Trumps presidency and women

If someone told me that life is going to be tough for a man who insulted, debased and demeaned women; that a man with who had sexual assault charges against him would pay through his teeth, I’d be very confused right now. With Donald Trump now the 45th president of the US, we here in Pakistan are having a tough time grappling with the challenge of protecting women’s rights, if in a strong democracy like the US, insults are seemingly rewarded, not punished.

Men talk down on women when they are among men, perhaps everywhere. Trump has however taking what he deems as locker room talk and will make it transcend to his policy. Three things are particularly problematic. First, his velvet coated hammer on sexual assault. In a tweet he said that many sexual assaults in the US military happen when you put men and women together. Suggesting perhaps that assaults of this nature that mostly go unreported are inevitable. As a leader, a zero tolerance policy is what ought to be defined. Instead he almost condoned assaults, which we will likely see increase in his term. The second is his stance on abortions. He initially, in 1999, said he was pro-choice but later changed his mind and said he will not sanction late-term abortions. Women everywhere around the world, have to be able to make choices that impact their life and the life they make inside them — not an orange haired man addicted to “doing what you want to women.” Third, with date rape, domestic violence and online harassment as common as it is in the US, what he deems as locker room talk only perpetuates it at a policy level. Law enforcement looks the other way. The judiciary soft paddles. New laws protecting women take a backseat and the economy takes precedence.

This is a travesty, the Trump victory, because it not only defines how deep-rooted the white supremacist sentiment of the West really is but also defines how forgiving America is of the inherent debasement of women’s status in society by a man who will soon take an oath to protect them all — the Hispanic woman, the single mom; the marginalised black woman; the debt-buried college student and the poor women living on food stamps.

If the republican policy status quo is anything to go by he would probably not continue to enforce executive actions on campus sexual assault nor or support a policy on childcare that impacts low income families disproportionately. His record for speaking up for transgender individuals is also not that great.

Pakistanis are being smug. They are saying no Pakistani would get away with trash-talking about a woman publicly. I disagree — we have more vile women-centred conversations. It is in our lexicon, perfectly acceptable and commonplace. They are also being smug because we twice elected a woman Prime Minister and the US didn’t.

Benazir Bhutto was all charisma and leadership. She played her hand so well that it was clear that she transcended dynastic politics. That, gentlemen is what got her elected twice. Shall I remind you of how she met her end? We won’t feel so great when Trump’s foreign policy affect us — the policy which is only a product of the race card, disgusting as it is, that he played domestically. Expect chaos in the India-Pakistan equation. Expect visa scrutiny increasing. Expect a foreign aid policy that is not nuanced and people-centred. Expect less support in the coming years as we let China play lead investor. Expect a move away from everything that has been invested in the US-Pakistan relationship.

Someone like Trump can only recede when it comes to collaboration and integrated efforts especially with a country that wears Islam on its sleeve. Strangely when demagoguery sets in, women everywhere are the first to pay for it.

Breast Cancer: Let’s start with the words

A few years ago, I went to a restaurant where the waiter turned the deepest beetroot shade of red when I requested for a grilled chicken breast. I’d said the word breast and this had sent him shuddering. Unluckily for many chicken around this country the world chicken breast is graining traction and respect and familiarity. It no longer conjures up images of a busty blonde.

Unluckily for about 40,000 women in this country that die of breast cancer every year, this word is still not appropriate to use in whatever mode or language for the mammary glands of a woman because it is shameful and dishonourable in society to do so. Thousands of the staggering number above could have been saved with what is a routine breast self-exam that can early-detect a tumour in time for a life to be saved. Breast self-exams are a simple technique of rubbing your breast, possibly in the shower, clockwise and anti-clockwise with your hand arched behind your shoulder and elbow pointing to the ceiling. Just this simple check on a routine basis is needed, and yet there is hardly any awareness of this self-exam.

Women, particularly in rural areas feel lumps when they’ve overgrown and metastasised already. They gather the courage to report it even later, when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. Again rural women are very susceptible because they often store coins and paper money as well as essentials in their bras for safety. This puts them at greater risk.

Pakistani women are also deathly afraid of going to treat their lumps because they will become sexually undesirable, the only one currency they think their worth is measured in. For many in the west, Angelina Jolie’s full mastectomy made the procedure much more acceptable but for a woman in Thar, her role model was her aunt who died of breast cancer, not the woman in some faraway land who battled it.

The prevalence of breast cancer in women in Pakistan is among the worst in the world, yet hardly anyone ever is talking about it. There should be posters in public restrooms and public service announcements on television rather than the myriad of ads that show women as subservient likeable beings. It is the tyranny of likability that gets women to fear creating trouble for the family if the lump they feel, turns out to be cancer. Women are swamped with signals from family that they are already much trouble and they don’t want to burden anyone further, financially or socially.

This is a victim-blaming culture to begin with. A woman with breast cancer has got to be up to no good, no shred of doubt. There are many reasons women are dying because of honour in this country, having cancer in their breasts should not be one of them. Cancer, if detected early, is just as curable as dengue or cholera. Let’s not call women corpses until they are. Doing away with cancer lumps in breasts or doing away with the whole breast should not be more jarring than an appendix operation. Women before they can be identified as sexual beings, need to be beings first, and if a part of their body revolts against them, well then it needs to go.

Some brilliant people together with the pink ribbon campaigners lit up the Jinnah mausoleum pink for breast cancer awareness. It would also help if we can now stop defining women by their sexuality and then limiting their health procedures by it. All women must carry out regular breast self-exams, the men in their lives must reassure them that when or if women lose their breasts to cancer, they don’t lose their dignity and self worth. The young girls must be taught new curriculum to guard against this disease whose cause is more likely to be ignorance than metastasising cells.

At the least let us be able to say the two words together before we can cure it out of Pakistan: breast cancer.

Justice for Asia Bibi

They say justice delayed is justice denied. In Asia Bibi’s case perhaps delaying of a sentence may turn out to be a better deal for her. She was arrested for her faith. We all know the story by now — how she stood her ground for harassment over drinking water from the same cup as the Muslim women in her neighbourhood. Those women took to mob justice to punish Asia for what they thought was her audacity to stand up for her Christian faith and her dignity in a country that is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It has come to this now that when a judge recused himself from her case, the few of us holding our breath, exhaled.

Twitter hashtags; Friday sermons; a petition by 150 Islamic scholars; the talk shows and the radio call-ins all want one thing — to hang Asia Bibi. It seems like our blood thirst is insatiable. This case has cost Pakistan an arm and a leg. The world sees us as a country that deserves sanctions for persecuting minorities, this case just highlighting the tip of the iceberg. We have internally been crushed because when Salmaan Taseer — Punjab’s sitting governor, stood up for her, he was assassinated in perhaps one of the most brutal moments of our history. Taseer’s guard was unabashedly proud of gunning him down and the country glorifies and garlands him like he saved widows and discovered a cure to a pandemic.

In this Orwellian state where war is peace and peace is war, we can only hope that time has pity on us. The only ally we have left, time, buys us a few crumbs of poise and strength to go on. That we live to see another day and then just maybe something will come out of the woodworks and save us and that they will not be assassinated. This is hopeless. This is a failure of our political elite for not having courage. Bravado, yes, they have plenty of.

Asia Bibi is a testament to the rot of religious bigotry that this country has been infested with since the end of the Afghan war. Everywhere you look now, there is a purification attempt of even Muslims. Just a particular brand of Sunni Muslims, they say, have a claim to rowdy freedom in this country. To loot minority homes, to rape and force into marriage their women and to harass those who practise or preach a religion other than this brand.

A mother of five, this woman has been failed by this country and its people but I assure you that even her blood will not quench their thirst. Violence and war breed more violence, they need more offerings to be thrown into some sacred fire to fulfil some sacred version of their salvation. Empathy is lost as is human compassion. Other countries have lost the plot too, but they still have a strong justice system with checks and balances. So the Asia Bibis are safe there. Here there is one big mouth hungry for vengeance to feed. No one has been hanged for blasphemy in this country — on death row since 2010, Asia Bibi may be the first. Amidst international pressure the country needs to clear the mist and recognise that it stands on an important juncture in history. Some decisions are symbolic and can undo years of culpability for tyranny of the majority. This is one of those times.

For the stakeholders to understand how much honor rests on them, they need the right noises from not just the civil society you can fit in a yoga room, but from leaders of mainstream political parties. They need to express their aversion to destroying lives, to the death penalty, to keeping mothers away from their children, to rigidity and to national holier-than-though ethos.

This is Pakistan’s McCarthyist era — this call for blood of those who are not Muslim enough or whatever ISM enough. When an ideology becomes rogue, its time to reclaim it. It’s time for Muslim scholars to stop signing #HangAsia petitions and work on interfaith harmony. The peaceniks are becoming a dying breed here in this country. They need more amplification. As does any woman who will not bend to coercion and her right to self identify in a particular faith.

Rhetoric Unchanged

When I heard the UNGA speeches from tier-two leadership of both India and Pakistan, it struck me how the rhetoric on both sides has remained unchanged since the early 2000s. Back then, I was a vehement activist on the Kashmir issue and had as a consequence focused my attention on India’s independently verified human rights atrocities. Between then and now three things have changed.

The first was that upon moving to Pakistan, the country’s own deplorable human rights record against its own minority communities took away my locus standi on Kashmir, or at least jolted it. The second was the realisation that there is a vast segment of people who benefit from the war or the threat of war between India and Pakistan that clearly doesn’t include the over a billion masses of the two countries — poor as church mice, uneducated and desolate. The last was that the media echo chamber presents things in a refracted way — bent, skewed unrepresentative of realities. So falling prey to its jingoism was like being brainwashed and numbed out to critical thinking. With fear magnified, one can’t reason nor can there be any ability to rise above the gladiator thrill that our people thrive on.

After Pathankot and Uri, India feels it must retaliate, regardless of the need to substantiate Pakistan’s involvement in those attacks. Pakistan as a small state with a small state nuclear doctrine, behaves thusly. This is volatile. No one seems interested in walking the tightrope so the situation de-escalates. Narendra Modi’s statement on declaring a war on poverty in both countries was not only a welcome move but also one that harbours hope. Yet, the claims of surgical strike that followed from India, which have yet to be independently verified, fester the atmosphere of untrustworthiness and double-speak.

Kashmir still bleeds, the people are blinded by pellets fired by the Indian army, women are raped, most of its young men are either missing or six feet under. The international press has picked up on the horror and carnage. This raises the question whether any of the two countries really wants to resolve Kashmir. It’s become this one epicenter that keeps fulfilling both countries need to validate their national identities.

The thing with this identity is that it is dangerously like a consumer identity — led by an agenda passed down from the powerful at the top. It sometimes rarely, it cuts horizontally and the community is unified by a construct of a better life for its next generations, but often it is shallow and crass — simply self-serving.

As the world integrates, cooperates and opens up to its regional needs, India and Pakistan look inwards, close up and present their limited vision to each other. There is no dreamer, there is no overtly optimistic leader that can make both visualise a future where they are at peace with each other.

Though the founders, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi, repeatedly talked of burying the hatchet, their messages of peace and co-existence were thrown aside like a forgotten coat. What we have now are petty insults and hollow threats whose bluff is being called.

When the motorway is closed up to convert it into an airstrip; when all you hear on TV are anchors on steroids; when Twitter is ablaze with a contest on who makes the most offensive chest-thump then you know we are collectively a people with a failed imagination, a failed sense of responsibility and very terrible myopia. Just as there is this thing called a heard immunity, there is such a thing as a pandemic. In terms of protecting ourselves from bad ideas, we are the latter.

We don’t want to second-guess which cities to move our old and young in case of a mushroom cloud. Instead, we want to go marvel at each other’s progress, culture and history. This land of the Indus is ancient and has a strong soul. In honour of this, let’s put down our arms and rest our tongues.

Stop stigmatizing divorce

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have split and made front line news amongst the UNGA and the India-Pakistan tiff. They were a power couple; no financial woes; a joint love for adopting babies and helping the less fortunate and no shortage of phenotypic symmetry called sex appeal.

Yet, we find, there can still be things can that anger you about a man. What I find strange is that the world is making a scandal of it in two ways. They are enjoying the blood sport of a wrecked marriage and they are pitting Angelina Jolie against Jennifer Aniston, Pitt’s ex girlfriend.

Their reaction leads to two conclusions: It’s so gloat-worthy when a woman can’t keep a prize like Brad Pitt in her control and also that somehow the cast away Aniston has lived to see a day she was waiting for, confirming that all women do all day is wait for women they hate to fall flat on their face.

The world, regardless of affluence, education or location loves to see women fail at homemaking of various versions and beats them down with vitriol and reconfirms the notion to claw women against each other.

Here in our part of the world this happens, of course it does, but only at a more gut-wrenching scale. Women have to routinely keep up with the wife beater, the marital rapist, the one with whom their pheromones don’t match, the obsessive addict, the one whose personal hygiene is more like a boar’s, the one who is emotionally abusive, the one who is a serial husband and the one with the insatiable desire to be codependent on his mother for duration of his life.

Why can’t these women leave? They can’t leave because they get treated worse than the Brangelina debacle. These women get taken down in the public arena where old wives talk as if they were men’s spokespeople, as if divorced women were not people but effigies – without feelings and without consent. Nobody is strong enough to rise above a loss of social status and equity. Years of evolution have made us possess an in-built mechanism of seeing approval from those who are self appointed tribe heads – the pundits, the opinion makers or the old wives.

Lets also examine why post-menopausal women are so bitter and revengeful and why they target young women who opt for divorce. Why they call those women fallen, rejected, incompetent and loathsomely, used. They buy into the notion that women have a use-by date; the older women tolerated the bad men in their lives and chose to stay; they see things through the eyes of their sons and husbands and they also are extremely fearful of the alternative of rejecting a man. It’s meant death for some.

There can be several reasons for divorce, which go both ways, yet it is the woman who is always made to be at fault. It is her who’s got to pick up the pieces of the wreckage with little or no support from family and friends. People inadvertently keep away from people whose luck and fortune wane.

The divorce laws in Pakistan may not be in the dumps entirely, but the culture of marriage is cloaked in hypocrisy, in secrecy and in haste, with hardly any input from the woman or any deliberation on how future decisions will be planned.

Unless otherwise specified, the right of delegated divorce (talaq-e- tafweez) is hardly given to the women who enter marriage in Pakistan. However Khula is a right available to women. Nevertheless for Khula women have to forfeit their haq-mahr, or dower. Our family law practice preys on women’s weakness, celebrates male bravado.

The best way to empower our daughters is to have them get into marriage with a clear exit policy. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t and here are the steps. When we tell our young nubile girls who have no clue about the viciousness of men, that they should only turn back to their father’s homes when they die, we are essentially getting them to jump off a cliff. Its brutal, its in human and it is certainly not grounded in the statistics of our land – 90 percent of our women are subjected to violence.




Getting our girls to raise chicken

I am not ashamed of taking some of my inspiration from Facebook memes. They are no New Yorker Magazine cartoons, granted, but they sometimes can be pretty astute. This particular one said: Women belong in the kitchen; men belong in the kitchen, we all belong in the kitchen – there is food in the kitchen.

Talk to any man in South Asia and he will equate the worth and love for a woman by how well she cooks. Sometimes it is about how well she cleans and other times about how well she manages the house, which means doing groceries and sometimes bills. A recent domestic violence case reported in the press states that a man threatened a woman with divorce because she wasn’t “winning hearts and minds at home.”

Ask the women and they will be so untiringly grateful if their husbands change a diaper once in a child’s lifetime or take their plate to the kitchen after dinner that obviously magically appears every day on the table.

Essentially everything domesticated is a woman’s domain. That is what society perpetrates. Which is pathetic, but forgivable. We are learning to civilize and are finding our feet. However, it is not forgivable when the government puts domestication of women in the curriculum.

In what seems to be a move borne out of sheer madness, the Punjab Government has launched a program for girls in 1,000 primary schools. This program will give girls four hens, one cock and a cage. No, this is not an Onion article. Has the government gone coocoo? (Pun intended)

Did they go to a foreign training in Tora Bora and get a certification in how to enforce gender stereotypes? It gets worse when, head of the Punjab government’s livestock department, told Agence France-Presse that the aim was to promote poultry and educate children about nutrition. I don’t see how children will get educated about nutrition when its only girls who are being taught how to raise chicken.

When in most Pakistani households the last piece of protein always ends up in the male child’s plate, it’s the mindset that needs to change. Not drilling down of the notion that the women cultivate, prepare and serve food while the men, observe, indulge and rate it.

If there was any hope that the new generation of girls in our country would be saved from the learned subservient behaviors of their mothers, government programs like these confirm that they will continue for another few generations.

He went on to say, “We preferred girls’ schools for this project to boys because girls, mostly, have to deal with the kitchen and they are more responsible and caring than boys.” Next you know they’ll be launching a free hammock giveaway program for boys’ schools because boys are usually the ones doing all the recreation and rest, studies show.

It is social conditioning not biology that forces girls to the bidding of the family’s food and comfort needs. If we want to seriously challenge domestic violence we have to re-look at the absurdities in our politics of housework.

The amount of effort and work that goes into the maintenance of a house, its food and nutrition needs and its semblance of peace is so gargantuan, redundant, repetitive and often unrewarding that it is terribly unfair that it only falls on the woman. Not just on women who are at home but even those women who work find that they can cross over into the male domain of financial independence but the man will find it beneath him to cross over into the domestic. Women are tired. They are tired and exhausted to the bone – all the time.

My message to the Punjab Livestock Department: Girls need chicken, boys need chicken, we all need chicken – there is food in chicken.





To Burkini or Not to Burkini

Remember that dream where you wake up in a cold sweat because you are naked in public? It is just as horrific when someone is trying to cloak you with so many clothes that you are invisible. You are so sexualized that the mere show of your skin or hair would be claimed responsible for public harm. There are hoards of Muslim Feminists who have argued that the veil is a rejection of progressive values – values that they adhere to Islam. There are those women in many countries that have shed the veil as a symbolic show of liberation.

That being exposed in public nightmare – I would imagine that the Muslim woman on a French beach wearing a burkini (a more conservative version of a diving suit) felt the same terror when she was asked to remove it on a public beach. Yes, right there and then, among jeers of other onlookers and harassers. This act of unclothing her by police is plain despotic. A Salem witch hunt except of burkini women who just want to exercise a will in how much skin they want to show for whatever reason – cultural oppression; a path to spiritual freedom or just to avoid a sun tan.

The Indian vigilantes are doing it to anyone suspect of disrespecting or eating a cow. As we know cows are holy in Hindu tradition. The Modi government is looking the other way and some of their ministers are applauding the murder of Muslims falsely accused of it. In the Philippines the government is calling a mass flood of murders for anyone suspected to be involved in a drug trade. It’s a license to kill with zero oversight and due process.

Wait, wasn’t France the same country that protected secularism so to-each-his-own could be birthed as a philosophy and the state would have no say in individual freedoms? How is it beginning to sound like those countries with a human rights track record of a machete-armed Boko Haram soldier?

It is a fallacy to think that stripping someone of their sense of dignity is anything short of an attack on liberty, and by extension, even on life. What is a life worth if not lived to its own definition of what is honorable. In a world reeling from terrorism and intolerance, it may seem only logical to lash out at the symbols that define the other. It is perhaps the worst thing to do because it makes that one thing suspect that would restore order: trust.

These times call for more tolerance, not less. In French philosopher, Voltaire’s own words: What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.

If there is anyone counting on France to alienate its Muslims, it is the kind of people who carried out the Nice attack.

Women’s choice of clothing is not a decision for the collective, women are not to be sorted or categorized or taxonomized. They are just as varied as rich white males would be, definitely more. Making a choice to tie their hijab with a brooch is not any less empowering as wearing a bikini is an equalizer of the wage gap. These ought to be as benign in terms its effects on the state as the type of shoe size they wear.

It is bizarre in the truest sense to dictate what beach wear women can put on in France just as it is horrific to flog women for not wearing the burka in Afghanistan. The similarities are eerie: They are both telling women to do something to please a patriarchal structure and status quo. Unclothing a woman in her public space is not progressive, it is a denial of her fundamental human rights.

As for the debate of the veil being progressive or not, or being in the garb of Islam or not, it remains securely in the fold of anyone who has a uterus and defines herself as a Muslim. To resolve it, or to not resolve it, that fork of evolution needs time. Force didn’t help the practice of bloodletting nor will it help French authorities sleep better because the-Muslims-are-coming nightmare is at bay. We the women ought to be the authors of this script not the courts.

Whereas France’s paranoia is understandable, its chronic fear and loathing of Muslims means that it needs to go back to the French revolution to understand its most acute lesson: Fear never perpetrates peace, it begets anarchy.



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.

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