Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Female Artist and the Muse

The importance of the muse in the male artist's life has been well documented over the ages, from the Greek classical poets all the way up until today. Female artists, not so much. For a male artist (painter, writer, poet, musician) the muse is often a young, beautiful woman. Who is it for a female artist? A beautiful young man? Or an older one? A beautiful woman? Someone unattainable, or someone within reach?

Here is a wonderful quote from Germaine Greer about the psychological necessity of the muse:

A muse is anything but a paid model. The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind. 

Does this mean that for the female artist, the muse is the masculine part of the female artist? And if female artists have women's bodies, that already can gestate and bring forth life from their physical wombs, what role does the male muse have for the female artist? Are we as "penetrated" by our muses as male artists are by theirs, or, because that is our role biologically in real life, do we penetrate our male muses instead, in order to be the progenitors instead of the bearers of life?

We know a lot about the muses of famous male artists. Many times, the muse was also a talented artist in her own right, but subsumed by the ego of the male artist, who couldn't compete: Camille Claudel, Rodin's muse, who was a sculptor but ended up locked away in a madhouse is the best example of this. Male artists have needed women in their lives, not just as inspiration, but in the roles of caretaker, companion, nursemaid.

Some of the female artists have also had muses well recorded in history. For example, the French writer Colette had her Cheri.  But she's the only one I could think of that immortalised her muse, a younger man, in her work; I searched the Internet to find more examples, but could only come up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Yoko Ono and John Lennon: both men served as mutual muse and lover to the woman artist, and neither gave up his career in order to take care of or pose, figuratively speaking, for the woman.

Is this because we are uncomfortable with the idea that a woman, too, can actively desire, instead of being the passive object of desire? Or are we more uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking up that passive role?

In my own work, I have never consciously picked someone -- male or female -- to be my muse. But in tandem to my work, I have always had someone or the other in my life who I have liked or loved, but who was largely unattainable. The yearning for that person somehow gets sublimated into the writing, lends it urgency, energy and passion. Sometimes that person gets written into the work, as a character. Other times, the work is addressed to that person indirectly - I write to evoke feelings in that person's heart. Sometimes the person knows who they are, and what they mean to me, and many times, they don't.

I could certainly write without that muse, but I think the writing would be flatter and less interesting without him. The muse gives my work its life. How I wish, though, that the process was a little less torturous, and a little easier on my heart. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pakistan Celebrates Anti-Malala Day

"I am not Malala, I am Mirza Kashif Ali" - an exclusive interview with the brains behind the Anti-Malala Day

Two days ago the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, headed by Mirza Kashif Ali, celebrated “I Am Not Malala Day” (which was also being called an “Anti-Malaria Day” thanks to auto-correct on the new iPhone 6).

It’s said that the association, which represents a network of some 150,000,000 private schools in Pakistan, is planning a “Pro-Polio Day” for its next stunt, followed by a “Flat Earth Day” in solidarity with the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in the United States.

“We are all for education and women’s empowerment,” Mirza Kashif Ali, the organization’s president, told the New York Times on Tuesday, November 11, after he chaired a panel consisting of six middle-aged men at the Islamabad Press Club, where not a single woman was visible in the audience.  He then picked up his mobile phone and rang his wife, demanding to know how many dishes she had cooked for dinner.

He continued, “But the West has created this persona who is against the Constitution and Islamic ideology of Pakistan.”  When asked what that Islamic ideology actually was, he consulted his copy of Maududi’s Muslims and the Present Political Turmoil, Vol III, but was unable to answer the question.

When shown Maududi’s quote that the idea of Muslim nationalism was as likely as “a chaste prostitute,” Kashif Ali then said that Malala Yousfuzai was a supporter of Salman Rushdie and that was why he opposed her. “It is clear that Malala has a nexus with Salman Rushdie and is aligned with his club.”  He was asked to identify the name of the club, to which he responded, “I am not sure, but it is either the Sind Club or the Manchester United Football Club. Both are well known for their anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan content.”

Asked if he had ever read either The Satanic Verses or I Am Malala, he responded in the negative.  “Why should I read books? There is no need to read books. Pakistani students only need to know what happened in the 7th century. And since there were no books at that time, there is certainly no need to expose students in Pakistan to books.”

Responding to a rumor that he did not actually know how to read, he responded angrily, “That is not true. Of course I know how to read. It’s only girls who should remain illiterate in this day and age.”

He said that he hoped the Anti-Malala Day would catch on all over Pakistan. “We hope to make it even bigger and better next year. We’ll hold anti-Malala processions, anti-Malala debates in all the schools, and we will produce a film about why Malala’s message of universal education for children is a Zionist, American plot. I will star in this film as the hero exposing Malala’s evil plot to the world. Salman Rushdie will be approached to play the role of Malala. Malala’s father will be played by Christina Lamb.”

At this point Mr. Kashif Ali asked to be excused, saying that he had to go celebrate his birthday, otherwise known as “Illiterate Fools Day”.

This post was proofread by Grammarly

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Catch-22 of Blasphemy

I've been reading with sorrow and disgust the news about a young Christian couple were burnt to death in the Punjabi village of Kot Radha Kishan. The woman, Shama, 24 and pregnant with her fourth child, burned papers belonging to her recently deceased father-in-law, a faith healer. A local mullah stirred up a raging crowd after someone said there were pages of the Quran amongst the burnt papers.

Announcements that blasphemy had been comitted were made on loudspeakers from mosques in two neighbourhoods. The mob turned on the five policemen sent to protect the couple. The room where they were taking shelter was torn apart. They were assaulted by a mob, beaten, and thrown into the kiln where they worked as bonded labourers.

By the time the mob was done with them, all that was left of them was their teeth and their bones.

The lynching of this Christian couple brought about the usual "condemnation" and official enquiries from the rulers of the country and calls for changing the blasphemy laws, or repealing them, from outside the country. The Islamic scholar Javed Ghamidi said on Twitter that the blasphemy law goes against Islam, the Quran, and the Hanafi tradition of Islamic jurisprudence that is prevalent in Pakistan. No surprise that Ghamidi doesn't live in Pakistan as he'd previously received threats to his life for his moderate views.

We in Pakistan are too afraid to even suggest that the blasphemy laws need reform, let alone that they should be repealed. Anyone who has said so has been threatened and charged with blasphemy himself. It's a Catch-22 as extremist mullahs tell us these laws are from God and so are unchangeable. Never mind that nothing about blasphemy even appears in the Quran, or that the law is a remnant of British rule, when they tried to keep people from provoking one another by insulting their respective religions. It has persisted for decades, and is now used to destroy the lives of our religious minorities and anyone who attempts to speak up for them.

Our leaders who condemn the killings and lynchings of people before they can even be taken to court (where they'll most likely be sent to jail to rot, look at Asia Bibi's case) are also too scared to call for any change to the law, even to make sure that those who abuse it are punished. The religious right resist any attempts to make people accountable for their accusations and won't countenance the addition of any clauses that would address false accusations under the law. Those leaders, religious and political, who are calling for an inquiry into the killing of the Christian couple, are merely saying that they shouldn't have been attacked before being taken to court where they could have been tried.

But even if we did reform the law, it would not stop people from accusing others of blasphemy. An accusation of blasphemy has become a convenient way of getting rid of weak minority members when they have land you want, or money, just as an accusation of adultery is a convenient way of getting rid of a woman whose money or land you want, or who you've just gotten tired of.

Guarding against blasphemy is also almost a matter of pride, as those who wield its weapon feel righteous about it, as if they are protecting Islam's honour. This is an extension of the South Asian principle of "honour" that also takes the lives of girls and women in "honour crimes." We imbue anything valuable with "honour" and strive to preserve it as if it was a fragile construct that needs protection and vigilance. Those who protect the "honour" of Islam are garlanded and treated as heroes; those who besmirch it are murdered without impunity.

What happened in Kot Radha Kishan also exposed the clannish nature of Pakistani society: if you aren't in my clan, you don't deserve my protection/support. It's a mindset that comes about in societies where there is a lot of poverty and everyday violence, and to survive means allying yourself with the people who are most like you. That's why nobody would think about rallying to help the Christian couple or Asia Bibi or anyone else in this situation, besides the fear of physical harm. Policemen might go where they are ordered, but there is an innate need to divide ourselves into "for" and "against" in any situation. And the police are men from the very same area as the murderers, so their internal motivation to protect a poor Christian man and woman would have been very low. The stronger feeling would have been to align themselves with those who were attacking them, or to not try very hard to help them.

We have given legal cover to the destructive impulse that we all have in us, the one that wants to demonise and dehumanise whoever we perceive as "Other" and drive it out from our midst. This is the part of us that doesn't want to tolerate difference or diversity, perceiving it as a threat to our integrity as a whole. The result is beatings, burnings, lynchings like what we saw in Kot Radha Kishan. Changing the law will not change this sociopathic impulse, nor fix the broken conditions of our communities, or teach them how to not fear and hate diversity. Psychological help, community building, and education all have to be marshalled in order to bring about change in the mindset of people, even if the strongest, most flawless laws regarding hate speech existed in Pakistan, and were implemented consistently in the country.

Still, I am reminded of the conditions in America during the time leading up to the civil rights movement, where murders and lynchings of African-Americans took place with depressing regularity. The Jim Crow laws, a set of anti-black laws that operated from after the Civil War all the way up until the 1960s, can be compared to the blasphemy laws we have here in Pakistan. They did not engender the hatred of minorities; they were promulgated because of a bigoted mindset that already existed in America before the civil rights movement, and protected the prepetrators of crime rather than the victims, by turning them into the offenders. Under Jim Crow, many Christian ministers preached that blacks were lesser people who deserved to live in servitude, and that this was sanctioned by God.

This sounds all too depressingly familiar to me when I look at the status of religious minorities in my own country. I do not know what kind of bravery it will take to make things right in Pakistan with regards to the protection of minorities. Perhaps it demands the kind of leadership that the United States saw with Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps it demands the sacrifice of lives like that of King, and of Salman Taseer and Shabaz Bhatti who spoke out against the injustice that they saw.  Perhaps it requires the awakening of an entire country, and the honesty to understand what it is that underlies our inertia, and our complicity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Season For Martyrs: Live Chat and AMA

My new novel A Season For Martyrs was released yesterday. I can't even begin to describe the feeling a writer gets when her work is published...

I am doing a BookTrib live chat on Thursday, November 6 to talk about the book.  This is open to anyone!

I will also be doing a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Friday, November 7 at 12 pm EST.

Please join me if you can.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pinktober in Pakistan - Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Well done to IFG, makers of Triumph undergarments in Pakistan, for sponsoring a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign in honour of Pinktober. Their stall, open today and tomorrow at Dolmen Mall, is distributing information leaflets in Urdu and English, and selling pins, keychains and towels with proceeds going to breast cancer charities.  A great initiative for Pakistan, where awareness is pretty low amongst women, especially in lower socio-economic classes.

You can see me wearing my pink pin with Nadia, who is working at the stall today. 

IFG also makes foam prosthesis and support bras for women who have undergone mastectomies.

Information leaflets in Urdu and English

Thursday, October 23, 2014

021: Movie Review

I saw 021 (or Operation 021) last night, in one of its last few showings before it gets taken down. The movie's generated a lot of good and bad buzz, for having displeased some of its audiences at Capri and Nishat Cinema so much that they threw bottles at it and demanded their money back. People complained about the terrible writing and the confused plot. But it did take in quite a lot of money at its opening, so there had to be something there. In the interests of viewing some more Pakistani cinema, I went along to see what I thought of it for myself.

I found 021 to be a pleasantly intelligent thriller that aspires to be more than a simplistic "good guy" vs. "bad guy" 2 hour chase-and-kill flick. The premise: Afghanistan is sitting on trillions of dollars worth of natural resources, minerals, ore and precious stones. There are corporations around the world that would love to carve up Afghanistan's wealth for itself, and be damned to the people and the future of the already war-torn country.

Evidence of one such deal - wealth for weapons - between a mysterious corporation, Winston, and unknown Afghan sellouts - surfaces in the form of a mysterious microchip. Seized by Abdullah, a wild-haired militant who actually turns out to be a great patriot, the chip becomes the centre of a 21-hour operation as CIA operatives and Winston agents try to recover it before it gets into the hands of an Afghan journalist who will expose its contents to the world.

Along the way, it falls into the hands of Kashif ("Cash") Siddiqui, who has to decide whether he's going to give it to his buddies at the CIA or return it to the Afghans who want to leak it to the public. The CIA and their Pakistani partners go after Cash in a ruthless manner, and he has to rely on his training and wits to stay alive, not just deliver the chip into the right hands.

It's a little hard to figure out the entire plot until you've seen the whole movie. This is because the action, particularly at the beginning, cuts choppily from scene to scene and face to face so rapidly that it's easy to get confused about what's happening. The plot is further confused by the presence of a CIA agent, Stan Marshal, who has some unintelligible dialogues with Qudziat, the Afghan journalist to whom he promises to give the chip. But once he's out of the way, the story careens onwards, hit and miss. It loses some momentum in the middle, with scenes that stretch on longer than they need to, especially in the battles that take place in Karachi. But it redeems itself at the end with a conclusion that is less predictable than you'd think, and finishes on a strangely beautiful and melancholy note.

One of the most interesting characters is Dost, an Afghan intelligence agent who cooperates with the CIA and serves as the moral centre of the story. In the end, it's his actions that turn the movie in an irreversible direction. You'd think it would be Cash (played by Shaan), but he's more of a loose canon, thrust into the whole plot not entirely of his own volition. But there's a certain mechanical aspect to his acting, as if he's really just phoning it in. There's also some needless backstory about his first dead wife and his two sons who won't accept his second wife. I would have thought it a more interesting choice to make him a single dad raising two sons, or a son and daughter, and focus on developing those relationships.

Perhaps that's because the actress who plays Natasha, his wife, is terrible. The women in the film are probably the weakest part in the whole movie, from Natasha to Qudziat to the woman who plays the CIA superior back in Washington DC. Lots of bad acting, bad accents, and wooden expressions to go around. Why, oh why, do we have such a hard time finding good actresses for our cinema (I had a similar complaint about the women in Waar)? Probably the best female characters in the movie are the Madam and her prostitutes in a shootout scene that takes place in a brothel, and that's only because abject fear is required from them as far as the acting goes. Pakistani directors must avoid going for glamorous faces, and search harder for more accomplished actresses, even if they don't have model-like looks or bodies.

Anyway, that aside, the film serves up arresting visuals and beautiful music, two of the most important aesthetic elements in a movie. I also found the script serviceable, although some of the dialogue was clunky and it needed a certain oomph element from the actors to kick it up a notch or two - it was easy to ruin the words with overacting. Good editing could have cut down the movie by half an hour and made the plot easier to follow. For example, the celebration and march scenes in Kabul at night, meant to encapsulate all the hope and love that Afghans feel for their country, needed to be used merely to season the film with imagery, rather than serve as filler for countless minutes. The fight scenes, similarly, had a lot of gratuitous gore that I could have done without.

In all, 021 is an entertaining film. Not flawless, but I'd definitely like to see more from the team consisting of Jami and Azaan Sami Khan and Summer Nicks (who lends his expertise in co-direction and an interesting turn as a CIA analyst). And I wouldn't demand my money back.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

No Niqabs at the Opera, Please! We're French

Yesterday I read a report about how a woman wearing a niqab was thrown out of the Bastille Opera in Paris.

Apparently the woman, visiting from a Gulf State (UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or thereabouts), went to the opera with her husband. They were sitting in the front row, which made them easy to spot. Some of the singers saw her, and disliking the fact that they were performing for a "faceless" member of the audience, they threatened to stop singing unless she removed her face veil. An inspector opera official came up to the couple at the interval and told the woman she had to take off the niqab. She refused Her husband refused on her behalf, and the couple left.

Now I'm no fan of niqab (I think I've made that pretty obvious over the years), but when I read the report, my first reaction was one of disgust and horror.

I'm well aware of the niqab laws in France that ban a woman from covering her face in public spaces. The only place she's allowed to do this is in a private car, or "worshipping." (Never mind the fact that Muslim women aren't supposed to cover their faces while praying, which shows a somewhat deliberate ignorance on the part of the French government in allowing a woman to do something that isn't kosher in the first place).

I went to a talk given by the French Consul-General last year in Karachi explaining the veiling law. The justification given was of France's commitment to secularism. Also, the French consider it very rude for a person to go about with their face covered in public. And in France, politeness should have been up there with "liberte, egalite, fraternite" when they created the Republic.

In essence, I have no problem with this particular law. If the French want to make a law that says you have to carry an egg on a spoon all around Paris, I'd find it weird, but their country, their laws. I can see the logic that covering your face in public might pose a security risk, although I'm not sure whether they stop you from wearing a flu mask because they think you'll rob a bank while wearing it. I'd find it easy to obey a law like this because I don't wear niqab.

I believe in France there are perhaps less than a hundred women out of a population of several million who actually veiled their faces in public. It seems odd that you'd enact a law just for these few women. But then we get into the real reason the law was enacted. The French government believes that this law stops Muslim women from being oppressed. Because covering their faces means oppression.

I have argued in the past that I have problems with the face veil because it isn't an obligation in Islam, but orthodox male clerics have gone around telling women that it is obligatory, that it is the only way into heaven for a woman, and that women who don't veil are immoral. I think this is a form of mental oppression, if not physical oppression. Women listen to this reasoning, or arrive at it themselves, and take on the veil in order to feel more pious.

I also think that the niqab has taken on a political meaning in the West, where women wear it to assert their Islamic identity in opposition to a Western, secular identity. And in France, where relations between French authorities and the Arab/North African populations are pretty awful, I can see how some French Muslim women want to make a public statement about their cultural identity merged with their religious identity.

Now, which supersedes the other? The right to not veil or the right to veil? The French government is obviously on the side of "the right to not veil," thus trampling on the rights of those who choose to veil. This is the mirror opposite of countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where there is no right to "not veil."

(Neither country requires a woman to cover her face, but many women in Saudi Arabia do because it's in that culture. You cannot cover your face while performing the pilgrimage at Mecca, but there are women who try to get around that stipulation by wearing strange bee-keeper's getups that keep the veil several inches off your face.)

I dislike the niqab immensely. I would never wear it. But in the end, what I think doesn't matter. Every woman must be free to choose whether or not she wants to wear a niqab. The French Government doesn't believe in this principle, to their detriment, I think. Unlike other detractors, though, I don't think a woman choosing to wear niqab is a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I do think wearing a niqab is an example of us making the religion more difficult than it needs to be, and we are enjoined in the Quran to make our religion as easy as possible for ourselves.

What happened at the Opera was a disgrace. It was highly unprofessional of the singers to declare they would not go on if the woman did not take off her veil. Then again, they were singing La Traviata, which is one of the most boring operas on earth, so perhaps they needed a little excitement. The Bastille Opera should have not thrown the lady out of the opera in the middle of the show. They should have stopped her from entering in the first place, and warned her beforehand about the veil rule. And if she did not obey, then she should have been reported and asked to pay a fine, not publicly humiliated in front of an entire audience. The whole episode was characterised by extreme rudeness, and I know no French person that would be okay with any of this.

As someone on Twitter said, it is very odd to create a rule meant to help a woman you think is oppressed, and then punish her for that "oppression."

But then again, the French government thought that making a point about the plight of Muslim women was more important than being logical.

*I later found out that it was an opera official who came up to the couple, and the husband decided that they would both leave. So as my friend Ingrid Therwath, a French journalist, says:

what I really find shocking in this whole episode is that a law passed by a largely male assembly was enforced by a male official and that it's the husband of the veiled woman who decided to leave. So much for women's emancipation!