Monday, September 1, 2014

Pakistan's Hidden Shame - Film Review

Mohammed Naqvi and Jamie Doran’s documentary film (airing on Channel 4 in the UK tonight), “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame,” takes a devastating look at one of Pakistan’s biggest taboos - the sexual abuse of boys.  It relates, with sensitivity and compassion, the stories of the young boys who suffer the abuse, the men who harm them with little remorse or guilt, and the small band of social workers, human rights activists, psychologists and medical practitioners who are desperately trying to rescue these damaged boys and keep them together, one child at a time.

Pakistan is a country where sexuality is obsessively repressed, and women have little chance for gender equality – a World Economic Forum report recently named Pakistan the world’s 2nd worst country for equal opportunities for women. The film contends that these two factors have resulted in the horrifying practice of bachabaazi, or pedophilia, as men with sexual needs that can find no other outlet end up abusing vulnerable young boys who wander on the streets, earning money for their families, or having run away from their homes or places of employment. 

The idea of bachabaazi was openly talked about in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, where the narrator must rescue his Afghan nephew from the clutches of a depraved warlord. But bachabaazi is neither a wartime phenomenon nor confined to one particular geographical area; it is rampant all over Pakistan, although the filmmakers have focued on Peshawar in order to give the film its narrative anchor.  And one out of every ten children who are abused end up being killed by their abusers in order to keep the crime hidden forever.

Mohammed Naqvi
In this conservative capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, boys are forced to work on the streets because of desperate poverty. Their freeedom of movement and easy access to public places like truck stops, streets, and cinemas makes them the main targets of pedophiles. But this could happen anywhere in Pakistan – Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, or the myriad villages and towns in every province – and it does.

We’re introduced to several young street children under the age of ten or thereabouts who talk with frightening candour about the rape attempts that have been made on them. Then the filmmakers focus on Naeem, a boy of about fourteen who has run away from home after the death of his parents. He has been gang-raped at a bus stop by several men; the pain and trauma of this has turned him into a drug addict, and the film follows him with an unblinking eye as he spirals into self-harm and suicidal impulses. 

The film also portrays the efforts of Afzal, a Peshawar-based social worker who tries to help Naeem by bringing him to the day center he runs for street children and getting him off drugs. Afzal’s persistence, compassion, and dedication to his job and to the children he serves lies in stark contrast to Ijaz, the bus driver who admits openly to having raped a dozen children, but claims he is “helpless against [his] desires”.  And there’s Naeem’s older brother, who beat Naeem before he ran away, and says that had he known Naeem had been raped, he would have killed his younger brother with his own hands for bringing shame to the family. 

Zia Awan, the lawyer and famed human rights activist, provides a sobering account of how widepread the problem of pedophilia is, while psychologist Rukhsana Malik gives her perspective on how children are first traumatized but then become numbed in the face of the onslaught. And Ghulam Qadri, the Country Director of Save the Children, provides the key to understanding the practice: most of the abusers, he says, were themselves abused as children, so cannot sense any wrongdoing in their actions. 

Jamie Doran interviewing Imran Khan 
Most Pakistanis would prefer to deny the existence of pedophilia, but the sobering weight of these experts’ words make it impossible to live in such denial.  Yet the experts, and Afzal, the selfless care worker, display a refreshing openness in talking about the issue. So too does Imran Khan, head of the PTI, the political party that rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who professes surprise at how bad the problem is, then promises to create a task force to tackle it. With some progressive Pakistanis willing to accept that there is a problem, perhaps all isn’t lost for the street children – but it will be a tremendous struggle to implement laws and make an uninterested police enforce them. 

Naqvi and Doran match each scene of ugliness or horror with an image of equal beauty or innocence: the scars on Naeem’s body as he turns to self-harm, versus the light in his clear-brown eyes and the smile on his face as he watches a Bollywood film; the dust-choked streets where pedophiles lurk versus the jauntily decorated buses and the city of Peshawar wreathed in early morning mist; children laughing and larking around as they swim in a dirty, polluted canal. It’s these startling juxtaposition of images that makes the film visually arresting, accompanied by traditional music and a thoughtful narration that immerses you completely in this depressing world.  But the film requires a strong stomach to watch, and few will be able to actually see it all the way through, so searing is its impact. 

This is a film that speaks honestly about the scope of pedophilia in Pakistan, but refrains from blaming or sermonizing. Mohamed Naqvi and Jamie Doran have shown tremendous courage in making this film, creating a much more nuanced picture than if they had laid judgment squarely at the feet of any one entity or cause.  The film will certainly cause controversy in a country where most people would prefer to pretend pedophilia doesn’t exist, or point fingers at the West for having a worse problem with child abuse. But for the sake of these ghost children, who are haunted by their abuse, not just their abusers – Naqvi and Doran have shown us that it’s a far braver decision to tell the truth.

The filmmakers had tremendous support from Pakistani NGOs "who work tirelessly for the betterment of these children," says Mohammed Naqvi. "These included and If you would like to contribute and learn more about these groups- please do get in touch. Sahil's Executive Director Ms Manizeh Bano can be reached on"

Thank you to Laura Kramer at Clover Films for the images of the filmmakers and the film. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Usman Riaz at The Second Floor

It was wonderful to see Usman Riaz present his documentary, "Making Waves and Creating a Ruckus"  at The Second Floor (T2F) this evening. Usman Riaz is a young Pakistani musical prodigy, Berklee School of Music graduate, and Ted Senior Fellow, who has appeared on NPR and at many other conferences and speaking events around the world. He's composed music and even conducted his own composition played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra!

Here is Usman performing his own acoustic guitar composition, Fire Fly, in a percussive style pioneered by Preston Reed, who he performed with at TED. In person, he's slim and shy, with a mop of dark hair and an urchin's sweet face. But when he has a guitar in his hand, or a harmonica, or when he sits in front of a piano, he burns with radiant energy, his whole body the instrument through which he speaks.

Usman had been classically trained in piano, and also learned how to play the guitar at the age of 1t6 by watching YouTube videos. Then he won a scholarship to go study music at Berklee, and that's when things really got interesting for the young man.  After having directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performing at TED, he's now recorded his first album of music, "Circus In the Sky," which is available on iTunes.

Now 23, Usman is writing and directing short films that are a mix of music and images without dialogue. We got the chance to see two of those films, "Ruckus" and "Waves."  "Ruckus" involves a rich lady, a blind beggar, and two ne'er do wells interacting at a train station and warehouse, while "Waves" shows a writer telling the story of two sailors abandoned at sea. Both were beautifully filmed, and captivating because of the lack of dialogue. Instead, the music and imagery tells the story.  I particularly loved how in "Waves" when the writer is typing on his old-fashioned typewriter, Usman plays the piano, and the music takes the place of the words that would usually narrate the story. (Film aficionados will recognise Meher Jaffri and Summer Nicks, two familiar faces on the Pakistan cinema scene, collaborating with Usman to make these unusual shorts.)

This is Usman playing at NPR's Tiny Desk Concert, which I saw earlier this year and really loved.

And this is a good time to plug PeaceNiche / The Second Floor, which needs our financial help. Without it, Karachi would be a much poorer place. T2F under the direction of Sabeen Mahmud and her team has contributed to the vibrant arts scene in Karachi, with visual arts, music, theatre, literature, spoken word, and so much more all promoted at the beloved venue. The Second Floor needs financial help to keep operating, and if each of us just donated Rs. 3000, this wonderful organisation will be able to keep giving us quality programming that enriches our lives, bringing us the beauty we so badly need to keep us going in this difficult city. 

It's time to give back! Be generous. The arts will never let you down. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sexual Assault in the Muslim Community - Rotherham and Beyond

The release of a report in Rotherham, UK, about the extent of child sex abuse gangs that have been operating over the last sixteen years caught my eye as I was scanning the news this week. Amongst several very horrible news stories coming from all over the world, the systemic abuse of 1400 vulnerable children, preyed upon by gangs of Asian (mostly of Pakistani descent) and the controversy that their crimes were covered up, ignored, and downplayed, partly because of the racial aspect of the case, stands out for me this week.

I won't go into long details about the report, which has caused a furore in the UK - and well it should have because the details are disgusting: men beating up and raping vulnerable girls (and boys), pouring gasoline on them and threatening to set them alight if they told, children being forced to watch other children being raped.

My friend the commentator and political analyst Sunny Hundal has written an excellent piece for the LabourList web site, called "Why Pakistanis should be as angry as anyone else with what happened in Rotherham". He rightly calls the report a horror story, whereby cover-ups at a very high level allowed the abuse to go on for years and years. Sunny goes on to explain that while there were Pakistani perpetrators and community leaders who covered up their crimes. But this case, like similar ones before it, is being used to score political points and push racist prejudice against the Pakistani community in the UK, even while Pakistani girls were victims of the abuse and Pakistanis have been involved in bringing it to light, with Pakistani witnesses, whistleblowers and prosecutors helping every step of the way.  Sunny's conclusion, I feel, is spot-on:

There is certainly a problem here but it's not about race or religion – it is about misogyny and a desire to subjugate women. Such attitudes – prevalent among Pakistani men, Asian men more broadly, and among men of other races – need to be challenged.

Because the men committing the abuse were from the Pakistani community, the story should have been covered in the Pakistani press, but hasn't been.  In Pakistan, we've been very taken up with the events in Islamabad, and there's also the feeling that what's happening in Rotherham (and Oxford before it, as I wrote here) is very far away, somehow not really connected to us, even though one of the perpetrators has already fled to Pakistan, where he can't be extradited as far as I know.

But as always when something like this hits the headlines, we in Pakistan would do well to examine our own attitudes towards women, because they are passed down through the generations, and exported.

It's a common refrain amongst Pakistanis that white girls are trash, that their parents don't care about them and that's why they're allowed much more freedom (and are often neglected) in Western society, that they are sluts who will sleep with multiple partners and have children outside of marriage. It's an even more common attitude that ALL women - Pakistani and white alike - are of lesser worth than men.  You'll find this attitude in varying intensity across every class, every province, every ethnicity in Pakistan. We love to say that Islam teaches us respect for women, but we don't seem to understand how to put this into practice. Rotherham may be disconnected from us, but we are even more disconnected in our theories about women's rights and their place in society.

I want to point out one of Sunny Hundal's key points on Rotherham:

Across Yorkshire and elsewhere, Pakistani girls have been targeted by gangs too. A report last year also found that gangs had raped Asian (many Muslim) girls along with white girls, but the abuse of Asian girls was being missed because of a focus on white victims. Turning this into a narrative of ‘Pakistani men preying on young white girls’ completely ignores all the victims outside that narrative.

Which leads me to this: I was contacted by a Muslim American film director, Nadya Ali, who is making a documentary about sexual assault within the Muslim American community. They're hoping to make this short film called Breaking Silence and distribute it amongst the community in order to educate people on this serious issue.

Here's a description of the film:

Most Muslim communities are rooted in a culture that views sex and sexuality as taboo.  Therefore, victims of sexual assault, who are often children, stay silent out of shame or confusion.  Others fear ruining their family’s name or retaliation from family members who believe that the victim is at fault.  They are frequently met with disbelief, denial, or a hush-hush mentality and families often don’t know how to deal with assault or help the survivor cope.  This environment perpetuates sexual assault and impunity for the assailant who lives without blame, knowing no one will speak out.
Breaking Silence will be the first of its kind in documenting American Muslim women’s stories about their experiences, coping, coming out to their families and friends, and their insight about the change that needs to take place to help survivors, punish perpetrators, and prevent reoccurrences.  The film will follow interviews with four women who have never before spoken about their assault experience on camera.  We also have an interview with a rape crisis counselor, who is the wife of Imam Khalid Latif, the chaplain at ICNYU and youngest chaplain of the NYC Police Department.  We may ask Imam Khalid Latif to narrate at the start of the film, to give context to where this issue lies in the Muslim community.  We may interview him and include it with the others in order to give voice and legitimacy to this issue among religious circles.
We will intimately follow the unique stories of each woman rather than lightly touch on the experiences of several women to expose how sexual assault deeply affects a victim’s life.  Like the trailer, the film will interweave their stories together in order to depict the common themes that each victim goes through. It also juxtaposes how their personal and family culture and background informed their experiences in coming out and coping.  
Breaking the silence around sexual assault is the first step that the Muslim community must take in addressing an issue that plagues our community. This film is a vehicle to do just that.

 I've seen the trailer, which consists of several young Muslim-American women speaking about their experiences, and the courage they display is extremely moving. The film needs monetary and organisational support, not just for editing and post-production, but also to be able to send it to film festivals and distribute it. So if you're interested in funding or giving any other support, let me know, and I'll connect you to the director.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On Pakistan's Hyper-Masculine Political Culture

Watching the latest political circus, and every political circus that we've had over the last twenty years, I'm particularly galled by our politicians' habit of hurling insults at each other that include slurs on their masculinity. The most popular way of doing this is to accuse the other person of "wearing bangles". Because wearing bangles is something that only women do, the implication is that a man who "wears bangles" isn't really a man.

What our politicians don't realise is that this isn't just an insult to a man, it's an insult to women.  It entrenches the ever-popular thinking that women are weaker than men, and that to be a woman is undesirable, a second-class, second-best position that nobody would truly want. Not even women, if they had a choice. It's sad to see our women politicians also accuse male politicians of "wearing bangles" and throwing bangles at them in Parliament.

If calling a man a bangle-wearing woman is meant to show that the politicians in question lacks strength, by association we're implying he lacks virility, and is impotent. These are all cultural postures that have seeped into our political discourse because of our hyper-masculine culture, that prizes maleness above femaleness, manhood above womanhood. A man has to be able to perform sexually, or he isn't a man. If he isn't a man, he can't be a leader.

Forgive the vulgarity, but it is the same thing as calling a man a "pussy" because the possession of a vagina weakens a person in the eyes of the world.

I was in Islamabad a few weeks ago and everywhere I went, I saw evidence of the Pakistani hyper-masculine political culture. It was in the way the men swaggered everywhere, dressed in the ubiquitous uniform of white shalwar kameez and black waistcoat and black as night dyed hair, no matter what their age. They would strut up and down the halls, and every time they passed a woman, they would stare at her in a manner that was part predatory, part arrogance, fully privileged. It was threatening to say the least, and it said, "I'm a man. I'm powerful. Power is my right, as a man."

It's in the way our Parliament and Senate are dominated by men. It's in the way women parliamentarians are discounted and dismissed, filmed on television and the commentary is on what they were wearing, or how they were looking. It's in the rampant sexual harassment that still characterises government offices and political environments.

A Pakistani male politician can be the "Leader of the Nation" but a female politician has to be relegated to "Daughter/Sister/Mother of the Nation." Her biological relationship to the nation is more important than her leadership qualities, it would seem.

The hyper-masculine political culture is an assertion of territory, but also an assumption of place that is unmistakably linked to gender and sex. I haven't seen a single male politician in Pakistan who has challenged this dynamic, and I have a better appreciation now of the incredible barriers that Benazir Bhutto and Fatima Jinnah and any other Pakistani woman politician faced when she reached the corridors of power. It must have been a constant feeling of being rejected and fought against and discounted and diminished just because they were women, and it threatened the men's assumption of male privilege.

Pakistan's hyper-masculine political culture is tiring and best left in the last century. When leaders realise that, I might be bothered to vote.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

PTI Loyalty Scale

If you've ever wondered where you lie on the PTI Loyalty scale, just take this quick and simple test. Read over this list of statements and add up your points at the end.

Your age
1. I am between the ages of 15-25  ( +1)
2. I am old enough to remember when Imran Khan won the World Cup  (-1)
3. I am old enough to remember when Imran Khan shook hands with Nawaz Sharif  (-5)

Your feelings towards Imran Khan
3. I had a poster of Imran Khan in my room when I was young, but I took it down when I finished secondary school  (+1)
4. I have a poster of Imran Khan in my bedroom and I look at it every night before I go to sleep. Sometimes I talk to it and I pretend it talks back to me. (+5)
5. I dream that Imran Khan and I will get married and live happily ever after (+3)
6. I'm a male (+4)

Your revolutionary attitude
7. I knew what "inquilab" and "tabdeeli" meant in English before I joined PTI  (-1)
8. I speak perfect Urdu (-1)
9. I try to speak like Imran Khan, including his intonation and accent (+3)
10. I would give up my life for Imran Khan (+5)
11. I would give up my life for a hamburger from McDonalds (+2)
12. I have a T-shirt of Che (+2)
13. Che who? The only leader I know is Imran Khan (+3)
14. Shireen Mazari scares me (-4)

Your knowledge of Pakistani history
15. Pakistan was once part of India (-1)
15a. Pakistan was created as a home for all Muslims, including the Taliban (+2)
16. Pakistan is a colony of the United States (+3)
17. Jinnah proposed talks with the Taliban for the creation of Pakistan (+3)
18. Everything was fine in Pakistan until the War on Terror (+2)
19. Pakistan's single greatest achievement was when Imran Khan won the World Cup (+5)
20. The World Cup took place in 1991 (+1)
21. I don't remember who else was on the winning World Cup team (+4)

Your PTI political activity
22. I went to the Long March (+3)
23. I made fun of the Long March (-7)
24. I watched the Long March from home but I tweeted about it all day (+4)
25. I didn't watch the Long March but I posted that picture of Imran Khan without his shirt on Facebook (+3)
26. I voted for PTI in the elections (+2)
27. I didn't vote in the elections but Imran Khan says they were all rigged so I was right not to vote (+4)
28. I voted for Musharraf (-2)
29. I'm an American citizen (+2)

If I were Imran Khan, I would...
30. Become Prime Minister and lead Pakistan towards peace and prosperity (+3)
31. Create the world's best cricket team and win every tournament on the planet (+2)
32. Abide by the rules of the constitution in order to bring about electoral reform in an intelligent, democratic manner (-3)
32. I don't have to do anything, I'm Imran Khan! (+7)

Your results:
-20 - 0 : You will never be a PTI member. Go away and atone for your sins.
1-10 : Moderate loyalty. You could be persuaded to change sides mid-match. Work on your googly.
10-20 : Strong loyalty. Congratulations! Imran Khan would love to have tea with you!
21 and above: Seek professional help immediately.

(Disclaimer: I have not been paid by anyone to write this quiz. The results are not scientifically verifiable and should not be used in the place of legitimate medical advice by a health care professional)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Girls from Nepal

Yesterday I found this photograph on Facebook, shared from "Uth Time" which is an Indian e-magazine for young people.

I tweeted it with the caption: "Girls on their way to school in Nepal. No bridge, no other way to get there. Bravest girls in the world."

The picture went viral. It's been retweeted four thousand times, and favorited by two thousand people. It's gone around the world, and trended in London, Kenya, and India. I've gained two hundred followers in 23 hours just by tweeting this photo.

I don't feel it needs any commentary, but people have been saying what a beautiful, striking, and inspirational photo it is. People have been sharing similar photos of children going to school in 1950s Italy, in China, in South America, traveling across rope bridges, pulleys over rivers, mountainsides, and more. 

The power of an image. Of girls facing danger to go to school. This, to me, is the iconic image of our times. 

Live long and prosper, girls. We don't know your names but your courage has lit up the world today.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pakistan, I love you.

When I look up into your skies at night,

I see a star and a sliver of the moon that makes me shiver at the mysteries of our origins, yours and mine.

I wonder whether God intended us both, or were we accidents of space and time?

We are both more ancient than mountains and younger than newborns.

Every cell a promise, every atom an intention.

You are the shy smile of a school-going child, what I once was

And what the future will be.

You are the sun setting in the mountains on every day of my life

And the sun rising on the ocean of each one of my tomorrows.

Pakistan, I love you

You are my abusive parent and my wayward child all at once.

I come back to you again and again, and you embrace me

Once, twice, a thousand times. You don't mind

That I'm neither perfect nor beautiful, because neither are you.

We were made for each other,

Pakistan and me.