Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saudi Arabia, Sexism & Science

Today the story making the rounds on Twitter is a horrific one, where a Saudi woman who was gang-raped by seven men was jailed and sentenced to lashing by a Saudi court because she violated the Kingdom's strict laws against men and women mixing together if they aren't married. When her lawyer protested the sentence, the court doubled the sentence to show that contempt of court will result in complete contempt of human dignity and decency.

The case seems to have taken place in 2007 but only come to light six years later. This shows the secrecy in which these cases take place. It's not surprising because the international outcry that would take place were this to be openly discussed while it was happening would be a huge disgrace for the Kingdom. In fact, from what I know, there's a lot of censorship and secrecy around rape cases. (The same thing happens in the UAE, where rapes take place but are not widely reported in the media in order to preserve the good image of the Emirate in the international media). But the secrecy is also meant to hide precisely the amount of sexism and misogyny that pervades the Saudi justice system.

They claim sentences like these to be based on Shariah, and Western media will often seize upon these complete distortions of justice to illustrate how barbaric Muslims can be. Yet this isn't really a case of Islamic barbarity but the violent animosity that men can feel towards women and the lengths to which they will go to punish a woman who they perceive as having stepped out of control. Using Shariah to justify this kind of injustice is a reflection of their own need to be right, and to have God on their side. I perceive an almost psychopathic hatred of women in the actions of the judges who could sentence a woman to 200 lashes, or to jail for being raped by men and being unable to identify her attackers because she was blind (a famous case that took place in Pakistan under the Hudood laws).

Does anyone remember the case of the Indoniesian maid who was sentenced to be executed when she murdered her Saudi employer, who was trying to rape her? She was indeed beheaded in 2011, sparking a diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. There is no real justice in sentences of these types, whereas the guiding spirit of Islam is meant to show utmost compassion and kindness towards any victim of injustice regardless of gender. Sentences like these are travesties. They are an embarrassment to any country. This is why they are kept under wraps until long after the deed is done and the crime has gone unpunished and the victim is the one instead who pays the price for the sexual violence of conscienceless criminals. It is all a conspiracy meant to keep women in their place as the property and possession of men.

Before we get too smug about Saudi Arabia's stance, though, we might do well to remember that in Pakistan, we've stopped ordering that women be lashed for getting raped, but we are famous for having ordered that a woman be raped as punishment. I'm talking about none other than the Mukhtaran Mai case. Her attackers are free, having been released from custody for "lack of evidence", despite the more than four adult Muslim male witnesses who saw her assault, ordered by a tribal jirga.

Here is an excellent interview with Mukhtaran Mai in the New Statesman, so please do read it. If at all there's a brighter side to these horrific assaults on women and the complete injustice that we face in our criminal systems, it is that we are pushed to surpass and transcend, to become almost superhuman in our ability to rise above the inhumane treatment deal out to us by men who claim to be our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual superiors. Women go into these circumstances as victims but emerge reborn as survivors, activists, advocates, role models. Champions with the hearts of lions, seared by fire, released from fear.

And in case you need a lighter story from the Kingdom, here's the scientific explanation of how driving is bad for women because it affects their ovaries and pelvises, causing their children to be born with birth defects. The scholar, who also claims to be a psychologist, provides no proof for his assertions, in the true Saudi style of excellence in scientific research. He might want to reconsider his stance if he ever suffers a medical emergency and there is nobody to drive him to the hospital because his wife and daughters want to save their ovaries rather than his life.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Speaking to the BBC

Here's my short interview from last week's "Impact" about the status of girls in Pakistan today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bina on the BBC

I was called in to the BBC last Friday to talk about the "My daughter is a blessing, not a curse" campaign in reaction to several horrific gang rapes enacted against young children in Pakistan. Mosques on Friday were urged to give a sermon on the subject, although it's unsure who urged them and how successful the campaign was. Still, you can hear me talking about the issue for BBC's "The World" which is broadcast across America on PRI radio.

Here's a few screen grabs from an interview I did for BBC World News on the same subject.

Humans without Humanity

After watching Sunday's events of the horrible bombing of the Christian church in Peshawar, where 81 people have been killed and over a hundred injured, seeing the protest rallies erupting, and the latest news of campaigns teaching Pakistanis that "Christians are Pakistanis too", it strikes me that Pakistan is in need of a massive public re-education campaign about how to be a good human being.

From the basics in good manners, civic sense and social responsibility, respect for self and for others, to love of animals and care towards the planet, to the value of education, and to the vital issues of tolerance, nonviolence, respect for human life, we Pakistanis seem to have thrown it all away in favor of a dog-eat-dog society where only money and power matters. And we twist our religion to suit ourselves, and disregard the parts of it that don't serve our selfish desires.

Clearly the myriad Islamic shows we have blaring on our television channels aren't working, because Pakistan is a country filled with humans who have no humanity - or insaan insaaniyat ke beghair as I would say in my poor Urdu. And, as someone has just added on Twitter, "Muslims without Islam".

This all taking place at the same time as terrorists are being acquitted for their alleged crimes, released from jails, and given clean chits to go about the country and keep spreading the destruction and death that is their wont. This as our little girls are getting gang-raped, sexually trafficked, prevented from going to school. This as our leaders stumble and prevaricate, come up with excuses for their inaction, justify the terrorists' actions, and blame each other and "outside forces" for all our problems, instead of looking deep within and owning our part in creating this mess.

I am not interested in people telling me "If only we followed Islam properly" or "If only we eliminated obscenity from society" that we would have a paradise instead of a hell on our hands. "If only the drone attacks would stop" is another one. "If only America would stop interfering", "If only India would back down on Kashmir", "If only we would talk to the Taliban" and a dozen other myths that serve as excuses for allowing the status quo to continue.

I'm tired of mythology. I want reality.

And the reality is that we Pakistanis have to re-learn the meaning of humanity. Get off our soapboxes about our superiority, because we have been proving our inferiority to the world for many years now. Learn some humility. Take some responsibility. Acknowledge our wrongdoing. Make amends for our misdeeds. Learn to factor in the consequences to our irresponsible actions.

I'm tired of being a human without humanity. Aren't you?

Monday, September 23, 2013

London Vignette No. 1

Last night I ate dinner in a small cafe on the corner: I was the only woman amongst a dozen Arab men, including the Iraqi owners, watching the football. Not one of them gave me a second (or even a first) glance. The tall Iraqi teenager serving me kept coming to clear my plates; he picked up my used teabag with his hands and when I protested, flashed me a sweet smile and said, "It's not nice". The owner, an Iraqi Kurd, chatted to me about homelands and hearts being left behind there. "Thank you, brother,"I said as I left with a feeling of happy melancholy and the smell of mint tea and apple sheesha in my hair and clothes.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Agahi Awards

I'm delighted to announce that my story Hearing the Hopes of Pakistan's Deaf World won an Agahi Award in the category of Education.  I'm grateful to the team of the Deaf Reach schools, particularly Josyane Lanthier, for letting me visit the Karachi school and meet the children, and to Richard Geary for looking over the article and helping me with any factual errors. I urge you all to read the piece and learn about the tremendous efforts this team has been making for the last twenty-five years on behalf of Pakistan's Deaf community. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Shutting the Door in a Veiled Face

This piece was first published in the Independent.

I've been following this story with interest during my time here in London. It's about a British college in Birmingham (college not being the four years after high school as in the US, but the last two years to prepare a British student for university here) that tried to enact a ban on the full face veil, or niqab, but had to overturn its decision after a fierce outcry. Citing freedom of religion and personal rights to wear clothing that reflects a student's religious or cultural values, the college had to back down and allow the few female Muslim students who wanted to cover their faces to go ahead and do so.

Unlike France, where all symbols of religion are banned from schools and government offices, and the face veil or niqab is completely illegal, Britain has tried to be more accommodating of its Muslim population. I've had many conversations with people here about the concept of "multiculturalism", in which all cultures are equally respected, as opposed to "assimilation" in which you are expected to give up your own culture for the culture of the majority population in the country you live in.

The general consensus amongst non-Muslim British people (white, nominally Christian) is that Muslims should not live in Britain, which is not a Muslim country, and expect every accommodation to be made for their religious beliefs. British Muslims, on the other hand, feel that it is their right as equal citizens of the nation to have their beliefs respected and that employers, schools, and other institutions should not just respect those rights but make visible efforts to assist individuals, rather than objecting to or trying to block them from completing their religious duties.

In many restaurants in London, halal meat is served automatically because many customers demand it but more customers don't care. In the meantime, when it was found out that schools served halal meat without informing everyone, parents of non-Muslim children became angry and demanded that this stopped being done automatically. There are many flaps like this and the niqab ban in the Birmingham college mentioned above, as Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim come to better understanding about how religion fits into this modern society.

I spoke to a woman behind the Dermalogica counter in a department store who wore a bright white hijab and asked her whether she'd had any problems. "No, Dermalogica have been brilliant," she told me, a big smile on her face. "I go to a treatment room to say my prayers and I don't serve male customers, and they're fine with that."

On the other hand, the government and NGOs have been enacting a campaign against forced marriages for the last several years. I saw this poster at Stansted Aiport when I was on my way out to Copenhagen, illustrating the difficult line that the British government has to walk between respect of culture and rule of law.

Going back to the issue of the niqab banned in schools, I read some comments on news stories and one of them that really struck me was someone saying, "How can you teach anyone who wears a full veil?"

I have the answer to that question, because when I was a writing instructor at SZABIST, I actually did have a student in my class who wore an abaya and niqab. I remember seeing her the first day in my classroom and thinking, " am I going to handle this?" (My stance on niqab and burka is well-known: it's excessive, unnecessary, not specifically religiously mandated and more of a political statement of identity than a religious expression of piety). I was well aware of my own prejudice against the niqab and my assumptions about the women who wear them. And I was determined not to let that prejudice get in the way of my treating her the same as any of my other students.

Throughout the semester, I found I did have to treat her differently, but only because she was my best student - I had to work hard not to show how much I liked her in comparison to my other students!  She was intelligent, engaged, aware. She always came to class well-prepared. She debated with the male students in the class on many issues with passion and spirit. She outperformed everyone on all essays and exams. She received the highest grade in my class and became one of my favorite students.

I remember talking to her in the class as she answered my questions, maintaining intense eye contact because that was my only point of reference. I was only able to see her eyes behind her glasses, not see her lips move or the expressions on her face, but I could hear her voice, see her body language; the energy came off her in waves. In short, she was delightful, and my class would have been a poorer place without her. I was hired to teach her, but instead, she taught me.

The point of this little anecdote is that when we talk about a blanket ban of burkas or niqabs because of our principles or our commitment to a secular society, we tend to forget that behind the niqab and underneath the burka there is a living, breathing human being in there: a Muslim woman who needs to be educated, to take her proper and rightful place in society. Muslim girls and women need to be encouraged to come to school, to work, whether or not they choose to cover their faces and bodies. As the article in the Nation on France's hijab ban states, "Some Muslim women are resigned to the fact that no one is going to hire them, so they don’t study, they don’t look for a job."

As an educator and as a feminist, and as someone committed to seeing Pakistani and Muslim women not just survive but thrive in this difficult world, I am willing to put aside my personal opinion for the greater goal of helping these girls and women achieve agency, empowerment and independence. If the burka or niqab helps them to do that, to negotiate their way around the many obstacles that our traditional and conservative societies throw at them, I'm fully willing to become their ally. I think that's more important that how I personally feel about the burka. Muslim women already face too many bans in their lives - let's think instead about opening some doors for them instead of shutting them in their veiled faces.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Grief is Another Country published at InterlitQ

This is the story of my family: my uncle, Sayed Zulfiqar Ali Shah Jamote, my father, Sayed Shafqat Ali Shah Jamote, and the forces they faced when they were growing up in interior Sindh. Forget what you read about "feudals" in your urban-based newspapers - this is the truth.

Thank you to Peter Robertson for publishing this essay at InterlitQ, a fine online journal of International literature.

Monday, September 9, 2013

To Be A Citizen In The Most Dangerous Country In The World

I was coming home yesterday from Stansted Airport after ten days in lovely Copenhagen - there is simply no other word to describe that quirky, charming, magical city - and caught a cab from Liverpool Street tube station in London to get back to my place. The cab driver and I had a long conversation, as you do whenever you're in a black cab, about the state of Britain today, and then he asked me about life in Pakistan. "I read this article that said Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world," he remarked. "What do you think about that?"

I knew which piece he was referring to: this one in the Daily Mail, where Liam Fox, the former British Defence Minister stated that Pakistan stood out from the rest of the world in the risks that Pakistan presents to world peace and security.

This is not as a result of any malign intent but as a consequence of its inherent political instability, the unpredictable and sometimes malevolent behaviour of its intelligence services, the ISI, its willingness to share nuclear technology with rogue states and others, and its potential to export terrorism

Yet despite the grim prognosis, Fox admits that the West needs Pakistan in order to collaborate on the security issues it still faces in Afghanistan and regional peace with India, and that punishment and ostracism will not work with us because we have too much in common. In Fox's simplistic analysis of Pakistan's present position as Enemy No. 1, it's clear that he's placing most of the blame on Pakistan rather than looking at the root causes of Pakistan's problems with terrorism. He has to shy away from analyzing how the Western powers' strategic interests contributed to pressuring Pakistan into participating in first the Afghan-Soviet war and then the War on Terror because he's writing for the Daily Mail, obviously, but this is intellectual dishonesty which nobody who understands Pakistan and its history will fall for.

Fox also names the struggle within Islam between Shia and Sunni (I still haven't figured out why Westerners call them "Shiite") as one of the most significant ideological problems of our time, and I'd say he gets this one right. I would agree that this struggle has affected Pakistan's integrity in huge and unpleasant ways. There is a war on against Shias in Pakistan, and they are being murdered steadily in a systematic plan to eliminate them from the country that would be a national outrage in any other country, but in Pakistan is seen as "business as usual". Thanks to the power struggles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have affected Pakistan for at least the last thirty years (and are now raging in Syria with repercussions yet again in Lebanon and beyond), we are not pawns but willing participants on both sides of the conflict. Armed militant groups plan the death of Shias in mosques, on buses, in groups, in single file, one after the other; retaliation comes from the other side, and so it goes, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, generation after generation.

At the same time that this piece appeared in the Daily Mail, another article in Foreign Policy magazine appeared on how dangerous Karachi is - not because of terrorism, but because of the drug trade, specifically the emergence of Karachi as a center for the production and export of crystal meth. The piece, called "Cooking in Karachi", was researched and written by Taimur Khan, and provides a fascinating insight into a different side of Karachi's (and Pakistan's) criminal underground, the one that in my mind eclipses the security issues provoked by the War on Terror: the fight for influence and territory amongst Karachi's myriad criminal gangs, supported and abetted by both political groups and the police and other security forces. In many ways I find this article to be much more accurate in the picture that it draws about the megacity, and pinpoints the real roots of its instability and volatility.

The truth is that there is so much money to be made in Karachi, and such poor implementation of any sorts of laws against criminal activities, and so much corruption, that it's been almost too easy for these criminal gangs and groups to take control of the city. I see more parallels between Karachi's plight and the way the Mafia held Italy hostage for years until the Italian government decided to crack down mercilessly on their activities. And if you remember that struggle, you know how bloody it was, how judges were assassinated and had to go into hiding, how it had to be an all-out war until the Mafia was broken. I suspect that Karachi (and Pakistan) will have to go through a similar crackdown, but we are light years away from that right now.

And going back to the cabbie's original question, the one that prompted this blog post: "How do you feel about that?" How do I feel about being a citizen of the world's most dangerous country (it feels like that phrase should be trademarked now), an inhabitant of the world's most dangerous country's most dangerous city? I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question, so maybe it's time to try to answer it:

You are not a human being when you live in Karachi. You become an animal in so many ways, a scurrying creature only able to think of immediate survival, with no breathing room, no peace of mind to be able to think, to plan, to expand.

You can't think of walking on the street, of sending your children out to play in a park. You learn to negotiate terrain laden with land mines: a riot in this neighborhood, a bomb in that one. This time is safe to go out, that time is not safe. Stepping out at the wrong place in the wrong time can be fatal.

You have to be ready to stop your normal activities at a moment's notice, to stay at home, to watch the television for updates on safety, to check your cell phone for texts from friends that will alert you to the danger.

How can you be normal in this kind of atmosphere? You're on high alert all the time. Your body is flooded with stress hormones: fight or flight, that condition that is only supposed to last for a few brief moments while you confront a dangerous animal or flee from it, is your constant condition all the time. As a result, everyone's either taking blood pressure medication or hooked on tranquilizers.

We live with that dangerous animal all the time. It's our household pet.

I've said this before: we live in Pakistan, in Karachi, the way you would live with an abusive lover. We stay despite the beatings and the intimidation because we love it. and we constantly hope it will change and get better. We are deluded, perhaps. Maybe we all have Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe because we are Muslim, we believe that God will save us from the inevitable. Maybe because we believe in fate, we accept fatalism and fatality.

Nobody is normal when they live in the most dangerous country in the world. The stakes are just so high, all the time.

All the time.