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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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Displaced by Nature

If you haven’t been following the news on the Hunza Valley landslide and the potential floods from the lake in Attabad, this photo from the Boston Globe’s Big Picture series may inspire you to learn more:

Reuters Image

The caption on the Globe reads, “A girl cries while sitting with others to protest against the government’s failure to announce compensation for those displaced by a lake created after a landslide …in Hunza district… on May 22, 2010.”

Heartbreaking.

The development has created a new wave of people in Pakistan displaced not by violence but by nature. The landslide in Hunza Valley occurred on January 4, 2010 and buried Attabad Village, destroying 26 homes, killing 20 people, and damming up the Hunza River. In the five months since the landslide, authorities have struggled to evacuate residents living in dozens of villages by the lake formed by the disaster, which is now over 300 feet deep and 16km (10 mi) long, “submerging miles of highway, farms and homes.” Last week, the lake reportedly reached the top of the natural dam currently in place, and began to spill out, causing rapid erosion of the landslide debris.

According to news agencies, water levels are now considered critical (and rising, in part due to glacier melting) and if it “bursts its banks,” experts fear it could inundate more than 39 villages in the Hunza and Gilgit region. According to Al Jazeera, army engineers had created a canal late last month in an effort to drain the lake, but “a rapid breach” could still lead to massive flooding, which “could affect about 50,000 people downstream and sever a road serving as an important trade link with China.”

So essentially, we should all still be on flood watch, (despite some reports claiming a decrease in water flow).

The human impact of this situation is even more tragic. So far, about 20,000 people living in villages downstream have been evacuated and shifted to IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. The News yesterday quoted a special adviser to the Prime Minister, who told reporters that so far 23 camps have been set up for the affected families, and promised a compensation package for those who have lost their homes or are displaced. This announcement followed a protest two weeks ago, when residents claimed the government was “apathetic” and “indifferent” to their situation, and relief items and compensation had not come soon enough.

In an interesting news package yesterday, Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder also reported on the impact of the landslide on the region’s tourism industry, which was of course already affected by the security situation. Despite the violence, some travelers still made the trek to the Hunza and Gilgit areas. However, the January landslide and the formed lake have cut off the Karakoram Highway, blocking the road link between Pakistan and China. This could prevent visitors from traveling into the area and may add “further loss to an already threatened business.”

As someone who has traveled the Karakoram Highway to the Chinese border and has seen Pakistan’s natural beauty firsthand, I think this development is not just a loss for the tourism industry, but also for the many travelers who made the trip to Pakistan’s northern areas despite the violence and instability, [see here for a Q&A with my friend Roland, who led a kayaking expedition down the Indus River last year]. As for the numerous people displaced from their homes, I can only pray that the situation is somehow controlled.

In the meantime, if you know of good and credible organizations for people to donate to support those affected by the disaster, please leave your recommendations in the comments and I’ll add it to this post.

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Souks and the City

"Cheers to another Crappy Movie! Shukran!" Image from The Stranger

On an overly ostentatious airplane enroute to Abu Dhabi, everyone’s favorite no-nonsense lawyer Miranda says to the stewardess, “Haan ji. That means ‘yes’ [in Arabic].”

Sitting in the dark movie theater amid throngs of estrogen, I sucked in my breath and muttered, Here we go.

I have long been a fan of Sex and the City, the HBO series that followed four women in New York City through love, life, and career highs and lows. And I was not alone. Women everywhere are avid fans of the show, embracing each character as an extension of themselves, as friends they felt they knew for years.

It was this loyalty that drove me to see Sex and the City 2 last weekend, despite having hated the first film, and despite knowing the rumored Muslim stereotypes I’d be witnessing. I held my breath and hoped the “stereotypes” I had read about in reviews were harmless attempts by Hollywood to exoticize the Middle East. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

It was worse.

Most of the film was set in Abu Dhabi, the more responsible Emirate brother of Dubai, (though SATC2 was actually filmed in Morocco, see my sister’s related report for CNN). Samantha, oversexed-borderline-menopausal PR executive, was offered an all-expenses paid trip to the glittery city, so of course she took her girls along for the ride. Miranda instantly became the Britannica Encyclopedia of everything Middle East, with “Whoah-you’d-never-guess” factoids about the burka, niqab, the Arabic language, and even the burkini (yes, even the burkini made an entrance). I am sure if we slow motion rewound some of the scenes, we’d hear SATC creator Darren Star and director Michael Patrick King chanting, “Who’s culturally sensitive?! We are! America, Eff Yeah!

But cultural sensitivity might be appreciated if it was actually done properly. Instead, the Arab culture references were sprinkled throughout the script more to polarize this foreign and mysterious “other” than to truly inform a Western audience about the nuances of Islam and the Middle East. Wajahat Ali said it best when he noted at Salon.com,

Our four female cultural avatars, like imperialistic Barbies, milk Abu Dhabi for leisure and hedonism without making any discernible, concrete efforts to learn about her people and their daily lives. An exception is Miranda, whose IQ drops about 100 points as she dilutes the vast complexities of a diverse culture into sound bites like this: “‘Hanh Gee’ means ‘yes’ in Arabic!” Only it doesn’t — it’s Hindi and Punjabi, which is spoken by South Asians.

Upon their arrival in Abu Dhabi, Miranda also incorrectly affirms that all women in the Middle East have to cover themselves [with a bejeweled burqa]. As Carrie looks on in horror at an Arab woman attempting to eat a french fry underneath her veil, Samantha states, “It’s like they don’t want [women] to have a voice.”

A couple points. First – not all women in the Middle East are covered. Saudi Arabia? Yes. But have you ever seen a Lebanese music video? Have you walked down the street in Cairo? Modesty may be key to most Islamic societies, but that doesn’t mean all women wear the niqab. Despite the diversity of women in the region – some covered, others not, some conservative, others liberal or moderate – the film instead portrayed a sea of silenced Muslim females shroud in black, sentenced to shove one french fry at a time underneath their veil. Poor, poor, hungry, Muzzy women.

Second – not all people in the Middle East are Muslims, and certainly not all Muslims are in the Middle East. For the love of God, do we still have to make that point? Abu Dhabi is not a representative of the entire “Muslim World.”

Third – Samantha [*cough* Star & King] may think that women are not allowed a voice, but if they had one, would they want to sound like her? The sexually empowered menopausal woman who screams, “Lawrence of My-Labia”? The one who throws condoms at angry souk men yelling, “I am a woman! I have sex!”? Somehow strung-out mental patient comes more to mind than empowered, opinionated woman.

I walked into the film not thinking I’d care so much about negative Muslim stereotypes. Sex and the City, (the show) for many women, was an escape from reality, a glittery and glamorous life we all wish we could live, with women we all wish we could be friends with.

But it was also a deeper discussion of issues we all faced but had not raised with each other. Sex and the City symbolized, for all its fans, woman empowerment through sisterhood. And while the second film was an attempt to enforce that idea, through the foursome’s journey to Abu Dhabi, it also failed to find a similar and deeper connection with women in that part of the world. Instead of the film using its ‘girl power’ appeal to explore the nuances and truly engage the Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern woman, it polarized them as the “other,” victims of an oppressive patriarchal society. Ali, in his Salon.com piece, concluded, “After completely dissing the Middle East, its people, its religion and its culture, it’s “Sex and the City” that truly insults the Muslim women, by silencing them entirely.”

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Reuters/Dawn Image

Last week, brutal attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore killed nearly 100 people, and wounded nearly 150 people. The attacks garnered a wave of responses from the media, and many of my fellow bloggers noted how such a tragedy was the culmination of years of discrimination against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community. Below, Madiha Kark, a Pakistani who is pursuing her masters in journalism in Texas, shares her very personal perspective on the attacks:

I am an Ahmadi. Since I was a little girl, I have walked into the mosques that were plundered on May 28. Holding my father’s finger in one hand and fixing my dupatta with the other, the six year old me sat and listened to the ‘khutba’ (Friday sermon), in the same halls that were covered by the blood of my brothers, uncles and family friends last week.

I grew up hearing of the atrocities committed against my ancestors, how sons were tortured in front of their mothers, how husbands were dragged on stone roads while their wives watched and sobbed from within the house, how sisters were raped in front of their brothers. For me these were stories of a history, tales of gallantry and heroism, of conviction and strong faith, tales of a time that had no effect on me. But today these stories are no longer history, they resonate a past that characterizes Pakistan’s flawed human rights.

The brutal attacks last Friday left 92 dead and 150 injured. Within 24 hours, the same attackers brought their wrath on innocent people admitted in the Intensive Care (ICU) and Critical Care Units (CCU) in Jinnah Hospital who had sustained injuries in the mosques. Many of my cousins, my kin and blood relatives were present in those mosques last week. While some managed to escape, others were wounded and more lost their lives.

One cannot deny the fact that religious extremists have a disregard for the sanctity of life or the teachings of Islam, or that state funded madrassas preach human barbarianism by brainwashing teenage boys to kill in the name of God. The Ahmadiyya predicament however is different. The targeting of minorities and other religious factions in Pakistan have increased considerably in recent years, but atrocities on Ahmadis have occurred throughout the history of Pakistan, most notably in 1953, 1974, and the 1980s. The laws that discriminate against Ahmadis have been part of the Constitution for almost three decades now. [Editor's Note: Also see Tazeen's post and Chapati Mystery for more background on these laws.]

Currently, Pakistan’s Constitution contains several articles specifically discriminating Ahmadis. Article 298B and 298C state that any Ahmadi who “directly or indirectly poses himself as a Muslim, or refers to his faith as Islam, or propagates his faith by words either written or spoken, or by visible representations, or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims shall be punished with imprisonment for up to three years.” The laws extend to barring Ahmadis from saying Assalam-o-Alikum (peace be on you) or calling their places of worship a masjid (mosque). No other minority in the world is subject to such discriminatory laws.

The day after these attacks, two Ahmadis were stabbed to death. The father died on the spot and the son was transported to a hospital in a serious condition. Drive down Mall Road (in front of the Punjab state assembly offices) in Lahore today and you will see banners inciting hatred against the Ahmadi community and urging the killing of Ahmadis. Extremist religious organizations convene conferences on the topic of Ahmadiyya persecution and their status as non Muslims. Religious leaders routinely announce on broadcast television that the killing of an Ahmadi is indeed a pious attack. The passport and the NIC (national identity card) demand mandatory signatures affirming “Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiyani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to Lahori Party or Ahmadi or Qadiyani group, to be non Muslim.” The Ahmadiyya community has historically been subjected to a legitimized discrimination that no other community faces in Pakistan.

These blatant signs of hatred are witnessed by the people, bureaucracy and the judiciary on a daily basis. Media and politicians refuse to take a stand on the issue because if they even dare to highlight some of these atrocities and injustices, they are subsequently labeled “Ahmadis.” As a result, many public figures have had to publicly and categorically deny that they are Ahmadis, because it has been drilled into the Pakistani psyche that Ahmadis are disloyal to their country and have a hidden agenda in whatever they do.

I am proud to be an Ahmadi. Ahmadis are instilled with high patriotism and strong respect for their nation. Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize winner Dr. Abdus Salaam was exiled from his country because of his religious beliefs. Chaudry Zafarullah Khan, who served as the first foreign minister to Pakistan, was also discriminated against for his religious beliefs. These extraordinary men  served their country even if their country refused to serve them.

In the face of fierce and repeated state sanctioned persecution, the Ahmadiyya community has always maintained a peaceful stance. The community refuses to demand anything from the state or any person in the government because they have repeatedly claimed to rely on God alone to help them through any difficult challenge. However, this does not mean the government is absolved of any responsibility to protect them.

I need our nation’s supposed guardians to stop making hollow promises and stand up, be courageous enough to take a firm stance against the persecution of Ahmadis. You say it is not God who lies in my heart, but tell me does He live in your heart? You who kill His people in His home, do you think God lives in you?

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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