800,000 children that die every year, 35% die of malnutrition. The only problem is that this happens as a whisper and not a bang. We only respond to dog whistles.




The antidote to misogyny

Just yesterday I had to go to Islamabad’s largest private hospital to get a vaccination for a tropical country I’ll be travelling to. I went straight from office in my dress pants and an airy orange blouse that flowed below my waist.

When I walked in through the emergency gate of the hospital trying to look for information and simultaneously battle the onslaught of stares, I started becoming smaller. This shrinking of my emotional size almost felt physical. There was disapproval. There was disgust. Even hate. I took it all in. That is what you do to an attack – unless, of course you have nerves of steel, which I don’t.

So I asked around about where I should go, carefully avoiding the stares and the direction of stares. Also while trying to battle the panic I would have if a toothy lioness devoured me. I knew it was going to get worse when I had to pass by a mosque area to search for an ATM to pay for the vaccine.

For the 4 minutes I walked, I was asked to cover my head, I was asked if I ran out of cloth, I was told I was a great masterpiece of God’s creation and I was whistled at and winked at. Then, I had to walk 4 minutes back. By the end of it all, I felt like a creepy crawly creature at the floor of the hospital’s large expanse.

For most women, these experiences vary. They range from gropes to violent rapes. They are all assaults and they are the aggressor’s entire fault.

The day I was groped at age 17 in a Karachi market while I was draped so much cloth I felt like an Bedouin tent in Arabia, was the day I realized it is not me. The same day an old man clonked me on the head with his walking stick because my dupatta was on my shoulders and not my head. That was also the day I realized it’s them.

There two kinds of people, those who are doing the best they can, then there are those who are doing the best they can to make other’s feel uncomfortable and pained.

A woman from the second category was found recently harassing a young woman in Karachi outside the famous Agha’s super store just this week. The older woman from the Al-Huda fame, chastised this young woman for dressing up a way that she found unacceptable. She questioned the young woman’s Muslim faith and harassed her until the cops had to be involved. Classic teaching of the Al Huda brand of Islam is that you gain ground by making young women feel inferior and unworthy. Ultimately, to make them invisible.

Women take up the role to gate-keep chastity from men by doing the equivalent of catcalling. They shame women for their choice of clothes, their appearance in public spaces and their choice of company. Mostly they are horrified that women can loiter in all the glory of their good hair days alone without male supervision.

These older women, often post menopausal, come to the conclusion after years of gruesome care-giving that they have no real status, and the closest thing they have to being taken seriously is toe the line that men do.

I refused to fault religion. In its absence people would make up some other conservative ideology. The issue is control and its oppressive pressure on mostly young (Read: fertile) women who want, for all practical purposes, to have a life that is better than a glorified rug-mat. So when women loiter, as I was, looking from ward to ward, an ATM or a nurse to vaccinate me, we crash into the mighty monstrosity of conservatism and control. Even getting groceries becomes an act of war.

We loiter because we want to claim public spaces just as men do. We know that’s where the juju is. That is where the opportunity is. That is where the freedom is. We want that.

So here we are as a civilization. The women want space and the men and the women who are essentially men, want to stop us. It’s a battle that is perhaps more crucial than the arms race we jump right into, or the politics of supremacy or the need to join a trade treaty. Women are key in the economic development in the country and that will never happen if there is an aversion to seeing us publically.

By seeing us I mean seeing us at our terms – burka or not, veiled or unveiled, camisole or kameez shalwar – we want our clothes to reflect our lived identity not yours, or yours.

At the end we loiter because we are sure this is the one way we can vaccinate this country against the disease of silencing women. The antidote to misogyny is our presence in the arena. Right where the fight it.