Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Does Islam Promote Violence? Reza Aslan on CNN

Today I watched a clip of Reza Aslan on CNN, speaking to anchors about whether or not “Islam promotes violence”. I thought what he said was so important, so necessary, that I’d write down notes from what he said in answer to the anchors’ (frankly inane) questions.

Here’s the clip if you want to watch it for yourself.

RA: Frankly, when it comes to the topic of religion, (Bill Maher’s) not very sophisticated in the way that he thinks.  The argument about the female genital mutiliation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of that. It’s not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem—

CNN: Yeah but he says it’s a Muslim problem. In Somalia…

RA: Yeah, but that’s factually incorrect. Eritriea has 90% female genital mutilation and it’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75% female genital mutilation, and it’s a Christian country.  Nowhere else in the Muslim majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.  But this is the problem: you make these facile arguments that somehow women are mistrated in the Muslim world – well that’s certainly true in many Muslim countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Do you know that Muslim countries have elected seven women as their heads of state?

CNN: But be honest, Reza, for the most part it is not a free and open society for women in those states.

RA: Well, it’s not in Iran, it’s not in Saudi Arabia. But it certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia and Bangladesh and Turkey.  Again, this is the problem: you’re talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to pain thtem all with a single brush by saying, “Well, in Saudi Arabia they can’t drive, so that’s representative of Islam.” No, that’s representative of Saudi Arabia…

You know, we’re not having this discussion in any legitimate forum, we’re just using two or three examples to justify a generalization – that’s actually the definition of bigotry.

Then they cut to a clip of Netanyahu speaking at the UN, saying ISIS = Hamas.

CNN: So, does Islam promote violence?

RA: Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion. It depends on what you bring to it. If you are a violent person, your Islam,  your Christianity, your Judaism, your Hindusim is going to be violent. There are maurading Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful, and that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.

CNN: So the justice system in Muslim countries, you don’t think, is more primitive or subjugates women more than in other countries?

RA: Did you hear what you just said? You said in Muslim countries. I just told you that in Indonesia women are 100% equal to men. In Turkey they’ve had more female representatives and heads of state than we’ve had in the United States.

CNN: But in Pakistan, women are still being stoned.

RA: And that’s a problem for Pakistan.

CNN: Your argument is that Muslim countries are NOT to blame. There is nothing particular, there is no common thread, in Muslim counties, you can’t paint with a broad brush, that their justice system, their Shariah law, what they’re doing in terms of female genital mutliation and stoning is different in other countries, like Western countries.

RA: Stoning and mutliation and those barbaric practices should be condemned by everyone. The actions of individual countries like Saudi Arabia, like Iran, like Pakistan must be condemned because they don’t belong in the 21st century.  But to say “Muslim countries” as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same , as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same, as though what is happening in the most extreme form in these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, is representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country,  is frankly, and I use this word seriously, stupid. So let’s stop doing it.

(Not a chance, Reza, I’m afraid. Not a chance.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Online Harassment - My Story

Fake account
This week I have been dealing with a particularly vicious form of online harassment. Someone created a fake Twitter profile with my name and image, took photographs from Google Search and my Facebook profile, and started to post those photographs with particularly vile comments about me. This same person did the same thing to me back in May on Facebook, creating a fake Facebook profile and taking pictures and making horrible comments.

This person also messaged many other people on Twitter who are known to me either in person or online, and used the fake profile to harass and abuse them. Most people have been intelligent enough to realise that this was an impostor, but it still caused difficulty for me. I have a professional and personal reputation which this person seemed intent to destroy.

I complained to Facebook back in May and Facebook responded quickly and took the profile down. I complained to Twitter the day I saw the fake Twitter profile, and Twitter eventually responded and suspended the account. But there's no preventing the harasser from coming back and creating a hundred fake profiles if they want to. As a safety measure, I protected my tweets and deactivated my Facebook profile. I also made my blog private, but I'm opening it up today so that this post is readable by all.

Violent threats and abuse.
Bottom tweet: "Whore, you are the army's
bitch, feudals' whore"
I have been working with Bytes For All and the Digital Rights Foundation to use my case as an example of the technology-driven harassment and violence online that women face (but this happens to men, too, as we have seen all too often on social media). Bytes For All is holding a conference on Monday to discuss the findings of a big report on violence against women online, and to hold corporations and law enforcement more accountable for stopping this kind of harassment against us.

Online harassment and abuse of women is a global phenomenon. But in Pakistan, it takes on a different dimension altogether. We face unbearable gender-based discrimination, which often translates into physical violence. Our culture places a huge burden on us to keep our reputations intact, and even if someone else attacks it, it's we who suffer. I don't need to outline the many ways in which women are abused in our society, but online technology-driven abuse makes our lives that much harder, and social media companies and law enforcement agencies are duty-bound to take extra steps to protect us online as well as off.
An attempt to slander me with porn

The FIA (Federal Investigations Agency) has a National Response Center for Cybercrime with a complaint page which you can fill out if you are facing online harassment.

Don't remain silent if you're facing online abuse or harassment. Speak up about it, and know your rights. You have the right not to be abused, not to be harassed, not to feel threatened or violated. You have the right to expect the authorities and Twitter and Facebook to protect you. You don't have to face ugliness and have it drive you offline. Stand your ground. People have been extremely supportive of me while I've been undergoing this experience. It's the abuser who should feel the shame, not you. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dukhtar - Film Review

When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

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.