Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Orange the World!

Today's the IDEVAW2015 and I've written an essay for the Huffington Post that asks why we aren't going after violence against women the way we've vowed to go after ISIS.

In the meantime, monuments around the world are turning orange to commemorate 16 days of activism against VAWG as a call to action. Here's the Pakistan Monument, located in Islamabad, turned orange, thanks to our friends at Philips Pakistan. 

Picture by Rick Slettenhaar
The campaign invites us all to Orange the World -- ie wear orange, turn your social media accounts orange, urge government officials to go orange - to raise awareness about this dire problem. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Peace, love and madeleines

Everyone knows that Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" opens with the writer biting into a madeleine and floating away on a sea of memories.

I had long been fascinated by the idea of baking madeleines, not because I love Marcel Proust, but because I love to bake. It's hard to find a madeleine pan in Karachi, though I'd heard rumors of them in Bohri Bazar. I brought back a madeleine pan I found in Dubai and set out to make the famed tea cakes from this Martha Stewart recipe.

Last year I'd brought home a recipe book from Honey and Co, the Israeli restaurant in London which I'd visited on my birthday. For Ramadan I cooked one dish each day of the 30-day month to be placed on the table when we opened our fasts. Today, I was thinking of Paris as I baked...

Caster sugar and eggs, lemon zest, flour, honey. Butter, melted and poured in a thin stream. Vanilla. Whole milk. A tablespoon of the batter in each case, a quick ten minutes in a hot oven. Dusted with powered sugar. Poetry.

Then I went to the Alliance Francaise with my tray of madeleines. I sat with the director of the Alliance, a Frenchman, and a Belgian photographer, and we ate madeleines and drank coffee and looked at the garden where children played. He told me that the madeleines made him think of his grandmother, and bon-bons flavored with bergamot. And that in the original version of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," there was no mention of madeleines, but of "pain grille" instead.

Peace, love and madeleines. What more do you need?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Pakistanis, Drones, and Political Engagement

On October 23, Al Jazeera hosted a debate between Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald and political scientist and Georgetown professor Christine Fair, on whether drone attacks create more terrorists than they eliminate. The conversation focused on drone strikes in Pakistan (now suspended) because Pakistan is Fair’s area of expertise, rather than Yemen or Somalia. But the potentially useful debate descended into a slanging match between Greenwald and Fair. As a result, viewers lost out on a valuable opportunity to understand the reality of drone strikes, the toll of civilian casualties, and the resentment that the strikes breed on the ground.

Greenwald’s magazine The Intercept recently published The Drone Papers, a collection of papers from a whistleblower that purport to show “the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia” and “an unprecedented glimpse into Obama’s drone wars”. Sadly, the Al Jazeera debate failed to offer viewers nuance or clarity on the papers, or on the startling finding that nearly 90% of the people killed in drone strikes were not the original targets.

Drone attacks have long been a contentious subject in Pakistan. In recent years, Pakistani politicians have spoken negatively about the attacks as a way to drum up anti-US sentiment. At the same time, Fair points out that there was quiet support within the FATA (Federally administered tribal areas, in North and South Waziristan, where the majority of drone strikes take place) for the strikes amongst many Pakistanis grateful for the US intervention; the strikes, they claim, also enjoyed the tacit support of the Pakistani military. People in the FATA, Fair argues, are too scared to voice their true opinions about drone strikes for fear of repercussions from the militants or the Pakistani military itself.

Fair’s own study, a carefully-conducted opinion poll of Pakistanis on drone strikes, reflects the difficulty of gauging support or disapproval of the issue by the mere fact that the enumerators in her research study were unable to even go into the FATA to conduct the poll. One wonders, though, why they did not attempt to poll IDPs who have been displaced from the area in order to at least attempt to include voices from those directly affected by the drone strikes.

The renowned South Asian expert Dr. Farzana Shaikh believes the fundamental question surrounding drone strikes is not whether or not they are popular with ordinary Pakistanis, but what Pakistan’s own stance actually is, both in civilian and military leadership. She asks whether drone strikes are unacceptable to us because they infringe our sovereignty or because of the disproportionately high civilian casualties. The failure to address this question is what created the confusion about drone strikes in Pakistan.

In Fair’s study “Pakistani Political Communication and Public Opinion on US Drone Strikes,” she and her colleagues Professors Kartenhaler and Miller claim that Pakistanis are not well-informed about drone strikes. They say Pakistanis rely less on media consumption due to illiteracy and lack of access to televisions, and more on speaking with elites face to face, word of mouth and social networks (real, not virtual) to form their public opinions. Finally, she contends that the poorer they are, the less likely Pakistanis are to learn about political issues or engage in the political process.

Yet these conclusions are derived by Fair and her colleagues based on a paper written in 2002 by S. M Rawan called ‘Modern Mass Media and Traditional Communication in Afghanistan’, even though the two countries could hardly have more different media scenes, or trends of political engagement. Pakistanis are eager to participate in the political process, as has been evinced by enthusiasm for elections at national and provincial and district levels. Pakistanis do not form their political opinions from just the media, but also from attending political rallies, and from personal contact with politicians, especially in the rural areas.

Furthermore, a recent BBC policy briefing by Huma Yusuf and Emrys Shoemaker on how the media in Pakistan can foster inclusion in Pakistan’s fragile democracy shows that the consumption of mass media in Pakistan is much higher than Fair and her cohorts suppose, with 89% of Pakistanis having watched television in 2013, the urban/rural divide nearly equal in television and radio consumption, and both regional and national media acting as strong tools in encouraging Pakistanis to engage in the political process.

Government and military obfuscation on drones has certainly confused the Pakistani public, causing contradictory, shifting opinions difficult to pin down. Still, the statistics speak clearly: drones are unpopular all over the world, including Pakistan.

Dr. Fair possesses research and scholarly experience on Pakistan, while Greenwald holds the moral higher ground on the issue of drones. Yet what emerged as most troublesome about drone strikes, at least from this debate, is the notion that Pakistanis and other victims of drone strikes were and still are unable to speak for themselves. You could almost call it Orientalism when people like Fair and Greenwald dissect an issue that has no direct bearing on their lives, while innocent civilians continue to pay the real price with their blood.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Muslim Women, the Netherlands, and "White Feminism"

Yesterday I went to see a play called The Veiled Monologues, as part of the 3rd World Conference of Women's Shelters being held at the Hague. It's been a great experience so far: one thousand women from one hundred countries gathered here to discuss ways in which to connect and act to end violence against women.

The concept of women's shelters is a vital one: women need a safe place to stay when fleeing domestic violence, one that preserves their human rights, treats them with dignity, doesn't take away their agency, and helps them explore their options as they return to regular life, either back to or away from their families and partners. Women often need shelter, but so do their children, and they need to be kept in secret as partners and husbands and even families will come looking for them. The threat of violence is never far away; many women in all countries are killed by their partners, husbands, or families.

I've met two incredible icons of human rights activism: our own Hina Jilani of Pakistan and Dr. Denis Mukegwe of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ms. Jilani is a well known human rights lawyer and runs a shelter for women called Dastak, while Dr. Mukegwe is a famed surgeon and activist who helps women who have been sexually violated as a result of the conflict in Congo. Listening to them speak about giving protection with dignity (Jilani) and the need to implement red lines against rape as a weapon of war, in the same way as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons (Mukegwe) were the most powerful moments of the conference.

We also heard from Linor Abargil, an Israeli beauty queen who was crowned Miss World, but who had a terrible secret: she had been abducted, raped and stabbed when she went to work as a model in Milan. "Speak out," she urged everyone in the audience. "No one talks about these things. How can we stop it if we don't speak out?" Her documentary film, Brave Miss World, has been extremely popular in the conference.

I've met women from Canada, Australia, Senegal, Iraq, Qatar, Afghanistan, the US, Denmark, and many more that I can't keep track of. All with one aim: to end violence against women. Living in Pakistan, it's easy to become disconsolate about the status of women. But Hina Jilani told me that there was no point in being a pessimist, that good things were happening. The proof was in front of me in this conference: we are not working in isolation. We are working together. Our energy and our strength combined will put an end to this disease, which Rashida Manjoo, former special rapporteur to the UN on violence against women, says is systemic and pandemic, far more than any kind of violence against men.

The Veiled Monologues

Back to the Veiled Monologues, inspired by Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, but set in the Netherlands and looking exclusively at Muslim women's experiences of love, relationships, sexuality and their bodies. I wondered what it was I was going to see, and whether or not it would offer something genuine, or whether it would simply conform to the popular portrayal of Middle Eastern women as wailing, ululating wild women who speak in strong accents and whose spirit can never be extinguished by the bad treatment of their Muslim husbands and families...

I'm happy to report I was wrong. The Veiled Monologues is powerful, funny, witty, warm, and wise. There are twelve vignettes based on extensive interviews the playwright, Adelheid Roosen, conducted with many Muslim women from many different countries living in the Netherlands. Three Dutch-Turkish actresses peformed and a fourth, a musician, played the saz. There were stories about so many different women: a confident Moroccan lesbian. A Somali girl who is not circumcised but whose mother is. A Sudanese woman married as a child. A Turkish woman whose deceiving husband marries her for a passport but introduces her to the wonders of the orgasm.

Each vignette was an intimate and sensitive exploration of the relationship these women have to their bodies, their sexuality, their relationships, and yes, their vaginas. The actresses performed superbly, and with great passion. Never once did I feel any story was stereotypical. In fact, they all felt familiar, but told with such warmth and compassion that I was completely drawn in, laughing and cheering and applauding by the end. It was empowering to be given the narrative of various Muslim women owning their sexuality, and was an artistic representation of what I've read in Shireen Al Feki's Sex and the Citadel and the work of Mona Eltahawy.

No White Feminism Here

I attended another session in the morning, on how the Dutch police deals with cases of honor-based violence amongst immigrants and Muslim communities. Dr. Janine Janssen, who works with the Dutch police as the head of research in the Support Center for Honor-Related Violence in Amsterdam, gave a smart presentation on how the police recognizes, deals with, mediates and understands the problem of honor-based violence.

I was extremely impressed with how culturally-aware and sensitive Dr. Janssen was to the nuances and difference in the various communities she dealt with. Surprisingly, she told us that the Hindu community with roots in Suriname, now settled in the Netherlands, has high rates of suicide caused by honor-based threats and violence. She and her co-presenter, Cecilia Yanez-Perez, impressed again and again on the audience that the Muslim community is very diverse and cannot be taken as a monolithic whole. Each ethnic group and community had its own ways and mores.

These positive experiences addressed a concern that I'd had before reaching the conference: would there be an attitude of condescension or an attitude of saviourism (I know that's not a word) towards Muslim women? But I was delighted to be proven wrong. We heard from Muslim women working in their own countries to help end violence, such as the psychologist Sharifa Al-Emadi from Qatar, or the group She Fighter which teaches self defence to Jordanian women, and representatives from the Pakistani organization Rozan. The audiences were filled with women from much of the developed world, but they were there to listen and learn, and the Muslim women were doing the speaking and leading and teaching.

I did not come here looking for evidence of "white feminism", but I was on guard for it. Yet I didn't see any, which makes me think the women of the world are really listening to each other, and growing stronger from that two-way exchange of information and ideas. This is as much due to the strength of women from Muslim countries who have insisted on being heard, who possess strength and leadership, as it is to the willingness of women from the developed world to take a position of respect and openness to what these women are saying. To acknowledge that these women know what they're talking about. To put aside their cultural assumptions and attitudes and really, really listen.

I will come away from this conference inspired, rejuvenated, and more willing than ever to believe that, as Linor Avargil said, women together equals power. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Pakistani girls beaten for playing cricket

News of young women playing cricket at Karachi University being beaten by religious thugs is not a great way to start your day. Members of the IJT (Islami Jamiat-e-Talba) had warned the cricket-playing women days ago, then came and broke up a mixed-gender game, and beat up both the men and women, members of the Punjabi Students Association, with batons. University officials seem to be passing this off as a clash between two student groups, but the IJT outright denies they beat up any of the young women.

Campus violence involving political groups and religious groups has long plagued Pakistani universities, especially the restive Karachi University campus. But we need to see this for what it is: violence against women for occupying public spaces and not conforming to socially conservative norms of behaviour.

This is despite the fact that Pakistan has a very active and successful women's cricket team, who continually make us proud by consistently winning international matches. Indeed there are many young women in Pakistan who take part in all manner of team sports and individual sports. Yet for each woman who takes up a sport, there are thousands more who wish they could, but are prevented from doing so by family constraints, social censure, and lack of support in their educational institutions.

Pakistan is not a violently radicalized society, but it is a socially conservative one. Yet within the larger, peaceful fabric of society there are pockets and elements who are willing to take up violence to exert power over the majority. The thugs of the IJT believe they are enforcing what's morally right by breaking up a harmless cricket match where both men and women were participating. Someone should remind them of how the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, ran a footrace with his wife Aisha, (may Allah be pleased with her) to keep her entertained.

The criminals were arrested but later let go, which is a surefire recipe for encouraging this sort of vigilantism in society. We see baton-wielding religious police in countries like Saudi Arabia who are equipped by law to hit women in public places for slights relating to clothing and behaviour. It is also important to note that in Saudi Arabia, sports and exercise for women is virtually illegal. Pakistan is relatively liberal compared to Saudi Arabia, but then again we have outsourced this sort of social policing to the family and society.

It takes brave women and brave male allies to push back against this kind of harassment. Apart from a few articles written in the newspaper, though, it would be wonderful to see society-wide support for women playing sports. I know Sabeen Mahmud, the late activist, would have been at the forefront - she was a massive lover of cricket and would play it on the street at every opportunity she got. She would have been livid at this news and would have organized a giant T2F street match for everyone. Will Karachi University or other universities and colleges take up the challenge in her absence?

Right now the concentration has been on girls' right to education. But for girls and women to get their education, it is equally important for them to be able to move easily in public space, and to play. If you learn one thing from this episode, let it be this: Pakistani women have to fight desperately for the space that men take for granted, take as their God-given right. But they will not give in easily.

Note: The amazing Girls at Dhabas have organized a cricket match for November 1 in solidarity with the girls of KU. Spread the word!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On the US-Pak Partnership on Girls' Education

This week we were treated to scenes of Maryam Nawaz Sharif standing with Michelle Obama as the First Lady announced an investment of USD $70 million as part of a new partnership between the United States and Pakistan to promote girls' education. The money is part of President Obama and Michelle Obama's Let Girls Learn initiative, which started up in March of this year and seeks to expand educational opportunities for girls.

Ms. Sharif also spoke about Nawaz Sharif's education reforms, and the importance of educating girls. It's good to see commitment at the highest level to this worthy goal. However, I can't help being a bit of a cynic about it. These days girls' education is a buzzword, with everyone talking about this as the way to move our country forward. Educating girls has become the new sexy catchphrase, with conferences, seminars, and other well-intentioned programs based on this breakthrough in development goals. (There are more than a few scammers, too, gaining from the glitz and glamour of the girls' education circus, but that's another blog post completely)

I have my doubts that the money will really go anywhere outside of Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif's education reforms have been centered, thanks to the efforts of the Chief Minister. DFID, the UK government's development arm, has concentrated on Punjab as well, with some work done in KPK. The Chief Minister of Punjab has committed to getting every child in Punjab enrolled in school by 2018, and there are many mechanisms already in place to make sure schools improve, including geotagging of schools and electronic tracking of teacher and pupil attendance.

There's no chance of these reforms being replicated in Balochistan, which has the vast majority of out of school girls (70%, in December 2014, of Balochistan's girls are not in school), or in Sindh, where DFID refused to work with the Sindh Government when it started to look into getting out of school children back into school through a private organization, Education For Sindh. As a result, at least in Sindh, the numbers of children being enrolled with DFID's help through EFS are quite low (100,000), while private organizations like TCF try to fill the gaps too. It's never enough: despite a minor increase in Sindh's education budget, 6.2 million children are out of school, with rural areas and girls being the most underserved.

I'm not much of an expert on the provincial governments in KPK or Balochistan, but Sindh has always suffered from poor management of the education system. There's not much willpower or vision about how to move things back to acceptable standards in any area of education. There has been movement towards education reforms in Sindh but they are very half-hearted, as compared to Punjab. The previous Education Minister, Pir Mazhar, inflated the sector with unqualified people hired for political gain, and the current Education Minister has inherited this bloated elephant. Yet the real work has to be done by Sindh's bureaucrats, and education secretaries don't tend to stick around for long enough to enact real reform.

Without financial backing and government commitment, all of Pakistan's children will not get education in vast numbers needed to really get the girls in school. If Michelle Obama's $70 million doesn't get distributed evenly or fairly amongst all the provinces, gains in one province will be impressive, and they'll be hailed as progress, but they won't tell the true story about whether or not Pakistan's girls are really gaining access to quality education.

Link: Here's a good piece paying tribute to the late Anita Ghulam Ali, famous educationist of Sindh, with suggestions about what the education sector needs. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Threats to Pakistan's Women Journalists - some comments

It was excellent to read this piece in the NYT on the threats to Pakistan women journalists when they write about military/intelligence/Balochistan issues. Kiran Nazish has done a good job of outlining the sense of fear women journalists have, and the subtle and not-so-subtle intimidation they receive out in the field. The violence against Pakistani journalists who are men has been highlighted time and time again, but not enough attention has been paid to how gendered threats (rape and sexual assault) are used to keep women reporters away from sensitive stories.

However, I felt the piece lacking in balance. Here's why:

Yes, the threats and intimidation are real. But for every journalist that has felt threatened and had to leave the country (the focus of the piece) there are dozens who stay and who still do their job, despite the threats. There are some pretty hard-core women journalists out there. I know of no one tougher than, say, Veengas, who writes for the Sindhi, Baloch, and English press on issues like forced conversions of Hindu girls. Or Saba Imtiaz, who's well known as a journalist not afraid to go where most men would hesitate: bomb sites, morgues, and madressas. Or Naziha Syed Ali, the excellent investigative journalist and documentary film maker whose work on Balochistan, the gangs of Lyari, the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, has won her praise and critical acclaim (catch her interviewing Maulana Abdul Aziz in the award-winning documentary "Among the Believers").

We need to hear these women's voices. What makes them keep going even when the threats are high? How do they cope? And what commitments do their supervisors, editors, publishers make in order to look after their security? There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes when a woman reporter works on a story about the military or the intelligence. It isn't all about victimhood. It's about negotiation and support from the editors, paired with an unwillingness to compromise on the story. Women reporters in Pakistan are not victims. They're tough and they don't quit. That's true grit. It exists, and I want to read about it.

The other thing the NYT piece fails to note is that most women are discouraged from entering the field of journalism not just because of the harsh conditions of reporting, but because of the immense sexual harassment they face in the newsrooms. Time and again I've heard testimony about how sexual harassment at work is what really puts women off from working for a newspaper or television channel. Women working in Pakistan's newsrooms feel more threatened by harassment at the workplace than they do by the military or the intelligence, because there are more women in newsrooms -- discouraged from taking crime beats, pressured to stick to fashion or other "light" subjects.

Still, a good piece, if a little bit sensationalistic. But with the murder of veteran journalist Jacky Sutton, and with foreign writers and reporters like Carlotta Gall and Christina Lamb threatened and beaten and thrown out of Pakistan for their work, it's a timely subject.

Oh, and Sabeen's surname is spelled Mahmud, not Mehmud. Nor was she a journalist, as the piece might have you believe.

PS: Today is the six-month death anniversary of Sabeen. She was killed on April 24, 2015.  Say a prayer, look up at the stars, hug someone you love really tightly. Love is everything.