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Friday, April 29, 2016

Zahra Haider's Vice Article

I'll never forget being a repressed teenager in Karachi in the 80s. I used to drive by the late Agha Hussein Abidi's house every day to and from school. One morning as I passed by the high walls of his mansion, I saw some graffiti that had appeared overnight:

IT'S VERY HARD TO FIND A VIRGIN IN KARACHI

I nearly fainted (it was still Zia's Pakistan) when I saw that. It's stuck with me to this day, but now instead of fainting it evokes in me a wry smile. In fact this could be the slogan of Pakistan's horny teenagers and 20somethings, looking for something as real as a mirage. But this graffiti made me really wonder what was going on Karachi at the same time that I was raised as part of a generation to believe that sex before marriage was Shaitan's doing. Were people actually going out and having sex regardless? Why was there a lack of virgins in my city? And who was stealing their virginity and then complaining that girls weren't virgins?

That phrase came to my mind again today after reading Zahra Haider's piece in Vice on Pakistan's sex culture. In a blaze of honesty (and perhaps a bit of hyperbole, who knows) Haider has set Pakistan's social media on fire. For a girl! to admit that she had sex! with so many guys! before marriage! is as socially acceptable as murdering your parents in public and then displaying their bodies on national television. Actually I think it's less.

For me, another person's sexual life is none of my business. I'm not particularly interested in it, unless it breaks up a marriage or it causes physical harm to another person. Yet Haider has decided to make her personal life public, and Twitter went into meltdown last night after the piece was run. I'm not a fan of the confessional tell-all, but in Haider's case I can see why she did it: to cut through the hypocrisy that runs through sexual culture in a certain section of Pakistani youth. Or perhaps it isn't hypocrisy but self-preservation.

Let's be honest: people are having sex, were having sex, will have sex, without being married in Pakistan. In the 70s and 80s people lived together without being married. Today people have arrangements of all sorts. Sexual activity outside of marriage happens in all classes and strata of society. Nobody can generalize about how sex happens in this country, because it happens every which way.

The unspoken rule is not to talk about it. Haider has broken that rule. It's a bit like Anna Karenina where she was allowed to have her lover as long as she didn't make it public. But she couldn't or wouldn't live with that dishonesty, and wanted the world to know about her happiness. The world reacted badly, and punished her for it.

Haider can't be punished physically for her honesty, but she will be pilloried. By men and women. By men who are afraid of her because she represents their biggest fantasy and biggest nightmare: a woman with experience who knows if a man is inadequate. By women who won't be able to accept that there exists a woman who won't play by the rules they themselves play by. By people of all ages who don't want the applecart upset. By people who are jealous that she got away with it. By people who don't think a woman should have sex outside of marriage, who should seek sexual satisfaction, and who should find Pakistani men inferior sexually.

Was it a smart thing to do? Was it tactful or diplomatic? Was it brave? Was it daring or dumb? I can't say. All I can say is that I wouldn't write a piece like that, but there's a part of me that admires her chutzpah. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sabeen, One Year On

Dear one, darling friend
You are gone
But you have haunted me all this time
I pass the place where you died every day
And I remember the shock of your departure
I see your face in the corners of rooms that you built
I reach out to touch you, but you disappear.
You’re never really gone
You shine in the brightness of a child’s eyes
And the width of its smile.
You live in the lavender of the sunset sky
I hear you in the mewl of every newborn kitten.
Go away
Go away and leave us in peace
The mourning is more than I can bear. 
Come back
Come back to us again
The missing is more than I can bear.

Sabeen Mahmud
June 20 1974 - April 24 2015 





This amaltass tree was planted at the spot where Sabeen was killed a year ago today. We gathered in the morning, planted and watered the tree, then went back to T2F for gup-shup and breakfast, and sharing of stories about what we learned from her, what we remembered of her. Tears, laughter, love and solidarity were strongly felt by all of us, but I cannot get over the fact that this beautiful person was stolen from us by "batdameez" men who wanted her to shut up forever (Mimi Aunty's words).

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Patriarchy: the world's most popular religion

I've been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, "Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?"

Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban's draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.

Cohagan's work (and this is why it's so important that we talk to each other, especially when we're from different sides of the world, to see what's common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I've come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.

Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There's no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.

This paragraph in Cohagan's essay stood out for me.
As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”
These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities.  But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I'm not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in,  both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she's been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).

I'm talking about the male "allies" who think they're freeing Muslim women, when all they're really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self - which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world's secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.

These "allies" claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be "free". They're the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by "by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures" as grad student Hari Prasad put it:
Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can't speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn't wear.  When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these "allies" declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.

Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn't mince her words) that if you aren't a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to "shut up" and "listen", instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from "allies" who couldn't believe they were being told they couldn't take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say "I don't care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have." (And then she called everyone "fuckboys" which really made the fur fly)

Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, "Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they're active or have ground experience can't fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it's challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they're expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you're sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them." (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)

The moment "allies" impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what's good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like ("Give up Islam!" is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn't help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy - only under different rulers.

There's a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: "false friends". They are words "in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning." In this case, these "allies" of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don't actually know what's best for you because you've been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community.  Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.

Don't fall for it.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Life under the PECB

It's a beautiful morning in Pakistan; spring has brought blooming flowers, a pair of butterflies exploring them, a bird sitting on eggs in a nest she's made in an unused fan in my driveway. The day is cool but promises heat later, and the way the clouds have gathered in formation hints at mugginess but no rain.

I sit down at my desk to get started on my work for the day. I was thinking of writing a blog post about how the government needs to do more to protect women. The women's protection bill is still struggling and the government has to be more proactive in pushing it through, while calming down the religious parties.

I write the blog, but before I can press "publish," I hesitate. This blog is critical of the government. It counts as political criticism. Under the new cybercrime law, I could go to jail for three years, and be fined five lakhs. Better safe than sorry. I press "delete." The blog disappears.

I want to send an email to the new head of libraries at the British Council, a friend who I know from a literary festival a few years back. I write an email congratulating him on his new job, and asking him if we can meet up soon to discuss the promotion of literature.  But I haven't asked him permission to email him, and what if my email irritates him? The first time could get me a fifty thousand rupee fine. If I do it again, I'll go to jail for three months and a one million rupee fine.

I click "Cancel." The email is gone.

A message chimes on my phone. It's on my Whatsapp group; a political cartoon making fun of an alliance between a political party and a religious group. It's really funny. I laugh for at least a minute, and I want to forward it to my friends. But if I do this, it could be classified as hate speech, or even trying to spread religious strife. That would get me five years in jail and ten years' imprisonment. I delete the cartoon just to be safe.

I want to read the news on the Dawn's web site. When I open the site, half the articles are missing. None of the op-eds are available. This is because the cybercrime bill makes it a crime to write anything that's deemed political expression or political commentary online. Luckily I still subscribe to the paper edition of the Dawn, but it's really hard to cut out all the articles and post them to my friends. The same thing when I go to the Tribune site, the News, the Nation.

What about posting those pictures from my birthday party last night? They're harmless, I can share them on Facebook, right? I haven't asked anyone's permission to do so, though. That's one year in jail and a one million rupee fine. Better not do that. In fact, better remove all the photographs from my Facebook account to be safe. This could take a while.

I need to send an SMS to my friends to explain why I'm no longer on Facebook. Depending on how many friends find this irritating, I could be paying a lot of fines and going to jail for quite a while.

I think I'll leave a message on my blog to let people know that there's no Internet in jail. That way, if they decide to put me in jail for it, I'll already be there.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Not Too Late to Defeat Draconian Cybercrime Bill


A disappointment for Pakistan's Internet and IT industries when the National Assembly passed the Pakistan Electronic Cybercrime Bill yesterday. The government is declaring this a victory,  opposition politicians say it's "better" but not "ideal," while Internet users and IT stakeholders are correctly calling it a travesty.


According to the Dawn, here is what this bill promises us: 

• UP to five years' imprisonment, Rs. 10 million fine or both for hate speech, or trying to create disputes and spread hatred on the basis of religion or sectarianism

• Up to five years' imprisonment, Rs. 5m fine or both for transferring or copying sensitive basic information.

• Up to Rs. 50,000 fine for sending messages irritating to others or for marketing purposes. If the crime is repeated, the punishment would be three-month imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs1m.

• Up to three years' imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs. 500,000 for creating a website for negative purposes.

• Up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs. 1m for forcing an individual into immoral activity, or publishing an individual’s picture without consent, sending obscene messages or unnecessary cyber interference.

• Up to seven years' imprisonment, a fine of Rs. 10m or both for interfering in sensitive data information systems.

Cyber and digital rights activists have been fighting this bill for a long time now, knowing that its vagueness and its extremely harsh punishments will be used by the government to silence its political critics. 

Here is BoloBhi's Web site, where you can keep up with everything the digital rights organization has been doing to stop this bill from being passed. 

The problem is that the bill contains good elements, such as the punishment of harassers and blackmailers, with terrible elements, such as "creating a web site for negative purposes." What does this even mean? Who decides if a web site is created for negative purposes? Under such vague language even this blog you're reading right now could be deemed "created for negative purposes." All the current blogging about the Panama Papers, and the reporting on television stations' Web sites, would be deemed either "negative" or "hate speech" and fines and jail terms would inevitably follow.

Middle Eastern countries have already put into place laws like this that have seen bloggers jailed and punished for being critical of the government, the most famous example being Saudi Arabia's Raif Badawi. Pakistan, on the other hand, has enjoyed relative freedom online, but if this bill is passed, all that will change. Whatever our current censorship policies are will look like a children's playground compared to the overarching powers the government is arming itself with in order to control dissent on the Internet.

The bill has to be passed in the Senate before it can become law and digital activists are hoping that opposition Senators will see reason. The government's lobbying powers are strong, though, and unless Pakistanis make a concerted effort to stop this bill, we will be robbed of our rights to a free and open Internet. 

And this law will have terrible effects on Pakistan's IT industry, which is increasingly Web-based. Any time the government wants to harass any business owner or company they just have to accuse it of violating the PECB. Then this article I wrote back in August about how Pakistan could be the next software hub will almost certainly never come true.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Muslim Mean Girls

All hell broke loose in a certain section of social media yesterday when Alternet published this article on journalist Asra Nomani's testimony to a congressional panel on women and terrorism. Author Maha Hilal contends that Nomani offered the "conveyer belt" theory of Muslim women's radicalization that starts with the headscarf and ends in mayhem, murder, and martyrdom. The hijab, Nomani argued, was the symbol through which women are victimized under a patriarchal system, and eventually they can end up as pro-ISIS footsoldiers and handmaids.

This YouTube video of the roundtable was offered by Alternet Senior Editor Max Blumenthal if anyone wants to check the quotes. I have watched the video and the quotes are all correct.

Furthermore, one thing Nomani said that I can verify was inaccurate and misleading is "In Pakistan, they call these women [enforce-hers of hijab] 'chicks with sticks'." This is completely wrong: that phrase referred to the women students of the Red Mosque in Islamabad who in 2007 threatened the government with insurrection for illegally occupying a government library. They armed themselves with sticks against the government in a siege and this image is what Nomani refers to.

Women of Lal Masjid in 2007

There is no and never has been an organized group of women called "Chicks with Sticks" in Pakistan going around with sticks beating women for not wearing hijab or niqab.

For me, the Twitter interaction between Nomani and Darakshan Raja, who works for the Washington Peace Center, was central to understanding the entire episode, as well as its repercussions. Raja (who does not wear a hijab) objected to Nomani's support for government profiling of Muslim women, and state violence against Muslim women. She also called into question Nomani's tactic of tagging American University, where Maha Hilal is pursuing a PhD, saying Nomani was using her platform to "bully younger Muslim women." Other critics called Nomani out for making the link between women wearing hijabs and terrorism, saying that it would only add to the mounting Islamophobia in the United States.

Nomani responded with her usual tags of #HonorBrigade, #MuslimMeanGirls, and accused Raja and others of "age shaming" her. She tagged and tweeted the Washington Peace Center, Raja's place of employment, which I have always found to be a shameful bullying tactic on social media. When lawyer Todd Gallagher told her that "successful approaches to this issue have been working within the community, not shaming from outside," she accused him of being a proxy of CAIR, sent to shame her.

Muslim Mean Girls, one of Nomani's catchphrases, is a reference to the Lindsey Lohan/Tina Fey movie "Mean Girls" in which a clique of popular girls targets another girl for pursuing one of the girls' ex-boyfriends. The outcast eventually triumphs over the mean girls (I don't know how, I haven't seen this movie - to the horror of my millennial relatives, who refrained from age shaming me about it).

Nomani uses this phrase to denote the Muslim women who attack her for being a Muslim reformer. The implication is that she is a victim of bullying by Muslim women who oppose reform, liberal value, secularism, eschewing all of them for a patriarchal religious order that puts them at the bottom. They resist her attempts to liberate Muslim women and instead do all they can to vilify and silence her.

The debate that took place yesterday was a fascinating insight into how important it is to be right about Muslim women. How important it is to have the definitive opinion, to have the requisite knowledge and expertise, to be listened to by the powers that matter, to be the last word on the matter. 

This kind of opinion about Muslim women, unequivocal, assured, backed by insider knowledge of the Quran and experience living in Muslim countries, is very valuable as the movers and shakers shift their focus from the matter of conquering Muslim countries, to winning Muslim hearts and minds, to empowering and liberating Muslim women. It's as if they've struck gold but they need the appropriate miners to extract it from the depths of the mountain. 

This is why it's so important to be able to say: Muslim women are unequivocally this, Muslim women are unequivocally that. To come up with labels and categories. To predict behavior based on dress. 

Muslim women reduced to algorithms. Spoken for. Spoken about. Exhibit A.  Chapter 4, verse 34. But being reduced to simplistic formulas isn't what I signed up for when I chose to be a Muslim woman. I don't want anyone speaking for me: not Asra Nomani, not Ayaan Hirsi Ali, not male Muslim panelists on a panel about Muslim women and feminism.

Not when you can't trust any of them to tell the truth.




Friday, April 8, 2016

An evening with the Girls in Green

Since the success of the Pakistan women's cricket team at the T20 World Cup, there's been a lot of interest in these young women. Who are they? Where do they come from? And what is it that's made them overcome so many obstacles to become sporting heroes to millions of Pakistanis of all ages?

We had a chance to ask them these questions last night at The Second Floor, where Girls at Dhabas had arranged a meet and greet session with seven current and former members of the team and their coach. Captain Sana Mir, Nain Abidi, Batool Naqvi, Ayesha Zafar, Javeria "Jerry" Khan, Muneeba Ali, and former member Urooj Khan as well as Coach Mohtasim Rasheed sat in front of a packed audience - women and men, girls and boys had all come to get a glimpse of the team members and hear their insights about playing for Pakistan.

First, we were treated to an excerpt from Sadia Shepard's documentary "The Other Half of Tomorrow" which focused on the team itself. A full-length documentary is in the works, but the fifteen minutes that we saw was a brilliant insight into these women and their journey. My eyes filled with tears as footage of the women practicing, playing, winning, traveling together and singing rolled across the screen.


The Other Half of Tomorrow - Teaser from Sadia Shepard on Vimeo.

I kept thinking of how impossible it would have been when I was their age to even think of playing international cricket for Pakistan. In fact, when sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan attempted to start up a women's cricket team in 1996, they got death threats and court cases, the main objection being that women playing cricket was "against Islam." Twenty years later, we now have a team that plays at the international level, and won against arch rivals India in the recent T20 World Cup.

Yet the path ahead is still bumpy. The team has nowhere near the amount of sponsorship it needs. "If we got proper sponsorship, it would raise our confidence levels," said Mir at the event yesterday. "We'd be able to concentrate on our diet, on our fitness levels." Pay is also an issue: the women receive 1/9th the pay that the men's team does. The team has no opportunity to play domestic cricket in the off season, as the West Indies team does in Australia and New Zealand. And the team needs more media exposure; their matches are barely screened on PTV when they play.

Support comes from different quarters: Zeb Bangash, the well-known singer of the band Zeb and Haniya befriended the team since 2011 and has pushed for them to be better recognized. In conversation with the team, she revealed that she has recorded a song for them which has still not been launched, again because of lack of sponsorship. Another huge support is Bushra Aitzaz, the Chairperson of the women's division of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Coach Rasheed is an ally and a friend, whose gentle demeanour belies a commitment to see these women achieve everything they've dreamed of in the world of international cricket.

And yet it's the fierce determination of the women themselves that shines out in everything they do, say, and are. They are not big girls: slight, wiry, of average height for the most part (none of them is exceptionally tall or broad or muscular). Yet their performances on the field showed world-class bowling, batting, and fielding; several of the team members are world record holders.

Muneeba Ali, Ayesha Zafar, Batool Naqvi, Javeria "Jerry" Khan


But cricket isn't everything in these women's lives. They are all well-educated, having gone through or going through higher level studies. One is a dentist with a full practice. Ayesha Zafar
is studying at IBA. "That was on my father's insistence," she said. "Studies come first." Two of the team members were married with infants. Captain Mir spoke about the necessity of educated women entering the field of cricket. "You're an ambassador, so it's very important that you should be educated in order to handle the media and international exposure well."

Each woman also talked about the importance of family support, and of balancing family responsibilities with their individual ambitions. Each had had to obtain the permission of their families to play cricket, not just the immediate family but also the elders. Once their families agreed, though, they became their biggest supporters, with parents showing up to matches. One of the team members also had her mother in attendance at the event, and pointed her out to the audience.

Yet as I listened to this, I knew that despite the support, it will be a long time before Pakistani women can chase their dreams without having to negotiate the minefield of family approval, permission, and propriety. Not so for the men, for whom a life in sports is not just acceptable but fantasized about in many Pakistani families. Becoming a sportsman is a dream come true for the families of Pakistani men; becoming a sportswoman can be a nightmare as families worry incessantly about their daughters' futures, marriages, and families.

But these women are unstoppable. And they're thinking about a future, too - the future of Pakistani women's cricket. Urooj Khan has now become a selector for the PCB; there were wishes expressed by the audience that Sana Mir should one day become its chairperson. A young girl stood up to ask how she could start playing cricket; Mir gave her information about the Zaheer Abbas cricket academy for women and the Under-17 academy that would start its next session this month.

This is the way forward for women's cricket in Pakistan: investment in building the infrastructure and finding talent; investment in the players themselves in the form of sponsorships; media support; and support from Pakistanis for the team. As I watched the team members relate their stories and interact with the audience, there was only one word that kept coming to my mind, and it wasn't in English: bahadur, or brave. These are brave women. They deserve to be recognized not just by Pakistan, but by the world.
Zeb Bangash, Captain Sana Mir, Nain Abidi, Urooj Khan, Coach Mohtashim Rasheed