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


Dear Karachi, your wariness is understandable but the internally displaced Pakistanis need you

When I visited Sweden’s largest city Stockholm in 2011, I found it to be unbelievably non-diverse. Everyone was white and English was a language such few people spoke that sometimes I had to communicate in gestures. That appears to be changing, with Sweden taking in large numbers of immigrants particularly from conflict areas like Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Syria.

As all migration does, there was a sense of alarm among the Swedish people who were wary of the immigrants who were coming into their country from parts of the world that many Swedes have never even been to. On the other hand, the immigrants felt isolated and unwelcomed, unable to adjust to their new home with all its seemingly insurmountable cultural differences.

Today, I read a heartwarming story about a Swedish woman who used this cultural gap as an opportunity to bring together all the diverse cultures that were now beginning to form a presence in Sweden. She started by hosting small potluck dinners in Stockholm where she invited migrants from the suburbs and natives from the heart of the city. Naturally, once they had interacted in an informal, friendly environment, the two groups of people developed a level of comfort.

This reminded me of the mass-scale internal displacement in Pakistan right now due to a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan. While Punjab, the country’s strongest province by economy, has opened itself up for these internally displaced persons (IDPs), the smaller province of Sindh has responded with suspicion, even the people of ethnically-diverse city of Karachi.

It’s easy to see why, though no less dehumanizing and infuriating. The IDPs are predominantly Pashtuns, who in the world of Pakistani stereotypes have come to be associated with conservative ideology and a sympathetic corner for violence. Pashtuns already form a large part of the population in Sindh, where they inhabit the province’s largest city Karachi and pretty much own all of the city’s broken yet lucrative transportation sector. They are the second largest ethnicity in Karachi, and are widely stereotyped as having conservative Islamic views and a cultural acceptance of arms and violence.

It is primarily this clash of ethnicities that explains why protests have erupted in Sindh against this current wave of IDPs.

Let’s start with the Sindhis, a cultural rather than a geographical term. They are already a political and economic minority in the province because of non-Sindhi influence in the province’s largest city Karachi. They feel that with the arrival of thousands of more non-Sindhis they will become even more marginalized.

And who has the most influence over Karachi? The Muhajirs, ironically the people who themselves or whose ancestors have migrated from India into Pakistan ever since the two countries gained independence from the British in 1947. The Muhajirs who settled in Karachi were mostly from Urdu-speaking areas of India, such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), and have ultimately come to form the largest ethnic group in Karachi. In the aftermath of the partition, the Muhajirs became Pakistan’s ruling elite by default. But they also considered themselves the cultural elite and thus never adopted any of the cultural aspects of the Sindhis. Instead, they started to enforce their own language and lifestyle onto the few Sindhis who lived in Karachi. This has contributed to Sindhis’ phobia (for the lack of a better word) of migrants.

While these clashing ethnicities have been consistent themes in Karachi’s, and Sindh’s, governance problems, they also make this area of Pakistan the most diverse in the country. Karachi used to be described as “faqeer manash” – the city that provides a home to the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, now the city mostly functions on auto-pilot while the political groups that claim to represent the clashing ethnicities of Karachi continue to quibble among themselves instead of trying to collaboratively govern the goldmine that they are sitting on.

All these factors, among others including deteriorating security in the province following an influx of IDPs from the Swat operation against Taliban, have contributed to suspicion towards migrants in Karachi and Sindh. But suspicion towards migrants fuels many of the problems of migration, turning the situation into a vicious cycle.

To be sure, the entry of migrants does cause economic, social, and political pressures and problems that make the lives of current residents difficult. But for all of those categories, there is also the healthy diversity that migration fosters.

Instead of pushing distressed people out just to selfishly further your own interests, residents can help ease migrants into the life of a city and ensure that they don’t have to resort to crime and terrorism in order to get by and feed their families.

Let’s not make an economic issue into a political one, for when we do, we create hostility in our own people for our own people. Suspicion is the last thing the IDPs deserve from us in their need of hour.

The humanity competition: Pakistani first, Muslim later

If you were to follow just the news coming out of Pakistan about the outrage over Israel’s attack on Gaza, you would mistake us for the most humane people on earth. Yes, it would be a mistake as this very alarming story clearly demonstrates.

In Sindh, Pakistanis belonging to leftist, “progressive” parties held a protest against the influx of people from North Waziristan who have been displaced by the military operation Zarb-e-Azb in the area. Their complaint? The IDPs might, God forbid, settle in Sindh to provide a better lives for their families and choose not to return to North Waziristan even after the operation has ended.

Wah, what humanity. And we decry Israeli aggression in occupied Palestine territory day and night. Where is the talk of the “Muslim Ummah” mirage? Where are the analogies of the arbitrary Muslim Ummah being like a body, where if one part is in pain the entire body is in pain? Where are the self-righteous human rights crusaders now? Has the CAPS lock key on their computer keyboard finally died under the pressure of their vicious fingers typing out their outrage over the inhuman Israelis?

This is not to say that what Israel is doing is justified in any which way. It is a human rights violation of the highest order and the West – and other powerful states – should be ashamed of their silence. It is complicity in the genocide of a nation, its women and children, and for the most immoral reason of all – economic strength.

But what about our own people? Aren’t they caught in a conflict not of their own making? Are there no women and children affected? What moral reason do we have to protest against the inhuman treatment of people in a country thousands of miles away from us when we cannot be bothered about the well-being or guarantee our unequivocal support for those displaced within our own motherland? The Palestinians are dying for their motherland, yes. The IDPs – our very own people – are suffering for theirs (and ours) too. Why are the Palestinians more worthy of our support and emotion than the North Waziristanis?

If there is anything that Pakistanis’ loud pro-Palestine/anti-Israel protests show, it is our hypocrisy. I have heard the word “proportionality” being thrown around when criticizing Western leaders’ comments on “Israel has a right to defend itself”. Let’s apply that concept right here. Just look at the proportionality of the vigor with which we see support for Palestine and that with which we see support for Pakistanis.

It is time for us to put our house in order before extending our support to other suffering populations in the world. We are not a powerful enough country, we can barely provide for our own people. And that perverse resource competition, which is forcing the struggling Sindh province to complain about the influx of a huge number of underserved people, is killing our humanity as a nation little by little. These “anti-IDP” protests are just a glaring example of that.

More headlines on the issue that should break your heart:



[In Urdu] http://urdu.dawn.com/news/1007405/

Bilawal’s tribute to Shaheed Salmaan Taseer is brave but incomplete

Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari definitely has more guts than most Pakistani leaders, even those twice his age and in power right now. It takes some courage for a 25-year-old to own a man who his own party all but forgot – Shaheed Salmaan Taseer.

On Taseer’s birthday, Bilawal paid a heartening tribute to him, calling him a martyr and a real hero of Pakistan. Bilawal called Taseer a voice for the “downtrodden masses” and against “inhumane actions”.

But that’s not what Taseer was, and calling him that is not much of a tribute. He was the last man standing who had the courage to be the voice of the religiously oppressed Pakistani non-Muslims. That group very specifically, not the general group of downtrodden Pakistanis who suffer inhumane actions.

Bilawal’s statement is incomplete because nowhere does he mention the cause for which Taseer died – the defining factor about that man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his belief in religious liberty. Very specifically that cause, not poverty or violence.

What Bilawal said was brave, there are no two ways about it. Those things are important to be said, and even more important to be remembered. Bilawal appears to have made that a mission, and for that he cannot be appreciated enough. There is hardly any space for liberal views in Pakistan anymore, and for Bilawal to stand on that podium and make a clear, bold statement like that is an action I would love to see other Pakistani politicians take.

But not mentioning the infamous blasphemy laws that Taseer dared to stand against, a crime he was eventually eliminated for, makes Bilawal’s words somewhat hollow. The fact that the blasphemy laws continue to exist, and that Pakistan is still reeling from the shock of the murder of a lawyer for defending a blasphemy accused professor, makes that omission all the more jarring.

What makes Taseer a hero is his valiant defence of Pakistan against Islamization and religious illiberalism. His contribution keeps becoming more and more important with each passing day, each new murder of a member of the persecuted Ahmadi community, every new forced conversion of young Hindu women, and every new attack on lands of Pakistani Christians.

To not mention blasphemy and religious freedom in words when talking about the martyrdom of Salmaan Taseer is to neuter his stature in Pakistani history. The man who championed the rights of a group few dare to support deserves more. After all, it was his refusal for neutrality that made Taseer the hero that he is. Bilawal would be well-advised to remember that. You, sir, are the sole loud voice in this deafening silence.

Dear Mubasher Lucman, thanks for putting me and my people at risk

And by my people, I mean Shias and journalists, Pakistanis whose lives appear of little consequence to you.

Who are you kidding? Your beef with Geo TV has nothing to do with your “religious sentiments”, unless you consider ratings your religion. You are not interested in defending people’s religious faith. You are not going to be satisfied with the TV channel apologizing for what you alleged is “blasphemy”. You will only be satisfied, or at least I hope you will be, when the TV channel has paid a price for it in terms of losing lives business. But in the process, you have put at risk hundreds of lives of people who are doing nothing but earning honest livings as journalists.

Actually, why am I even expecting you to bother about the journalist community? It’s not like you’re a journalist. What would a self-styled anchor like you who has barely ever set a foot in a newsroom know about the daily challenges that real journalists feel? People who don’t make money by using shoddy YouTube videos as sources for their reporting and inciting hatred against others?

And why am I even expecting you to feel the fear that Shias in our country feel? Why should you, a Sunni male, feel any fear in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that puts you, your needs, and your religious sensitivities above mine – a Shia woman? If you empathized with this persecuted minority in Pakistan, which is battling with a virtual genocide, you would have thought at least twice before “dog-whistling” your way into the group that justifies the murder of Shias in our country.

Have you ever heard of the word “responsibility”? That’s what you should accept for pushing your viewers towards more hatred through your obscurantist rant.

Here’s some piece of advice from a person who’s a member of the communities you have directly threatened: Next time your piety bothers you, think about the show you did with Malik Riaz and how much “support” he provided you in that incredibly “honest” piece of reportage that you did. And maybe, if you have a heart, think about the production team of your own TV show – the people whose lives you just put in danger look, sound, and work hard just like them.

I finally got culture shock

Yes, finally. After living in the great and mighty United States of America for eight months, I am shocked by a cultural phenomenon in this country. I now have an answer for everyone back home who refuses to believe that the US is more similar to Pakistan than we think.

In November 2008, the monumental victory of Barack Obama as President of the United States moved me to tears because I believed it to be the triumph of justice and the human spirit. I heard his victory speech on YouTube, and thought, “wow, these people [Americans] have finally moved past the racism that plagued them until just 40 years ago!”.

Six years later, I land in Chicago, home to Obama and one of the largest African-American populations in the US. I am excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago that is largely populated by Black Americans, and see the interaction between the two races. Color-based racism isn’t really a part of political or intellectual debate in Pakistan. Borrowing from the Americans, most of us are generally “brown” and believe we descended from the same race, the Aryans. However, Pakistanis are not completely color-blind and there is definitely an obsession with white skin, for instance calling the West Indian cricket team kaali andhi (“Black Thunder”). But as far as active racial discrimination against dark-skinned people is concerned, that’s not really a problem in Pakistan the way it was/is in the United States.

As a student at one of the most elite universities in the US where racism really is a thing of the past, I continued to feel about America’s racist history the same way I did back home. In the land of opportunity, what color you are has stopped mattering, to the extent that even soaring income inequality impacts poor White families and Black families the same way. I was of the view that this kind of backward thinking about race now existed only in the minds of desis who seemed to believe that every Black man was out to rob them and every Black woman was having a child out of wedlock.

Then I came across this astonishing article in The Atlantic, which claimed that racial segregation seems to have returned to high schools in the US. According to the article, Black students across southern US – states that were made to end black slavery through the American Civil War – now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. This was a very uncomfortable thought for me. 

But what truly shocked me was when I started reading a fascinating book called “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. The book asserts that to this day, when even the rich and the powerful have to pay the price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against Black Americans. It shows how the practice mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black 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.

It was only then that I realized how complicated and pervasive the issue of race continues to be in the US. Although Barack Obama’s victory has been a sign of change and hope for Black Americans in the US, it appears to have done little for them in terms of acceptance. Obama, with all his “White privileges”, is easy for the White elite to consider as one of their own. For them, it is easy to forget that Barack Obama is a Black man because he is extremely intelligent, delightfully articulate, and a lawyer educated at Harvard University.

My view on race in the United States has completely changed. There is still racial friction, and it’s not just in the hearts and minds of people from states that were historically brutal to Black Americans but also in the American systems, particularly justice system. It’s hidden and covert, but very effective nonetheless. The “triumph over race” isn’t yet complete.

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

To maintain the “long arm of the law”, reform it!

It is extremely tiresome, this national culture of using a position of influence as license to point to other people’s failures while ignoring your own.

The honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan has raised a very valid question, one that is on the mind of every resident of the City of LFights – Karachi: “With 22,000 fugitives roaming the streets of Karachi, are the people to stay home all the time [in order to be secure]?

This is a most important question from the citizens’ point of view, and as a hapless resident of Karachi I thank their lordships for asking this from men usually inaccessible to ordinary residents like me.

Karachi may be the cheapest city to live in but it extracts its price in many other ways. For instance, even though Karachi is believed to be the financial hub of Pakistan you cannot plan a business, a project or even just go to your day-job here without factoring in the “normal” occurrence of shops suddenly closing down in the thick of the work-day for any number of reasons. If you still manage to start up a business in this city, you cannot ignore a certain amount you will have to give away to the bhatta mafia as and when they please. If you use public transport to get to work, you cannot get on a bus or rickshaw without fearing for your life (and that’s not just because of the skill of the drivers). You cannot walk to work, or anywhere, without fearing for menacing-looking men on a motorbike who would think nothing of shooting you down for not having an expensive enough mobile phone. You cannot drive your own car without keeping an eye at your sideview mirror and panicking every time a motorbike comes too close lest the riders want to kidnap you for ransom. If you manage to spend an accident-free day, then you prefer not to try your luck and step out after 10 pm.

But, without absolving any of the elected representatives and police officials of the blame, I also ask the honorable judges to enlighten us on their community’s track record at meting out justice to trained killers and terrorists. Even if we ignore the rest of Pakistan, two very recent cases from Karachi can testify to how weak and pathetic our justice system has become.

First is the case of Ajmal Pahari, a target-killer from Karachi who had made an on-camera admission of having killed at least 111 people. He was arrested after the 2011 summer of violence in Karachi, ironically following a Supreme Court suo motu, and was acquitted in 12 cases earlier this year. It was with relief that the media reported that he had been re-arrested in 4 more murder cases just a few days after his release from jail. It is baffling how a self-confessed killer, who had shown no remorse whatsoever at his heinous crimes, could be released. And that too in 12 cases, no less, and for “want of evidence” NO LESS!

The second is the case of Shahzeb Khan’s murder. Because his friends and family did not trust the justice system to deliver until the Supreme Court itself intervenes, a simple murder case that should have been handled by an anti-terrorism court has ended up in the highest court of the country after yet another suo motu. (My blog on how this case is an example of the failure of Pakistan’s justice system)

As members of the highest court in the country, these judges are some of the brightest minds in Pakistan’s judicial system today. How is it, then, that they cannot see the obvious failure of their own system? How can they not see that underneath them, the judicial structure of this country is, to put it mildly, crumbling? Even after having practiced it for years, how can they not identify the loopholes in the process that allow killers like Pahari to be acquitted? Can they not see how perilous it is that people’s only recourse to the law is “the chief justice should take suo motu of this!” even if the issue does not merit the Supreme Court’s intervention?

If their lordships truly want the rule of the law, they need to seriously consider the weaknesses within their own system, which is malleable for people with influence and malicious for people without influence. The suo motu notices make for strong political statements, but do little for the “long arm of the law”. These theatrics have to end to make way for a dialogue on judicial reform. This politics, which has already sucked up the rest of our institutions, needs to end.


Why I observed Muharram this year

Ninety-three of us perished yesterday. I don’t mean Pakistanis, I mean Shias. And as much as it pains me to identify myself as something before a Pakistani, this state seems to have left little choice for us.

Since the age of 15, when my parents decided to let me be and decide for myself how far I wanted my religious identity to go, I have been attending fewer and fewer majaalis every year. In some part it has to do with the fact that I got busy building a career for myself, but in some part it was also because I started wondering if the philosophy of marking Muharram as a way of protest really was relevant today. I was always aware that Shias were held as kafirs in many households in my own city and perhaps neighborhood. I also knew that they were being target killed in this country we call home, and I have lost family to it, but I still thought that we may have moved past it.

That was the time when Musharraf was in power. In the haze of his enlightened moderation, my teenage self felt safe. So I stopped going to the juloos as regularly. I also stopped taking Muharram so seriously.

Then, in 2009, the juloos was attacked. Instead of commiserating with us, many of our friends started blaming us for the violence against us. The juloos should be moved out of the city, they suggested. While I gingerly considered the idea, my parents and many other Shias I knew were vehemently opposed to it. I thought they were clinging to tradition.

Three years later, after spending a terror-filled Muharram each year and losing thousands of more Shias to brutal targeted attacks, I realized that what I had earlier dismissed as “tradition” was as relevant as ever. So then, I questioned, why shouldn’t the protest continue? And that is why I, a latent member of the Shia community, decided to observe Muharram this year. This was my way of saying no to the terrorists, of supporting religious diversity in this country. I have no intention of ever trying to convince anyone that my belief is more pure than theirs, but I have every intention to tell everyone that my belief never has and never will let the Yazeedi armies take over.

The protest is still alive, and we are still living what we have been mourning for hundreds of years. Imam Hussain’s followers, in principle or even just in ritual, are out on the streets even today to fight against fellow Muslims the way Imam Hussain did. And they are dying for it just as Imam Hussain did.

I never really needed a reason to become sure of my belief, but now I have found one. I only wish it didn’t have to be so violent.

Save us. Save religious diversity in this country. Save your right to dissent from the majority. Save your country from soaking in the blood of genocide of its own people.

This blog also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/15595/why-i-observed-muharram-this-year/


Shahzeb Khan case: A spectacle of Pakistan’s failed justice system

It is an exciting time to be a young Pakistani. Yes, it really is. Sure the unemployment, insecurity and political uncertainty have crippled our academic and professional progress but there are also rays of light, thin as they may be but bright still.

One such incident is the Shahzeb Khan murder case and the public outrage that it has created. What the Khan family, their friends and the protesters have been able to achieve is truly commendable. But when one delves deeper into the case, it is a perfect example of all that is wrong with this country’s justice system. It lays bare the problems that have long been the bane of our society’s existence. If only we were to think a little and avoid a knee-jerk reaction, this case points to the issues that we really should be agitating against to ensure that killers of young men like Shahzeb Khan are not let off anywhere in this country.

It is evident from the facts of the case that this is a plain and simple murder case – one that can, and does, occur in many parts of the world. But what has happened here wouldn’t happen in a country with a justice system that people actually trust and that does not bow down to political pressure.

Following protests in several cities, the Supreme Court directly intervened and took suo motu notice of the incident. Although this notice can be perceived as a victory for those who lost their son and friend in cold-blooded murder, what it really is is an embarrassing spectacle of the failure of this country’s justice system. In the shape of this suo motu, the Supreme Court has cut across layers of judicial procedure and overstepped the mandate of smaller courts that are actually responsible for dealing with cases like these.

If due process of law was to be followed, Shahrukh Jatoi, who is accused of having shot dead Shahzeb Khan following a boyish scuffle, would have been taken into police custody for questioning. Had Shahrukh pleaded innocence during the interrogation, he would have been produced before a judicial magistrate, who would hear the case the prosecution would make against Shahrukh. The media, which jumped in to play prosecutor, would really have only been reporting while prosecution lawyers would present both the families and other witnesses to prove Shahrukh’s guilt in a district and sessions court. The judge would then decide whether or not the evidence in the case showed that Shahrukh is guilty. If pronounced innocent, Shahrukh would be free to go but if ruled guilty, he would have the right to appeal in the high court and subsequently the Supreme Court.

One of the most outrageous and thoroughly shocking bits of the murder story is the “process” through which an FIR was registered for Shahzeb’s murder. Because Shahrukh’s father Sikander Jatoi hobnobs with politicians with influence, it took more than an hour for the police to register the report even though Shahzeb’s father is a senior police officer himself. Furthermore, the FIR was recorded only once another prominent politician, a relative of Shahzeb’s, got involved. Now imagine you or me or any one of us who has no political connections, in a similar situation. Where would we go once the police turn us away? How would we lodge a police complaint if one of our loved ones was to be shot dead as unjustly as Shahzeb was? Would the Supreme Court had taken any interest in our case if there were no political overtones to it?

I hope and pray with all my heart that Shahzeb Khan’s murderers are brought to justice and made into an example. But constant suo motu cases and media trials are not a permanent solution to a decimating problem: a weak justice system that can easily play into the hands of those with political support and money while failing to provide for those in real need.

Yes, we live in a jungle where survival of the fittest is the norm that has broken the back of this society. The problem is small but complicated and so is the solution, but our id is so big that we fail to look outside of ourselves and consider anything other than our own benefit. It is time we stop putting bandages on our scars and try to treat the disease that is causing those scars to reappear every now and then. It is time we question why Shahzeb, why that man we read about in the newspaper, why that boy in that village, why anyone of us?