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Archive for June, 2010

An Indian ad raising awareness about Dowry Deaths

Violence, deaths, and other issues related to dowry, or the money or goods given by a bride’s family to the groom’s, continue to haunt many societies, including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Below, Nabiha Meher Sheikh, who teaches at LUMS University in Lahore (and blogs at I am Woman Hear me Roar), provides a critique of the topic, beginning first with a poem by Naurin Ramay:

My name is marriage
I am daughter of this earth
Was born free to surf
I was abducted by the tradition of dowry
Who raped my dreams without any mercy
I kept yelling to free me from the handcuffs of dowry
I was left alone in the dark alley
I was poisoned, I was tortured I was burned
But no one came to save me from this commination
Today, I lay in my grave
Cursing all those who were gay
Murmuring, turning their back and closing their eyes
As the daughters of earth were being burned and disgraced
I pity the callousness of my society
Where they own this tradition of dowry

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me this BBC story about a village in Bihar, India, where a tree is planted whenever a girl child is born in order to pay for her wedding and dowry. This has led to a huge decrease in female infanticide. The story is written in a very positive manner and I’m quite sure the uninformed reader will easily go along with this “feel good” twist. But digging deeper reveals, at least to me as a Pakistani woman, something darker and horrifying.

I object. This story reports something so sinister as if it’s a good thing that, frankly, I’m disgusted. Of course a decrease in female infanticide is a good thing, but not at the cost of the perpetuation of the very same patriarchal system that has oppressed these women for centuries. And, despite the fact that this is a morbid thing to say, it needs to be said: gendercide will lead to a demand for females, giving the sex an upper hand albeit at a huge cost. I don’t agree with it at all, as I doubt any sane person would. I’ve written that statement in order to prove that it’s very easy to give anything sinister a positive twist; after all, the world is not black and white, despite our best efforts to make it so. Good can easily come out of bad. I often have to remind my students, who are well trained in the fine art of linear thinking, that not everything can be divided into pure evil or good. What I said in order to illustrate this point: I lauded Zardari for passing the sexual harassment bill because I KNOW that no other party would have even considered it, and despite my personal opinion of him, I will thank him for it.

The writer reports, “Sneha, four, is aware that her father has planted trees in her name; the child says she regularly waters the saplings. As yet she doesn’t know what dowry is, and says the trees will bear fruits for her ‘to eat.’” What a joke! The fruit isn’t for her from any angle: it is for her husband, yet another man. Her life has not been spared because her family was happy at the birth of a girl child- it has been spared because the man who will take her off her family’s hands can be paid to do so.

I have an idea; a much, much better idea: ban dowry. Instead, educate the girls and empower them so they can earn and not be a “burden.” Educate and empower the women so that they can walk out of abusive and bad marriages. All of us, the women of the subcontinent, are well aware of how prevalent domestic violence is in this area of the world. The only reason why women cannot walk out the door, more so than societal reasons, is because they lack the ability to fend for themselves. Therefore, planting a tree for a wedding is most certainly not going to benefit the girl in the long run despite the author’s suggestions to the contrary. Furthermore, this is counter-productive and any suggestions to the contrary are absurd to me.

As a woman who has seen just how much the burden of dowry carries, I strongly believe it is a deep and gross violation of human rights. Too many women’s education and independence have been sacrificed because of dowry, just like my own mother’s. To me, it is a phallic symbol, a symbol of oppression, a symbol to be eliminated and eradicated- not something to EVER be lauded and encouraged. Too many of my gender have been deprived of their basic human rights because of this dowry, this payment to the man to take us off our families’ hands. It’s time to speak up against this evil- and I say evil because, for me, as a woman, this is pure evil.  I realize and acknowledge that there are many women as well who will not agree with me and will insist that their dowry is their right. These are the women who know they will be deprived of yet another human right: their inheritance, just like my mother. But perpetuating the culture of dowry is, again, not a solution to this problem. Dowry, a concept that is anti-woman and patriarchal, is never the solution. And please let’s stop deluding ourselves that it can be positive: it’s like putting out a fire with a fire.

How is sacrificing women at the altars of tradition going to change anything? And how many women are we willing to sacrifice before we say “STOP!”? I’ve borne the chains of being a woman and have fought to be where I am. I have seen how despicable dowry is and thankfully, I have sane enough parents who didn’t ever bother collecting a dowry for me. Instead, they educated and empowered me to stand up for myself and gave me my basic human right to choose an equal partner who will love me for who I am- not for my dowry.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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Vuvuzelas in Lyari

Image credit: Dawn

Ok, maybe not vuvuzelas. But certainly crazed football fans.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa is currently underway, and fans throughout the world have been riveted to television screens, celebrating or cursing the results (ah, Italia). In Lyari, one of the most densely populated slums in Karachi, the World Cup has been a welcome alternative to the constant gang violence, unemployment, poverty and drugs, [see this CHUP backgrounder on past Karachi violence]. According to The News, Lyari has been known for two things – gang warfare and producing some of Pakistan’s best football players (including Abdul Ghafoor, the ‘Pele’ of Pakistan). During the World Cup, Lyari yields to the latter, with residents arranging and setting up big screens (an Express 24/7 correspondent I spoke to said gang members often set up the screens because the population is so intermingled with gangs) on the streets for the community to enjoy the games together.

Their football team of choice? Five-time World Cup winner, Brazil.

One local resident told Dawn, “Lyari is Brazil’s den and people seek happiness in football, especially Brazil, because they love this team and its players.” Another Lyari resident added, “Watching football is our only enjoyment. We forget all the pain and suffering in the 90-minute action and everyone wants Brazil to win the sixth title on July 11.”

So much so that one “footballer-cum-gangster” told The News that he would have “shot at” the referee for giving Brazilian player Kaka a red card during the recent Brazil-Ivory Coast match. The young gang member, part of Rehman Baloch‘s gang (Lyari is dominated by two gangs, one that follows Ghaffar Zikri and the Uzair Baloch group under the late Rehman Baloch) told the news agency that he wants Brazil “to win at any cost,” especially against Argentina.

According to Dawn, some people of Lyari also support Brazil because they see them as “spiritual cousins.” A local journalist noted, “The people of this area see racial similarities with Brazil, like if they are black and have curly hair they feel they are like South Americans and they play with the same style.” Interestingly, Lyari is considered a center for the Sheedi community, who are believed to be descendants of African sailors who came to Karachi 200 years ago.

During the 2006 World Cup, news agencies reported that Lyari’s crime rate actually fell. Given the relative silence that has descended upon the slum during this tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar trend, a true testament to how sports unites divided communities, even if such unity is transient and is likely to dissipate in its aftermath. But it is also a testament to how football and other sports (namely, cricket) could be used as part of a longer-term strategy to break the cycle of violence and poverty in areas like Lyari. The aforementioned young gangster told The News, “I used to play football, but I ended up carrying a gun due to the twists life had in store for me…It was my utmost desire to die as a great soccer player, but, sadly, I happened to be born in a neighbourhood where wishes are just not answered.” Obviously, sports alone cannot tackle the complex issues and layers of violence plaguing these Karachi slums. But given the potential, talent, and passion evident among the community, it very well could be part of a solution.

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I <3 Gary Faulkner

No, really. I do.

If you haven’t watched the recent interview with Gary Faulkner, the now-dubbed “Bin Laden Hunter” [see this previous post], see below:

While many have found Faulkner’s actions bizarre/amusing/disturbing/tragic/all of the above, I’ve started to actually kind of like the guy. Here’s why:

Interviewer: Gary Faulkner, how does it feel to back in the USA?

Faulkner: Fantastic! I mean, it’s good – good to be back on native soil…Good to see you guys are still here too.

(Translation: Good to know there wasn’t a nuclear apocalypse in my absence. There’s just so many disasters Gary Faulkner can tackle at a time!)

Interviewer: Tell us about your trip – why did you go, what were you aiming to do?

Faulkner: There are a lot of people that talk, and this is one of our downsides of our society…too many people talk, too little action. Me, I’d rather do action, talk later.

(Translation: The only thing Osama bin Laden will hear when I choke hold him is the sound of awesomeness.)

Faulkner: There are people out there talking smack…you can say I’m a religious freak, you can say I’m a Rambo or a samurai or whatever, but you know what, I’m a person that said, you know what I’m going to get off my ass and do something…I’m on dialysis, I put my life on the line…now when you’re able to stand up and put your life on the line, then we’ll talk. Until then, you shut your mouth, you sit down and get to the back of the bus, better yet – you get off the bus, because this ain’t your bus, this ain’t your ride.

(Translation: When Bruce Banner gets mad, he turns into the Hulk. When the Hulk gets mad, he turns into Gary Faulkner.)

You may think Gary Faulkner is crazy. Mentally unhinged, even. But you have to admire the guy’s conviction. And he has a point – how many of us sit around talking, and how many actually try to get things done? Not a lot. And thanks Gary, for also challenging the “all Pakistanis are terrorists” perception. This warm & fuzzy Pakistani appreciated it.

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The Parliamentary Mean Girls

(CAT) FIGHT! (CAT) FIGHT!

On June 14, there was a cat fight in the Punjab Assembly.

Seriously.

Fellow MPAs watched on in horror (and possibly glee) as two female legislators from the PPP engaged in a verbal argument that soon turned physical, all before a budget session was set to take place in the Assembly. Below, Sehar Tariq, a Master’s student in Public Policy at Princeton University, discusses the development. [This piece first appeared in the Express Tribune]:

Only 12 countries in the world have acted upon the ideological commitment to ensure women’s participation in the formal political arena, as embodied by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action. Pakistan is one of them. Under the Local Government Ordinance of 2001, 33 percent of seats at all tiers of local government and 17 percent in the national and provincial legislatures were reserved for women. Given the long history of discrimination against women and their exclusion from politics, this was a revolutionary step.

As a result, since elections in 2002 a record number of women have contested the polls and joined the ranks of legislators. However, concerns remained that women are powerless proxies for male relatives but women members of the PPP Punjab Assembly have put to rest any such concerns with great displays of aggression and power.

For far too long we have associated macho deep-throated growling, shouting and name calling in menacing voices with Sultan Rahi but the women MPs of Punjab are not to be left behind.

On June 14, before the budget for the province was presented, PPP MPA Sajida Mir from Lahore said that there was rampant rigging in rural areas where women were heavily influenced by feudals. She praised Iffat Liaquat of the PML-N who had won an election from Chakwal despite not having the backing of the feudal elite. Now this would sound like a fairly normal conversation to you unless you happen to be a feudal from Chakwal.

Luckily MPA Fouzia Behram, belonging to the same party as Ms Mir, was on hand to act the part (or embody the true likeness) of an enraged feudal from Chakwal. Ms Mir bellowed that MPAs from Lahore are ignorant. And in order to truly put the erring non-feudal in her place, she decided to insult her a little more by labeling her with the most derogatory word she could find in her feudal dictionary —“kammi” which means from a low caste. Ms Mir remained calm and reminded the enraged feudal that this insulted not just her but the philosophy of the party that both MPAs represent, not to mention the majority of its supporters since most of them happen to be “kammis”. This further enraged Ms Behram who then charged towards Ms Mir and tried to slap her.

Ladies, in this day and age of political crisis and misery for the entire country, couldn’t you maybe reserve your passions for topics of greater importance and substance like the budget, the state of education, healthcare or inflation? And could you please try and take the job of legislating on behalf of your constituents a little more seriously than the men who have failed us for so many years?

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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"Gary Faulkner. He's so hot right now."

This piece, entitled, “The American Bin Laden Hunter” was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel:

Step aside, Jason Statham. There’s a new action hero in town.

Pakistani authorities detained Gary Faulkner, a 52-year old American man who has reportedly been searching for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden since September 11, 2001. Faulkner, who was found about nine miles short of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border Sunday, was allegedly trying to enter Nuristan, a province in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Jaffar Khan, the police chief of Chitral, in northwest Pakistan, told reporters, “[Faulkner] told the investigating officer he was going to Afghanistan to get Osama. At first we thought he was mentally deranged.” However, after seeing that the American was armed with a pistol, dagger, sword, Christian literature, and night-vision goggles, police realized “he was serious.”

So serious, in fact, that he initially resisted arrest, threatened to fire on police, and later told interrogators he was going to Nuristan “to decapitate Osama bin Laden.” According to Khan, when asked whether he felt he had a chance in capturing bin Laden, Faulkner answered, “God is with me, and I am confident I will be successful in killing him.”

Faulkner, a construction worker from California, previously visited Pakistan seven times, and this was his third trip to Chitral. According to police officials, he arrived in Chitral on June 2 “as a tourist,” checked into a hotel, and was given a security escort before disappearing.

The story of Gary Faulkner is both bizarre and fascinating. First, what if he had avoided police capture and crossed into Afghanistan? What would be the implications if Faulkner had actually caught and killed the al-Qaeda leader? Perhaps Pakistani authorities will be so impressed with Faulkner’s dedication that they will unleash him into the tribal wild, keeping their fingers crossed for an end to the ever-annoying “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden” question. For now though, the American has been detained for questioning in Peshawar, leaving us to only ponder potential future scenarios:

Potential scenario #1: Faulkner signs a contract with Fox for a new reality competition show tentatively titled, “Who Wants to be a (25) Millionaire?” Faulkner, the host of the reality series, leads young wannabe Faulkner-ites into Pakistan/Afghanistan, where they compete to capture bin Laden, armed only with spoons and baby powder. The winner receives $25 million and title of Top Bin Laden Hunter.

Potential scenario #2: Sylvester Stallone, famous monotone actor and director, replaces former it-boy Jason Statham with Gary Faulkner as a cast member on his upcoming film, The Expendables, about a team of mercenaries on a mission to South America to overthrow a dictator. When asked by reporters why he chose to switch Statham for Faulkner, Stallone answers (in monotone), “Faulkner. He’s so hot right now.”

Potential scenario #3: CNBC releases this headline on its news ticker, “Gary Faulkner merchandise sales single handedly push consumer confidence up, markets rally as a result.” This merchandise includes (but is not limited to) Gary Faulkner night vision goggles, Gary Faulkner autographed swords and daggers, and t-shirts that say, “I went to Pakistan to hunt Bin Laden and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

Potential scenario #4: The Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Peace Prize to Gary Faulkner “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen the one-man hunt for bin Laden.” The pundit-sphere debates over how yet another American wins the award without actually achieving anything.

Potential scenario #5: Chuck Norris jokes that became Jack Bauer jokes are now replaced with Gary Faulkner jokes. For example: Gary Faulkner destroyed the periodic table, because Gary Faulkner only recognizes the element of surprise.

Note: Potential scenario No. 5 is fast becoming a reality.

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The Waldman ISI-Taliban Report

Reuters Image

A report by London School of Economics has garnered a stream of news attention since its release yesterday, as well as some choice headlines, (The Sunday Times piece had my personal favorite headline, “Pakistan Puppet Masters Guide the Taliban Killers.” Seriously.) The report, written by Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University, ultimately claims that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has a direct link with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

However, unlike past assertions that “rogue elements” within the ISI were supporting the Taliban, Waldman instead argues that “this is a significant underestimation of the current role of the ISI in the Afghan insurgency.” According to Taliban commanders he interviewed, the ISI’s powerful role with the organization is “as clear as the sun in the sky.” He wrote,

The Taliban-ISI relationship is founded on mutual benefit. The Taliban need external sanctuary, as well as military and logistical support to sustain their insurgency; the ISI believes that it needs a significant allied force in Afghanistan to maintain regional strength  and ‘strategic depth’ in their rivalry with India.

I won’t go into an exhaustive post about the report, because frankly, it does point to assertions and suspicions that have been discussed and widely acknowledged for years – namely, that the ISI has supported insurgent fighters to fight proxy wars against India (Lashkar-e-Taiba for one), and the agency wants to maintain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan because of rising Indian influence in the country. For both the ISI and the Pakistani military, India is and always has been Enemy Number One. And while the military has gone against the “Pakistani Taliban,” militants that have been targeting the state and Pakistani citizens, a similar operation against the “Afghan Taliban,” (the Haqqani Network, Hekmatyar) has not exactly materialized, despite U.S. pressures.

But does this mean that the ISI-Taliban link is part of an “officially sanctioned policy”? Even Waldman isn’t 100% sure.

  1. While Waldman cites numerous academics and analysts (including Steve Coll, Ahmed Rashid, Bruce Reidel, and Seth Jones) to back his claims, his conclusions are essentially grounded in interviews  in or near Kabul and Kandahar, from February-May 2010, with nine insurgent field commanders, ten former senior Taliban officials, twenty-two Afghan elders, tribal leaders, politicians and analysts; and thirteen foreign diplomats, experts and security officials. Interestingly, Waldman did not interview any former or current officials on the Pakistani side. As a result, the report is admittedly one-sided, with claims corroborated by numerous insurgents but not by any ISI agents or even anonymous sources “close to the ISI.”
  2. In the report, Waldman prefaces his own claims numerous times, even noting, “Given that the ISI and its operations are by their nature secret, the findings described below are based on interviews and cannot by conclusively verified.” Throughout the paper, the Harvard fellow consistently hedges his findings, using terms like, “apparently” and “appears” and stated on page 11, “It should be borne in mind that insurgents may seek to shift the blame for some of their most egregious activities, such as the execution of elders or attacks on schools; they may misapprehend and overstate ISI power; or they may in fact be in a state of denial.”
  3. In an interview with Al Jazeera English, when probed by the anchor on what direct evidence he had to make such comments on an official ISI policy, Waldman answered, “Well of course Pakistan’s intelligence is not going to leave any evidence around…[but] the pressure and dependence [of these insurgents] on the ISI explains why they confided” in him for this report.

Here’s an interesting question – are insurgent commanders and militants qualified to make grand conjectures about an intelligence agency’s “officially sanctioned” policy? Are they legitimate sources for a report of this kind, that is ultimately making very serious allegations against not just the ISI, but also President Zardari? If such claims and statements were corroborated by sources within the ISI or close to the agency, such a report could be very credible. But as Huma Imtiaz noted for the AfPak Channel, “reports like Waldman’s must be read with a grain of salt” even if it tackles many of the suspicions we all continue to have.

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CNN i-Report: Ground Zero Mosque Protest on Sunday

I generally avoid reading articles by the extreme right-wing (American, Pakistani or otherwise). My news channel of choice is definitely not Fox News. And I think Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are ignorant and infuriating bobbleheads. Maybe I should be tuned into the other side of the spectrum, but I prefer not to be angry and indignant on a regular basis.

I do pick my battles, though, and I made an exception for the recent news surrounding the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero. Last month, a community board in New York City voted 29-1 in favor of a plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the site where terrorists crashed planes into New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Board member Rob Townley told reporters, “It’s a seed of peace. We believe that this is significant step in the Muslim community to counteract the hate and fanaticism in the minority of the community.”

Ironically, though, a decision that was meant to plant “a seed of peace” has also sparked anti-Muslim protests and statements. Over the weekend, protesters gathered in lower Manhattan to demonstrate against building the mosque, which is a joint initiative by the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and proposes to be “a $100 million, 13-story community center with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming.”

According to the protest organizer Pamela Geller, though, the center would be more “appropriate” if it was “dedicated to expunging the Quranic texts of the violent ideology that inspired jihad, or perhaps a center to the victims of hundreds of millions of years of jihadi wars, land enslavements, cultural annihilations and mass slaughter.” Change.org quoted Geller, who wrote on her own blog, “The mosque is an insult to the Americans who were murdered there. It is a manifestation of a radically intolerant belief system that is incompatible with the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”

First, the victims on 9/11 were people from all backgrounds, including Muslims. Second, a radically intolerant belief system? Look in the mirror, lady.

I shouldn’t have to go into a whole shpeal about how the terrorists who hijacked the Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 also hijacked Islam. You’ve heard it before, and I’m frankly tired of being on the defensive, (Spencer Ackerman did say it well  though when he noted, “If the 9/11 hijackers were “motivated by the faith of Muhammed,” then every Christian is David Koresh and every Jew is Baruch Goldstein.”)

9/11 was not just a tragedy for Americans, it was a tragedy for us all. We all will remember where we were the day the towers fell, because that was also the day the world changed, when the narrative shifted. It was the day that cast the world in a harsh and polarizing light, as countries and their citizens found themselves on either side of the arbitrarily imposed Axis of Evil.

About two years ago, I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C. On one of the upper floors was an exhibit on the September 11th attacks. Inside a dark room, the scene of the towers falling was projected on a large screen, interspersed by interviews with journalists, firefighters, and witnesses. The museum had strategically placed a box of tissues on the bench, and trust me. Everyone in that room, from various faith backgrounds, nationalities, races, and ethnicities, all watched in teary-eyed silence.

But sharing in the tragedy of 9/11 doesn’t mean we can’t move on from that day. Ten years later, and the issues and ignorance voiced by Geller and her supporters are an unfortunate reality, but one that should inspire discussion on the American identity, on how the sizable Muslim-American community fits within the nuances of that definition, and how ignorance continues to persist on all sides of the divide.

If nothing else, the Ground Zero Mosque is at least an attempt to go beyond dialogue, which has been exhaustive and relatively unproductive in the years since 2001. Daisy Khan from ASMA noted,

There is a lot of ignorance about who Muslims are. A center like this will be dedicated to removing that ignorance and it will also counter the extremists because moderate Muslims need a voice. Their voices need to be amplified.

So I’ll echo Spencer when I say, Build The Ground Zero Mosque.

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