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

Can denser cities prevent rape?

Recently, City Lab (formerly Atlantic Cities) published an article with a very interesting hypothesis: how better land use in India’s large cities can help tackle that country’s rape problem, which is fast taking the proportions of an epidemic. The author, Neil Padukone, argued that Indian cities, particularly Delhi, were designed according to the single-use planning pattern which lends itself to give birth to sprawling cities with large swaths of unpopulated land. These swaths, he feels, make Indian cities so unsafe because they are isolated areas where all kinds of crimes can be committed with some degree of certainty of impunity.

Single-use land design means that a city’s districts are drawn along lines of use, so that a residential area is completely separate from a shopping area. This pattern appeared to dominate land use in large western cities after World War II. However, in the 1990s, the US began to warm up to the idea of mixed-use land planning. Residential areas were no longer just that and began to include options for shopping, eating etc. – basically everything that you needed was walking distance or a relatively short commute away.

Mixed-use design, Padukone argues, would be an effective solution to secure the streets of these sprawling Indian cities. He concludes that with mixed use, and thus constant hustle-bustle, there will always be a set of eyes on the street which would ensure better security.

While that idea holds some merit (mostly for original thought), claiming that better land use in cities can improve safety for women, and residents in general, is a bit of a stretch. Even Padukone’s own argument that more pairs of eyes would mean more security seems like an unlikely conclusion, and certainly not a good solution.

As a South Asian woman myself, I can testify to the fact that there are way too many eyes on me everywhere I go as it is, and it does not secure me. If anything, I would be inclined to believe that that pair of eyes is more an enabler of sexual violence against women than a barrier to it. People stare at a woman who is out on the street as a pastime in countries like ours. More shockingly, violence doesn’t tend to move people into action because when a man is molesting a woman on the street, most people want to ignore it. All of a sudden, for societies as nosy as ours, the sanctity of a person’s right to privacy becomes paramount. On Twitter, when the #YesAllWomen hashtag was trending, an American woman tweeted that when she was in college, a police officer told women to yell “Fire!” in case they found themselves in a violent situation because that tends to mobilize people more than a woman screaming for help.

Secondly, looking at rape as something that happens only, or even mostly, in less crowded and isolated places is an incorrect assumption to make. The Delhi rape case of 2012 didn’t happen in an isolated place, it didn’t happen in a place at all – it happened in a moving bus that the victim sat on willingly because she believed it to be a public transit vehicle. Since then, I have come across at least three more stories, two in India and one in Pakistan, of a woman being raped in a car. That’s a spot that no style of urban planning could have secured. That’s a spot that nobody could have secured, except the people in the vehicle who were the root cause of the problem.

It is important to understand that rape is not a “crime” the way that car-snatching is. Rape is a social problem, one that is bred, supported, and perpetuated by constituents of a society. It is not done because some thuggish men wanted to make some extra cash by selling off a stolen phone, it is committed because in our patriarchal societies can and do justify violence against women.

Making cities more dense will do little, if anything at all, to help tackle rape in India or elsewhere. Only gross misunderstanding of the culture of rape, and that rape is only committed in the streets, would lead one to make such a conclusion. It happens in college campuses, office rooms, bathrooms, and even bedrooms between intimate partners. In fact, two-thirds of rape offenses are committed by someone that the victim knows, not someone who randomly assaults her on the street.

The only way to tackle rape is to fix the mysoginist attitudes towards women which stop people from speaking up and coming to a victim’s defence. If denser cities can bring that about, then by all means let’s go for it. If not, then single-use, mixed-use or no use at all is of little importance to the issue of women’s safety.

Population control in the world’s sixth most populous nation: Targetting men may be the key

In Pakistan, decisions regarding families and their destinies are made by men. But when it comes to taking responsibility, such as the decision to use family planning methods, the entire burden suddenly shifts on to women.

That trend may be changing, as a recent World Bank-funded study has found that Pakistani men appear ready to shoulder some responsibility. Worried about economic factors, men from middle and lower-middle social classes are eager to learn about family planning methods and want to limit family size.

This qualitative study, carried out by a New York-based nonprofit Population Council, was conducted in four districts of Punjab. The province is a good choice to conduct such a study as Punjab houses approximately 56% of Pakistan’s 180 million people, making it the country’s largest province by population. Furthermore, Punjabi men’s perception of contraception and the concept of family planning has been largely negative. Statistically, this makes Punjab a good representative sample of the general population of Pakistani men, allowing policymakers to use these findings as the basis of national population control initiatives.

The authors, Iram Kamran, Mumraiz Khan, and Zeba Tasneem, conducted one-on-one interviews with men and focus groups with families, and arrive at some fascinating conclusions. Two of the study’s findings have particularly important policy implications.

Firstly, they find that over the past two decades, there has been an increase in desire among men to gain more knowledge about fertility and birth control methods. Usually the sole breadwinners in the family, men have come to recognize that raising large families is financially unsustainable and thus having less children could be economically advantageous.

Secondly, the study found that it is not a lack of will but supply-side problems that are impeding men’s use of contraceptives. Subjects said that they were unable to find avenues for more information on these matters and expressed demand for male health workers, along the lines of the lady health workers program for women.

This second finding is particularly important from a policy perspective. Population control initiatives in Pakistan have largely focused on women, primarily due to the social belief that all things related to children are a woman’s domain. However due to deeply-entrenched patriarchy in our culture, when it comes to making a decision,the word is the man’s. This means that although women are more aware of the concept of contraceptives and family planning than men, the success of Pakistan’s population control initiatives remains low because their focus is on a group of people who, although should be, are in reality not in the position to make the decisions. Research conducted in 2013 among women in Punjab found that one of the main obstacles to contraceptive use among women is the perception that such behavior would conflict with their husbands’ fertility preferences.

The findings of this study could mean a reverse of that trend, even though the change in men’s attitudes towards family planning and contraception has not happened for social reasons.

It may seem overly optimistic but involving men in the process could not only lead to higher success rates in the use of family planning methods, but also an attitudinal change in men that is much needed in Pakistani society. I make that claim by combining two findings of the study: men are wary of contraceptives because of perceived side effects of modern methods, and fewer men than women believe that religious leaders should be involved in the debate on contraception. This means that one of the reasons that Pakistani men are currently not using contraception is a lack of information, not will to do so. Further, they feel that contraception is a scientific or cultural topic that does not require religious intervention for legitimacy. This could make them a ripe target group for future population control initiatives that may see more success than those in the past.

This blog first appeared at The Word Theatre here

PTI’s online supporter base: hypocrisy, stupidity or blindness?

A few days ago, I wrote this blog for The Express Tribune Blogs section about Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Parvez Khattak’s utterly misogynistic comments to women lawmakers in that province. It was based on this story: http://tribune.com.pk/story/683708/its-a-mans-world-women-lawmakers-asked-to-avoid-suggesting-development-schemes/.

Not unexpectedly at all, the PTI online machinery was set into motion and people started commenting and tweeting to me that Tribune had misreported the story here. They sent me this link which was Business Recorder’s version of the same story, as triumphant proof of Tribune’s “yellow journalism”. One person claimed the address was to both men and women lawmakers, as if somehow that made it any less offensive and derogatory. (Turns out that claim was absolutely wrong too.)

Since some of them were polite, I responded to them saying that I will get to the bottom of whether Tribune had misreported the story. I got in touch with my former colleagues at the Tribune Peshawar desk and asked them provide me with a copy of the press release. They did, but it was in English.

I thought of putting that up online, but I realized that some of the trolls might say: “But it’s in English, Tribune journalists probably included the line themselves.” Believe me, it is not beyond PTI trolls to actually say, and believe, that.

So then, I set out to find the original press release in Urdu, to make sure that it had exactly the words that Tribune had used. And voila, I found it on Parvez Khattak’s official Facebook page here. To quote: “khawateen arkan-e-assembly ka taraqiati schemon aur gali koonchon ke marammat se koi sar-o-kar nahin aur na hi woh aise kaam karein jo mard arkan-e-assembly aur mehkmom ke faraiz main aata ho”.

I then went back to the PTI people on Twitter who I had promised to figure out why Tribune’s report was so different from the Business Recorder report. I shared the link with them and asked them to retweet it, accepting that they were wrong and that Tribune hadn’t misreported (and consequently, my blog was not erroneous). In response, I got: “first you admit you’re a liberal fascist” and “if I admit I’m wrong, will you go on a date with me?” What the hell happened to rational argument?

One idiot retweeted the tweet with the false allegation right after I had tweeted my response to it – clearly, selective retweeting. When I called him out on it, I got “I can make my own judgment, I don’t need your help.” Wah, what an attitude towards learning.

And it got me thinking. Are these people hypocrites or just plain stupid? Even in the face of clear evidence, these people just cannot accept that they are wrong, that the party they so vehemently support is misogynistic and that no newspaper is out to destroy the PTI.

I wish more authors would call them out on their bullshit, but then again maybe they shouldn’t. Like all stupid people, the PTI trolls drag you down to their level and then beat you because they are experts at being stupid. It’s just not worth it. I did my job as a journalist, going back to check if the story was in fact accurate, and I expected them to do their job as responsible, politically-inclined citizens. Obviously, only I played my part.

I realize it may seem like I have some sort of a vendetta against the PTI that I’m writing and tweeting about them so much, but as a voter I feel it is my job and my responsibility to at least try to bring them to task.

I used to tell people not to judge the party by its supporters, rather base opinions on its leaders and actual policy people. Clearly, Khattak has shown that PTI’s leaders are just as bad as the supporters.

Very disappointing. Shame on PTI.

Mr. CM, that wasn’t insulting enough

If one more person tells me that Pakistan has a better record on women’s political representation than the “developed nations” (meaning the US) because we have twice had a female head of state, I will use my very female and very strong hand to slap them across the face.

The Women in Politics Maps 2014 released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women recently ranked Pakistan 72nd among 189 countries in terms of female representation in the parliament. We could have been ranked even lower – there is no woman on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s handpicked cabinet, for instance.

But one does not even need the IPU and UN Women to corroborate the claim of women’s pathetic representation in Pakistani politics. All we need to do is look north to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak just today told women lawmakers to refrain from suggesting development schemes and avoid doing tasks that fall under the duties of male members of parliament. Since when has development been gender-specific, Mr. CM?

Furthermore, in case his statement wasn’t patronizing and misogynistic enough, he also asked women legislators to concentrate on policies regarding women’s welfare. I mean, seriously, if women have such an itch to do something with the opportunity that’s been handed to them by their benevolent male counterparts in parliament, they can stay in their “zenankhana” and discuss their women problems. Why do they have to distract the alpha men from their noble jobs as saviors of the nation, including women?

So yes, what was it that you were saying about women’s representation in Pakistani politics?

The truth is that Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men, which is why the findings of the Women in Politics report and the KP CM’s comments shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. In the May 2013 election, for example, an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. The female head of government we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

Perhaps it is because of this perceived “privilege” that women parliamentarians are barely ever taken seriously, a rather laughable assumption to make if one were to spend a few minutes looking at how much Pakistani legislators have contributed. I would like to draw Mr. Khattak’s attention, and that of every man who holds the same view as him, to a report by non-profit legislative watchdog The Free and Fair Election Network, which found women parliamentarians in the outgoing National Assembly were a lot more attentive than their male counterparts. Despite being only 76 out of 350, women members asked 1,826 questions out of a total of 3,314 questions that were posed. For some clear perspective, read it like this: while women made up only 22% of the Lower House membership, they asked 55% of the total questions asked while the assembly was in session.

As the CM of the province, it is indeed Mr. Khattak’s prerogative to delegate legislative topics to his subordinates. However, I wonder if he was just as concerned about the overstepping of gender boundaries when a bunch of men decided to usurp a woman’s right to decide who represents her in the Provincial Assembly that he was himself the head of?

On May 13, 2013, I had travelled to Lahore just to be able to vote – and vote for PTI. I was then out in the street in Karachi, demanding re-election in NA-250. But the party just keeps disappointing me again and again. I know that many PTI supporters, some genuinely well-meaning and respectful men, will respond to my tweets about this statement and this blog with some sort of opaque explanations, but the message is clear: the one certain change that is coming is that women can talk, until they decide to challenge men on topics of consequence. Thank you PTI for that reminder.

Published in The Express Tribune Blogs here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/21477/pti-just-keeps-disappointing-mr-cm-that-wasnt-insulting-enough/

The myth of female representation in Pakistani politics

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

Last week, I got the opportunity to hear a short lunch-time talk by former US Congresswoman Sue Kelly. A member of the Republican Party, which I am not generally a fan of, she was remarkably impressive in her scathing criticism of her own party and of the other lot, the Democrats. Her knowledge of the subject matter was very impressive and the anecdotes she shared from both her campaign as well as tenure in the House of Representatives made for a highly inspirational talk. A friend described her, very aptly, as a firecracker.

The session was organized by Women in Public Policy, a student group at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, so naturally when the floor was opened for questions from the audience, the conversation turned to women in the legislature.

It was a frank, candid conversation where everyone agreed – including the male participants, one of whom was Kelly’s co-speaker for the talk – that although a lot more women were now in the US legislature, Washington was a long way from being considerate and accepting of women legislators. Kelly shared an anecdote of when, during her first term in office in the ‘90s, she asked to be assigned to the commerce committee of the Congress, the then chairman said “Like hell will I ever allow a woman to be on my committee.”

In her concluding remarks on the discussion, Kelly said something that particularly stuck with me. She said: “The glass ceiling has been broken [with Nancy Pelosi becoming the minority leader in the house]. The challenge now is how to keep your head above it.”

As I gathered my belongings, I was reminded of a conversation about Pakistani politics I had had with an American female classmate just when we were starting our term. After a brief conversation about our long-term goals of running for office, she told me that she was fascinated by the fact that Pakistan has had a female head of state and that too not once but twice. She almost keeled over when I told her that we have also had a female speaker of the lower house of parliament (Fehmida Mirza) and a female foreign minister (Hina Rabbani Khar), leaving out former central bank governor Shamshad Akhtar and ambassadors Sherry Rehman and Maliha Lodhi who did not serve in elected office. My classmate assumed that somehow this recognition for women politicians in Pakistan encouraged me to harbor the dream of being a member of parliament someday, and wistfully commented how the US was yet to elect a female head of state and how much of a pipedream that seemed to be sometimes.

I wanted to tell her then as I wanted to tell her after Kelly’s talk: don’t be wistful, because what you have is sustainable. What we have, on the other hand, is something of a charade.

The female head of state we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

To give credit where it’s due, what makes Benazir an iconic Pakistani female politician is the admirable fact that she campaigned, not only for herself but for her party. Although her ascent was in part because of the man her name and thus identity was associated with (her father), she is the only woman politician in post-1980s’ theocratic Pakistan to have addressed massive rallies where men and women listened with rapt attention.

That is more than can be said of Mirza and Khar, who both have influential men in the family who practically campaigned on their behalf. In fact, Khar rose to prominence in 2002 when she was a proxy candidate for her father’s seat which he was unable to contest for failure of possessing a bachelor’s degree which had become a requirement for running for office that year.

The one big difference between the US and Pakistan when it comes to women’s role in politics is not that women have had a more successful run in Pakistan than in the US, rather it is that the trend of increased female representation in US politics is of a much more sustainable nature than that in Pakistan.

Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men. In the most recent election (May 2013), an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. Unfortunately, that is also true for some of the most promising women leaders and former parliamentarians like Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar whose election rallies would be something to attend.

In the US, unlike in Pakistan, women politicians are no longer thinking about winning a seat in the parliament on equal terms. Their energies are now focused on working to build on the gains made by women politicians who beat the competition to make it in. In Pakistan, we have a long way to go until a woman can be elected on to a non-reserved seat or without a family lineage of politically influential men. And having a quota of reserved seats isn’t doing us any favors.

Photo credit: Reuters

Career women don’t always starve to death

I was never the fool who believed that our society isn’t incredibly judgmental, but I didn’t realize how irritatingly overbearing it can be if one is moving out of her parents’ home and is known for having barely any interest in the kitchen.

I am currently in the process of preparing my move to the US for a Masters at – forgive me for bragging a little – one of the top universities in the world for my field of study. Yet, every time my mother announces my imminent departure to one of her friends or someone from the family, the comment that immediately follows the mandatory congratulatory comment is “Akeli rahogi, khana pakana parega“. After much deliberation, the best response I have been able to muster to this remark is an awkward smile. It doesn’t help that most of the times I’ve had this conversation is a little before Iftar, which means I am not at my patient best!

As a feeler, I would always sense some forlorn in their comment and I wondered why that would be the case. What makes them so sure that I will cry my eyes out while staring blankly at a recipe? Have they known a great number of career women who died of starvation because they weren’t much in the cooking department?

And then it hit me. Most women who have made that comment to me are women who cook, have had to cook or will have to cook, as some kind of a compulsion. Because they themselves dread the thought of it, they feel that other women would do that too if they were put in the same situation, especially single women who’d much rather focus on a grueling education or career.

What they don’t realize is that cooking isn’t rocket science, and what makes it so dreadful for them is the fact that it threatens to become the end-all and be-all of their existence. I ask you, how hard can it possibly be to chop off a bunch of vegetables, add condiments and spices and let it cook – on its own – for 15 minutes? Daal and chawal are even easier to prepare, and there’s always the trusty omelet and Shan Masala packets! Who needs to eat difficult-to-cook foods such as biryani and qorma every day anyway? In fact, a craving for such food is a great opportunity to meet desi relatives you would otherwise avoid like the plague!

But what they don’t seem to understand, let alone appreciate, is that a woman who prizes her career understands that she is responsible for the consequences of her decisions. She knows that she’s signing up for a tough life, and that cooking her way through it may help but becoming a gourmet chef wouldn’t make things much easier because that wouldn’t be one of the biggest causes of stress in her life. I respect a woman’s decision to be a homemaker, even if it comes at the cost of her giving up a high-profile career in medicine. But the least I can expect in return is respect for my decision as opposed to the contempt and superiority complex that makes some women make insensitive and inane comments like “Ab pata chale ga bachoo jab roz khana banana parega”. Believe me, I have gone through stress levels in my life that are just as bad, if not worse, than any saas-bahu-nand-susar-devrani-jethani issues a woman may have had to suffer from. And they have made me strong enough to realize that the biggest issue in life is not whether or not I will be able to cook for myself in grad school. And does it occur to you that I may be enjoying myself so much and relishing in my achievements that eating two-day-old rice wouldn’t be such a punishment?

So, to every girl and woman who has, and will, make that comment to me: Trust me, as a career-oriented woman, I am more likely to die of a nervous breakdown caused by unimaginable levels of stress than of starvation because of a purported lack of cooking skill. And as someone with an elite, world-class education to go with it, I will probably be able to pick up that skill faster than one can say “cook”.


Malala Yousufzai and the league of extraordinary Pakistani women

There was the face of one woman in that room that could quash all the misgivings that one has about Malala Yousufzai’s “backstory”. No, it wasn’t 16-year-old Malala’s herself, it was her mother’s.

Minutes after Malala began her magnificent speech at the United Nations General Assembly this Friday, the camera cut to the face of her proud parents. Her father smiled like a man who had won a battle he had fought his entire life. Her mother, in her plain white dupatta and light green shalwar qameez, sat next to him wiping a tear that fell out of her right eye.

Since October 9, 2012, one of the many dark days in Pakistani history, we have heard as many views on Malala as we have avenues of information – newspapers, television shows, social media etc. The dominant view seems to be “she’s too confident to be doing this on her own, somebody must be supporting her.” I tried hard to understand that viewpoint, even though what matters most to me is not the agenda of those supposedly “propping” her up but the fact that that agenda is the right one.

On July 12, 2013, when a young Pakistani woman wowed the entire world by her simple yet powerful views, I let go of trying to look logically at the other view – I saw that tear that fell out of Malala’s mother’s eye and I felt what had caused it, and everything fell into place. Malala’s mother, purported to be a CIA agent, was crying because the little girl who she had carried in her womb for 9 months and nurtured for 15 years was finally able to speak with her characteristic vigour after surviving a bullet to her head. Ask a mother what that must feel like. Ask her if she would still care for a damned foreign agency when her own flesh and blood is battling for life.

Why is it so difficult for us to believe that one of our own, somebody from a small town in Swat, can be so eloquent and incredibly intelligent? Why can’t a 16-year-old, whose father trained her her entire life to be a fighter for education, be that fantastic a speaker? Why can’t a little girl who has spent her entire life under the shadow of crushing militancy have the undeterred spirit that Malala has? Why is that so impossible for us to fathom?

My question to all those conspiracy theorists is this: if not her, then who? If not the girl who was named after Malalai of Maiwand, then who? If not the little child who was deprived of an education she so dearly loved, then who?

It wouldn’t be so hard for us to believe in Malala’s magnificence if we were a nation of people who stood up when it felt the pain of being snatched of something it holds in high esteem. A nation that read national poet Iqbal’s verse beyond those that exalt Islam: “Zara namm ho yeh mitti, bari zarkhez hai saaqi”. A nation that isn’t so suspicious of its female population that it cannot process the idea of a strong woman without an “evil, western” agenda.

There is a lot to be taken away from Malala’s story – from the day she spoke out, to the day she was shot until the day she told the UNGA what a simple Pakistani woman can achieve given some confidence by her near and dear ones. Yes, a key takeaway is that Malala and her family has been maligned because she was attacked by the militants we so love to please. But here is another deeper problem that it points to: the bias against women so strongly ingrained in our heads that our nation can hardly believe in a confident woman who actually wants the best for this country. In Pakistan, you cannot be a well-wishing female citizen until you’re acquiescent and respectful of “social norms” no matter how much they pull you down.

This is the same attitude that a whole line of amazing Pakistani women have had to battle, from Benazir Bhutto to Asma Jahangir to Sherry Rehman to Mukhtaran Mai to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy to name a few. Each one of these educated, empowered and accomplished women have at one point or the other been named an agent for a random but ill-meaning cause, agents who are out to destabilize Pakistan for money. In actuality, all they were/are out to do is to destabilize the ridiculously skewed representation for men compared to women in Pakistan. They are such evil “ladies” because they refuse to silently obey and follow the patriarchy that continues to grip our society.

Dear Pakistanis, for a change, believe in one of your own. Accept her as the extraordinary Pakistani that she is. Love her and respect her. Don’t let her gender get in the way of that. Don’t translate her message of peace as “western”, it is universal.

You can hear her brilliant speech here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23291897

This blog also appeared here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/18149/malala-yousufzai-and-the-league-of-extraordinary-pakistani-women/ and http://tribune.com.pk/story/576526/malala-and-the-league-of-extraordinary-pakistani-women/


Movie review: There’s no limit to how much a film can move you

It’s a very sensitive topic handled just as sensitively. And all credit for that goes to [ad] filmmaker Asim Raza.

Behadd (Limitless), a romcom telefilm by Hum TV, was premiered at Karachi’s brand new monument Cinepax (at Ocean Mall, Clifton) on Saturday. There was barely anyone in the audience who wasn’t moved by the nicely written script and the brilliant performances.

The plot is incredibly easy to predict, but the beauty of the film is that you still want to watch it. Masooma (Nadia Jamil) is a doting single mother who practically lives for her 15-year-old daughter Maha (Sajjal Ali). Through her job, she is reunited with Jamal (Fawad Khan) the younger brother of her bachpan ki dost and they are both overjoyed. As they catch up over a cup of coffee, Masooma tells Jamal about her husband’s death and Jamal tells her about his failed marriage with an American girl. Masooma takes it upon herself to find a girl for Jamal but eventually he ends up proposing to her. Masooma speaks to Maha, who on the face of it says yes but is deeply distressed by her mother’s decision and, in her insecurity, destroys Masooma and Jamal’s relationship. However, the ending is a happy one – predictably, again – but it is so sweet and so well-executed that even the most cynical audience member cannot help but cheer.

Nadia Jamil is, as expected, excellent in her role. She looks lovely and is perfectly natural as a mother. Her role in Behadd is quite similar to the character she played in Meray Paas Paas (a play by Hum TV circa 2005) but it is a testament to her versatility how differently she has done this role compared to that one. Fawad Khan is about as good and has truly, truly grown as an actor, which we saw in Humsafar and the recently concluded Zindagi Gulzar Hai. It is such a wonderful experience, seeing him on the big screen even if it is not a feature film. I seriously hope that he has some feature films coming up in the pipeline – and hopefully one where he plays the quintessential romantic that he does so well.

While Nadia Jamil is the star of the film, kudos to Sajjal who has done a very nice job as the somewhat spoilt yet perceptive young girl who has grown up having her mother as her one-and-only. Nadia Afgan is also great as Shafaq, Masooma’s best friend from work, and adds a lot of colour with her natural flamboyant style.

What was a surprise for me though is the progressive message of the plot. Behadd is written by Umera Ahmed, of the Shehr-e-Zaat and Zindagi Gulzar Hai fame. I am not a fan of her writing, because I feel that it is full of regressive ideas and sweeping statements, like the girl who wears jeans is the evil one and the one who wraps a dupatta round her head is the good one. In this telefilm, however, she has taken a position in favour of a woman, a mother, marrying again and that too a man younger than her.

All in all, I have little bad to say about the film other than the fact that the plot is utterly predictable. It is heartening to see managers of Hum TV, the television channel that singlehandedly steered us out of the reign of awful Indian [and Pakistani] soaps, taking such an initiative. Moomal Productions’ choice of plots is always interesting, and I think it is great that people with artistic sensibilities like that are now looking towards entering cinema. I am hopeful that the revival of Pakistani cinema is nigh if media professionals like these continue to produce film after feature film.

Verdict: Watch out for it on TV and don’t miss! It’s a really sweet film, which is also very well made. An evening well-spent!