Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Deported to Face a Death Sentence? The Curious Case of Jamila Bibi

This evening I was asked to speak on CBC Regina and Saskatoon about the case of Jamila Bibi, a 63 year old Pakistani woman who has been deported from Canada because her application for asylum was rejected by the Federal Court of Canada.

For background on the case, please read this news item by CBC.  Jamila Bibi lived in Lahore, Pakistan, with her husband and daughters, and owned land which she worked on. Until her husband's relative, an uncle, I think, decided that he wanted to get his hands on that land in 1992. He dragged Jamila Bibi through court; twelve years later she won the case proving she was the legal owner of the land in dispute in 2004.

In the meantime, he and other members of the family physically assaulted Jamila Bibi and her family, then tried to get her daughters to marry his sons.  When that failed, in 2006 the same relative accused her and her daughters of having "adulterous affairs" and tried to get Jamila Bibi arrested. She went to jail for three days, then got out and got a Canadian visa and fled to Saskatoon, where she worked as a cook. Meanwhile, she applied for refugee status, claiming that she would face grave danger and a possible "honour killing" at the hands of her husband's relatives, but lost her battle when the Immigration and Refugee Board decided that there was no evidence she would actually be physically harmed. And she is on a plane right now flying through countries that are not signatories to the Geneva Convention so she can't even claim asylum en route back to Pakistan.

I had not even heard anything about Jamila Bibi or her attempt to be declared a refugee in Canada. But when the CBC got in touch asked me for my opinion, and for some context about the status of women in Pakistan vis-a-vis honour killings, I didn't have to know details about the case to tell them that things don't look good for Jamila Bibi.

The Immigration and Refugee Board said that Jamila Bibi could easily move away from Lahore to avoid the threat of violence. But Pakistani women aren't like North American women, able to get into a car and leave, able to avail of government services, trust the police, or a system or network of support groups for women who fear domestic violence. There aren't many shelters for women who are fleeing domestic violence or honour killings. Pakistani women, especially those of low income, haven't got the means or wherewithal or confidence to pick up and leave, let alone relocate themselves in a different city with no family support. And if Jamila Bibi leaves Lahore, what will happen to the land, which is probably her only source of income? It will fall into the hands of her husband's relatives by hook or by crook. The only difference is Jamila Bibi would still be alive.

But even that isn't a given. In Pakistan, the government does not execute women who are found guilty of adultery. In fact, women aren't really found guilty of adultery anymore, since the Women's Protection Act 2006 replaced the Hudood Ordinances in how cases of rape and adultery are prosecuted. Even before that, women were not executed, but they were left to rot in jail for years on false cases of adultery (great alternative, I know).

But what the government will do is turn a blind eye to Jamila Bibi's plight. She will land in Lahore, she will get off the plane, and she will either be jailed on the charges that her husband's relative tried to bring up against her back in 2006. Or she will be let go to fend for herself, and where will she go but straight back to her neighbourhood, where they will be lying in wait for her? And if they couldn't get hold of her land back then, they would have no qualms about killing her now and claiming it as an honour killing, then producing another relative to "forgive" the killers and get away with it under the Qisas and Diyat law, the legal loophole that most honour killers rely on to be absolved of murder.

As I've written before, honour killings are often a pretext for other disputes, about land or inheritance or to avenge family feuds. I wonder how the Federal Court of Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Board decided that there was no evidence Jamila Bibi's enemies would harm her. She has sworn under affidavit that he has attacked and assaulted her before, that he has made threats to her, that he has accused her of adultery, which, along with a blasphemy accusation in Pakistan, is a most convenient way to get rid of a woman.

The least they can do, now, is to request the Canadian High Commission to alert human rights and women's rights groups or NGOs about Jamila Bibi's case and make sure that when she gets off the plane she has proper legal representation and some amount of protection. I would appeal any human rights' groups or women's rights groups in Lahore to look into the case and try to do something for Jamila Bibi.

Otherwise, the order to deport Jamila Bibi from Canada might as well be a signed death sentence. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Booklist review for A Season For Martyrs

From BookList, experts at the American Library Association:

A Season for Martyrs.
Shah, Bina (Author)
Nov 2014. 288 p. Delphinium, paperback, $14.95. (9781883285616).

In her U.S. debut, Shah embarks on an epic narrative about a land of strife and saints. In 2007, Ali, a young man working for a TV news organization in Pakistan, is assigned to cover the return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after years of exile. The son of a landowner from the province of Sindh, the earnest but embittered Ali engages in various forms of subterfuge with his family and friends as he struggles to find his place in the world and gets drawn into a pro-democracy political movement. His story is interspersed with historic and mythic tales of the Sindh region, often written beautifully in the melodic style of oral storytelling. As Ali grapples with the legacy of his family’s and country’s past, the layers of tradition and culture combine to provide a comprehensive picture of the powerful forces at work in his life. Weighty with history and ambitious in scope, A Season for Martyrs elegantly mixes both the pathos and grace that make up the soul of Sindh.
— Bridget Thoreson 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pakistan Reacts to the Arrests of Malala's Attackers

Yesterday the Pakistan Army announced that it had arrested ten men who had planned and executed Malala Yousufzai's shooting in 2012. The Army statement said that the men had been captured over a period of time about six months ago, and all were now in Army custody (The Taliban were quick to deny this, saying that the ten men arrested had nothing to do with the shooting, and that the news of the arrests were the "thoughts and fantasies" of the Army, which makes me think that the news is pretty accurate - when the Taliban deny something, you can be sure that it actually did happen).

Supporters of Malala, education and human rights campaigners and activists, and people around the world greeted the news of the arrest with joy. But there was a peculiar gleeful twinge of "I told you so" amongst many of the Pakistanis who were celebrating the arrests of the gang.

Since Malala had been shot, her miraculous recovery, and then her subsequent lionisation by the world for having stood up to the Taliban and for her unremitting campaign for the rights of girls to get an education, a huge backlash swelled against the young woman. Overnight, seemingly hundreds of detractors appeared to say that "she hadn't really been shot," that it was all a "Western conspiracy" to malign Pakistan. They christened her "Malala Dramazai" and were quick to say "I hate Malala" to anyone who would listen.

It was a deeply shameful development.  When we should have been proud of this girl and all that she achieved, both before and after her shooting, people wanted to deny her outright and disown her. It almost seemed as if they would have been happier if she'd actually died; her survival and the acclaim the world heaped on her was interpreted by some as a deliberate insult to Pakistan's honour. Or perhaps that was just the bombast that people adopted because they were jealous of her rise to fame.

Here are a few of the most ridiculous things said about Malala:
- She wasn't really shot
- The hospital gave her plastic surgery to make it look like she was shot
- She was shot on purpose so she could get a visa to the UK
- Her father exploited her shooting to earn money
- Her English speaking skills are proof that she's a Western stooge

When the book "I Am Malala" came out, the backlash grew stronger. The book had been written with Christina Lamb, who added her interpretation of many historical and political events in Pakistan that had happened before Malala had been born. Malala's detractors (and enemies, some of them high profile right-wing commentators and television anchors) picked out those phrases from the book and used them to bash Malala. It was further proof that the girl's very existence was a Western plot to make Pakistan "look bad".

So when the Army, who most of these right-wing detractors claim to support, announced they had caught Malala's attackers, you could almost hear the needle scratch as it slipped off the record that had been playing since 2012.  If the Army said they'd gotten the men who shot Malala (and the Army had taken Malala to hospital in the first place when it had happened, but people conveniently forget that fact), was it possible that she might have actually been shot?

Malala's Pakistani supporters might be forgiven a bit of gloating at this point. Some detractors have been weakly protesting, taking snippets from I Am Malala that are critical of the Pakistan Army, posting them on social media, and saying that Malala should be ashamed of herself. Some are saying, "The attack was real but all the dollars she got afterwards were also real." Others are saying, "I stand with Malala but I'm against her exploitation by the West" (what is that exploitation, please?).

But all in all, the anti-Malala trolls have been silenced. And I can't deny that it feels good to see those tails tucked firmly between so many legs.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Scottish Partition Novel

As the days count down to the Scottish Referendum, and as my Scottish friends become more and more excited about the vote, I wonder if they are ready for the deluge of essays, memoirs, and novels that will be written about the trauma of Partition from the Union?

"A whiff of haggis immediately takes me back to that village, torn apart by post-referendum violence, and my Nan..."


"I held the kilt with trembling hands. It survived through the riots, and now I would wear it as my wedding veil."


"I couldn't believe that I had spent all these years defying my traditions, my Scottish roots, pretending to be English, only to find love with the man whose parents had come from the next Scottish village over from mine. 'We'll go back there on our Gaelic honeymoon,' he whispered to me as our relatives sang and danced The Slosh at our traditional Celtic engagement party. 'Back to Inverness, where it all began...'."

I hope the literary agents and publishers are ready for the onslaught. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Women at Dharnas - Obscenity or Necessity?

During the past few weeks of the protests in Islamabad, we've seen hundreds of women come out to listen to the speeches and participate in the rallies of both the PTI and PAT. They have been seen listening, cheering, and marching - as well as dancing to the music played by the intrepid DJ Butt at the PTI events.

Perhaps the camera has been a little too fond of focusing on them, especially the young, good-looking women, so we've also been hearing crass comments about the "poondi" available at the dharnas.  This objectification of women leads predictably to harassment, and depressingly but not surprisingly, we've also heard tales of women being sexually harassed by other protestors. This happened in Tahrir Square and also in protests against the gang-rape and murder of the student on the bus in New Delhi.

Then came the misogynists: Hamza Sharif who uttered this gem: "“Khan’s Naya Pakistan gets women to dance at musical concerts."  And who can forget how Maulana Fazlur Rahman stood inside Parliament House and accused the dharnas of breeding fahashi, or vulgarity? (We know he's talking about the women, because men are never obscene in Pakistani society.) The implication being that the women at the dharnas are not there for political reasons but to provide entertainment, mujra-style, to the men, and the nation at large. And that the mixing of men and women in public is going to cause the destruction of Pakistan -- rather than terrorism, climate change, economic difficulties, or corruption and nepotism.

Chaudhry Nisar put his two cents in too about how the "women and children" were being used as human shields, which got people debating whether the phrase "women and children" is useful or outdated. After all, women are adults, not to be roped in with children, as if they were being saved from sinking on the Titanic. If women want to be at protests and face physical danger, that is their right to do so and they are fully capable of making that decision for themselves.

But the debate about women's presence at the dharnas is deeper than this, of course. I had an interesting discussion with Marvi Sirmed, Ayesha Siddiqa, and Rafia Zakaria, three prominent Pakistani feminists and political activists, about what it really meant to see so many women out in huge numbers. It's great to see them out there, expressing their desire to be part of the political discourse, and I think this must continue.

But Ayesha Siddiqa raised a valid question about the difference in social status between the women attending the protests. She asked whether the women, especially the ones of the lower middle class, rather than the high-society women, are fully cognisant of the messages that Tahirul Qadri is conveying.  And it was quite obvious that when the violence took place during the protests, it wasn't the upper class women getting the beatings and tear gassings.

And, as Marvi Sirmed said, women's participation in political protest is nothing new, and happens a great deal in rural Punjab and Sindh as well - without real change for the better.  Ayesha Siddiqa noted that there had been no difference in the (inferior) status of women even with their presence at protests in Punjab, where she hails from.

Still, women's participation in the protests is perhaps not a marker of equal status but of their willingness to be part of the political process - and as Rafia Zakaria said, perhaps this marks a time for women to push for more involvement and a greater presence in the political agenda. Here is where women might start to believe they can be not just observers but participants in political change.  The presence of the women at the PTI and PAT rallies might be a precursor to the real movement, which will probably take more time to evolve.  "At least it's better than what the Taliban have in mind for women, which is to shut them up at home," said Rafia Zakaria. "I'm happy to see them singing and dancing."

Yet we have also seen women involved in Taliban and Deobandi-style political movements - Ayesha Siddiqa pointed out that Mullah Fazlullah "took women along" in Swat, when the Taliban ruled there, and we have the example of the women at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad to remind us that women might see these forms of political activity -- Deobandi-inspired militancy, in short -- no matter how fascist, as empowering.

But I think we can agree that women's empowerment and participation in the political process has to be constructive, not destructive. Their contributions have to be more than cosmetic, as well - it's not enough to just make up numbers, or to sing and dance. The women must have their own agenda for the equality and betterment of women that they hold to the leaders of these protests. An agenda that can include education, health, security, inclusion in political office, protection of their legal rights, just to name a few points. They must act as their own agents, and not wait for a saviour to make things better for them. Because there's nothing new or empowering in the same old pattern of silent followers listening breathlessly to a male leader.

Only when women are willing to agitate for change as proactively as the men - not just by showing up, but by voicing the issues that matter most to them -- will there be headway in making their status equal to men in our society. And that will really be reason, in my opinion, to sing and dance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review -

I get a lot of requests from people asking me if I can help them improve their written English. I really don't have the time to tutor anyone, but I can recommend an online software that can - Grammarly. And I've had the chance to try out the software for myself, so I know how useful it can be if you're aiming for a piece of writing that's grammatically correct, without spelling and punctuation mistakes, and stylistically sound.

If you're new to Grammarly, you'll be invited to try it out by plugging in a paragraph of your own text into an online editing box. The software quickly analyses your writing and tells you how many mistakes you've got, and what kind - spelling, punctuation, grammar, style. If you want to see exactly what you did wrong, you can sign up for a free 7-day trial, before you're obliged to pay for the service. It's a great way of getting you hooked in a try-before-you-buy plan. I don't think this is unfair, though, because the old cliche "You get what you pay for" is truer than we'd like to admit, so addicted are we to getting stuff for free on the Internet.

When you sign up for Grammarly, you get a home page which has a dashboard on the left-hand side column and a document storage area. Here's where you can upload any kind of text in Word or .txt format (you can also cut and paste, if you like). It's a very simple design, easy to use, and there's a tutorial when you first get started to help you through the steps.

When you get your text uploaded, open the document, and the Grammarly Editor will analyse it within about a minute, depending on how long it is. You have the option of turning on or off what you want Grammarly to look at: contextual spelling (this can tell you if you've spelled a word wrong depending on its context, such as when you would need to use bear or bare), punctuation (its vs. it's), grammar, sentence structure, and style.

Grammarly works like the spell checker and grammar checker we're used to in Word, but it goes a step further: it gives you "cards" on the right hand side of your document that you can click open to see an explanation of why what you wrote might be wrong. I say might, because there were quite a few instances where Grammarly suggested I'd written something incorrectly but I know I hadn't.

It wasn't intrusive in suggesting, for example, that I might have meant a woman instead of the woman, and told me why. It's up to you to accept or reject the change.

It's an invaluable tool for someone whose English is weak, but you actually need to already have a grasp of grammar to know whether or not Grammarly's suggestion is what you meant.  You can turn a card off if you don't want to be told about this rule again.

You can also add a word to the dictionary, so Grammarly learns your personal writing style as you go along. This is useful for me because I use lots of Pakistani and Muslim words and names, which the Editor will have to learn so it doesn't keep flagging them as incorrect. But it's got quite a large dictionary and didn't flag up things I thought it would just because they are exotic.

As far as style goes, I didn't appreciate being told some of my sentences were too wordy, but Grammarly was correct - they were. You have the option of selecting what style document you're writing -  a medical, business, technical, academic or casual document - and subdivisions within those styles are supposed to help Grammarly edit your text more intuitively. I tried three different types of styles - a piece of creative non-fiction, a newspaper column, and a blog post - but to be honest I didn't see much difference in how Grammarly edited all three pieces, so I'm not too sure how useful this feature is.

The Editor's corrections of my spellings were perfect, but for punctuation, it seems to think I need more commas than I like to use. I have a feeling the Editor has been programmed for American rather than British style of punctuation, so this can be tricky for someone not too familiar with punctuation, but I think the explanations are very helpful and if you read them carefully, you'll start to learn when and how to punctuate with quite a lot of accuracy.

Let's get to some of my favourite features: vocabulary enhancement, where Grammarly will suggest different words for you to use if it thinks you've overused something. You can also click on any word in the document to bring up the dictionary definition of the word. This is great for people learning English, and students - if you really pay attention to what the Editor is telling you, you'll really improve your vocabulary fast.

There's also something extremely vital for anybody who writes professionally, whether student, academic, businessperson or journalist - a plagiarism checker (do remember to turn it on in the dashboard). I had so many students tell me they'd used plagiarism software, like TurnItIn, to check their papers so there was no way the paper could be plagiarised (how sorry I was to disabuse them of their misapprehensions). Grammarly will go several steps better than the standard plagiarism software. Not only will it point out where it thinks you've plagiarised, it will provide you with a link to the writing on the Internet from where you got your plagiarised phrase or text. And then, it will create three types of pre-formatted reference, in APA, Chicago, and MLA style, for you to use in footnotes/endnotes and bibliography!!!!!!!!

Okay, I admit I got a little over-excited there. But do you know what this means for students who have no idea what proper referencing is? It means that there's a simple solution that will help them avoid plagiarising their work. Not just by pointing it out, but by showing them exactly what they have to do to make sure their paper is properly referenced. The student (or author) will have to do a little extra work to make sure they're using quotation marks properly, and that they've inserted the reference properly into the text and the footnotes or endnotes. But this is a vast improvement on "Hey, I used TurnItIn so my paper can't be plagiarism."

Finally, if you really want professional help with your paper, and you're willing to pay, you can opt to send your text to Grammarly's professional proofreaders, who will read and correct and send back to you within 24 hours, 3 hours, or 50 minutes, depending on how much you're willing to pay ($34, $62, or $129 respectively). This isn't cheap and is probably for the desperate and/or filthy rich. I wouldn't do this if I were a student, but at least the option is there.

Grammarly's signup plans aren't cheap either - $30 per month, $59 per quarter, $140 a year - but it offers bulk subscriptions for schools, companies, or government (say if your office wanted to buy the plan for all of its editors, for example). It also offers other services, like a Grammrly Lite extension  you can use with your browser for editing your blog posts or emails.  If you're trying to justify the expense, you might want to think of Grammarly as your personal tutor. But if you use it in this way, remember that you'll only get out as much as you put in - work, effort, time.

I'd say Grammarly is worth it on a personal level if you're a student and you want to try it for three months, to see if you improve in your writing skills by using it to master elements of grammar, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary that have always given you a hard time. I'd also say you could suggest getting a bulk subscription through your office manager if your work is writing heavy because the office will save time and money in editing and proofreading. You might want to spring for it for a one-time deal to proofread that novel you wrote, before you send it to an agent or publisher.

It's up to you to decide how you want to use Grammarly. But the nice thing about it is that Grammarly helps you improve your writing on a technical level while keeping you, the writer, always in control.

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"

Here is a blog by filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi on his experience filming the movie. His observation that absolute, desperate poverty makes for an alternate moral paradigm in Pakistan is one of the most profound observations I've ever come across.

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