Why must we need “all-women” courts?

It is heartening, to say the least, that the Indian government has started taking women’s safety in their country extremely seriously following the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi in December 2012. The Indian people must be congratulated for the resolute way in which they have pushed their elected representatives to act against India’s atrocious record over sexual assault against women. Given our own dismal record on the issue in Pakistan, there are more than a few lessons to be learnt from the neighbors.

One of the things that we in Pakistan should be observing keenly is that their fight is littered with just as many barriers – steeped in “culture” – as ours, but they are still putting up strong resistance. One of the biggest examples is that this women’s day, the Bombay High Court gifted the women of Maharashtra province with all-women courts to hear sexual assault cases. Great move, you say? I say, no.

According to this report in The Times of India, a circular from the Bombay High Court’s chief justice said: “Directions have been issued to assign cases involving sexual assault against women exclusively to the courts presided over by women judicial officers. In cases (where) women are the victims of crime and for the purpose of enabling victims to give their evidence in a stress-free atmosphere and without any fear or embarrassment, it is desirable that all staff members – clerks, stenographers, interpreters, typist-cum-clerks, havildars/peons, are all women.”

While I understand and appreciate the good intentions behind this decision, the idea seems slightly offensive to me. As I understand, the court means that women who are survivors of sexual violence will feel more comfortable speaking to women about what they went through, thus they will not hold back on anything and relay the entire story without any “embarrassment” or “shame” in their statement. But how a women’s-only court is the solution to this is something I fail to understand. All this decision does is confine sexual assault as a women’s rights issue, not a human rights issue as it should be treated.

There are also demeaning subtexts to this, not just for women but for men as well. Let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that a woman is describing her rape in a court where a number of men are present. Are we to assume that men are sexual beasts who cannot control their libido and will feel some kind of perverse titillating pleasure from hearing about the rape instead of a burning rage against one of their own (the rapist)? Why should we demean men such? Aren’t they rational beings, completely capable of self-control as well as distinguishing between right and wrong?

There is also an implicit assumption that women will rule on such cases “better” than men. This is similar to the one that is made when a woman sends in a job application to, say, a newspaper and is immediately mentally-classified as a candidate for “soft” reporting  such as women and children issues, health, education, arts and culture, instead of “tough” beats like crime or the economy.

Sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault is a trait of the justice system that could help both men and women, because sexual violence can be perpetrated against both. What happens to men who get sexually violated? Should there be all-men courts to hear those cases? Going by the Bombay High Court’s logic and sexual violence statistics in India, all-men courts are perhaps a more pressing necessity than all-women courts since more boys than girls are sexually abused in India according to a 2007 survey by the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Welfare.

This is as inefficient a response as any to tackle harassment against women. A similar bad policy decision was the “Pink Bus” service that (Pakistani) Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif launched last year. That project was sheer brilliance (sarcasm implied), complete with a judgment against women who travel by public transport after 7:30 pm (when the last bus was supposed to leave).

The only way to truly give women the space to fight for justice in cases of sexual assault is by ensuring that the justice system, in all its gender diversity, supports these victims without any judgment or bias. The society, as a sum of men and women, needs to become a little less unforgiving of women who have been wronged in this way. If you must, then give the woman the option to speak to a room full of only women, but don’t make it a policy decision that sexual assault cases will automatically go to an all-women court.

If anything, in patriarchal societies like ours where it is easy to go astray because the onus is almost always on the woman, it is the men who need to be taught sensitivity and morality. As a woman who faces harassment in some way or the other every single day on the street, I refuse to confine myself to a group of women and share my tale; I want my father, my brothers, my cousins, my male friends and the men who govern to give me a feeling of safety and security to share my tale with the expectation of emotional support that a woman is worthy of after surviving her fight with a beast.

Recommended reading — Saying Yes matters as much as saying No: http://global.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/opinion/global/saying-yes-matters-as-much-as-no.html?ref=thefemalefactor&_r=0


What is the worth of 60 seconds?

How much can you say in one minute? Apparently, quite a lot.

This was proved by a group of very talented young Pakistanis who participated in a delightfully innovative and completely indigenous film festival named the ‘60 Second Film Festival’, contributing films made via professional cameras as well as mobile phone cameras. Films were sent in from across the country, and as many as 200 submissions were received according to organizers, of which 24 were selected to be screened throughout Pakistan. The team has already conducted screenings in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and plans to take the festival to smaller cities, particularly ones from where the winning films have come.

Interested “filmmakers” were given a host of categories, ranging from environment and HIV to peace, conflict (not the war kind) and democracy. Needless to say, the largest number of films that were screened fell under the topic of peace and terrorism, but a surprisingly large number of well-made films were part of the tolerance category. Although I enjoyed almost all of the films, some of which moved me to tears (because they were so good or so bad), I will go ahead and challenge myself by trying to select five of my favourite films out of the 24 that were screened in Karachi on March 10, 2013:

1. ‘Broken’ by Usama Nasir

The film, categorized under peace, opens with a young kid badgering his father, who is trying to study from a book, to get him a PSP, a helicopter and a plane. The father agrees in an effort to make the kid leave him alone, but he is not to be pacified. Eventually, the father tears apart a map of Pakistan and tells his son to tape it back together. The child comes back, holding up the repaired map and triumphantly exclaiming in all his innocence: “Maine Pakistan ko theek kar diya!” The father asks him how he managed to do that so quickly. The kid replies there was a man’s photograph at the reverse of the map, he taped it back together and the map was fixed.

What a beautiful message – fix yourself to fix the country – and presented in such a beautiful way. This was a film that got me all teary!

2. ‘Tolerance’ by Ali Raza

This film, categorized under tolerance, would remind one of many a Mobilink Jazba ads. The difference? It was short and comes with a brilliant message. We see a young boy walking out to the pitch in test match attire. The voiceover tells the audience that the problem with us Pakistanis is that we try to hit a sixer on every ball and nobody is prepared to let go of even one tricky ball which eventually bowls them out as they try to hit it across the park. “Pitch pe rehna seekho. Apne aap main sabr-o-tahammul paida karo,” the voiceover tells us at the end.

Now that’s what I call a powerful message in a small package.

3. ‘We are not terrorists’ by Sanwal Chishti

This film, categorized under peace, opens with a one-minute digital timer. The audience can hear each second ticking by, creating an uncomfortable feeling that something horrible is about to happen. A man’s eyes are shown as he suspiciously looks into the camera. The camera then zooms out, and we see a microwave oven and hear a ringing sound. The man is question pulls out his food. The end.

Hilarious! The entire hall chuckled at the end of the film, which in one minute, trashed stereotypes and goaded everyone into wondering how little time we take to judge other people.

4. ‘Think’ by Adnan Nawaz

The film, categorized under democracy, shows a box for each party. A man picks up every box and empties it out, showing the votes each party got. The last box says ‘Pakistan’, and when it is emptied out, all that comes out of it is soil.

Don’t vote for the party, vote for the country. Vote wisely, and I can think of no wiser and less-judgmental way of sending that idea across.

5. ‘Personality conflicts’ by Shahzad Rashdi

The film, categorized under conflict, shows a woman putting on perfect make-up while the Bollywood song ‘Sajna hai mujhe sajna ke liye’ plays in the background. And then, she dons on a full niqab hiding everything except for her eyes, and leaves the house.

Although I sensed a few people in the auditorium did not appreciate the humour in the film, given that religion is a holy cow in our society and all things niqabified are beyond reproach, many people laughed and clapped. I was one of them. That is a point that is to be made – these “pious” people with holier-than-thou attitudes who think nothing of pointing fingers at women who do not subscribe to their warped belief system are the actual confused ones. If you’re so religious and believe that women should not “show” their beauty, then why are you using make-up at all? Last time I checked, the purpose of make-up is to enhance the beauty of a woman. Conflicted minds, much?

I must make an honourable mention to Taha Kirmani’s ‘Diya Jalaye Rakhna‘, categorized under peace, that totally crushed my heart. I work for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a Karachi-based non-profit that is going to great pains to collect the oral histories of the generation of Pakistanis who saw partition first-hand. Through my work with CAP, I have met people who tell me stories of their strong faith and belief in the promise of Pakistan. Pakistan, in 1947, was truly the promised land for these young people. And this film shows just that.

So here’s wishing the 60 Second Film Festival team many, many more. I must especially mention that the team totally won my heart by using a video to accompany Pakistan’s national anthem (played before the screening) which did not focus on our army strength and on top of that, showed Pakistanis in a mosque, a church, a temple and a gurudwara. Well done, you guys! You have your hearts in the right place, and that alone will guide you to immense success.

NOTE: This post earlier stated that the film ‘Think’ did not show a box representing MQM when in fact it does. The correction has been made. 


Lahore Literary Festival: Remembering Benazir Bhutto

In the stronghold of their biggest rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Lahore Literary Festival’s Sunday session on Benazir Bhutto’s biography Daughter of the East was a resounding hit.

The session, although not very well-attended, was brilliantly planned and one could tell that a lot of thought and discussion had gone into organizing it. While moderator Victoria Schofield, a British biographer, and the book’s author Linda Bird Francke had a conversation about the writing process of the book, audio and video clips of Benazir were played that moved the audience to tears.

Schofield began the session by asking Francke what her first impression of Benazir was. “I hadn’t known her before [writing the book]. She would take me everywhere and she did not hold back. She was emotional and angry, and was honest and forthright with me.”

Francke was of the view that writing the book was a cathartic process for her. “She was in perilous position when we did this book. She did it to keep herself alive – by keeping her story alive in the US, we were keeping her alive in Pakistan,” she said, mentioning all Benazir’s friends from Harvard and her social circle in America that was working to make sure she stays relevant to politics even when she was not in Pakistan.

They then cut to a short audio clip of Benazir talking about the death of her brother Shahnawaz. The audio wasn’t clear, but everyone could feel the pain in her voice.

Realizing that the session had become too serious, Schofield switched the conversation to lighter moments and Francke’s sense of humor did the trick. “There were plenty of light moments. The first rally I went to with her, the crowd was so dense that I lost a shoe. I was also told to get off the stage.”

Benazir was very particular about her appearance, it seems, as Francke narrated tales of her love for exercise and make-up. In the mornings, Francke said, she would march up and down her garden for 20 minutes because she had read about its benefits in some ladies journal. “I would be running alongside her!”

Once, she even gave Francke a makeover who she always used to describe as a “women’s lib type”. “She pulled a miracle morning. She did my nails and my hair, and she thought I looked much better after that.” All this was happening while the Pakistan Army’s soldiers stood guard outside and Benazir’s life was in considerable danger.

Schofield then asked Francke if she ever felt insecure when she was with Benazir. “I never felt endangered when I was with her because she didn’t. The only time I did was when I was leaving Pakistan after 6 weeks following my first visit to the country. She called me and told me, you are red-listed which means that you’re an unwelcome foreigner here and they will thoroughly search you at the airport.”

PPP guards were sent to escort Francke to the airport, who accompanied her throughout the process and took her to the first class lounge, waiting outside until she had boarded her plane. “It was like a scene from Argo. Once I was in the plane, I handed my work to the stewardess with my sister’s address written on it, and told her that if anything happened to me, this was to be shipped to my sister in London. The only reason of my fear was that I had her diaries which were clearly not too flattering for Zia.”

So how long did the first draft take to write such an all-encompassing book, Schofield asked Francke.  “It took me six months, but this book never ended. I finished it four times!”

Francke then listed each time when she felt she was finally done with the book but something would come up and she would have to update the book again.

The first time that she thought the manuscript was complete, Benazir announced that she was having an arranged marriage. “Then, we met in London. Her fiancé Asif was there and her mother was there too who was very happy that Benazir was finally getting married,” she said. “The night before her wedding, she was still working and we were recording. The lights were flickering and she was furious, claiming that Zia was trying to destroy her wedding.”

The second time was when she met in a restaurant in Long Island, US. “The idea of the meeting was for her and Sanam to read through and sign off the book. They ordered potato skins and realized that there was bacon in it. So they are sitting there with a candle, picking it out. Benazir had ordered skimmed milk with ice!” This was in 1989 and just a few months later, in May, Zia ordered elections and the book went back into the writing phase.

The third time was in August 1989, when Zia died. “I was going on vacation and I am greeted at my resort by the manager who has a huge pile of messages for me. And I find out that Zia is dead. I go back on the plane and the book starts again!”

The last and final time that the book had to be updated was during the November elections. “I am in Larkana in Sindh and the women have camped out, singing and dancing. Then we went to Naudero. And then miracle of miracles, she wins! December of that year, she was named the prime minister and the book finally ended.”

The session then closed with the clip of her last rally in Rawalpindi, from December 27, 2007. There was loud clapping when her voice was heard and she was shown making a speech, and then there was pin drop silence as the sound of the bullets and bomb that killed her boomed through the room. The impact was huge – many in the audience left the hall teary-eyed.

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789969/lahore-literary-festival-remembering-benazir

Lahore applauds Lahore at Lahore Literary Festival

It came as no surprise that the Lahore Literary Festival’s “Lahore in Literature” session was a love fest, given the Lahoris’ obvious affection for their city. The entire Lahore, it seemed, was in attendance and the doors to Alhamra Arts Council’s largest hall had to be locked as it was filled to the brim.

What was surprising, and quite disappointing, was the absolute lack of direction of the session which could have been one of the more interesting ones had it been conducted better.

Moderator Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, began the session with Pran Nevile, the author of Lahore – A sentimental journey, who called Lahore an “eternal city, which can only be felt and experienced.”

“I have travelled all over the world but Lahore is Lahore,” he declared. “I have carried Lahore in my heart. It has been with me since childhood.” At this point, members of the audience were beside themselves with joy at this affirmation of their city’s superiority from a foreigner’s mouth.

Talking about his emotional connection with Lahore, Nevile said that the first time he had visited the city after partition, it was like a pilgrimage for him. “I visited Lahore for the first time in 1997, 50 years after I had left it. I did not want to visit Lahore before finishing my book on Lahore [which was published in 1992]. By the time I visited, two editions of the book had come out,” he said.

Alam then switched the conversation over to architectural historian Ebba Koch, asking her if she felt there was a misappreciation of the many monuments in the city. Koch disagreed. “As soon as I crossed the border into Lahore, I was impressed by the warmth, the openness and the culture of this city,” she said, delving deep into how Shalimar Gardens is an architectural phenomenon because of its design. By now, the audience was struggling to understand both her accent and her technical appraisal of the gardens.

He then asked celebrated novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, a number of whose novels have been based in Lahore, if she felt that Lahore was a violent city as comes across from tales of the 1947 partition or is it a city of courtesans, high art and culture. “It is certainly not a violent city,” said Sidhwa, with an obligatory reference to Karachi’s violent crime situation. She then made another trite statement about Lahore’s food. “It is just a city where people indulge their appetites. I don’t think there is any city that has more eating places than Lahore.”

Speaking about her book Beloved City: Writings on Lahore, known as Lahore: City of Sin and Splendour in Delhi, she said that it is really a labor of love for her. “It took me three years to develop this book and go around collecting stories for it. I owed it to my city. It is a city that I know best and I want to write about. It is the city that has nurtured me as a writer,” she said, leading to another round of applause by Lahoris for Lahore.

When Alam asked her to read something from the book, she refused to do so saying that the publisher had printed it in too tiny a font which was difficult for her to read. She chose, instead, to read from her new book The Language of Love. After she had been reading for 15 minutes, the crowd began thinning out.

Alam then shifted the conversation over to author Intizar Hussain, who was undoubtedly the highlight of the entire session, asking him what it was about Lahore that it had been the subject of many a literary works.

Hussain was in full form as he spoke about the city that he clearly feels very passionately about and has observed over many, many years. “In 1947, so many writers migrated to Lahore and so many migrated from Lahore,” he said.

He then moved on to relating several entertaining personal stories where Lahore had featured prominently. “Once, a long time ago, I wrote a story on Krishen Nagar to which a woman from India wrote a rebuttal titled ‘Intizar Hussain ruko’ [wait, Intizar Hussain]. In her story, she laid out an entire map of Krishen Nagar as it was before the partition,” he said.

In the second story, he narrated how he was travelling from India to Pakistan by train, with his wife and a couple of other Pakistani poets, when they got held up at the railway station in Amritsar and had to go through questioning. “When I said I am from Lahore, he [the person questioning them] asked after a short pause ‘How is FC College?’. I said it’s good. He said ‘And Gawalmandi?’, that’s also fine, I responded. As I had made inroads into his heart because of my association with Lahore, I told him if I miss the train, I will live with you because I am now your guest. Due to our camaraderie, he immediately put us one of the cabins on the train that were reserved for some dignitary!”

He was so involved in the third story that he completely dismissed Alam’s efforts at concluding the session that had reached its end. While he was describing the Mall Road of his times, he had to be cut short a little more forcefully. Nevertheless, he managed to make his disappointment heard. “This is not the Mall Road that I saw. It’s completely commercialized now.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789965/lahore-literary-festival-lahore-applauds-lahore

Lahore Literary Festival: What’s in store

Lahore is a city that nurtures talent, many a Lahore lovers will tell you. The organizers of the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival went a step further – they gave us the opportunity to meet this locally-bred talent.

In a fantastically moderated session, writer Afia Aslam introduced the audience, mostly comprising school students and friends of the panelists who had come to show support, to three aspiring writers from the city all of whom are waiting for their books to be out this year.

The session, despite all the hurdles in its way to success, was fascinating because of Aslam’s great questions and the boundless enthusiasm and energy of the panelists. It began 20 minutes late, as the organizers tried to find a venue for it as they had to move it from the Main Garden owing to rain. After changing locations twice, they finally found a nice, cosy spot and the session began. Panelist Anam Zakaria described it best when she quipped how apt it was that a session on aspiring artists was this chaotic before finally settling down.

Aslam began the session by introducing each of the panelists. Kanza Javed, who spoke very eloquently about her novel Ashes, Wine and Dust, was the only Pakistani to be shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2013. Haroon Khalid, who Aslam called an overachiever since he has already started on his second book, has written an exciting travelogue on festivals of religious minorities that live in Pakistan. He has included 19 festivals of five groups, including the larger Hindu and Christian minorities and the smaller Bahaai community. Anam Zakaria has also written a travelogue about people travelling between troubled neighbors India and Pakistan.

Each of the authors then explained their book, before reading out an excerpt for the audience. Javed said that she had used each of the things used in her novel’s name to describe and represent the relevant period from the life of her protagonist Mariam. ‘Ashes’ is her childhood, ‘Wine’ encapsulates her experiences in Washington DC and ‘Dust’ is when she has to return to Lahore following a tragedy that changes her life. Considering that Javed herself had studied literature in DC, Aslam asked her how much of her book was biographical. “Well, I certainly drew from my own childhood for the Ashes part. But I had written about DC before I had even visited it. But when I did a year later, I realized to my delight and surprise that I was right!” Javed said.

Introducing his travelogue, amid requests to speak up in the absence of microphones, Khalid said that he had tried to explore what it was like being non-Muslim in Pakistan.

Zakaria said that she had spoken to and traced four generations of Indians and Pakistanis and their perception of the partition of 1947. “When I started working with CAP, I was working on the Oral History Project where I spoke to the partition generation many of whom told me stories of how Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony. At the same time, I started working on the Exchange for Change project, where I saw that these young children had hostile opinions about each other. So it was a quest for me to find out where did the disconnect come in between all these generations.”

Seeing that most of the audience members were students in high school who would soon be making decisions about further study, Aslam asked each of the panelists what they had studied in college.

“When I was younger, the only period I would wait for was English. So when the time came for college, my father said you should study literature,” said Javed. “The first two years of college were very intimidating. I was reading Hemingway and Shakespeare and I just put my manuscript aside! Then I studied South Asian Literature and decided it was time to go back to my work.”

Khalid had the audience very amused by his first comment. “I hated reading and writing! I would always get a B or C in English when I was in school!” he said. “Then I took Anthropology at college and I absolutely fell in love with it, even though teachers told me I would have to read and write a lot. Now, writing has become an uncontrollable urge to express what needs to be shared.”

Zakaria had a similar answer. “I was never the sort of person to go out and talk too much to people. At college, I studied International Development. So I kind of decided to get over myself and just go out and write about what I needed to.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789972/lahore-literary-festival-stories-from-gaza

Lahore Literary Festival: Stories from Gaza

If there was one session that you should have regretted not attending at the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, it was the one with British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who spoke about her fascinating novel “Out of It” that has been widely appreciated globally.

In its review of the novel, The Guardian had said that Dabbagh’s “writing is both literary and accessible, fast-paced, passionate, exuberant and heart-lurching.” That is exactly how she was inside and outside the session, when she would smile brightly every time a fan went to over to her with a request to sign her book that they had just bought.

Brilliantly moderated by Aysha Raja Alam, owner of a quaint bookshop in Lahore, the session wasn’t very well-attended but those who were in the audience left feeling like it was a morning well-spent. Alam, who was extremely well-prepared for her session, structured it such that she would ask Dabbagh a few questions and then ask her to read specific passages from the novel.

The novel, Dabbagh’s first after a list of short stories, describes the life of a Palestinian family under siege while Gaza is being bombed. The novel follows the lives of siblings Rashid, who is constantly looking for a way out of the conflict zone, and Iman who begins to get involved in the conflict before moving out to London. Their oldest sibling Sabri, meanwhile, works on writing a history of Palestine while sitting on his wheelchair.

Responding to a question on how she chose her characters, which were unlike the characters found in works on Palestine, Dabbagh spoke about her view of the Palestinian liberation movement. “It is a cause that attracts nutters as well as genuinely committed characters. So in my novel, I was careful not to offend some activists who are doing good work by choosing a main character that is unsympathetic to the cause [Rashid]. When I first started writing, I knew I was really attracted to a certain aspect of the revolution – people who have failed the revolution or those who feel that the revolution has failed them.”

Elaborating on her understanding of the movement’s dynamics, Dabbagh said that when she was in Gaza in May, she realized that being in Palestine is a transformative experience. “In Palestine, your ideas matter. People are judging you on your views. You feel as if they are checking you out. So your opinions matter. It has a specific draw for people who are thinking critically about morality.”

Alam then asked Dabbagh to read a passage where her protagonist Iman is in London and having to grapple with a tragedy back home. Was it an angry passage, she asked. “It was slightly angry. At some times, people find it strange that you’re affected by something happening somewhere else.”

Dabbagh said that even though she had lived outside of Palestine, she had always been very connected to it. But also she would see from the Arab world were the same images all the time. And that was something the she wanted to change – bring a fresh perspective from the conflict-ridden region through her writing. “I would read a lot about it but couldn’t find anything very exciting, or at least as exciting as I wanted it to be. So I kept a global perspective on my characters,” she said.

Two young women, who were both aspiring writers, then put some very intelligent and thoughtful questions to Dabbagh. One of them, who herself writes short stories and is working on a novel, asked about how the writer had made the transition from short stories to a novel. “Basically, in a novel, you can give the reader breathing space,” Dabbagh told her, explaining that more descriptions can be and should be added. “I was used to working in short lengths and on deadlines, so that really helped me with refining my novel.”

The second question was about why Dabbagh named her book Out of It. “It means three things. Firstly, it is out of Gaza, the place. Second it means outside of politics and third, it talks about being out of one’s mind.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789972/lahore-literary-festival-stories-from-gaza