Why Pakistan would gain from a secular feminist movement

Columnist and author Bina Shah recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about feminism in Pakistan. The thrust of her argument is that Pakistani feminism faces so much antagonism because it is seen as an ideology appealing only to the English-speaking class of society. This is why it doesn’t find mainstream support in Pakistani society, which continues to see it as anti-Islamic. Therefore, she concludes, feminist theory in Pakistan must marry secular and Islamic strands.

While I see the logic in her argument, and reluctantly agree that this might be the practical way forward, I disagree with the idea that a secular concept like feminism should be rooted in Islam in order for it to gain mass appeal in Pakistani society.

I see the strategy of blending Islamic ideals into every debate as yet another way of ceding territory to conservative Islamic forces that threaten to convert Pakistan into a completely theocratic society. The more we try to include Islamic beliefs and thoughts into national debates in Pakistan, the more space we give to such ideologues and the faster we progress towards a society where religion reigns supreme to all other forms of rationality.

In a country where persecution against religious minorities is pervasive, advocates for civil society causes such as feminism need to find a way to push through with their ideas in Pakistani society without having to appeal to Islam. Too many debates in Pakistan use Islam as the winning argument. When we do that, we begin to solidify Pakistan’s position as an Islamic Republic (a theocratic state) rather than a Muslim-majority country (a demographic fact).

Among the reasons that Pakistan is such a horrific place for non-Muslims to call home is because everything in the country appears to need a stamp of approval from Islam. Peace-meal steps such as refusing to conflate strictly secular concepts like feminism with Islam may help curtail the escalation of Pakistan towards an even more ideological and intolerant place than it is right now.


Book review: Making a case for the Presidency – Hillary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

Before saying more about Hillary Clinton’s recently published memoir Hard Choices, I want to begin by admitting that it will come as a huge surprise for me if she decides not to contest the 2016 US Presidential Election. That will not just be the case because of the momentum around Hillary and the Democrats’ optimism that they will return to office in 2016, but also because of the entire tone of this book.

Hard Choices, which narrates the story of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as the US Secretary of State, quickly climbed the best seller list of The New York Times, and only fell to second place once a book revealing the rumored tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas hit the market. It seems that the only thing readers are more interested in than Hillary is Hillary herself.

All autobiographies, including this one, are meant to portray authors as heroes and are thus written with the intention of telling the story of the author’s life with as much nobility as is plausible. Naturally then, after reading this book you may catch yourself wondering why all the problems in the world hadn’t gone away by 2013 when she ended her tenure as Secretary of State.

But what makes this book somewhat different is that it is less about Hillary herself but more about being the chief diplomat of a global superpower that is insecure about its influence in the world and fears that it is on the decline. Hard Choices is worth reading because of the insights it provides into the strength of American democracy and two of the greatest moments in America’s recent history – the humiliation that America felt on the world stage after the 2008 financial crisis and the taking out of America’s Enemy Number One Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Hillary describes in detail, and with some thinly-veiled amusement, how she was poached for the position of Secretary of State by the Obama Administration – the same campaign staff that had left no stone unturned in the previous two years to highlight her unsuitability for public office. After conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, she was fairly adamant to return to her job as Senator of the New York State. What changed her mind, however, was a “sense of duty and service” inculcated in her by her parents and “a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” Yes, reading this book is a little like watching “The West Wing”, a romanticized American television series about the White House.

The book again adopts a diplomatic, humdrum tone, with Hillary detailing how the White House was supportive of almost every decision she made on who she wanted on her State Department team. That’s a little hard to accept on face value for someone familiar with the age-old wariness that characterizes the relationship between the State Department and the White House, both of which share much-guarded territory as representatives of the US President on the global stage.

Eventually, though, Hillary bounces back to her rather undiplomatic self in part, talking about the difficult things about the job more candidly. “I had logged in more miles and sat through more awkwardly translated diplomatic speeches than I imagined possible,” she writes at one point, in a line that perfectly captures the essence of her time as Secretary of State. In the short span of four years, she travelled to 112 countries, including China and Japan whose emergence as global business centers was adding to the anxiety that the US was feeling with regards to its own financial health. In many of these meetings, the leaders of the newly-confident economic powers never missed an opportunity to lecture her on how the United States was doing it all wrong. She makes it obvious that those were not her most comfortable or cherished moments from those meetings, even though a number of them ended in successful outcomes.

Her sharpest criticism, however, is reserved for the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This section, I believe, is the actual test of the book’s objective: be a feel-good story for America and Americans or have a serious discussion on American diplomatic history. No points for guessing which way the book tilts (it’s the former). For example, while she clearly mentions the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency’s links with the Afghan Taliban from the 1980s struggle against the Soviets, she fails to mention the American role in the conflict that is a well-documented part of history. Although I had little expectations, this omission was still a slight disappointment for me since, for the most part of the book, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad decisions made by American diplomats that have led to some of the deadlocks she tried to break.

Interestingly, though, she only mentions those mistakes in the context of events that she considers her diplomatic victories, such as Myanmar and China, or when there is an opportunity to blame others for their behavior. For instance, she accepts that complications were created by America’s quick and irresponsible exit from Afghanistan in 1989, but only to chastise Pakistan on what she calls irresponsible behavior towards its counterterrorism policies. She also takes no clear position on drones, insisting that the Obama Administration does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties and hides behind the fact that the program is classified information.

More diplomatically, the book is planned such that while the chapter on Pakistan begins with the Bin Laden raid, it carefully moves on to say nicer things about the two countries’ strained relationship.

Her description of the OBL raid is another part of the book that convinces me of Hillary’s ambitions to announce her intention to run for president. She makes it clear that during deliberations about whether America risked irreparably damaging Pakistani national honor by sending in US Navy SEALs, her priority for American honor. “What about our national honor? What about our losses? What about going after a man who killed three thousand innocent people?” she asks an official who brings up the question about Pakistan. It is clear that in Hillary Clinton’s mind, Pakistan was less a partner and more a threat in America’s quest for fighting militancy and militants. And that view of Pakistan is shared by her compatriots, many of whom see Democrats as soft on Pakistan and other countries that harm US interests. By emphasizing Pakistan’s role towards securing America while also clearly mentioning her frustration from “too much double-talk from certain quarters in Pakistan or the still-searing memories of the smoking pile in Lower Manhattan” as the reasons for her support to the Bin Laden operation, Hillary appears to have the intention to ensure that the American public knows her strong position on the matter as well as understands the need to continue US engagement with Pakistan.

She then moves on to describing her first trip to Pakistan in 2009, where she was famously likened to an angry mother-in-law by the Pakistani media, and was a “punching bag” particularly over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. She bravely tackles the failure of America’s approach to development aid for Pakistan, admitting that the “toxic politics” of US-Pakistan ties have become a huge hindrance in addressing Pakistani peoples’ anti-American sentiments.

While Hard Choices is not the most engrossing read, and tends to be almost tedious at some points, it is worth a read to understand the persona of Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have generated the sort of respect that even conservative America is waiting with bated breath for her to announce her intention for 2016. In May, I attended a Ready for Hillary event in Chicago. For a Thursday evening, technically still a weeknight, it was packed. Speaker after speaker, including the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel who is close to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, stressed that it was time for a woman in the White House. Clearly, if Chicago is any indication, America is ready to elect Hillary Clinton as its next president. Hard Choices will give you the clearest glimpse into why. Hillary Clinton is a seasoned policy wonk, one who knows the world and who the world knows. As America begins its economic and diplomatic rise, an event it has been craving for since the financial crisis of 2008, Hillary Clinton may just be its best bet.

A shorter version of this review was printed in Dawn’s Books and Authors magazine here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1125712/cover-story-hard-choices-by-hillary-rodham-clinton

My personal journey with CAP’s Oral History Project

People do internships to make contacts. In my internship, I literally made history.

On August 14, 2008, I was manning a stall in Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the country’s best art schools. It was an “Azadi Mela” organized by IVS, and the stall I was a part of had been put up by a tiny non-profit organization called “The Citizens Archive of Pakistan” (CAP) for which I was volunteering that summer.

“The Citizens Foundation?” asked a rather confused middle-aged woman as she walked past us, really only stopping because of the hyper enthusiastic way we were calling out to people. “No,” all of us responded, almost in unison. She smiled at us, and then walked along.

Her confusion was understandable, though: TCF is one of the most well-known Pakistani non-governmental organizations for its stellar work in education and our name did sound similar. Our work, however, was completely different. We were trying to talk about the history of Pakistan – oral history, to be more specific, which made it even tougher to tell people exactly what we were trying to achieve.

That also explained our enthusiasm: history is a tough topic to sell to Pakistanis, who’d much rather spend hours watching inconclusive television “talk” shows than listen to short clips that may give them a better sense of our identity as Pakistanis and how the country came into being.

But the aim of CAP was not to be some sort of self-righteous, nationalistic organization inculcating in Pakistanis the belief that we are the greatest nation on earth. We were there to make no declarations, and CAP’s founders – all in their late 20s in many diverse professions – were very clear on that. All we were after was exploration – what was it like when Pakistan was made and we wanted to hear it from the mouth of those who had lived through the partition, who we called “first-generation” Pakistanis. All of us, the founders as well as the 15-odd volunteers, were skeptical of the information provided to us in our substandard history books. The objective was to present an alternative view of history that may allow us, and other Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis who interacted with our work, to trace back to the earliest days of Pakistan through as many unbiased accounts as we could find.

The organization barely had anything by way of a budget, so it was hardly any surprise for me when we were asked to bring our own laptops to work and to donate if we had any old ones lying around. The internship was unpaid and all volunteers for college students and later high-schoolers.

The “office” was located first in the drawing room of one of the founders’ parents’ house and then in the backyard of that same house. I remember being fed Indus Biryani the first day, while listening wide-eyed to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the founding President of CAP (yes, the same incredible woman who has since gone on to win Pakistan’s first Oscar award). Then, we were bundled up into rented cars and sent off on our assignments with a recorder and a short questionnaire.

Those 10 weeks changed my life, as I met one inspiring person after another. I had walked in as a rather clueless 19-year-old, fed on a steady diet of lies that pass in the name of history curriculum in Pakistan. The Oral History Project taught me to think about Pakistan more critically than I used to – or perhaps was even comfortable with – while also instilling in me a sort of pride that comes from feeling part of a nation as opposed to the member of a state. It taught me to look at history without any political angle, and let the stories tell the story.

Since that very first one to this day, my love affair with CAP has only grown. I love that in 6 years it has evolved into an organization running several programs simultaneously from actual offices in 3 cities, and employing over 70 people (and paying them, always on time mind you!). But I also hate (ok, don’t like) that it has grown so much – there’s more to be protective and defensive of now than there was in 2008!

CAP used one of our culture’s most favorite pastimes – sharing stories – and converted it into a project that has become a collage of all things Pakistan. And what is invaluable to me is that I am both one of the makers and a part of that collage. Now, there are at least two more oral history projects in Pakistan, studying the partition just as CAP started out doing. We are still asked that question that the lady asked us at our stall, but we can now respond with a clear answer: No, we are The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, the leading repository of audio-visual sources of Pakistan’s history.

They say you can’t look to its future unless you know the history of a country. On this Independence Day, while there are marches and politics and debates, I am spending my day going through OHP clips that I and my fellow interns had manually transcribed for hours on end. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a better idea to translate a quote I had heard from one of our interviewees. It wasn’t annoying then, and it isn’t annoying now. As Swaleha Alam Shahzada, then project coordinator and now Executive Director of CAP, says “once a Cappie, always a Cappie.” I live with that line, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

To learn more about the process of OHP, please read: http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/the-citizens-archive-of-pakistan/

Did PPP really handle the assorted marches “better” than PML-N?

There is no doubt that, on the face of it, the Zardari Administration has handled the political crisis of Imran Khan’s and Tahirul Qadri’s previous marches much better than the Nawaz Administration has so far. However, the constant comparisons that political pundits have made between the two situations are not only unfair but also erroneous.

The reason that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government was able to handle the situation with “calm” was not because Zardari is some sort of a political mastermind. Contrary to what we would like to believe, the PPP’s response was not part of some strong commitment to a democratic plan or a political master stroke by the party’s leadership.

I see three key differences between the situation as it was during the PPP’s tenure and as it is during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) time, which can explain PPP’s calmness and PML-N’s nervousness in the face of the proverbial storm.

Firstly, the political situation before and after the elections of 2013 is completely different. When the PPP was faced with the nuisance of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), no one had any idea about the PTI’s or the PAT’s position in the political universe of Pakistan. It was the first time that the country was transitioning from one democratic government to another, a situation so rare that it was excitingly impossible to predict any result with any certainty at all. This time, however, the PTI has established itself as a formidable political force with a loyal voter base, even after the avowedly disappointed voters who supported the PTI in the 2013 elections. As for PAT, although they did not perform well in the election, they were still able to manage a fairly large number of people in Islamabad during their first rally. We now know the levels of loyalty and support for PAT and PTI, and also their ability to demonstrate street power. Furthermore, this time both PAT and PTI have decided to join forces, something that the PTI had categorically refused to do pre-elections.

Secondly, the PPP was pretty much at the end of their term when PAT mobilized itself while the Nawaz Administration has barely made it through its first year. Even if the PAT had been able to dislodge the PPP government, a caretaker would have had to take over – something which was going to happen anyway and, in this case, would just have happened earlier than scheduled. The Nawaz league, on the other hand, has waited for its term for 10-odd years and is thus desperate to ensure that it is able to complete its five-year term. This makes a significant difference to the way the two parties perceive the PTI and PAT shenanigans.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, neither the PTI nor the PAT threaten the core vote bank of the PPP i.e. Sindh. By the time these dharnas and revolution marches started happening, the PPP was well aware that it had lost any chance it had of winning Punjab in the 2013 elections, which was the core focus of both PTI and PAT. This means that the PPP really wasn’t so nervous about the outcome of these marches, while the PML-N’s future may well depend on this. Additionally, the fact that PML-N, PTI, and PAT share the same vote bank makes negotiations that much more difficult than it did for the PPP. Comfortable in that knowledge, it is then small wonder that the PPP didn’t bother to respond with anything other than calm.

This is not to defend the PML-N or their fascist, control-freak tendencies. As friend and journalist Zarrar Khuhro (@ZarrarKhuhro) put beautifully in one of his tweets, the PML-N’s greatest talent so far has been to panic and in the process manufacture a political mess where there was none. Given how huge a mandate the PML-N won in the 2013 elections and that it is not in a coalition government, it is amazing to see them so besieged! But, to say that the PPP is somehow better at managing political crises like these or that Zardari is some sort of a genius of a statesman are completely invalid statements. It was their callousness, not some intelligent leadership capability, that made the PPP ignore Qadri’s chants of revolution and Imran’s general belligerence.

Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock

When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at gulaabjamun.wordpress.com.

– This blog first appeared on the Living Cities blog here: http://www.livingcities.org/blog/?id=345#sthash.Zk14SHIU.dpuf