Monday, August 18, 2014

On Pakistan's Hyper-Masculine Political Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

PTI Loyalty Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Girls from Nepal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pakistan, I love you.

When I look up into your skies at night,

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

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

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

Every cell a promise, every atom an intention.

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

And what the future will be.

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

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

Pakistan, I love you

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

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

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

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

We were made for each other,

Pakistan and me.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Pakistani Heroes at the Youth ASK Leadership Conclave

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column for the NYT about the effort to educate girls in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. That column, "Teaching Liberation to Pakistan's Girls," is one of the essays I loved writing because I never expected to find out so much good news in this field, especially in Pakistan, where the issue of SRHR is traditionally shrouded in silence.

There is nothing more painful than to see Pakistan's girls and young women suffer the effects of being ignorant about the basic functions of their body, and to go into early marriages uninformed about their choices with regards to how sex and pregnancy will affect their health and their lives. To discover organisations in Pakistan actively working to combat this and to empower both girls and boys with the correct information on a very touchy subject makes me immensely proud and gives me hope that things will change for the better.

I'd written about RutgersWPF in my column, but I've also since found out about ASK, a platform for young people to access information on SRHR. Its Web site, launched by the Youth Partner Alliance, connects young people who need help or advice to phone lines of other organisations that can do various things: counsel young people on general health, family planning, sexual abuse and domestic violence, and more (these partner organisations are located all over the country, including Gilgit and Baltistan, KPK, Multan, and Balochistan).

This weekend, RutgersWPF Pakistan and ASK are jointly hosting the Youth ASK Leadership Conclave in Islamabad. 200 young leaders and professionals between the ages of 16-24 have traveled to the Margalla Hotel, where for two days they are attending an amazing youth-oriented conference on the myriad aspects of sexual and reproductive health and rights. They've been selected after a pretty rigorous process in which they were made to demonstrate their commitment to working in the field of SRHR. 50% of the seats in the conference were reserved for women, and there were scholarships available for those who needed funding to travel and stay in Islamabad.

In this unique conference, these young men and women are sharing their experiences working in the field of population control and family planning. They are demanding a "Life Skills" curriculum to be taught in schools. They are demanding easy access to sex and reproductive health and rights information, and are discussing e-solutions to providing this information to other young people in Pakistan. They are learning, in workshops and breakout sessions, to build capacity, to create dialogue, communication and advocacy skills, and most importantly, how to get more young people involved in this movement.  Questions of sustainability are being discussed - it's all very well to start a project with enthusiasm, but how to make it last not just for a few years but for generations? How does Pakistani law affect SRHR programs? What is SRHR and why is it so important for Pakistan?

Well, you only have to look at Pakistan's population explosion to see that we have a problem. A big problem. A 180,000,000 strong problem, that won't go away from keeping quiet and will only get bigger. A determined effort to teach Pakistan's youth about SRHR - spearheaded by young Pakistanis - is the most elegant and intelligent way to tackle it.

Congratulations to RutgersWPF, ASK, and all the participants of the Conclave. It takes courage to go against traditions and norms that restrict us in Pakistan from discussing issues of sex and reproduction, but the two hundred young men and women gathered in Islamabad today and tomorrow have more than courage - they have vision, passion, and a real love for Pakistan, which is why they've been able to overcome the taboos and restrictions of this conservative society to do the work they do.

When I celebrate Independence Day on August 14, these young people will be my heroes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sindh, Sufism and the BBC

BBC World did a report on Sufism in Sindh, and the threat it faces from religious extremists. The lovely Kim Ghattas came to talk to me about my views on the subject. You can view the original report here and the Urdu version here

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How Not To Write About Rape

Today I was reading the Dawn, which is Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper (and to which I contribute from time to time), when I saw a news headline and story that pained me beyond belief:

"Rape" victim commits suicide

The story is terrible, as these always are: a girl of about 14 or 15 (matric is the equivalent of 10th grade in Pakistan) was kidnapped by a man on a motorcycle in Bahawalpur, taken to another location, and gang-raped. The police registered the case but didn't arrest anyone. The rapist came to the house of the girl afterwards and shouted threats at her, presumably to get her and her family to back off. She went into her room and hanged herself from the ceiling fan.

It's the headline that makes me see red, though. Why is the word "rape" in quotation marks? Ostensibly (and I know that the Dawn is very careful about writing things in a way that doesn't get them sued) it would have been because the case had not reached court, the rapists hadn't been convicted or jailed.  To save space, instead of typing "Alleged Rape Victim Commits Suicide" they went for the shorter "Rape" Victim Commits Suicide.

Here's the problem. In Pakistan, rape victims and survivors are barely ever given justice. Their rapists are rarely if ever tried, convicted, OR jailed. There's so much pressure put on the victims and their families to withdraw their cases that these can even backfire into honour killings where the rape victims are murdered by their own families to escape the stigma of rape. Any woman who speaks out and alleges she's been raped deserves all our credibility and support.

To write rape in quotation marks may be the intelligent thing to do legally, and it will save you from being sued, but in reality it casts terrible aspersions on the woman involved. Putting things in quotation marks isn't always just a quote. It often denotes that the claim is questionable. That it might even be fictitious. That it's definitely suspect. And this is the attitude that rape victims get all over Pakistan, from Mukhtaran Mai who was gang-raped as punishment ordered by a tribal jirga, to Haleema Rafiq, the young cricketer who killed herself when she was punished by the Multan Cricket Board for alleging that one of its members sexually harassed or assaulted her.

The girl who killed herself in Bahawalpur doesn't deserve being questioned. She brought her case into the public, she wanted her rapists arrested, but it was never to be. The courage that it took to do that is more than most of us possess. She killed herself when she wasn't heard, when justice was not delivered. It sends a shudder down my spine to think of that poor child extinguishing her own life because she lost all hope.

Please, Dawn, and all other newspapers and magazines and anyone who writes about rape in Pakistan and anywhere else, let's not leave her with an epitaph that brings even more shame on her head. Let's not call her "rape" victim in quotation marks. It's the least we can do to honour her memory, even if nobody will ever remember her name.