Monday, December 29, 2008

Reporting Biases

News in Dawn, the New York Times and the Guardian on the latest chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really shows how subjective and partisan reporting can be.

All three papers give the number of Palestinian casualties in the first paragraph, putting it around 350, but the New York Times, in the very same breath clarifies that according to the UN only some 60 of those Palestinians were civilians. The Guardian mentions that in the third para while Dawn much later both emphasizing that these numbers are thought to be very conservative.

All three list the places Israelis attacked (the Islamic University, the Interior Ministry and the presidential guesthouse). The NYTimes is quick to explain that Israel considers these places Hamas' civic institutions. A strange assertion. I would say that the Interior Ministry in Gaza is Gazan's civi institution not just the Hamas'. The Guardian calls the Islamic University "the territory's main university and one with links to Hamas". It also lists the damage to laboratories in the university. Dawn just notes that the university is a "significant cultural symbol in Gaza".

Then NYTimes spends over a 100 words describing the Hamas rocketfire and each of the four killed Israelis. It also paints a vivid picture of "thousands of Israelis huddled in shelters". Dawn spends 25 words to say that two Israelis have been killed by rocketfire since Israeli attacks starts. It mentions that "Israel has said" that it has launched its attack because of intensifying rocketfiring but undercuts that assertion with a note in the same sentence about Israeli national elections approaching.

After describing the Israeli's plight, the NYTimes spends around 40 words describing the Palestinian's situation, but in that same paragraph, in the very next line starts to talk about how Hamas has been shooting Palestinians too on the charge that they were collaborators. It then spends a huge chunk of the article describing these executions by Hamas and only then describes civilian casualties of Israeli bombings. Dawn and the Guardian do not report any such killings by Hamas.

The NYTimes does not note Ban Ki-Moon's opposition to the Israeli attack at all while the Guardian quotes him extensively, including his condemnation of Israel's "excessive use of force".

There are  at least a dozen more smaller differences between the three articles but these in themselves make the NYTimes' pro-Israeli and Dawn and the Guardian's pro-Palestinian biases clear. I am sure there has been no falsification of information but the choices of inclusion, omission and organization make all the difference in giving these reports their slants.

Sitting in Karachi, I cannot really determine where the reality of things lies — between the poles of these three news reports or beyond them. And without wanting to spark off an epistemological controversy, I wonder whether the reality is entirely knowable at all. Perhaps, all that is needed of us news readers is the awareness that news outlets report not the reality of things but their version of reality, seen consciously or subconsciously, through the filter of their biases.

Palestine and Israel

Once again, Israel and Palestine's uneasy truce has fallen apart and innocent civilians on both sides are paying with their lives. Four Israelis, 3 of whom were civilians, and 365 Palestinians, 60 of whom were civilians, lost their lives in the violence. It is a gruesome reminder that one of the gravest conflicts of our times is still very much alive and destroying the lives of many, many innocent people on both sides.

Both the Jewish and Islamic traditions subscribe to an eye for an eye justice. But Israeli response to Hamas rocket-firing has been disproportionate. 365 lives for 4. According to their own traditions, that leaves them with a debit of 361.

But violence cannot be stopped by more violence. It is the hard truth that people and governments of our times are yet to learn. But even in today's extremely grim situation, I find myself sincerely hoping – against all hope – for a swift resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for lasting peace in the Middle East.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan says it is not against girls' education – Dawn

I guess they just burn down girls schools for sport then...

All of a sudden, TTP has discovered that girls education is not against their religion. All they really want is that girls at school be forced into wearing the burqa, irrespective of the girls' individual opinions on the matter. Is that really too much to ask?

This seems to me to be part of TTP's effort to become more mainstream. They seem to have realized that education is something people want and burning schools is not really winning them any hearts or minds. So they maneuver and back-peddle on their 'unshakeable' beliefs and values. They are acting more and more like a political rather than a militant entity.

Consider another piece of news in today's Dawn: "Talking on phone from an unspecified place Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for TTP, said: “It is our (Taliban’s) responsibility to protect the country’s western border and we will stop infiltrations into Afghanistan.”"

The irony of this statement is mind-boggling. The bandits are promising to police the town when the sheriff leaves. What kind of approach is this? On any other day, we would love to blow you freedom-loving Islam-hating Pakistanis to smithereens but hey today we are ready to pitch in in your fight against India...?

This is politicking in the extreme. And the ease with which they have switched from government-toppling terror-spreading rebels to qaumi janda-waving tarana-singing patriots is evidence of such hypocrisy that would cause even our most adroitly two-faced lota politicians to gape.

I really hope no one is buying this bag of bull that the TTP is feeding.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Everyone understands that the security barriers that people install on their streets are because they feel the police cannot protect them. Since all this fuss has been made by the government about how the barriers impede movement of fire engines, ambulances and police vehicles, it is also clear to everyone that they prevent these emergency workers from doing their jobs.

So since everyone knows why the barriers are up and why they are a problem, then the government should just go ahead and solve the problem if they want the barriers to come down. To force people to take the barriers down without taking concrete steps to better protect them is unreasonable. We all know how miserably useless and entirely self-serving our police force is. If they can revamp their image from corrupt, high-handed and brutal to efficient, respectful and dedicated, Karachiites will be more than happy to take the barriers down. We will be on Cloud 9, in fact.

But the government has no intentions of sincerely addressing the systemic problems that plague our law-enforcement personnel (poor payment, understaffing, poor training, lack of equipment, lack of gender sensitization, politicization of the police force, unmerited appointments and the list goes on and on). It is happy just kicking up a big fuss over this one issue and making headlines in the city pages for a week. Then it's all back to business as usual.

In the aftermath

Despite caution from a lot of Indian intellectuals, India has been drifting down the same dark path that America did after 9/11. All the bloodthirsty commentating, the growing xenophobia, the draconian security laws under consideration, the obsession with what happened to the glitterati at the Oberoi and the Taj as opposed to the victims at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: it all leaves me with a queasy feeling of things going in the wrong direction.

Latest in the series of missteps is the Oberoi Trident saying that it will not entertain Pakistani nationals at its hotel. The move is distasteful, misguided, vindictive and short-sighted. It does not entirely surprise me, but it certainly does sadden. The India-Pakistan-bhai-bhai enthusiasm of the past five years has shown itself to have been both superficial and hollow. Within days of the Mumbai attack, all that goodwill evaporated and the Pakistani and Indian media were at each other's throats; sports tournaments were cancelled; the peace process put on hold and the deep mistrust and antipathy that lay dormant for the past few years resurfaced with renewed vigour.

It is a shame. What happened in Mumbai was in no uncertain terms a tragedy. And of all the people who could empathize, Pakistanis were on top of the list for having been battered on a weekly basis by terrorist attacks for the past five years. But instead of sharing each other's sorrow and using our new cordial relationship to go after those responsible for the attacks together, leaders and citizens on both side ran to take cover behind their old jingoism and bellicose rhetoric. A dozen hate-filled twenty-somethings have managed to alter the open nature of a country of over a billion people and derail the growing friendship between millions of citizens of the estranged nations. It's a shame. A real shame.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hey, lazybones!

"If you have trouble getting started and have a tendency to sit down and look at a blank sheet of paper and an hour later you’re still sitting and it’s still blank, you need us.

"When the deadline is near at hand and you feel neither motivated nor inspired and then you have procrastinated until you have reached the point where you absolutely have to write and are developing feelings of anxiety that make it harder to start the next time, don't you feel that it's the time to call us!

"We will take the pressure off meeting the deadlines for grades. We have created a whole file of ideas and can handle your essays. You can place your confidence in our ability to write your assignments.

"Our writing has a defined purpose and our writing is much more than just correct writing we make a clear point and support it with information. The information is clearly connected, the words are appropriate. You can rely on a professional expert to do the job for you. We also write with taste and good judgment."

This is the proud declaration on a website offering to write essays in English for students in Pakistan for high school, undergraduate, graduate and PhD programs. A high school student can get a paper written in 24 hours for as much as 400 rupees per page. A PhD candidate can get a paper in 24 hours for 900 rupees per page.

The website further says, rather sleazily, "We are aware of the fact that some academicians denounce their students for taking resort to writing services. Although we believe that it hardly creates a difference to a student’s progression if he takes support from a justifiable and specialized writing service, in today’s highly competitive environment. We protect your information, never disclosing any of your information under any circumstance. 100% confidentiality is our guarantee."

I don't know what to be more dismayed at: the fact that there is a website offering such ethically and morally bankrupt services, the fact that if enough people get wind of this website it could well be a roaring success in our ethically and morally bankrupt country or just the horrendously poor English on display on this website. Please note the convoluted run-on sentences, the redundancy and the inept usage of idioms. "A professional expert"? "The deadline is near at hand..." Elsewhere on the website, they have spelt rupee as "ruppee".

I wouldn't trust these nincompoops to write even a text message for me. I hope others will have the integrity and, failing that, the commonsense to refrain from using this website too.

Note to Karachi Drivers

When you hear an ambulance wailing somewhere behind you, please, please don't just continue to sit at the red light. When a man is having a heart attack or a woman a stroke in the ambulance behind you, the traffic laws are temporarily held in abeyance for that person's life. So people when you hear an ambulance, make way for it, break lights to clear the path for it or stop even if your light is green so that the ambulance on the other road can go past.

In case you were not aware of this before, please know that not only is it okay to disobey traffic laws to let an ambulance pass, it is in fact required, ethically and (hopefully) legally too.

Just now, I had to wait for two painful minutes at the Teen Talwar signal with an ambulance behind me desperate to drive through. But there were dozens of cars ahead of us that just would not break the light. All of a sudden, the usually cavalier drivers of Karachi turned into stubborn traffic light observers. They sat there oblivious to the ambulance siren and the honks of several conscientious drivers and moved only when the light turned green. Of course, the ever present traffic police did nothing either. They were busy fleecing some poor motorcyclist in a corner.

As the ambulance whizzed past, I saw the face of an extremely worried young boy inside and I could only hope that his relative lying there next to him would make it to the hospital in time. If that person does survive, it certainly won't be thanks to any of us at the Teen Talwar signal, but if that person doesn't make it, their death will certainly be on all our hands.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Consult a dictionary first, buddy

The esteemed Council of Islamic Ideology has declared the term "gender equality" vague and un-Islamic in its review of the National Commission for Status of Women Ordinance 2000. My first reaction to this news article in yesterday's Dawn was, "Lol!"

Is the term un-Islamic because it is vague? If the CII was unsure about what gender equality meant it should have asked for some clarification from the government, or better yet, from anyone with a dictionary. Instead, after deeming the term ambiguous, it goes on to find it un-Islamic on the grounds that men and women are anatomically, physically and mentally different.

Now I guess I should follow my own advice and put forward some points for clarification from the CII (just in case it frequents this blog). 

1. What does the non-indentical biology of men and women have to do with ensuring that the government and the law's treatment of men and women and their access to opportunities is identical?

2. Going by your reasoning, will you also be recommending dissimilar treatment by the state and the law for people who are physically or mentally dissimilar, for people with more or less limbs and higher or lower IQs for example?

3. And if you do intend to discriminate against people with low IQs, will you be recommending to the government that it kick idiots like yourselves off advisory bodies which get so much media attention? That sure would be nice!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

"In whose hands shall the administration and the empire of India rest? Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations – the Mohammedans and the Hindus – could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. At the same time you must remember that although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a higher English education, yet they must not be considered insignificant or weak. Probably they would by themselves be enough to maintain their own position. But suppose they were not. Then our Musalman brothers, the Pathans, would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood flow from their frontier on the north to the extreme end of Bengal. This thing – who after the departure of the English would be conquerors would rest on God's will. But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land." – Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (Meerut, 16 March 1888)

This speech by Sir Syed was made three years after the Indian National Congress was founded. If you remember your Pak Studies, then you must know that Sir Syed was extremely opposed to the INC, believing, somewhat irrationally, that it was a conduit for Hindu supremacy.

What really surprised me about this speech was not how easily and firmly Sir Syed dismissed the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity over fifty years before the Pakistan Resolution, but how extremely aggressive he was. This talk about making blood flow and about making the other nation obedient makes him sound less like a progressive intellectual and more like a firebrand. It doesn't quite jibe with his image as a reformer that we Pakistanis have, but makes him sound queasily close to the religious fanatics of today.

The Lucky Irani Circus

It has been in town for the past two months, in the field outside Aladdin Park. It is now up in the Clifton Beach Park for the next week. If you have an hour to kill over this week, I strongly recommend that you check it out. They have everything from contortionists to trapeze artists to clowns and midgets. One of the performances involved a young girl climbing a twenty feet ladder that was balanced on a man's forehead. She climbed to the top, took a bow and climbed down, while the man balanced the ladder without his hands. Scariest thing ever!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It's Eid again...

I don't know why Muslim holidays can't be spread out more evenly. Didn't we just celebrate Eid ul Fitr? It seems like only yesterday when the entire country was starving itself and now it is slaughtering cows, goats and camels by the hundreds of thousands for a big feast.

I just saw a white Corolla leading a camel down 26th Street. The camel was tied to its rear bumper and the Corolla was moving at snail's pace (or should I say camel's pace) in front of it. Only in Pakistan, I say, only in Pakistan.

A bearded man with glasses and a skull cap was sitting in the open trunk along with two young boys, whose excited eyes were glued to the languidly moving camel. I have to admit the animal was very cute. Unfortunately, by now it is probably flailing around in a pool of its own blood, dying of a slit throat, and serving as the centerpiece of some upper middle class family's unnecessarily barbaric ritual of obeisance to its "Most Merciful and Most Kind" god.

I really don't like this holiday.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I really mean by education

Remember those hypotheticals that your seventh grade school teacher asked you when she didn't have a teaching plan: "If there was one thing you could change about Pakistan, what would it be?" The twelve-year-old me's answer was invariably education: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be educated." Today, I would answer more specifically: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be able to read, write and think for themselves."

The Garage School (TGS) is an NGO that is working to make the twelve-year-old me's wish come true. TGS runs two primary schools in DHA, Karachi – one literally out of a garage – and provides free education to young boys and girls from the low-income Neelum and Shah Rasool Colonies. Excellent, excellent work, the twelve-year-old me would say, but after visiting TGS the 22-year-old me was only dismayed at the kind of education TGS is imparting to its students.

The emphasis of the school is entirely on discipline and rote learning. To impress me, a teacher asked the brightest student in her class to tell us what he knew about Pakistan. What followed was a verbatim recital of a passage from some textbook on Pakistan. In a breathless monologue, the boy quoted, "As a Pakistani, it is our duty to worship God, respect our parents and love our countrymen. Pakistan is a great nation that was formed in 1947. It has four provinces. The first province is Punjab. Its capital is Lahore..." So on and so forth. Later, the entire class parroted, with some assistance from the science teacher, slogans against smoking cigarettes and chewing paan. The children were basically being mass-programmed to follow the values that the school thought appropriate.

I know, this happens here at the best private schools too. Schools like to produce obedient and disciplined students, who have just enough brainpower to regurgitate all the axioms they want to feed them but not enough to think independently or question anything, least of all the schools and their axioms.

But that isn't the kind of students that schools should be producing. It won't give us a population that can innovate and revolutionize or engage in rational debate, tolerate a diversity of opinions and adapt quickly to change. It will simply produce people who can read and write and at most hold a low level white collar job. Students deserve more than that; and we as a country need more than that. Much, much more.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Well isn't this a big relief!

According to The News, "The Sindh coalition government has decided to revoke the Police Order-2002, and expressed a unanimous view that no political party was behind the recent ethnic violence in Karachi, and only those elements who did not want political reconciliation in the province were behind the mayhem."

Well, isn't that just dandy. How nice to know that after the riots in which 50 Karachiites were murdered, the government has vindicated every political party of all blame. What a relief that our irreproachable political parties were not responsible. And how very shocking it is to learn that those who were responsible – these unnamed spectral elements, who will surely be caught and tried in public very very soon – were actually out to sabotage our poor helpless political parties' big group hug moment.

Shucks! Lead me to a polling booth so I can vote this unfairly victimized government right back into power.

Monday, December 1, 2008


The rumor is that Karachi is up in flames because of some MQM-Pathan tussle over land around some new expressway.

The rumor is that the police, which has received shoot to kill orders from Sindh's Interior Minister Zulfiqar Mirza, is standing by as activists of political parties shoot people down in front of them.

The rumor is that this was all planned well ahead of time, with months of hysterical talk about Talibanization of Karachi, which sought to blur the distinction between Pathans and the Taliban.

The rumor is that Pathan students from some college in Karachi were asked to leave. When they didn't people put Elfi super glue in their eyes, ears and noses.

The rumor is that there are people out for blood slicing ears off people of other ethnicities for no reason other than, well, their ethnicity.

The rumor is that some men broke into an Urdu-speaking colony – Raees Amrohvi Colony in Orangi – entered a house and shot everyone inside.

These are all rumors, unverified stories that are spreading like wildfire across the terrorized city while our glorious media is busily giving us a minute by minute run through of what happened in Mumbai five days back. The best that the media can give us about what is happening in our own backyard is the following:

"Members of two ethnic communities [notice how the ethnic communities are not even named] went on a rampage and attacked each other." Dawn (01/12/2008)

The Daily Times talks repeatedly and vaguely about "miscreants" wreaking havoc in the city in yesterday's paper regurgitating the rumors that are circulating in the city.

From all this it would seem that, much like in some B-grade horror flick, an entire city has suddenly lost its mind and is going around mindlessly killing each other. Any kind of insight into why the riots started, who is behind it and why the law-enforcement agencies are unable to stop it is apparently too much to expect from both the government and the media.

Meanwhile, there are more rumors about why mum is currently the word. The rumor is that the media is terrified of the MQM. That after the MQM censored Geo twice over the past month or so, it has decided to not stick its neck out.

The rumor is that since most of the big media outlets' head offices are in Karachi, they prefer not to piss the MQM off.

The rumor is that the MQM made certain that another episode of May 12-like heroic reporting would not occur and that the ransacking of Aaj's office is still too fresh in the media heads' minds to offer more incisive reporting.

The rumor is that the troubles are in such out of the way areas of Karachi – Orangi, Sohrab Goth, Banaras etc – that for cameramen to go out there would be like going into Fata. Therefore, the TV coverage of the riots is also minimal.

In the meantime, the death toll climbs up each day, as violence collects more half-lived lives.

In the meantime, as rumors and bloodthirsty rioters overrun the streets of Karachi, we, the ever-stoic and ever-ignored people of Karachi, stay quietly in our homes hoping for yet another crisis to quickly loosen its grip on our beloved yet battered city so that we may pick up our lives again and guiltily thank our stars that it wasn't our turn this time around.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reason is not automatic

"Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone." – Ayn Rand in the introduction to Atlas Shrugged.

Admission is the First Step

Zardari was very impressive in his address at the UN Interfaith Conference. Despite spending half the speech effusively praising the Saudi King, he did admit – though very briefly – that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both serious problems that need to be dealt with. His exact words were:

"Bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combatted."

Yes, he mentioned anti-Semitism only once, but implicit in the lumping together of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism was the idea that they are two sides of the same coin. The West's Islamophobia and the Muslim world's anti-Semitism are both a result of grievously mishandled geopolitics in the absence of meaningful people to people interaction.

Muslim anti-Semitism is based solely on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Muslims never had anything against the Jewish faith. In fact, while anti-Semitism raged in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Muslim world gave protection to Jews. Now, however, Jew is a dirty word in places like Pakistan. Synagogues have been burnt down in Karachi, the old Jewish cemetery desecrated and Jews – South Asian Jews mind you – have been run out of the country. Pakistani hatred of Jews is blind and overwhelming and rests on the false premise that Israel and individual Jews are the same.

The West's Islamophobia rests on the same misconception: the Muslim terrorists and the rest of the Muslim world are the same. Hate crimes against Muslims in America and Europe have been on the increase. In the US presidential elections, the label of Muslim was used almost as a slur on Obama, and the most revealing thing about it was that his Muslim middle name, Hussein, was a big concern for Americans.

Yet Americans acknowledge their problem and many in the liberal media try to fight Islamophobia. But in Pakistan, anti-Semitism has never been challenged by the media, intellectuals or politicians. Zardari's admission of the problem is a first step. His proposed solution, which followed the admission also seems to be in the right direction:

"Dialogue, and not discord, between civilizations and faiths must be encouraged... Let us not isolate people, let us engage people."

It is vague but it is something. Of course it would have been infinitely better if Zardari had said this to the Pakistani people and not a bunch of diplomats and world leaders and talked a little more specifically and extensively about anti-Semitism. There is a rumor that he might meet Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at one of the dinners. I for one hope he does. I hope that Pakistanis are allowed to go to Israel and Israelis allowed to come to Pakistan. Getting to know each other as human beings as opposed to demonic caricatures will only further the mission for tolerance for which all these distinguished persons have gathered at the UN this week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Order (I)

More pictures from my visit to the Shahjehan Mosque can be viewed on my Flickr profile.

Order (II)

This weekend, I went to see the Shahjehan Mosque at Thatta. Everyone must have seen pictures of it in coffee table books about Pakistan, but seeing it in real life was a profound and beautiful experience. I sat in one of the nooks in the covered courtyard for nearly an hour mesmerized by the infinite geometry of the arches and tiles. Tracing the order of the architecture was the most therapeutic thing I had done in months; it felt like all the mundane anxieties left my mind and all the tension drained from my body.

Shielded from the relentless sun, enjoying the cool breeze that circulated through the quiet courtyard, I thought about how important order is to the quality of our lives. The daily traffic jams, the near accidents when some asshole breaks a traffic light or some pedestrian with a deathwish darts in front of your car, the general chaos of Karachi takes an immense toll on people. The unnecessry honking, the inconsiderate cutting of a line at the nanwallah, the need to yell to get the grocer's attention, the neighbours dumping their trash outside your house, it all builds up slowly in our body and mind. It is betrayed by that tension in our shoulder, our sharp reply to someone's innocent question, the unconscious gnashing of ours teeth, that nervous shaking of our legs and most importantly by that slowburning anger – or alternately – leaden fatigue that characterizes our existence.

This Mughal architecture in the middle of Thatta seemed to comprehend our need for order, for the psychological comfort it affords. To be part of an ordered regulated society and to live in an ordered regulated space where the law of the jungle and ruthless self-interest are held in check by laws and institutions – both government and civil – that function effectively, without favour or prejudice, that is my hopelessly idealistic dream for Karachi, for Pakistan, which the Shahjehan Mosque anticipated 400 years ago.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Since September, the newspapers have been awash with news about pro-government jirgas and lashkars being assembled by tribesmen in various areas of FATA to resist the Taliban. This is good in that after nearly seven years, the locals are taking a firm stance against the militants, whom they initially treated with much hospitality. Support of the people of FATA will be key to success in what has now become a full-fledged war on the militants there. The locals' knowledge of the area and the simple fact that they will no longer give refuge to militants will help tremendously.

But this whole business of the lashkars fighting a proxy war for the government makes me very uncomfortable. Tackling the militants is the government and the military's responsibility and not of civilians living in that area. For the government to garner their support and make sure they are not harboring militants is one thing, but for it to use these armed tribesmen as a buffer against the ruthless militants is inhumane.

To make matters worse, not only is the government encouraging lashkars, it is, as the Herald reported this month, also arming them. Our experience of arming the mujahideen to fight the Soviets and the Taliban to fight in Kashmir should be proof enough of the folly of such endeavors. These groups that the state arms have a tendency of using those very arms against the state later. When the militants have been controlled, I am sure, the last thing we will want is to have to fight another war to check armed lashkars.

On a related note, I find it hard to be very enthusiastic about the so-called "vigilance committees" that have sprouted up in Buner. These committees are basically armed vigilante groups that guard villages in Buner against militants. The Herald speaks of these committees in glowing terms, calling them "a miracle" and encouraging people of Swat to follow suit and "become the masters of their own destiny". Such glorification of vigilante groups is quite unnecessary. They are a woeful symptom of the state's failure to protect its citizens and can become a threat to the state's authority. The media was right in condemning acts of vigilante justice in Karachi and in calling on the government and society to address its root causes. In an editorial, Dawn called the burning of robbers by civilians in Karachi a "terrifying new phenomenon". They should be consistent and do the same with the armed and organized vigilante groups in NWFP.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ministerial Glut

After the Feb 2008 elections, many of us had hoped for a change in governance and for a move away from nearly a decade of cronyism, corruption, ineptitude and failed government policies at the hands of Musharraf and the PML-Q. And while the new PPP government has brought new faces into power, it is continuing many of the old Musharraf-PML-Q government policies. It is certainly continuing the PML-Q tradition of appointing a legion of ministers, a practice which is both costly and unnecessary.

Yesterday, 40 new ministers were sworn in to the federal cabinet bringing the total to a whopping 55. This means that now 16 percent of the 342 members of the National Assembly are part of the cabinet. 53 percent (50 out of 94) of PPP MNAs are also now part of the cabinet.

Why does Pakistan need 55 cabinet members when a 15 member US cabinet governs a country of over 300 million people? The answer of course lies in the perks of being a cabinet member. While an MNA gets a monthly salary of 17,000 rupees, a Federal Minister gets 40,000 rupees and a Minister of State (a junior cabinet member) gets 37,000 rupees. Here are the other legal perks of belonging to the cabinet(1), (2):
  1. Monthly payment of rent by the state up to 19,550 rupees and 17,825 rupees for official residences of Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively;
  2. Monthly payment of rent by the state up to 19,550 rupees and 17,825 rupees for personal residences of Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively;
  3. Monthly utility allowance of 15,000 rupees;
  4. Daily allowance for gas and electricity of 550 rupees;
  5. The free use of a 1600cc car for the minister and his/her family;
  6. One free telephone line for the office and home, with free calls inside the country;
  7. Subsidized air travel;
  8. A one time 5,000 rupee equipment allowance;
  9. A one time furnishing allowance with a maximum limit of 100,000 rupees;
  10. An annual discretionary grant of 600,000 rupees and 400,000 rupees for Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively.
There is of course the unquantifiable but surely not insignificant perk of bribes in holding a position in the cabinet, too.

Not counting the bribe or perks 5-10, the annual expense to the people of Pakistan for each Federal Minister is 1.33 million rupees and for each Minister of State is 1.25 million rupees.

No wonder everyone in the National Assembly wants a piece of this pie, and the PPP government seems more than happy to oblige. The facts that we are in a major fiscal crisis and that we desperately need to balance our government budget and stop government borrowing from the SBP to bring inflation down from over 30% seem to be lost on our government. It is very happy to withdraw subsidies from struggling Pakistanis and slash developmental expenditure for the sake of government frugality but sees no contradiction in feeding the greed of the ruling coalition's MNAs out of the taxpayer's pocket. Pakistanis will now be paying over 71.8 million rupees in salaries and perks to cabinet members every year.

This is a far cry from 15 August 1947, when a 6 member cabinet was sworn in under Liaquat Ali Khan. Instead, this expanded cabinet is shockingly reminiscent of Shaukat Aziz's 66 member whale of a cabinet.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Native Tongues

I have lived in Pakistan for an overwhelming part of my life: nineteen out of twenty-two years. Yet my first language is English. I understand Urdu; I speak, read and write it, but I am just not as comfortable in Urdu as I am in English. It takes me long agonizing minutes to decipher just one sentence in Urdu newspapers and I speak Urdu searchingly, stumbling through the grammar and tripping over the diction. I think in English, write in English, read in English and am most expressive in English.

There are lots of people here who think that this makes me less Pakistani, less authentically native. I have always contended that that is utter nonsense. For one thing, Urdu is not the native language of a majority of Pakistanis. Balochi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Seraiki, Pushto, Hindko, Dari etc are the first languages of a lot of Pakistanis. In fact, I have met many people on trips to Thatta and Swat who cannot speak or understand any language besides Sindhi and Pushto, respectively. And what's more, according to, in 1993, only 7% of Pakistanis were native speakers of Urdu.

It seems a little preposterous to me that this 7% can lay sole claim to being Pakistani, disenfranchising the remaining 93%. It was such linguistic chauvinism that ultimately cost us East Pakistan.

As for the ridiculous claim that Urdu is more native to Pakistan than English, let me point out that both Urdu and English were brought to the subcontinent by colonial armies, the Mughal and British, respectively, and that too around the same time, in the sixteenth century. Urdu and English have equal history in the subcontinent.

The actual reason why most people have a problem with English is that it does not fit in well with the post-independence narrative, which, somewhat artificially, binds Pakistanis to the Mughals, spiritually, culturally, linguistically and historically, and distances us from the British and their legacy in the subcontinent. This is the outcome of Pakistanis – an extremely heterogeneous group of people – desperately looking to define themselves. But it is a misguided effort. Defining ourselves through a monolithic narrative (and language) is to marginalize the local histories, cultures and realities of the people of Pakistan. We are a diverse, pluralistic people with many differences and the sooner we learn to embrace and celebrate these differences instead of demonizing and suppressing them, the faster we will evolve a more cohesive and inclusive national identity for ourselves.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Wajahat Latif writes hilariously on 26 September 2008 in his column in The Nation:

Much as my heart aches, here is something I have received by email on a new discovery that I should, in a dark humoured way, share with you:

"New Heaviest Element Discovered"

A major research institution has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest element known to science. Its existence was proved during the hurricane, gasoline, war and other issues of the last year or two. The new element has been named Governmentium.

Governmentium (Gv) has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called mo-rons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called pe-ons.

Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take over four days to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of four years. It does not decay, however, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, as each reorganisation will cause more mo-rons to become neutrons, forming iso-dopes.

When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium - an element which radiates just as much energy as Governmentium because, though it has only half as many pe-ons, it has twice as many mo-rons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lack of confidence

With bombs exploding almost daily, Pakistanis are united at the very least in their concern for their safety. How does one stop the terrorists from striking? Surely additional police security and random checking of vehicles seem like appropriate measures. We can all bear the nuisance of worse traffic jams if it means that the police will prevent more bombs from going off. At least, that was my opinion till very recently.

Now, ever since the Marriott blast, security has been tightened in Karachi, but not, it seems, to protect the public. The roads in front of the Governor House and Bilawal House have been barricaded causing major inconvenience to commuters but not really protecting the public as such. It seems like we are keeping up our end of the bargain and the government is not.

Then there are the hordes of policemen stationed at every corner. They often pull commuters over for 'random' checks, but in my experience most of the people pulled over have been motorcyclists, who serve as easy targets. The policemen always wear this smarmy grin on their faces, like they cannot wait to harrass the next person and get their next hundred rupee bribe.

How can we, the public, entrust the police with extra powers to search us, when for 61 years the public and the police have had an antagonistic relationship. The police has always taken advantage of its position of power, taking bribes, arresting people at will, refusing to register FIRs and executing people in "shootouts". How are we today to trust them not to abuse the additional powers we give them to protect us from the terrorists.

It seems to me to be a Catch-22. Do not give power to the police and face the terrorists unprotected or give them power and be victimized by the police. Either way the public suffers and the poor and powerless more so than the rich. The police always avoid harrassing the powerful and the terrorists, in attacking crowded places, always disproportionately kill the poor.

The western countries have faced a similar dilemma and have mostly chosen to surrender their liberties to the state to protect them against the terrorists. Take for example America's Patriot Act, which allows intelligence agencies to access email, telephone, financial and medical records more easily. But where citizens of those countries can trust their own institutions, we cannot say the same for our institutions.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An overheard conversation

Yesterday my baby sister was invited to the birthday party of a two-year old girl from her pre-Montessori. My other sister went with her to the party and reported back events that went something like this:

Setting: The vast if slightly wilted garden of a massive if slightly dull DHA bungalow. Two-year old boys and girls are jumping in a bouncing castle, rocking merrily in swings, running enthusiastically around the garden, scraping their knees on the driveway: in general doing what two-year olds usually do at a birthday party. Running behind this clutch of children – perhaps ten or twelve in number – are an equal number of very harassed looking Filipino nannies. They are holding the children's hands as they test the bouncing castle, bringing them food and water when they demand it and soothing the occasional temper tantrum. In one corner, the mothers, young women in their mid-twenties are sitting in comfortable garden chairs. They are wearing light, spring-coloured shalwar kameezes and huge branded sunglasses. In their bejeweled hands they are holding virgin pina coladas.

DHA homemaker 1: It is just horrible! My nanny ran off last week without a word.

DHA homemaker 2 (lowering her sunglasses): You don't say!

DHA homemaker 1: I have been running after Shahrik this entire week. I am so completely exhausted. You know this was the first time in these two years that I had to change a diaper. I just didn't know what to do. I had to call the sasu ma and you know how much she likes to gloat about these things.

DHA homemaker 3 (wrinkling her nose): Oh ho bichari! I don't know what I would do if I had to clean Zainab's poo.

DHA homemaker 1: Hai na? I was so furious. I called the agency and demanded an explanation. And you know what they told me? [dramatic pause] They told me that she has runaway with my neighbours' driver!

DHA homemaker 3 snorts. DHA homemaker 2 looks appalled.

DHA homemaker 2: Where was this woman from?

DHA homemaker 1 (struggling to remember): I'm not sure. I think she was Muslim. She wore a hijab. Indonesia, maybe.

DHA homemaker 2: Oh no! That's where you went wrong, dear. Always go for the Filipinos. They're all Christians or Buddhists or something. They wouldn't dream of running off with someone from here.

DHA homemaker 3 (nodding towards the Filipino nannies): But still. Even these ones are so problematic. Did you know by their contract with the agency, they can go home only once every two years. But mine had a little kid back home and she really wanted to visit. So Saleem – the senti man that he is – he agreed. Sent her back twice last year. And now she is always wanting to go back. I just called the agency before coming here. Told them that she was giving me too much trouble.

DHA homemaker 2 (sipping her pina colada): You just cannot give these people any freedom. The moment you do, it goes to their head. I don't let mine mingle with anyone. She doesn't leave the house without me. Why let her make friends with strangers? Next thing I know she'll come back with all sorts of demands. She stays at home. Buss. But then I have such a soft heart. I feel bad for her stuck in the house all the time, so every month or so I take her with me when I go shopping. [a contemplative pause] But they do lead a pretty good life.

All the other homemakers nod and murmur their agreement.

DHA homemaker 2: Can you imagine allowing a Pakistani masi to live in this kind of luxury? Still they show no appreciation. Always wanting more of this and more of that.

The homemakers all shake their heads in disappointment. DHA homemakers 1 and 3 fill their napkins full of hors d'oeuvres, clearly determined to smother their sorrows with food. A nanny in the background gets kicked in the shin by an exuberant little girl, who then promptly dissolves into tears. The party continues.

The irony! Oh the irony!

Zia ul Haq, in the speech announcing the enforcement of his sharia laws: "Many a ruler did what they pleased in the name of Islam."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Women of the past

I have been reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals. In one of the chapters, he describes the lives of Muslim women in the Mughal aristocracy in the eighteenth century. His description is largely based on the travelogue, written by an Iranian man, Mir Abdul Lateef Shushtari, called Tuhfat al-Alam. In the book, Shushtari continuously expresses his disgust at the great freedom that Muslim women in India enjoyed. They mixed with men more easily and tended to have more political and financial power than their counterparts in Iran and the Middle East. In fact, the position of women in Mughal society appears to be even more advantageous than the position of women in our society today, three centuries later. Pakistanis seem to have rejected the liberal spirit of the Mughals – with whom Pakistanis so like to identify – in favor of the puritanical social and religious codes of the Middle East. Below is an extract from White Mughals that underscores my point:

"Muslim women in India have always played a more prominent role in politics than their sisters in the Middle East. Indian society, both Hindu and Muslim, was certainly very patriarchal and hierarchical; yet there are nevertheless several cases of very powerful Indian Muslim queens: Razia Sultana in thirteenth-century Delhi; or Chand Bibi and Dilshad Agha, the two warrior queens of sixteenth-century Bijapur, the first of whom was famous for her horsewomanship, while the latter was renowned for her prowess as an artillerywoman and an archer, personally shooting in the eye from atop her citadel Safdar Khan who had the temerity to attack her kingdom.

"Moreover Mughal princesses tended to be richer, and to possess far greater powers of patronage, than the secluded Iranian noblewomen Shushtari would have been familiar with in Iran: half the most important monuments in Shah Jehan's Mughal Delhi were built by women...

"Aristocratic Mughal women also tended to be much better educated than their Iranian cousins: almost all of them were literate, and were taught at home by elderly male scholars or 'learned matrons'; the curriculum included ethics, mathematics, economics, physics, logic, history, medicine, theology, law, poetry and astronomy. As a result there were many cases of highly educated Indian Muslim princesses who became famous writers or poetesses." (168-9)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Eid Mubarak!

I know, I know. It is early. One cannot wish people Eid Mubarak before the Eid namaz. But I ain't gonna be blogging that early in the morning and from the looks of it, will not be anywhere close to my laptop all day tomorrow. I am scheduled to visit millions of relatives around the city tomorrow.

Back to the point: Eid Mubarak to all the Muslims out there. Congratulations to those who kept all your rozas, you certainly deserve the festivities. Congratulations also to everyone else who can now emerge from the strange Ramazan routine and return to normal life. I for one cannot wait to start lounging in coffee shops again and listening to music on the radio instead of religious songs and such.

Enjoy your time in the shopping markets tonight, and at Eid namaz tomorrow and then later at your friends and relatives' houses. Try to be safe. I sincerely hope that the terrorists do not ruin tomorrow and turn what is meant to be a joyous day into one of tragedy.

On that hopeful note, I end with the last of the traditional three repeated greetings: Eid Mubarak!

Media circus

The ruet chief finally felt ready to address the nation. I watched the event unfold on Geo with baited breath and growing impatience. The man, dressed in a white shalwar kameez and black waistcoat, with a thick jet black beard, a Jinnah cap and really ugly plastic-framed glasses, positioned himself in front of a whole herd of microphones. This was apparently the head of the national Ruet-e-Hilal committee, a mufti like all the other bearded and bespectacled men seated at the table. Behind the chief was a proper horde of anxious and slightly bored reporters. The chief clears his throat and asks several times if everyone is ready. I, in the meantime, am wringing my hands and begging him to just say yes or no and deliver the entire nation of its misery. But this man had other plans in mind.

He begins with a tilawat. I groan. He has not even finished saying bismillah when a reporter's cellphone starts to ring. Another reporter to the chief's right is busy smsing on his cellphone. The chief is visibly annoyed. Without stopping his recitation of the Quran, he waves his left hand at the reporters, trying to get them to pipe down. It does not work. Another cellphone starts ringing. A helpful reporter makes shushing noises. The recitation and the hand-waving continue. Finally, the painful tilawat ends and the chief launches into what resembled an Oscar speech. " I would like to thank this fellow and that fellow and oh that fellow too." A million different maulanas were acknowledged for their contribution to the decision making process while I literally writhed in agony before the television. Just give me a yes or a no!

After the thank yous were all finished – surprisingly enough, Allah did not receive any acknowledgment from the chief, hmmmm – the chief launched into an awful, prewritten speech. He delivered it with painstaking slowness and in a complete monotone. He clearly wanted to make his moment before the nation last. He went on and on about the immense responsibility in his hands of deciding the fate of 160 million Muslims and their rozas. My mother wisely noted that mufti sahib was only stretching this out because he knew the moment he would give their verdict we would all change the channel, or at the very least put him on mute.

Finally, in belabored Urdu, mufti sahib announced that testimonies of moon sightings had been accepted and tomorrow is Eid. Well, why didn't you say that in the first place, mufti sahib? He was promptly put on mute by my family.

Baited breath

Ooh! It seems like there have been 15 sightings of the moon in Peshawar. The Chief Minister of NWFP has declared Eid in the province. Apparently, he has overstepped his constitutional limits. It is only for the ruet-e-hilal to announce Eid. Do I smell some drama?

The fogeys are said to be voting on the issue. If they vote no, are we going to have another divided Eid? That would be a shame. It would also mean that I have to go to work tomorrow. Despite it being a public holiday (irrespective of the ruet's decision), I am required to report to work if it is not Eid in Karachi. Thus, my interest in the fogeys.

Either ways, I really hope they make up their minds soon. And while I am hoping, might I also hope that we have a united Eid. At the very least the Muslims of this nation can celebrate their most important religious holiday together. After all wasn't this nation created on the basis of Muslim unity?


Urgh! Why must old fogeys decide when Eid is going to fall every year? My father says that there are old fogey meetings on every level, from district to provincial to national. They all gather every month and, I assume, strain their rheumatic necks and cataract-clouded eyes in search of the thin sliver of the new moon. Small wonder that almost every year they emerge from their late night meetings and shake their heads at us. Not tomorrow, the day after.

The strain on one such fogey was clearly visible today when he spoke to the media briefly, and that too only to rail against the ungrateful public which only gives a flying **** about it once a year. He yelled angrily that for the remaining months of the year, no one cared about their verdicts. Well, of course, old man. We do live in the twenty-first century and follow the solar calendar on a day to day basis. Ever heard about that? Unlike this antiquated system, the solar calendar is laid out years in advance and does not need grandpas to figure out when one month begins and another ends.

Which brings me to my main point. Why can't we just tell the Met to figure out the lunar calendar for us? Tell it to do some math and figure out when the first day of each lunar month should be. It would give us all the opportunity to plan our lives a little better. I for one would not have to sit grumpily before the television waiting for this committee to make up its mind.

It is a doomed suggestion , I know. It would send all the puritans – which nowadays includes just about everyone in this country – up in arms. Breaking from tradition, unislamic, heresy. I can here all the politicians and pundits denouncing it on national television. Fine, I shall let these fellows on these committees have their moment of glory. Whatever.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


On Dawn TV, Mr. Liaqat Baloch of the Jamaat-i Islami echoed my father. These attacks are a result of wrong policies carried out by our government in the tribal regions. This is proof of a policy failure. We must reverse our decision to fight and talk to the terrorists, whom he referred to as "our own people". When the newscaster asked whether we have not gone beyond the point of dialogue today, Mr. Baloch only repeated his mantra.

At this point, I do not think it is adequate for me to simply state Mr. Baloch and my father's views because too many people see them as completely rational, even self-evident.

These terrorists are not our people. They are up in arms against us. They want to bring down the Pakistani government and in the process are willing to kill as many Pakistani soldiers and civilians as is necessary.

I will not argue about why and how these terrorists came into being. You will tell me that they are only doing the noble thing, avenging the blood of their relations cruelly murdered by the Pakistanis and the Americans. I will tell you that the terrorists existed before the attacks on them, and not the other way around. You will say that those terrorists were an American myth. I will point you to every sort of evidence in the Western media (I would give you proof from our own too, but it is too feeble an institution to do any reporting of its own) as to the existence of these terrorists and their ill-intentions. You will tell me that the Western media is in on this conspiracy and that nobody can be trusted and everything is exactly the opposite of what it seems to be and so the logical is actually illogical and that your illogic is therefore the truth.

So let us skip the blame game. These terrorists exist. They have bombed a hotel killing 40 so far, injuring dozens more, and leaving at least 15 trapped inside with no way to escape. This much we can surely agree upon.

They do not want to negotiate. They want to kill innocent people and thereby sow fear in our hearts. So far so good?

Now what must we do in response? Are we to go to Swat and FATA and beg for negotiations? Let us say that we do, as we have done in the past. They will say they want Shariah Law in their regions, complete autonomy and withdrawal of the army. Can we agree to these terms? Can we abandon, to the whims of these terrorists, our citizens there, whose only fault is that they happen to be living in these terrorist-infested regions? Can we leave these people to suffer public beheadings and stonings-to-death under these terrorists' warped version of Islam? Can we withdraw from these regions and let them reorganize, plan bigger attacks and encroach upon more of our country? And most importantly can we reward the terrorists for murdering these innocent Pakistani citizens?

We should rather avenge these deaths. Action should be swift and decisive. The militants must be brought to their knees at any cost. They cannot be allowed to terrorize our country.

But instead, the people who are speaking on television tonight are busy bemoaning that we ever took on these terrorists in the first place. They are crying that if we would not have harmed them they would not have harmed us. Why oh why did we listen to America! The answer is simple. These terrorists, escaping from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, would have regrouped, gained in strength and tried to take over Pakistan anyways. They were already using Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to plan more attacks on other countries. It is unimaginable that we could let these terrorists carry out attacks on innocent people from our soil while we silently stand by and watch. And if that were to be the case then the world would have been just as justified as it was with Afghanistan to sanction the use of military force against Pakistan.

So please people, stop all this talk of appeasement of the terrorists, and stop trying to blame America for the actions of the vicious terrorists. This tragic event should bolster our resolve to fight the terrorists not weaken it. Our dead need to be avenged. These terrorists need to be brought to justice.

Still Speechless

My father, who was also watching the news when I returned, has just informed me that these terrorists are a direct result of the eight-year military operation in FATA which Pakistan conducted on America's behest; that the people we killed there have spawned the terrorists who today attacked the Marriott; and that we must now reap the violence that we ourselves have sown.

I am staggered. And the sad truth is that a lot of Pakistanis would agree with my father.

In essence, half the people in this country want to kill everyone and the other half believe that they deserve to be killed. What am I supposed to do in the middle of this madness?


I just posted to this blog and switched on the TV. A suicide bomber has attacked the Marriott in Islamabad. The TV is filled with images of a fire raging through the hotel. Over 20 people are confirmed dead and many more injured. The suicide bomber ran his car through the security barrier at the gate. The car was loaded with explosives.

He attacked Marriott at iftar time, when god-knows-how-many families must have been there opening their fasts.

Is absolutely nothing sacred to these bastards?

I don't want anymore half-assed rhetoric about addressing terrorism. I don't want anymore equivocation. I don't want anymore peace treaties and accords. I want the army to do what it is supposed to, protect the people of this country, and go get those bastards in FATA and Swat. Alive or dead.

I think I am going to go back to the TV and watch the death toll rise. Latest news on this can be found here, here, here and here.

Women and Public Spaces

It was only when I visited Sri Lanka that I realized how far behind Pakistan is in terms of women's lib. On the streets in Sri Lanka, whether in Colombo and Kandy or in the smaller villages, there were women everywhere – and I mean everywhere, not just in and around bazaars as is the norm here. They walked in groups, alone or with other men. They did not seem worried or badgered. One could tell that these women have grown up walking on the streets without fear of being harassed, humiliated or attacked.

There were female traffic police officials and, wonder of wonders, people were not hitting on them or being rude to them.

Equally wonderful was the number of stores owned by women. Photocopy shops, restaurants, grocery stores, all run by women.

I even saw women on motorbikes, something completely unimaginable here.

Well, actually, all these things are unimaginable in Pakistan. The roads are a purely male-dominated space. Most women are kept at home, allowed only to leave to go to the bazaar or with a male escort. Richer women, who are not fettered by these conservative rules, move around in their chauffeured cars. They hop into their cars at the gate of one place and hop out at the gate of another, completely avoiding the need to walk on the roads. And those few women who have to brave the roads and the public transport must tolerate stares and worse.

My maid always wears a burqa when she is out on the road. This, she says, is purely for utilitarian reasons. If she wears a burqa, men tend to harass her less. But she clarifies that even this does not prevent some men from staring or making lewd comments.

A Spoiled Man by Daniyal Mueenuddin

A very interesting story by a Pakistani-American in The New Yorker. Check it out.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

I was several months late in reading Mohammed Hanif's book. In June, A Case of Exploding Mangoes was all that anyone could talk about. After reading the book, I understand why. It is a truly a wonderful piece of satire. I have transcribed one of my favorite parts, Hanif's fictionalization of how Zia came up with the Hudood Ordinance, below. Zia is on the phone with his spiritual mentor, some religious judge in Saudi Arabia, and the following conversation takes place:

'Yes, Qadi, I wanted your guidance on this matter: what happens if the accused says that she was forced to fornicate? How do we establish whether she is telling the truth? I mean, sometimes you can look at a woman's face and tell that she is a fornicator, but we need legal procedures to establish it.'

Qadi spoke as if he had thought about this for a long time. 'Women always make this excuse after they are caught fornicating, but we all know that rape is not easy to commit. The perpetrator will need at least four accomplices. There will have to be two men holding her by her arms, two pinning down her legs and then the fifth one between her legs, committing the act. So the answer is yes, a woman can be raped and it's a serious crime.'

'So the woman will be required to recognize all five culprits in the court?' Zia asked.

'Our law, you know, is not set in stone, it encourages us to use our common sense. So the two men who are holding her down by her arms, maybe the woman would not be able to recognise those two and the judge can make an exception.'

'And what if she didn't see any of the culprits? What if they were wearing masks?'

General Zia could tell the old man was suddenly angry.

'Why would a rapist wear a mask? Is he a bank robber? Bank robbers wear masks. Kidnappers wear masks. I have never heard of a rapist wearing a mask in my forty years as a judge.'

General Zia felt stupid as Qadi continued, this time in a cold, admonishing, teacher-like voice. 'Rapists like to see their own reflection in the woman's eyes. That is one reason they'd never wear masks,' said Qadi.

'And what if the woman in question was blind?' General Zia asked.

Qadi clearly didn't get General Zia's drift.

'Do you mean morally blind or someone who Allah has not given the physical power to see?'

'Blind. A woman who can't see.'

'The law doesn't differentiate between those who can see and those who can't. Let's assume for the sake of legal argument that the rapist was blind in this case, would he be entitled to any special privilege? So the victim, blind or not, is entitled to the same scrutiny, same rights.'

'How will she recognize her rapists and the other people who held her down?'

'It can be done in two ways: if she is married, her husband will have to establish in the court that she is of good character and then we'll need four male Muslims of sound character who have witnessed the crime. And since rape is a very serious crime, circumstantial evidence won't do. "We heard screams and we saw blood and we heard the man hitting her" is not enough evidence; witnesses will be required to have witnessed the actual penetration. And if the woman is not married she'll have to prove that she was a virgin before this horrible crime was committed.'

General Zia felt much better by dinner time. He had already passed Qadi's legal advice to his Chief Justice and was now composing a speech in his head that he would ask the First Lady to deliver at the annual charity bazaar of the All Pakistan Professional Women's Association. He tried to test some of the arguments on the First Lady after reminding her of her promise to carry out her state duties. She listened silently at first, but when he reached the part about the victim having to establish her virginity the First Lady interrupted him.

'Are you talking about Blind Zainab's case?'

'Well, yes, but basically we are trying to establish a legal precedent that will safeguard women's honour. All women's honour.'

'I don't know anything about the law and I'll make this speech it that's what the law says.' The First Lady pushed her plate away. 'But how is this woman supposed to prove that she is a virgin if a bunch of men banged her for three days and three nights?' (138-9)

-- Excerpt from Hanif Mohammed, A case of exploding mangoes. Random House. New Delhi; 2008.

Taking Geo to task

Most people must be aware of what happened on 7 September 2008. Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain, host of Geo TV's popular religious show, Aalim Online, said on his show that the murder of all Ahmadis is mandated by Islamic teachings. His remarks were followed by the murder of two Ahmadis, one in Nawabshah and one in Mirpurkhas, by unknown individuals.

This incident shocked me to the core. I can understand Baitullah Mehsud setting up an illegal radio station and preaching hatred and violence through it, but it is inconceivable to me how Geo TV, perhaps the most popular and trusted news channels in Pakistan, could air such malevolent statements.

In previous posts, I have strongly supported freedom of the press, but the line must be drawn at instigation to violence. We as a nation tend to be intolerant of religious differences but we are not Nazi Germany that the mainstream media can with impunity talk about the wholesale extermination of a religious minority.

As far as I know, Geo TV has neither cancelled this hate-preaching show, nor offered a public apology for 7 September. The very same news channel that last year, during the Emergency, was the people's hero, has today fallen to an astonishing low.

But I think that this event is the moment of truth for urban moderates and liberals. So far we have only bemoaned hate-mongering in that is prevalent in the far-flung regions of our country. It was not in our power to do anything concrete to prevent that. Now, on the other hand, a media group from our midst is preaching hate and advocating violence. We are all in a position to influence Geo TV because our tuning in to their channel is what brings them money. If we call and email Geo to express our condemnation it will have to listen and respond. Now is the time for us to act on our beliefs and do something about the extremism that is rotting our society. We, members of civil society, must act firmly and decisively against Geo TV so that other media outlets will be wary of airing such inflammatory garbage.

For more details on the incident, please visit the Asian Human Rights Commission's website. It gives you the option of sending a letter of appeal to government officials, urging them to look into the matter. I, however, would suggest that you call or email Geo directly and demand an explanation, express your condemnation and/or ask for a public apology and for the cancellation of Aalim Online.

Whatever you do, please do not sit back and let this one slide.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Pakistanis are the most racist people I know. We, in Pakistan, may hear and read a lot more about the West's Islamophobia and about discrimination against minorities there, but that is just because racism in Pakistan is left completely undiscussed. The intellectuals and the media do not talk about it, and of course, it is way too much to expect the government and the religious elite to deal with it. And so, racial and ethnic prejudices in Pakistanis remain entirely unexamined and most Pakistanis blithely display their bigotry in their interactions with members of different races and ethnicities.

To convince the unmoved reader of the extent of racism in Pakistanis, I have listed some of the stereotypes that I have come across. This list is in no way comprehensive but, in my opinion, is long enough to mandate a serious conversation about the issue.

1. Pathans are considered stupid, aggressive, oversexed, homosexual, pedophiles, religious fanatics and mysoginists. They are the butt of an entire genre of Pakistani jokes, which are called akhroat (walnut) jokes, so named because Pathans are supposed to be thick-headed like walnuts.

2. Punjabis are stereotyped as crass, vulgar, fat and gluttonous.

3. Sindhis are said to be feudal, servile, docile, backward (especially with regards to women's rights), nosy and illiterate.

4. Baloch are thought to be tribal, uncivilized, violent and illiterate.

5.  Muhajirs are called bedbugs and stereotyped as being wily and money-minded.

7. Bengalis are thought to be effiminate, spineless, cheats and racially inferior.

8. Indians are supposedly all Hindus, vegetarian, amoral piss-drinkers.

10. Africans are considered irrational, violent, barbaric, uncivilized, ugly, prone to crime and racially inferior. Their color and their blunt features are looked at with undisguised abhorrence by Pakistanis, who refer to Africans and African-Americans rather derogatorily as kallas (blacks).

11. Asians are stereotyped as tiny, spineless and uncivilized. They too are considered racially inferior and their narrow eyes are the basis of many Pakistani slurs including chaptas and chinkies. Many Pakistanis will unabashedly admit that all Asians look exactly alike to them.

12. Jews are stereotyped as money-hungry, Zionists, anti-Muslim and extremely wealthy. Jews are at the center of almost every international conspiracy theory in Pakistan. America is thought to be entirely run by this evil Jewish super-race. 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are all chalked up to a Jewish conspiracy. Many in Pakistan will even go so far as to say that the Holocaust was merely a story concocted by the Jews who control the media to garner international sympathy and secure support for Israel.

13. The people of the West are considered white, arrogant, hypocritical, ignorant, anti-Islam, pro-Israel, hedonistic, amoral, indecent, oversexed, decadent, Satanic, biased, racist and evil. I have lumped all of Europe and America together as the West because Pakistanis apply these stereotypes to every white person from a developed country. Of course, if said white person turns out to be American, then things are all the worse.

As I said at the beginning of this list, this is by no means a complete account of racism in Pakistan. These stereotypes not only exist in the minds of most Pakistanis, but they exist entirely unchallenged. It is a small wonder then that Pakistanis tend to be so xenophobic and communalistic.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"We should not let these corrupt politicians win."

An hour ago I got this SMS from some random number:

"Its time to backup our President Musharraf! We should not let these corrupt politicians win. So send sms to Dawn news poll for rating impeachment measures. Write "DOP NO" and send on 6622 to support the man who dared to stand up against worst situations, when others were sitting in the lap of luxury!"

A case in point of the bias against politicians in the upper classes. I am not saying that politicians are not corrupt. Far from it. The evidence against Mr. Ten Percent, the late Shehzadi, the not-so-Sharif brothers and the Chaudharys of Gujrat is undeniable. What really annoys me is people's blind spot when it comes to corruption in the army.

It is common knowledge that a huge chunk of the many billion dollars in military aid given to the army during the 1980s and again in the 2000s did not go towards strengthening the army but instead went to fill up our oh-so-brave army generals' McScrooge-like vaults in the big bad firangi lands. Yet, defying all facts and logic, the army has somehow managed to remain a symbol of honesty and patriotism, and is expected to rescue Pakistan from corruption. Hah!

Corruption is pervasive in every institution of the country: bureaucracy, judiciary, law enforcement, politics, armed forces. You name a public institution and you will find corruption there. But people only rant and rave about corrupt politicians.

I am not saying that people should stop criticizing them. Go right ahead. But do please realize that the army, the institution that is to deliver our country from the greedy politicians, is just as blighted by corruption.

What makes matters worse is that the public does not have access to the records of military spending. Even our legislators, it seems, do not have access to it. So if the politicians are looting the country in plain sight of the people, one can only imagine the plunder going on in total absence of public oversight.

Then we come to Musharraf's personal reputation as Great (and Upright) Avenger aka.  Scourge of Corrupt Politicians. One must wonder where he was while the opportunistic hordes in the King's Party stuffed their pockets and bought thousands of acres of land for mere pennies. And let us not forget the unscrupulous politicians who were ushered in under Musharraf's grand devolution of democracy dreams.

While Musharraf selectively prosecuted his political rivals in the beginning of his reign through the NAB, our Great (and Upright) Avenger demurely looked the other way when his own coterie abused their positions of power. Then in the latter years, when the going got tough for our principled Scourge of Corruption, he backtracked with amazing speed and acquitted those very corrupt politicians whom he was prosecuting earlier through the NRO.

Let us also not forget the ex-President's non-negotiable and undebatable budget for the President House this year. Rs. 353.84 million! A 12% increase over the previous year. And that too when the Prime Minister prudently cut his own expenses by 30% in view of massive governmental overspending.

So people who, handkerchief in hand, are wondering how their knight in shining army fatigues abandoned them in the clutches of corrupt politicians, have heart. We have been in the hands of corrupt leaders, autocratic and democratic, for 61 glorious years. Things really can't get much worse as far as looting goes.

David Milliband, UK's foreign secretary, said something I really liked on the occasion of Musharraf's resignation. He said that strong institutions, not strong individuals, are what Pakistan needs. He is right. For the long-term solution of most of Pakistan's governance problems strong institutions are exactly what are required, and the chances of institutional development are definitely brighter under a democratic government, which is compelled to listen to the public, rather than an autocratic one. So have a little faith, people, and stop sending me hysterical SMSes!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Of Pakistan's New Media and Old Firebrands

It is a brand new world here in Pakistan. Under the new democratic government, the media seems freer than it ever was before. The play Chicago was up at the Pakistan Arts Council for eleven nights and was sold-out all eleven times. I went to watch it on Saturday and came out thrilled that such a risqué piece of theater was actually allowed here. Bold dances, sexy clothes, and unabashed references to sex! The audience, laughing and clapping through the entire play, absolutely loved it. And I, with more than a little wonder, thought that this would never have been possible five years back.

I also went to see the latest Pakistani movie Ramchand Pakistani over the weekend and was once again pleasantly surprised at how unconstipated its attitude towards sex and sexuality was.

The same is the case with the new TV channels and radio stations that have been flourishing over the past couple of years. Najam Shiraz’s new song Khwabon Ke Rishtey is a case in point. His music video deals with the problems teenage girls face from unwanted pregnancies and cheating boyfriends to sexual harassment and parental neglect. I won’t go so far as to say that his video deals with these things in a meaningful way but just that these taboo topics can be touched upon is something remarkable to me.

But really, underneath the face of an apparently free press, there is actually rampant self-censorship. While governmental interference is no longer something of huge concern to the media, the specter of an irrational mullah mob chanting Allah-u-Akbar and waving pitchforks and torches does send shivers down its spine.

I tell you this with such authority because I have been working at Dawn TV for the past month and have witnessed the self-censorship firsthand. There is an old man at Dawn TV, who looks like a relic from PTV of the fifties, called Censor Uncle. He watches all the shows before they air and checks to see whether the content will ruffle any fundo feathers or not. One talk show was forbidden from discussing abortion and another from mentioning that alcohol was legal before Bhutto went fundo in the 70s.

It is deplorable that the media feels compelled to censor itself when talking about simple historical facts or important social issues. So perhaps these new franker conversations about gender, sex and sexuality have to be put in the context of crazy Taliban burning down girls schools in Swat and vigilante groups of burqa clad women kidnapping Chinese masseuses. The mullah mob is able to bully the new freer media into self-censorhsip because of the government’s ambivalent attitude towards religion-motivated vigilantism. The media would naturally protect itself rather than offend the crazies and find itself facing their wrath without any government protection.

Some may ask why it is so important to protect the media’s right to talk about sex anyways, especially since it makes most older Pakistanis extremely uncomfortable. Well first off, on the matter of principle, because freedom of speech means letting people talk about things that you do not like or agree with. Secondly because this traditional taboo on sex and sexuality prevents us as a society from having an honest debate and spreading awareness about women’s rights, sexual abuse, STDs, AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, family planning, rape, LGBT rights, sexual harassment and so many other issues. The new media can help us overcome our national prudishness but the government has to help it too by protecting it from the vigilante violence of the mullah brigade.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Democracy Debate

I was watching Dawn TV the other day, and Mr. Ali Azmat was being interviewed on Talk Back. After waxing eloquent about the poor and the oppressed, Mr. Azmat suddenly launched into an aggressive anti-democracy tirade. For ten minutes he said something to the effect of Musharraf is the man. Then pompously, he said that Pakistan doesn’t deserve democracy and democracy only means that the illiterate idiots (I am roughly translating jahil, the word he used with much contempt) of this country will vote for other illiterate idiots and promote “feudal” politics.

It is not like I have not heard this argument before. Every opponent of democracy in Pakistan will dutifully cite this argument, and I would not really bother to rebut it if not for the fact that it leaves many proponents of democracy completely stumped.

So let’s settle this once and for all. The fact that Pakistan’s literacy rate is an abysmal 50% does not mean that it is unsuitable for democracy. This argument assumes that people who cannot read are automatically incapable of both rational thought and of deciding what is best for them, which is about all that people need to make a democracy work.

During elections, politicians outline what they will do if elected. Individuals vote for those who they think will best represent their interests. The person/party that represents the most people’s interests wins the elections. If by the next elections it does not deliver on its promises or if the people now want something those in government are not offering they are not reelected. Democracy in a nutshell.

Now, it does not take a person decades of schooling to decide (a) what he or she wants from the government and (b) whether once elected the government has followed through on its promises. Then why does this argument have currency with so many people in the “literate” upper and middle classes (UMC)?

The answer is simple. Just as the British colonizers had the myth of the incompetent natives to justify colonization, the UMC of Pakistan have the myth of the illiterate idiot poor person to justify a form of governance that suits them.

Military dictators in Pakistan have historically been economically beneficial to the UMC. In both Ayub and Musharraf’s eras, the economic growth benefited only those who were already well to do. Economic disparity grew dramatically making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Zia came in and put an immediate stop to Bhutto’s spree of nationalization and his socialist economic program, which was really hurting the UMC and benefiting the “illiterate” masses.

Simply put, the UMC and the masses have divergent interests. The masses want living wages, labor unions, better government education and health. The UMC want a liberal import policy, tax cuts on businesses and lots of protectionism for local industries. Democracy means that the masses get their way and the UMC lose out.

Therefore the conveniently created myth of the illiterate idiot masses. The interests of these unfortunate people can only be protected by the kinder and more liberal of the UMC, like Mr. Azmat. They cannot, of course, be allowed to govern themselves because they are not yet sophisticated enough. They must educate themselves to earn that privilege. So on and so forth.

Remind you of colonial rhetoric much?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Faiza Silmi

If you have read the New York Times recently, you will probably be familiar with Faiza Silmi. She is a 32 year old Moroccan woman who applied for French citizenship. She was denied because she wore a veil (not to be confused with the headscarf). When she appealed the decision, the French court upheld it and ruled that Faiza's radical practice of Islam was not compatible with French values such as secularism and equality of the sexes.

I personally find the institution of the veil extremely abhorrent. It is based on the misogynistic logic that women bear the guilt for exciting men's sexual desires and therefore must efface their bodies so that men can remain pious. It absolves men from the responsibility of controlling their gaze and desires and makes situations possible where a man can harass a woman and later with complete moral satisfaction say that she was asking for it because she did not wear the veil.

But Faiza's case makes me extremely uncomfortable. Denying Faiza citizenship on the basis of her religious beliefs is setting a dangerous precedent for religious discrimination. Her beliefs and practices may be repulsive to the French but they should not be grounds for rejection, especially in a secular country, where the state is supposed to be blind to the individual's religious beliefs.

Her case immediately made me think of Pakistan and how disastrous such a logic would be if applied here. Since I do not believe that men are more equal than women as ordained by the Quran (2:228, 282), I would become ineligible for Pakistani citizenship. Similarly, if someone disagreed with any Muslim belief or value, he or she could be denied Pakistani citizenship, too. 

To me this narrow-minded way of defining a country and its citizens' identities is extremely unsettling. In today's multicultural world where citizens of the same country are becoming more and more ethnically, linguistically, religiously and morally diverse, France's retrogressive ruling can only engender more intolerance.

Freedom of Speech

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” On Liberty, John Stuart Mill.

We in Pakistan don’t like to be contradicted. Fathers scold their children for correcting them; rulers forbid the press from criticizing them; teachers punish students who question them; religious leaders threaten those who challenge them; and the religious majority lynches or hangs those who contradict their beliefs.

All because of the deep-seated intellectual stupidity prevalent in our society.

Free speech does not harm anyone (except when used to instigate people to violence). It does, however, inconvenience those who do not like to think, who have passively received ideas and beliefs from their family or their society. Their intellectual laziness runs so deep that they would rather riot, burn things and murder than pause to think and respond to words with words.

Ideas should be challenged; people should be inconvenienced. The state should not protect ideas and beliefs from criticism but it should protect the critics from any physical danger that their critique puts them in.

Progress is only possible through the dissemination of new ideas and we as a society must learn to tolerate them, even if they challenge everything our society stands for. We do not need to accept the ideas, we do not even need to like them, but we cannot quash the ideas just because we disagree with them. It is not for the state or society to censor or privilege ideas and beliefs. Every individual must be allowed to decide the matter for his or herself.

Besides, if we believe that what we hold to be true is in fact absolutely true, we should not shrink from letting people challenge it. The truth by its very nature must stand up to all criticism. But if we do doubt ourselves, is it not better to listen to those who claim to have some answers? The only thing we could lose is our doubt.

Endnote: I strongly recommend J.S. Mill’s On Liberty to anyone who has not read it. At the very least read the first and second chapters. His arguments for free speech are excellent. Here is a link to the book if you are interested:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Hypocrisy of the Pakistani Muslim

Pakistani Muslims are always telling people that their Islam is nothing like the Islam of the Taliban. You will find them ever ready to paint a rosy, peace-loving picture of their Islam. "Do you know that the Muslim greeting assalaamualaikum means peace be upon you?"

Well, that's very comforting to hear!

They will nod their heads vigorously and prepare to launch into an angry tirade against the Western media's conspiracy to fool the world into thinking that all Muslims are terrorists. But when you cut them off and suggest that all this must mean that they wholeheartedly condemn Islamist terrorism, most of them will flinch.

In rapid succession, they will bring up imperialism, Israel, American arrogance, state-sponsored terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Oh they will paint a heart-rending picture of the Islamist terrorist as a misguided child driven to violence by a cruel and unjust world. Some may partially condemn Islamist terrorism after many qualifications and after placing a good portion of the blame on the West itself. But only the brave few, the very few morally-brave few, will condemn it entirely, without explanations and clarifications and apologies.

It seems to me that Pakistani Muslims, who spend so much time nowadays denouncing "Islamophobia", are more often than not implicit supporters of the Taliban.

Think about it. If they really believed that the Taliban are following a twisted and perverted version of Islam then there would have been extremely loud demands (by which I mean rioting) forcing the Pakistani government to constitutionally declare the Taliban as non-Muslims, much like with the Ahmadiyyas in 1953 and 1974. There would have been great jubilation at the Pakistani Army fighting the Taliban in FATA and NWFP. It would have been welcomed as the triumphant swoop of the Pakistani-Muslim Army rescuing Islam from the blight of terrorism.

But wait. That is not what is happening... The Pakistani Muslims are screaming at the government to withdraw the army from FATA and NWFP and even after the Islamist terrorists have killed thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians the Pakistani Muslims claim that the government is acting against the terrorists only to protect America.

You are left just scratching your head in bewilderment.

So then, dear Pakistani Muslim, you don't want the terrorists in your country to be reigned in and their bases destroyed?

Uncomfortable silence.

So you're a Taliban sympathizer and even the most virulently anti-Muslim Western media outlet has been far too kind in their portrayal of you?

At this point your conversation will be terminated by a punch to the face by a very indignant and equally flustered Pakistani Muslim.