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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Beyond Innocence: Madiha Hyder's Exhibition

I was very moved by an exhibition of paintings called "Beyond Innocence" on display at Karachi's Canvas Gallery this week. The artist, Madiha Hyder, was inspired by the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar back in December 2014. She writes,

Little lights are the ones that offer the greatest joy and when they are snuffed out there is no deeper darkness. In recent events in Pakistan, an unnatural and tragic order of the universe came into play necessitating that mothers bury their children.

My latest work is based on this calamity that is striking at the root of our nation. It was bad enough when there were sectarian, ethnic, and religious riots and killings. But when our children were attacked in the considered safety of their school as in Peshawar in December 2014, it was as if the last bastion of morality was destroyed and anarchy was let loose. 

Now Pakistani children are taught to protect themselves from the very possible likelihood of terrorist attacks on their school. While schools are preparing students they are also spreading fear and an aura of apprehension lingers like dust in the air. Most of my work is inferred and nuanced and denotes how the suggestion of violence can be detected in harmless toys and games that children play. 

All 12 paintings have been sold but I am reproducing some of them here before they go to their new homes.


Eyes Wide Open, Oil on Canvas



Back to School, Oil on Paper



Spread Your Wings, Oil on Canvas



Mark Me Absent, Oil on Canvas



Dangerous Game, Oil on Paper



Hide n Seek, Oil on Canvas



A Storm is Coming, Oil on Canvas



Chaos, Oil on Canvas

Sunday, May 1, 2016

WOW Karachi

A member of the Lyari Girls' Boxing Club
Today Karachi had its first WOW festival, an offshoot of the Southbank Center's Women of the World festival. In fact it was the first festival in South Asia under the WOW umbrella. So a triumph for all involved, including British Council Pakistan, Girls at Dhabas, Salt Arts, and all the speakers and panelists. It was a day to celebrate girls and women, although it was for both men and women, girls and boys, and there were plenty of both throughout the day.

WOWKHI had done their best to set up a festive atmosphere at the Beach Luxury Hotel, although the mini-heatwave made things difficult for the stalls set up in the sun. Still, there were stalls for organizations to sell their goods, there were food stalls, there was a mainstage, and sessions in all the different rooms of the hotel. The bright WOW logo was everywhere, and volunteers manned desks handing out programs and guiding visitors.

The opening ceremony started at 11:30 am but the heat was already cruel. I had to sit right next to a fan in order to stay and listen to the speeches. As I was quite far from the stage, my attention was taken up by a group of young girls, boys, and women who looked like their mothers, about 20 in total. They looked like they came from a poor neighborhood, and I was intrigued to see them there in a very English-language oriented festival.

I started to talk to the girls, translating for them the comments that were being made on the stage (in a simplistic way) and also explaining to them what the WOWFEST was all about. That this day was for girls and women to feel good about being girls and women, a day to celebrate them. Wasn't it true that when they were born, people wanted boys instead of girls? And wasn't it difficult for women in our country, with the harassment and violence we face? It was important for them to stay in school, for them to become educated and work hard. They were all nodding in agreement and adding their own observations about life in their neighborhood.

Then I asked them where they were from. It turns out they were from a Brauhuvi community near Empress Market in Karachi, Jeejal Goth, and had been brought to the festival by their teacher at the Jeejal Goth Junior School. They couldn't speak Sindhi, except for one girl who told me her father was Sindhi, and I couldn't speak Brahuvi, but we still managed to make ourselves understood to each other. English was out of the question, which meant the speeches and program were out of reach for them.

I ended up speaking to their teacher as well, explaining the program and recommending where they should go after the opening ceremony (the Sunflower Hall had many events for girls, including dance and self defense workshops).  When I mentioned the dance to them, they said, excitedly, "We have our own dances too!"

I asked if I could take a photo with them. Some agreed, others didn't. We took a selfie that's sitting on my iPad but is only for my memory of them. When I asked them if any of them had email that I could send the photo to, they all looked at me blankly and said, "What's that?"

"Internet, you know," I said. "It can even be on your mobile phone."

"Oh, no, we don't have that," said one girl spiritedly. "Our mothers and fathers try to give them to us, but we don't want them!"


Nafisa Shah
Then they all got up and went off for more adventures, while I attended an excellent panel on Feminism Today moderated by Noorulain Masood, with Ghausia Rashid, Nimko Ali of Daughters of Eve, parliamentarian Nafisa Shah, and renowned feminist Nighat Said Khan, founder of Pakistan's Women's Action Forum. Feminist icons all, and women who have spent their lives to the struggle for women's rights in their own ways. Nafisa Shah's discussion of coming from a Sayed family and its restrictions spurring her on to explore feminism personally and professionally, and her work in the parliament advancing women's causes was particularly exciting for me.

Ghausia Rashid, Nimko Ali, Noorulain Masood, Nafisa Shah
Over an hour of discussion was devoted to feminism, its meanings, its history in Pakistan, and the pressing issues of the day. It'll be covered in better detail in the press, but for me it was inspiring to hear these women talk about their struggles, to recognize the need to balance local contexts of feminism with global commonalities (intersectional vs. global feminism), and the trouble with abandoning collective feminism for individual feminisms and choice feminism. A fascinating, sophisticated discussion which I walked away from much wiser and more empowered than ever before.

So thanks, WOW Karachi, and hope to see you again next year!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Afghan Woman is Not A Project

This essay is the original version of the essay that appeared in the New York Times on Afghan Women

One of the major objectives of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had always been to liberate Afghanistan’s women from the tyranny of the Taliban. Fifteen years later, instead of progress in the field of women’s rights, a series of shocking images of beaten and battered young Afghan women is paraded in the media to mock that once lofty objective. 

The latest of these: Reza Gul, whose husband cut off her nose when she objected to his taking a 7 year old niece as a second wife. Gul waits to be flown to Turkey for reconstructive surgery, unaware that she’s the newest face of failed Western promises to elevate the status of Afghan women. 

Afghan women’s rights activists and international feminists harbor a bitter belief that Western feminists willfully misrepresented the plight of the Afghan woman, portraying her as the “silent and passive victims of their culture, their men, and their politics,” as Spogmai Akseer writes in “Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion.” This supplied the West with a moral reason to invade the country and “rescue” the women, an imperialist invasion disguised as a humanitarian rescue mission, instead of empowering Afghan women on their own terms.

When you base your entire project to free women on an untruth, is there any surprise when it fails? Today, as Afghan women struggle as mightily for their rights as they historically always have, they remain victims not just of gender-based violence but of a cross-cultural dissonance that has produced ill-informed stereotypes which continue to resonate today. This continued portrayal of Afghan women as victims marginalizes them from Afghanistan’s beleaguered peace process, and ensures that project will fail as well.

Gender-based violence specialist and aid worker Lina Abirafeh spent five years from 2001-2006 working in Afghanistan. In her research and humanitarian work with Afghan women and men, she discovered that aid programs had been implemented without any gender analysis aimed at an understanding of how women-centered aid programs might affect the political situation of women’s rights on the ground. 

She also found that there was a huge gap between what Westerners understood about the experience of Afghan womanhood, and how Afghan women saw themselves. Feminism has always existed in Afghanistan, Abirafeh asserts, but with long-established internal mechanisms working for women’s rights: informal and formal women’s groups, social safety nets, community organizers. Many of these groups documented the Taliban’s worst abuses, hiding cameras under burkas and documenting public executions. 

Enfranchised in the 1964 Afghan constitution and given equal rights in 1977,  the self-image of Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers; they see themselves as brave, capable, and strong. Islam is important to them, and so is their honor. They want to be active participants in their own liberation, but they want to set the pace of their struggle, instead of submitting to a Western-driven agenda that understands neither their contexts nor their character. 

Although they have always been conscious of their suffering, Afghan women did not think of themselves as weak or in need of being saved by outside forces, says Abirafeh. In fact, they resent greatly the idea that foreigners need to intervene on their behalf. The violence against them comes in great part as a backlash against the speeded-up process forced upon them by “outsiders”, whom Afghans have historically always resented. One of Afghanistan’s greatest heroines is Malalai of Maiwind, who urged her compatriots to rise up against the British and was killed at the Battle of Maiwind in 1880 (Malala Yousufzai is named after her).

In 2013, I traveled to Konya, Turkey, for a conference on the poetry and life of the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi. Amongst our delegation were two young Afghan women (who I will not name in order to protect their security). The first, gentle and reserved, was the director of a cultural house in northern Afghanistan and the editor of its monthly magazine. She was studying Dari literature at university, and had done extensive research on Rumi, and compiled youth poetry written in the Dari language.  The second woman was a fiery and outspoken poet who wrote for a feminist newspaper and also managed a radio station.

These two women were no victims, no poster children for invasion, even though they’d come to Konya through a foreign grant, and their projects at home were being funded by international organizations. They were young women just like I had been in my 20s; studying, working, building a life for themselves. They both kept their hair covered at all times; the first woman with a light scarf, the second with colorful turbans and headwraps. But they argued and debated, laughed and sang with the rest of us as we made our way from Konya to Cappadocia. Last year the fiery poet was elected to her provincial council.

Dr. Sahraa Karimi, a renowned Afghan filmmaker recently spoke at a planning session for a women’s festival in Karachi. She made no pretense of the fact that Afghan women are still suffering greatly. “To be an Afghan woman is very very painful, whether you are ordinary or rich or well-educated. But just because it’s painful doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

According to Karimi, Afghan women are still seen either as victims or as a project - neither attitude leading to true progress. In Afghanistan, development workers and selected Afghan women — Western success stories, as Abirafeh calls them — grow rich on “Women’s Empowerment Projects” and “Minority Interest Projects.” Meanwhile, high numbers of Afghan women intellectuals leave the country in a debilitating brain drain because of their dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments in the ordinary areas of Afghanistan outside the fortified Western compounds.

Karimi’s outlook is hopeful and positive: Afghan women are now able to raise their voices for justice, with the help of international organizations that are supporting their efforts. Even in the midst of ongoing attacks and violence against women, workshops, trainings, have enabled Afghan women to speak up for themselves to tell their own stories of their suffering, instead of Westerners speaking on their behalf.

Yet Afghan women have to be chiefly responsible for their own uplift, instead of succumbing to the victimhood thrust upon them by the media and the aid machine. As Karimi says, “Peace in Afghanistan is impossible without women. The terrible situation in Afghanistan is because of the absence of women, of respect and acceptance for them.  If they gave even a 10% opportunity to women to be part of the change and decision-making, Afghanistan would see peace.” 

Such a peace can only come when the West abandons the long-cherished idea of Afghan women as victims, or a problem or project to be fixed, and instead continue to support them in their own struggles, giving them the agency they already know is theirs by right. 











Friday, April 29, 2016

Zahra Haider's Vice Article

When I first wrote this piece and posted it on my blog, Dawn asked me for permission to reproduce it. I agreed. Subsequently, there were some problems with comment moderation, and another news site reproduced it without permission, so I took the decision to have the blog taken down while I figured out what to do about these issues, which have never happened to me before. There was no censorship, no conspiracy. Publishing on the Internet is a little lawless, and sometimes standard operation procedures are bypassed, which can be a nightmare for the writer.  Thanks for your patience. 

In the meantime, here are some useful links for you on issues close to my heart:

Petition to name street after Sabeen Mahmud (sign and share, we're almost at 1000 signatories)

Benaz - a brilliant song by Riz Ahmed about the honor killing of Benaz Mahmood based on the film by Deeyah Khan 

Chayn.org - a Web site that can help if you're facing abuse or forced marriage 

Bolo.bhi's archive on the Pakistan Electronic Cybercrimes Bill 


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.