Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Pakistan Goes to the Oscars

Image from the Guardian: Dr. Jawad examines Zakia's Face

Tomorrow is Oscar day. If you are anything like me, you watch as many Oscar-nominated films as humanly possible (while still, of course, maintaining some semblance of a life) and hope your favorite movies walk away with the coveted trophy.

The Oscars are it, the last pit stop in the awards season, the culmination of all that was brilliant in film that year. This year, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy became the first Pakistani to ever garner an Academy Award nomination. Her documentary, Saving Face, co-directed with Daniel Junge, is up for the Oscar in the short documentary category. The film delves into the issue of acid attacks through the lens of the women affected by tragedy and the doctor trying to help them. In Pakistan, there are 100 acid attacks reported each year, but many cases go unreported, the victims instead relegated to the shadows of society.

Saving Face follows two women who chose not to remain silent. Zakia was horrifically injured after her husband, a drug addict, threw undiluted battery acid on her after she tried to divorce him. In the film, Zakia’s husband, who was in jail following the crime, called the charges against him a “conspiracy,” stating that his wife was his and it was “a matter of dignity.” The crimes against Rukhsana, who is just 25 years old, were also perpetrated by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who lit her on fire and locked her in a room. When asked for his account of the attack, her husband Yasir claimed Rukhsana had a temper and high blood pressure and threw acid on herself. He added, “99 percent of [these women] throw acid on themselves.”

The stories are woven into the larger narrative, but also are documented as a journey for retribution. Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon in London, works to help these women become a part of society again. On Zakia, he performed the first surgery of its kind in Pakistan. The Guardian noted, “He used Matriderm to smooth her ravaged face, gave her a pair of glasses with a painted eye and attached a prosthetic nose, allowing her finally to show her face in public.” The results are extraordinary for a woman who had stopped showing her face in public (instead covering it with a burqa and sunglasses), whose life had previously been stolen by her husband’s atrocities.

The beauty of Saving Face was in its very human and nuanced portrayal of all its characters. Zakia was not just a victim of an acid attack, a faceless woman both literally and figuratively. She was a survivor, someone strong enough to fight against the system. During the film, her husband was found guilty of his crimes, receiving two life sentences. Her case was the first to be tried under the new law passed unanimously by Pakistan’s Parliament (and tirelessly pushed forward by the Acid Survivors Foundation and  MNA Marvi Memon). Rukhsana’s story was more bittersweet but reflected the tragic reality facing most acid victims. Many, like Rukhsana, are forced to live with their attackers, mainly for economic reasons.

This speaks to the complexities that exist in societies like Pakistan, where attitudes towards domestic violence (honor-related or not) and victims, are a very large part of the problem. Lack of economic opportunities, social stigma, and safety problems among others all act as significant obstacles for survivors of these attacks. While passing legislation to give their attackers life imprisonment is an important top-down step, there is much more that needs to be done to address the symptoms behind this problem. We need to do more than just be prescriptive.

I watched the film yesterday evening. I expected to cry, to be horrified and indignant for the state of our society, for the crimes committed daily against women in their own homes and by their own family. But I did not expect to also walk away with a deep and lingering sense of hope. Dr. Jawad’s compassion and charm jumped off the screen, and his deep relationships with both Zakia and Rukhsana were touching. After having a baby boy, Rukhsana told Jawad she had named him Mohammed with hopes that he would grow up to be a doctor just like him. Zakia’s son was also a strong but silent character woven beautifully into the narrative. Though he did not speak during the film, he stood constantly by his mother’s side, a small example of how all is not black and white in these stories.

In a segment for NBC News, Sharmeen, who has previously won an Emmy for her documentary Children of the Taliban, told NBC’s Amna Nawaz, “I fell in love the first time we put the cameras on, and it was because I could see the colors, the textures, the language, the beauty and the heartache that could just transcend all barriers.” The purpose of this documentary, she noted to the Washington Post, was to educate people about acid attacks in Pakistan, but also to recalibrate attitudes towards honor violence. She said, “We wanted men to know they think it is manly to throw acid, but in fact it was the most unmanly thing to do.”

As a Pakistani, I am incredibly proud of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her much-deserved nomination. But I am also proud of the characters in the film, who were all larger-than-life in their capacity to love, to fight, and to live. We all can learn many lessons from them. At the end of Saving Face, Dr. Jawad noted, “I’m part of this society that has this disease. I’m doing my bit. Come join the party.”

The Oscars will air tomorrow evening (EST), and Saving Face will be shown on HBO on March 8th. Sharmeen, you have an entire country behind you. And we are all rooting for you.

UPDATE 2045 EST: Sharmeen just won the Oscar – AHHHHH!!! Pakistan’s first Oscar – SO PROUD!

Horrible quality photo, but I was too excited to take a good one of my television!

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The Palestyle Clutch (Source: Fashion Compassion)

When was the last time you looked down at your trendy-but-questionable harem pants and asked yourself, “Where did these come from?” No, they did not claw its way out of the ’90s, fresh from an MC Hammer video, as much as your friends might like to tell you (don’t worry, they’re just jealous). Aladdin didn’t call, asking for his pants back (honestly, you might need new friends). No, harem-pants person. Those pants were the result of a long and complex value chain, and in some instances, players (often the people making the garments in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan), were exploited in the process. The ethical fashion movement aims to address and remedy some of these issues – many labels using fair trade or ethical practices or producing eco-friendly products. Ayesha Mustafa is the Pakistani founder of Fashion ComPassion, a UK-based ethical online retailer that markets socially responsible luxury brands. In the eight months since Fashion ComPassion was established, she has worked with companies like Polly & Me (with Chitrali women in Pakistan), Palestyle (with Palestinian refugee women), and Beshtar (Afghanistan). Below, she tell us more about her organization:

Q: What inspired you to establish Fashion ComPassion? How did your past interests or background converge for the creation of this innovative organization?

Fashion and giving back to society have been my two biggest passions and Fashion ComPassion is a combination of the two. I had been toying with the idea of creating my own fashion company for awhile, and just decided I needed to make that call and switch careers.

Growing up in Pakistan and the Middle East where one sees discrepancies in wealth, poverty, and a lack of opportunities for girls and women, I wanted to create a platform that could directly support the most marginalized. I also interned at Grameen Bank when I was 17 and saw the transformational impact it had on women, their families and society. This stayed with me and throughout my life, I have worked and volunteered with organizations that supported women causes/rights.

Q: Fashion ComPassion currently supports four labels with four different influences – Polly & Me from Pakistan, Palestyle that empowers Palestinian refugee women, Beshtar from Afghanistan, and Savannah Chic, which is designed by African artists. How did you go about forming these partnerships and did you initially want Fashion ComPassion to be global in scope?

The mandate of the company is to create a platform for women artisans in the developing world, i.e Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so from the onset I wanted it to be global but focus on countries that are war-torn and where there is a real need to help and empower women. I started with a vision document about the company and first i approached Polly & Me, and the rest just fell into place with research and referrals from friends and family.

Currently, I have added new brands in the portfolio: (1) Bhalo is a limited edition clothing and accessories label that works with women in Bangladesh. The products are made from ethically hand woven and naturally dyed cottons and silks. Bhalo works with two fair trade organizations, and provides employment, healthcare, child care to women who otherwise would not be employed due to mass production. Bhalo works with the same fair trade organization as People Tree. (2) Lost City is a NY label that works with artisans in Lucknow, India to revive their traditional craftsmanship with contemporary style.

I am no longer working with Polly & Me and Savannah Chic at the moment and in the midst of creating a new online website for the garments and goods.

Q: According to your philosophy, “Not only do we source responsibly from brands that contribute to society and empower women, our aim is to also donate a percentage of our sales to charities that support marginalized women in various communities around the world…” How does Fashion ComPassion do the due diligence in ensuring their brands empower women? What charities do you currently support?

We have strict criteria when we look at brands to partner with and support. Some of the things we look at are:

  1. Why was the company formed? Was it created to address a social problem, and what is the mission or mandate of the company?
  2. Does it have a strong social development ethos?
  3. How is fashion and social development combined to form the label?
  4. Does the brand work or partner with any local fair trade or women right organizations?
  5. How are the artisans paid?
  6. What are their working conditions?
  7. Are the artisans trained and given creative guidance?
  8. Are they given any other assistance in terms of health care or child care?
  9. Does the label support the community and give a certain percentage back?
  10. Can the label provide evidence and documents to support how they are helping and empowering the women they work with?

Fashion ComPassion is also committed to give back 2% of its annual profits to various women organizations that are fostering positive change and impact on women. I am looking at three at the moment, but since I am part of Women for Women International’s Junior Leadership circle, I would like to help with one of the countries they are setting up a Country Office in or a project they are focusing on.

Q: Where do you see Fashion ComPassion in the next year? In the next five years?

In the coming year, I would like to build greater awareness of Fashion ComPassion and its brands by focusing on various events and collaborations with organizations that have a similar mandate. The new website will be launched with an online shop which will allow customers to buy products directly. I am also looking at pop up stores to sell some of the brands.

In the long term, because my biggest industry inspiration is Joan Burstein, the founder of Browns, I want to make Fashion ComPassion follow Brown’s footsteps and be the one-stop shop for high-end and unique ethical fashion.

Q: The convergence of fashion and social impact is a really fascinating marriage right now with organizations like Elvis & Kresse and Goodone, which supply ethical and eco-friendly clothing to fashion stores. In the value chain, how does Fashion ComPassion market these brands to the larger or more mainstream markets?

Fashion ComPassion’s purpose is to bring together high-end socially responsible brands from the developing world and create a market for it in the UK and other countries like the US. We are starting with an online website that will sell to customers globally, we also organize events at galleries, boutiques, and form partnerships with other ethical fashion brands and women organizations. We have also taken part in fashion shows and plan to be part of trade shows for ethical fashion. With time, we plan to supply our brands to other online fashion sites in the U.S. and ethical fashion boutiques there.

Q: What has been the reaction so far to Fashion ComPassion? What has been your biggest success and failure so far?

The reaction so far has been phenomenal. I honestly didn’t except such a positive response from customers, press, retailers and other individuals. I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have had it not been for the help and support of numerous people that have believed in me and the company.

The Beshtar Burqa Dress (Source: Fashion ComPassion)

My biggest success was when Beshtar’s Burqa Dress was one of the pieces of Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge. In less than three months since I started the company, the dress was included in this prestigious selection which included some of the most well-known designers that are working on their ethical lines.

I wouldn’t call it a failure but not being able to find the right socially responsible brand from Pakistan that I can work with and make a name for in the UK. This is something that I am researching and have talked to various individuals in Pakistan both in social development and fashion. I hope that very soon, I can get a brand from my own country and create a positive image of Pakistan through fashion.

You can become a learn more about Fashion ComPassion by visiting their website or joining their Facebook page

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The White Standard of Beauty

Say it Ain't So, Shahrukh.

I don’t know about you, but this commercial for Fair & Lovely, a skin “lightening” (*cough* whitening *cough* Michael Jackson) cream made me gag:

Essentially, the girl’s obstacle to attaining her dream job was…wait for it…her darker skin. And what got her the dream job? Wait, wait, I know! It was her Fair & Lovely skin cream!

Oh dear God.

I came across this video (made for the Middle Eastern market) after watching an interview a friend and fellow blogger Anushay Hossain did with Canadian channel CBC last week. In a segment entitled, “Bollywood in Toronto,” they discussed the skin-lightening issue and how the Bollywood culture perpetuates a “white” or Caucasian standard of beauty. According to Anushay, the demand for these creams has actually increased in the last few years, up 18% in 2009 and 25% last year. The Loreal country manager for India, she noted, also has said that 60-65% of Indian women use these creams on daily basis.

We’ve talked about this issue before on CHUP, when contributor Maria Saadat wrote,

We belong to an age where dark beauties like Rani Mukherjee and Bipasha Basu sizzle on screen, and fake tanner is sold by the millions in the U.S. so that lighter-skinned ladies can achieve the bronzed glow most of us Pakistanis are born with. The whole world is trying to go darker, yet our society is still hung up on what products or methods to use to become just a few shades paler. Who do we blame for this? Should we condemn advertisers hawking skin-lightening products to the working classes with the promise that success will come with fair skin? Should we point fingers at our great grandparents who passed their own prejudices down to the younger generations?

In her interview, Anushay called this type of behavior and adherence to such standards a “colonial hangover.” But why do these remnants remain, these pervasive inferiority complexes and shards of self-hatred? Is it a function of our colonial past, or can it be more simply traced to our more transnational present – where the beauty standard is arbitrarily decided for us, then packaged and shipped across cultures and boundaries? The fact that skin color has deeper societal roots, linked to class and caste, further reflects the complexity of this issue.

This is not just a South Asian problem.

At a beauty salon not too long ago, a frenzy occurred when a Vietnamese woman walked in. As the crowd around the woman gathered in excitement, another Vietnamese manicurist turned to me and whispered conspiratorially, “Ah. Yeah. She just got back from Vietnam. She got her eyes done. And she got dimples.” The Financial Times noted in an article last year, “Across Asia there are cultural traditions – from the chalking of geishas’ faces in Japan, to the effects of Spanish colonisation in the Philippines where dark and light skin continues to be polarized on the social scale – that reflect and reinforce the idea that the fairer the skin, the better.”

My African American friend and I recently had a related discussion about similar standards of beauty in the African American community, and how it has influenced women’s perceptions of their hair texture and skin color. In The Bluest Eye, author Toni Morrison commented on how society inflicts on its members “an inappropriate standard of beauty and worth, a standard that mandates that to be loved one must meet the absolute ‘white’ standard of blond hair and blue eyes.” Despite efforts like Black is Beautiful, a 1960s movement to address self-hatred, and Brown is Beautiful, a campaign to embrace more Native American-Mestizo features, communities all continue to strive for a standard that is manufactured and forced.

Beauty, even for “white” people, (who, let’s face it, also are trying to fit the mold), is often depicted as unattainable.

In South Asia, the supply for lightening creams continues because demand persists, even for men’s products. The men’s version of Fair & Lovely – Fair & Handsome – made $13 million in sales in 2008. See this ad below (the tagline: Women are attracted to fair and handsome men. So be one of them. Gag.)

Bollywood’s Shahrukh Khan is the brand ambassador to Fair & Handsome. Although this endorsement earned Khan criticism, it does point to the notion that Bollywood and local celebrities can play a role in reframing the beauty standard, and challenging the current demand. But reframing also means diversifying. There should never be one standard of beauty, for any culture or race. Period. But because that is way easier said than done, and nothing can be changed overnight, I’ll instead allow for further discussion on this topic. Converse away.

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Via the Huffington Post

Just two weeks ago, Pakistan’s Supreme Court delivered a stunning sentence – acquitting five of the six men who had gang raped Mukhtar Mai, a woman brave enough to not only tell her story, but give voice to other voiceless and abused victims of sexual violence. Despite the news cycle unanimously shifting its attention to the death of Osama bin Laden, the recent developments surrounding the Mukhtar Mai case are still newsworthy, and deserve continued attention. Below, Hamza Khan, a political consultant based in Washington, D.C. who tweets @TheModernRumi, weighs in with his opinion on the decision:

On April 22, the Pakistan Supreme Court issued a decision acquitting five convicted gang-rapists in the Mukhtar Mai case, citing “a lack of evidence.”

The decision was a horrific ending to a courageous woman’s nine year struggle for dignity and justice in a country that appears to value neither.

In the face of overwhelming physical evidence, hundreds of witnesses, and even a signed confession, a bench of three men acquitted without merit five out of six other men convicted of the gang rape of a woman who has since been subject to harassment, illegal detainment, and psychological torture in her decade long struggle for justice.

My mother is a Pakistani, and I was in Pakistan visiting family when Mukhtar Mai’s case broke in the news. Today, I write as her son to share my vitriolic outrage, and to say that this case is personal for me. It’s personal for sons who have mothers, and all brothers who have sisters. The story of Mukhtaran Mai is the story of all women–and men–who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence.

Mai’s ordeal began in 2002 when a ‘panchayat‘ [assembly] in her native village of Meerwala decided to punish her 12 year old brother for either disrespecting or having an affair with a female member of the Jatoi clan–the allegations have not always been clear.

The subsequent ruling by this alternative judicial forum was two-fold: Mukhtaran Mai’s brother would be anally raped (sodomized), and she would be gang-raped by six men in front of onlookers and made to parade naked in the streets.

What’s curious to mention here is the blatant disregard for proving the allegations against Mukhratan Mai’s brother to be  true. The panchayat made no attempts to verify the presented evidence, and instead proceeded on hearsay– ironically similar to how the Supreme Court of Pakistan would later rule that its lower courts convicted the panchayat‘s members without hard evidence.

Moreover, while the conviction of Mukhtaran Mai’s brother by tribal and local elders had no solid evidence beyond hearsay, there were over 50 witnesses to the gang-rape itself, and over 100 witnesses stood by as a naked, humiliated Mukhtaran Mai emerged from the hovel where she was raped. This recent Supreme Court decision is therefore tainted by male privilege and petty revenge.

These ills are rooted in something much more repugnant than cultural tradition. Pakistan is a country where less than five percent of all cases of violence against women end in conviction.

Mukhtar Mai is just the latest victim of a vicious political cycle dominated by boys with toys whose indifference towards women puts to shame even the misogyny on display by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s Amazonian Guard or Italian premier Sylvio Beresculoni’s incessant affairs with teenagers.

Last year, reports show a double digit increase in gang-rapes across the country, and one-third of all victims in Pakistan were raped by multiple persons (i.e., gang raped). More than half the country’s rapes were minors,  and 43% of rape victims last year were under the age of 16. Every two hours there is a rape in Pakistan. Every eight, that rape is a gang-rape. We are witnessing in real-time the moral decay of an entire nation, and no one seems to know just what to do to stop it.

Mukhtaran Mai has announced her decision to appeal the apex court’s verdict for review. Whatever the outcome, she now lives only a few miles away from the tribal elders who took her as property and object, not flesh and bone like their own mothers. It is only until Pakistanis confront the deep enmity their society is developing for their mothers and sisters and wives that the country will truly begin to heal from the disasters it has faced in succession over the past few 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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This past Monday, CHUP posted a contribution by Nabiha Meher Sheikh who argued why she was for the recent burqa ban in France. Below, Sahar Khan, a doctoral student in political science at University of California-Irvine, argues why she is against the ban:

On April 11, 2011, France became the first European country to ban the burqa. If a woman in France is found wearing a burqa or covering her face, she will be fined 150 euros or will have to take special citizenship classes (“How To Be French For Dummies”?). There are certain challenges to enforcing the ban though: it is not clear if women found in violation will be jailed or not. Furthermore, people found to be forcing women to wear a burqa will be fined 30,000 euros and perhaps twice as much if the girl is a minor. All in all only about 2000 women will be affected— a pretty small population. So why are we all talking about it?

Personally, the ban made me dwell on was the concept of citizenship itself. According to Christian Joppke in his book Citizenship and Immigration, mass migration has caused tensions between universal human rights and the concept of citizenship since the end of World War II. According Article 15 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” Yet, states have a right to decline someone nationality if they wish, which sounds reasonable enough when considering that citizenship can be exclusivist and actually quite undemocratic because one is born into citizenship (unless you’re an Arab Bedouin but I digress).

In line with that logic, a state has an obligation to protect its citizens from external and internal threats. In France’s case then, does the state have the right to ban a certain group from dressing as it pleases in the name of protecting its national identity and security? Isn’t this ban a violation of the liberal norms of free speech and expression? The answers to both of these are complex but it should be made clear that there is a fine line between protection and authoritarianism, and France has just stepped to the latter.

France is a unique country and its secularism is dominated by laïcité, a concept from the Enlightenment that aims to force religion out of politics. By banning the burqa, however, France has brought it into politics. I think the ban will actually make France more insecure for two reasons. First, it seems that France is not just intolerant of its religious minority population but is in fact intolerant of all religion. This is problematic because religion is a dominant force in modern politics, just as secularism is. Trying to make one of these disappear is somewhat impossible. Second, this will create bigger challenges for France with respect to immigration. Most immigrants feel isolated, alienated, and hence disloyal. A ban like this will only deepen these feelings, which will have negative consequences in the long run.

The burqa has issues of its own. First, it is not a requirement in Islam. The only requirement is for women to dress modestly, which can be interpreted in numerous ways. Second, the burqa hides one’s identity, which is obviously a security issue. Third, it is an apparent health risk and many women wearing the veil have been diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiencies, (seriously). Fourth, it is certainly used as a tool to suppress women. However, on the state level, Saudi Arabia is the ONLY country that REQUIRES its women to wear it. By banning the veil, France has become the national counterpart to the kingdom, and I am not sure that was a position France wanted to be in.

This ban disappointed me in the same way the minaret ban in Switzerland did. No doubt, numerous Muslim countries are intolerant and openly prejudice against their ethnic and/or religious minorities, prohibiting Hindu temples and Bohri and Ahmadi mosques from being built. Instead of exhibiting tolerance, Switzerland acted just like these countries by banning the minaret in the name of secularism. And now France has done the same. Banning is also not historically the best solution.

I am not brainwashed nor uninformed nor uneducated. I am, however, a critical observer and feel that laws like these do not solve anything but create even more problems.

 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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Insert Three Cups Pun Here

The below post was first published in Dawn News’ blog this morning and was entitled, “Mortenson’s half-truths”:

Greg Mortenson is a mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, a New York Times bestselling author, and a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

If we are to believe the recent 60 Minutes investigation and Jon Krakaeur’s report Three Cups of Deceit, he is also a liar.

Last Sunday, the news programme released a damning report on Mortenson, claiming that some of his most inspirational stories in his books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools were either exaggerated or completely fabricated. Moreover, a financial statement from the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which Mortenson co-founded in 1996 and is acting executive director, show that only 41% of funds raised actually went towards schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the American Center for Philanthropy, a charity watchdog, CAI claims that $1.7 million was spent on Mortenson’s “book-related expenses,” more than they spent on all of their schools in Pakistan last year.

Since the report aired, a flurry of news reports, opinion pieces, and statements have been released. Mortenson’s long-time critics feel vindicated. His fans are justifiably angry. And there are some who still cling to the possibility that the presented evidence either isn’t true, or doesn’t matter.

Mortenson’s response to the investigation has been vague and frankly, unsatisfying. In a piece for the Express Tribune Monday, he wrote,

 …the story framed by “60 Minutes” — as far as we can tell — paints a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year’s (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few points in Three Cups of Tea, that occurred almost 18 years ago.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle cited another statement, in which he emphasized, “I stand by the information conveyed in my book.”

And yet Mortenson also conceded that one of the disputed events in the book — how he ended up in Korphe, where he built the first of more than 100 schools — was “a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”

He also has not addressed the troubling revelation that the 1996 photo of his alleged Taliban kidnappers were, in fact, not Taliban at all. One of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is actually a well-respected research director of the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. Mahsud recently told the Daily Beast, “[Mortenson] just wanted to sell books because by 2006 everyone wanted to know about the Taliban and Waziristan…He thought this was a good chance to cash in.”

You may argue that Mortenson’s half-truths and lies were all part of the storytelling process, that his heart was still in the right place, that his intentions were good. But Mortenson ultimately based his entire narrative on a lie. The reason why American housewives and school children alike were drawn to his inspirational story, why they opened their wallets and gave blindly to “save” schoolgirls in Afghanistan and Pakistan was – at the end of the day – a sham. And if he could lie about the very foundation of his success, we have no choice but to doubt everything.

As the dust settles, there is a desire to point fingers and portion blame. Mortenson and CAI deserve the brunt of the anger, for not only veiling the public from reality, but also for using sentimental literature to garner funds, money that was allegedly misappropriated for personal gain.

We should also use this as an opportunity to look inwards at ourselves, at our ability to get carried away by a charismatic personality and digestible narrative, in which Mortenson was the John Smith in the Pakistani version of Pocahontas. Rather than society questioning whether good intentions truly equaled good aid, we gave him a platform, feeling warm and fuzzy for the part we indirectly played in saving schoolchildren. This thinking is endemic of a larger problem with charity and non-profit giving, in which show ponies and personalities often sweep us off our feet. We forget that we must demand transparency, and that we need to go beyond giving, remembering instead to give well. We need to remember the people – in this case the children – who our money should ultimately be going to. This means supporting institutions and organizations that aren’t built on personality alone, but on community engagement and sustainability.

I never donated to CAI, and I still feel cheated. I can only imagine how Mortenson’s supporters must feel.

Other great op-eds related to the Mortenson debacle:

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Source: Illume Mag

Beginning on April 11, France began enforcing the controversial burqa ban, fining and arresting women who fail to comply and continue to wear the burqa or the niqab – the full face veil. The country is now the first European Union nation to enforce the ban, and the law as well as the corresponding debate have ignited supporters and critics on either side. Below, Nabiha Meher Sheikh, a freelance writer based in Lahore, explains why she supports the ban:

I support the burqa ban. There, I said it. As someone from a Muslim family that banned any sex segregation or dress code four generations ago, this ban is a positive development. Allow me to use my own family’s example to explain why.

My grandmother belonged to an ancient Muslim family, known as the Mian family of Bhagbanpura, who claim they arrived here in the 8th century. They were also known as the Mad Mians due to their eccentricity and the fact that the birth of a baby girl was at times celebrated with more gusto than a boy. The family has been called “matriarchal” because of the overwhelming amount of strong women who cannot be told what to do. It is shocking for those who have never seen a family where women are not secondary to the men, where even inheritance is divided equally and not according to patriarchal norms.

According to sources, the Mians settled in Lahore over a thousand years ago and until today, are all buried in an ancient graveyard behind the Shalimar gardens in Bhagbanpura. I’ve always admired them because they have never been afraid to evolve and adapt. Moreover, unlike relatively recent converts, the Mians never felt the need to “prove” how Muslim they were. They were, and still are, safe and secure in their identity.

However, this wasn’t always the case. The Mians, like most Punjabi families, were once deeply patriarchal. The women were kept in the home, married off very young and were expected to be breeding machines for the clan. They were silent, hidden away, and voiceless. In contrast, the Mian women today aren’t faced with the same pressures of marriage and children. We are educated, empowered, and highly independent. The men in the family do not believe they have the right to control us or tell us what to do.

All this changed because of one simple broken tradition: banning the veil. In my opinion, the veil is a symbol of patriarchy, of male dominance and is based on the principle that women’s God given bodies are not meant to be seen for they will lead to chaos. The presence of women in the public sphere threatens patriarchal symbols and patriarchal norms. The easiest way to oppress us is to lock us away or make us invisible under burqas if we dare invade that space.

Begum Iffat Ara, Nabihas Dadi (paternal grandmother)

My grandmother had as many rights as the men in her family. In the 1940s, she married a man she chose, one who treated her as his equal and not his subordinate. She was also more educated than the vast majority of women in India at the time. She was fierce, strong and independent, riding horses in breeches, sword in hand. She had the freedom to do things that arguably many in burqa do not. They do not get to feel the wind in their hair. They are faceless objects of patriarchy’s triumph over women.

The burqa, in my opinion, is indoctrination and not a choice. Someone who is brainwashed to believe that it is a choice will always maintain that it is. I say this because it’s not an Islamic requirement. As a Muslim feminist, I believe that in order to get ahead, we have to constantly reinterpret for ourselves. The re-emergence of the burqa should be condemned in the loudest possible terms. We should not let anyone take us back to where we become objects to be concealed instead of active citizens. While I know my views may be controversial, I believe that encouraging the burqa drags us back into the past.

France is a secular democracy. The people have spoken, Islamophobic or not, and their message is loud and clear. It is not the “we don’t like your kind” message propagated by those with a persecution complex, but a plea to assimilate and become part of French culture instead of living in isolated bubbles. The world is tired of our persecution complex and I don’t blame them. I have to go through demeaning visa processes in order to prove my innocence thanks to these privileged Muslims, citizens of the first world, who can travel where they please.

Am I saying that Islamophobia doesn’t exist? Of course not. But I can also guarantee that in France, if you act like someone who is receptive to their culture, you will be treated quite well by the vast majority of the population. But if you choose to walk around in a tent, which even to me represents oppression, then you will in effect further perpetuate Islamophobia.

What is the burqa but a symbol of indoctrination? Islamic history is full of strong women who defied the patriarchal norms, but sadly, all this information has been suppressed & hidden from history. By examining Muslims herstory over history, we can clearly see that veiling isn’t an essential practise; it is a choice.

So what is my problem with choice then? I realize it is anti-feminist to judge a woman based on her dress. However, I echo commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown when she said, “Why should society be tolerant of a mark that women are evil temptresses or packages whose sexuality has to be controlled?… There is self-segregation going on and this garment is a symbol of that.” I know I will be judged as “illiberal” but the woman who dons a burqa also looks down on the woman who is “immorally” dressed. She judges me for living in “male” clothes. She thinks, and sometimes says, that I’m destined for hell. Pray tell me why I should respect such a woman? Pray tell me why I should be tolerant of the intolerant?

 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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Happy Women’s Day!

What's up, ladies of 1912?!

It’s International Women’s Day today and I know you, dear readers, have seen your fair share of I-am-woman-hear-me-roar posts on this blog and elsewhere.

Here’s another one.

When writing this piece, I thought hard about the spirit behind International Women’s Day. In 1911, when this day was first celebrated internationally, women in most countries could not yet vote. Today, one hundred years later, that has obviously changed, but we are still a far cry from “gender equality.” Every year, over 70 million girls are deprived of even a basic education. In the United States, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

In Pakistan, the statistics are dismal, with the Madadgar Helpline Report revealing that a total of 4,870 cases of violence against women were registered by police last year, while the total number of cases reported since 2000 was 79,909.

And those are just the registered cases.

While this is a day to recognize the facts, it is also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of both women and men who have campaigned tirelessly for gender empowerment and equality. In a TEDWomen talk in December, Feministing‘s Courtney Martin discussed the reinvention of feminism for our generation. Although the talk was based largely on her experiences – Martin was raised in a progressive family in the United States – she made several significant points, including, “We don’t want one hero, one icon, or one face.”

Just as gender “equality” can sometimes seem abstract, feminism is a very loaded term with different expressions within different cultures and societies. On her blog, Obama Says Do More, Rabayl noted, “Feminism is on a unique trajectory in Pakistan treading on many unchartered territories. Lots of exciting opinions are emerging in the public narratives that talk about the oft-neglected complexity surrounding the debate.” Martin, in her talk at TEDWomen, may have been speaking about feminism in the American context, but her point of us needing or celebrating multiple heroes rather than just one holds true in other societies as well, including our own.

Last December, I wrote a post entitled, “Snaps for the Sistas,” in which I detailed the Pakistani women who inspire me on a daily basis. In writing that piece, I realized not just how many incredible women there are in Pakistan, but how diverse they are. We have Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a senior TED fellow, filmmaker, and president of the Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan. We have Asma Jahangir, the first female president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and a tireless campaigner for human rights in Pakistan. We have Roshaneh Zafar, the founder and head of the Kashf Foundation, Pakistan’s first microfinance institution supporting 305,938 families throughout the country.

There is no shortage of female heroes – from Naveen Naqvi and Sana Saleem, the co-founders of Gawaahi.com to MNA Asiya Nasir from Balochistan, the only minority legislator in the National Assembly who recently made a powerful speech after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. Many women in Pakistan today are not afforded opportunity, starting with even the most basic access to education. But for those of us who were the lucky ones, we can pay it forward. We can give voice to the voiceless. We can empower the powerless. And we can do that through collaboration and listening. (I know, this is so Sesame Street.)

And this is not a task that pertains only to women. Maria Toor, a squash player from South Waziristan, cut off her hair to disguise herself as a boy to play sports when she was younger. Her father was not only her biggest supporter, he moved the family to Peshawar so she could train and play more freely. On Think-Change Pakistan, Saba Gul, the founder of the social enterprise Business and Life Skills School (BLISS) shared how an Afghan girl, Azaada Khan, changed her name to Azaad (a boy’s name) to be able to attend school, how her father was murdered by the Taliban for his overt support for female education. In our flood relief campaign, Relief4Pakistan, we are working in southern Punjab with an incredible tribal leader, Wali Khan Mazari, who not only is an enormous proponent of girl’s education, his tribe banned the tradition of honor killing in his area. As women, we can and will campaign for the rights of women. But that campaign should also celebrate and include the men willing to aid in that fight, to help break down barriers. Remember, men. You can be feminists, too.

So, Happy International Women’s Day everyone, and snaps to the fabulous women that continue to make every Pakistani proud. Below, Daniel Craig (i.e., James Bond) & Judi Dench team up for the most awesome video related to IWD:


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Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

As revolution continues to spill over the Middle East, some have questioned whether a similar rallying cry would erupt on the streets of Pakistan. But while we have certainly reached our own tipping point, it is not a moment defined by a call for regime change. It is far more complex. Pakistan is a country that suffers from an identity crisis. And ultimately, if we don’t know who we are, do we really know what we are fighting for?

Without Shepherds is a feature documentary that addresses some of these very complex and fundamental questions. The film, directed by Cary McClelland and made in partnership with Pakistani filmmakers [The Crew Films & EyeBee Films among others], offers a glimpse into the nuances of the country through the eyes of six diverse characters – Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician; Vaneeza, a model/actress; Laiba, a Peshawar-based journalist; Abdullah, a truck driver; Arieb, a Sufi musician; and Ibrahim, a former Taliban fighter. Each character has a mission and their documented journey from February 2008 to November 2008 is a reflection of the broader struggle within Pakistani society.

Each of the people cast in Without Shepherds came from different regions and socioeconomic classes. They were selected to showcase the rich diversity of Pakistan, possessing different religious and political perspectives, as well as ideas about the future of the nation. However, noted McClelland, “the similar push among the cast was this desire for justice – to be more legitimately part of the social infrastructure and fabric of the country.” He added, “Each of these characters had significant obstacles in their path; some had  been robbed or cheated of things that were very dear to them, and as a result, had to bravely face these challenges head-on.”

The casting of the film was extremely important in demonstrating both the diversity of the country as well as their shared humanity. While selecting Imran Khan was relatively easy, given his boycott of the February 2008 elections and subsequent “outside-in” perspective, the Without Shepherds team took many trips around the country to discover other interesting narratives. Abdullah, whose struggle to provide for his family keeps him “chained to the road,” gives us a glimpse into the world and wisdom of Pakistan’s truck drivers, who have traversed the entire country and subsequently possess unique insights. According to McClelland, Abdullah was “the most empathetic and human character in the film,” a man who exhibited a sophisticated world view despite being self-educated.

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

Laiba, a female journalist based in Peshawar, is courageous in her battle to humanize families living in northwestern Pakistan, but must also battle for respect and appreciation at work. McClelland noted her story had the richest twists and turns. “There was a real juxtaposition between how progressive she was politically and how conservative she was religiously.” He added, “The more I watched her push up against the people who ran her television channel, to get them to be more engaged and undertake braver programming, the more I grew to admire her.”

Another character in the film, said McClelland, required a sensitive ear during filming. Ibrahim fought for six years with the Taliban along the Afghan border. His struggle is one for peace, a journey complicated by family and friends who cannot look beyond his past. For McClelland, Ibrahim’s story constantly revealed new layers of insight. “He was a real student of the country – about its history and culture – and he could speak very beautifully and poetically about what was happening around him.” At one point during the film, Ibrahim is captured saying, “You can see many animals here, but you will rarely see a shepherd.”

Copyright All rights reserved by Without Shepherds Film Inc.

The filmmakers behind the documentary were really interested in juxtaposing the character’s private and public experiences. This was particularly pertinent for Imran, Vaneeza, and even Arieb, who are all public personalities. According to McClelland, though, some of the more human moments were captured in Imran’s interactions with his children. “Watching him as a father was analogous to how he viewed himself as a political leader and a philanthropist, making the narrative that much more rich.”

Each of the character’s journeys was unique, but their shared struggle for justice made the “film a very emotional experience” for those involved. There are connected because they all went against the mold, and each person at the end of the story arc either overcame their obstacles or came to peace with their situation.

Although the timeline in the film began before the February 2008 elections and ended with the U.S. elections in November 2008, McClelland emphasized that the interwoven themes in Without Shepherds are still very current today. “The questions that were posed to the country at the time were similar to those we were posing to our characters throughout the film – what direction do you see the country going, what values do you have, who are the people who best represent that,” he told me. “Pakistan is still similar to the country we left, as is America, and the questions we asked back then are still relevant today.”

Without Shepherds Director Cary McClelland

Without Shepherds aims to provide a more multidimensional perspective of Pakistan for an American audience. It is ultimately a human story. But the film is also an opportunity for Pakistanis to reflect on their common voice and hold a mirror up to our own society. Therefore, noted McClelland, the film will be shown to American audiences, “but we are also hoping to partner with Pakistani NGOs and set up grassroots screenings throughout the country. It is a great opportunity to use film to reach a diverse set of audiences.”

The documentary is currently at the mid-point in post-production, and hopes to premiere in the late summer/early fall 2011. However, Without Shepherds still must raise money to achieve this goal. Last week, the team established an online campaign on Indie GoGo, and is trying to raise $25,000 to bring the film into its next stage of post-production. It’s an enormous undertaking, but it’s for a character-driven film with a very significant overarching message. As McClelland said to me, “We really have the opportunity to help close the gap in a country as important and beautifully expressive as Pakistan.” You can get involved and help Without Shepherds reach this goal, by donating here. [Also, follow Without Shepherds on Facebook.]

WITHOUT SHEPHERDS Trailer from Cary McClelland on Vimeo.

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One Week, Two Great Initiatives

Logo by Khizra Munir. Thanks Khiz!

Ok, maybe I’m biased about one of the said “great” initiatives. Forgiveness, plis.

This past Tuesday, we – Jeremy Higgs, Maryam Jillani, and I – launched ThinkChange Pakistan, a blog that aims to track the social entrepreneurship and innovation space in Pakistan. It is the first spin-off of the ThinkChange brand from ThinkChange India, whose team were an enormous help in starting this initiative.

I have been working in the social entrepreneurship space in Pakistan for the past few years, and I eat, breathe, and sleep everything related to this industry. The term “social enterprise” refers to social mission-driven businesses that take market-based approaches to achieve social impact. Ultimately, social enterprises and entrepreneurship are providing innovative solutions to long-term development problems. Social entrepreneurs don’t just think about how to provide a service or commodity to low-income populations (also known as the “Bottom of the Pyramid“) in a vacuum, they think about how that service or commodity can fit into the market dynamics – how to create demand for a product that will ultimately alleviate poverty.

You may have noticed that I used a lot of jargon in the above paragraph. That is part of the problem. The social entrepreneurship space is small but growing in Pakistan, and there is therefore a need to raise awareness and demystify the terms and expectations associated with this industry. There is also a need to foster a sense of community among Pakistani social entrepreneurs and innovators, because collaborative and participatory approaches ensure that we are achieving the maximum amount of impact.

ThinkChange Pakistan will hopefully achieve that, providing case studies, interviews, contributions by Pakistani social entrepreneurs, and reports on the ever-changing dynamics of this global industry. This doesn’t mean CHUP is going anywhere. But TC-P is a blog that reflects much more of what I do in my work life and what I am extremely passionate about. Check it out.


Artwork by Zaina Anwar, Gawaahi.com

You should also visit Gawaahi, a new online initiative founded by two fabulous women (and friends) – Naveen Naqvi and Sana Saleem. Gawaahi aims to archive digital stories of abuse, survival and resistance. When I spoke to Naveen today, she told me about how the idea originated:

When it was first conceived, we were hoping to create a portal for NGOs that work with abused women. But then as we worked on it, the idea evolved. Calling it Gawaahi or “witnessing” made us think about the connotations of the word. To be so disempowered that you are nothing but a mere witness to your life. The power of the act of witnessing when we listen to someone’s story. The idea of the testimony. All of that and the circumstance of the floods, the madness that is taking hold in Pakistan made us want to expand Gawaahi. We wanted to include stories of flood survivors — how could we do stories of survival, and not include these incredibly resilient people, we thought. With public spaces shrinking, we wanted to create a space of resistance, where Pakistanis could celebrate their individual voices.

The website is beautiful. Gawaahi encapsulates the power of story-telling and imagery, a reminder of our interconnected humanity. The founders of the initiative hope it will provide a sense of empowerment for people to no longer see themselves as victims, but as survivors. Naveen added, “We hope it will be a space where Pakistanis can speak out for the kind of life they want, the kind of world in which they would like to live. It’s time for women and minorities to reclaim public space.” Kudos to Naveen and Sana, as well as all the people who were involved in launching this initiative.

Below is a digital story by blogger Mehreen Kasana produced for Gawaahi, which is fantastic:

My body, my country by Mehreen Kasana from Gawaahi.com on Vimeo.

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