At Gawaahi.com, we urge you to speak out. Speak out against injustice, religious bigotry, violence against women, fascism and any number of problems that are increasingly visible here in Pakistan. At the end of a video showing how government school girls — not potential Taliban terrorist boys in training at madrassas — were parroting the meaning of Pakistan to be La’ilaha’ill’Allah, the words *made popular by the brutal dictator, General Zia UlHaq, we suggested you ask for more attention to this country’s education system. For Pakistan cannot mean La’ilaha’ill’Allah as it is not the exclusive domain of a Muslim majority.

Through the gifted blogger, Mehreen Kasana’s animated post, My body, my country, we hoped you would discover the need for parents and guardians to speak candidly to children about the realities of molestation. And you did, as proved by our anonymous contributor who wrote that after seeing the site, she felt inspired to speak out, not only to tell her story, but also, to spread the word on pedophilia.

But there is something else that I would like to encourage you to do, and that is to step up. We too have a collective responsibility to bear in the state of Pakistan today. Yes, it is true that there has been a concerted depoliticization campaign of the people of this country. Yes, it is a fact that years of repeated military rule followed by weak, powerless democracies (for we all know where the real power lies) have made us feel our voices and actions are irrelevant. Yes, there can be no denial that there is much that is wrong, and it feels too overwhelming to change as an individual.

But I am an individual. You are an individual. Together we are much more. We complain that we do not have icons. I say we do. Our s/heroes are the ones who came out on the streets through the decades. The reason you and I do not believe in our voices is because we are not reminded every day of those who stepped up. Their achievements, the blows they bore by the authorities are not shared with us in our history books, on our television sets and in our daily lives. They may have endured violence, but there is no passivity in being struck again and again, in being arrested, but not wavering in the face of oppression. I speak of Asma Jehangir, Benazir Bhutto and the countless women and men who spoke, wrote and acted. They believed in themselves, in this country, in hope, in the possibility of potentiality and in us.

Let us also believe in ourselves, and in a future that will not be ours, and does not deserve to be ours if we do not fight for it. I would never be one to undermine the importance of the written word, but there is a time to write, to speak, and then, there is the time to act. The time for us to act is now.

Please step up with me. Do not think it will not make a difference. It will. There are precedents for it, and we must have the will to set new precedents, or let me reiterate — there will be nothing left for us to fight.

I ask you to step up with me on March 12. Join the letter campaign to the Government and Judiciary against religious intolerance on Saturday, March 12 from 11am to 7pm. I hope to see you then.

The mass letter signing campaign is TODAY Saturday March 12 at Jehangir Kothari Parade opposite Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi from 11am to 7pm. Please be there!

*This post was modified on March 10, 2011.

Advertisements

This story has been cross-posted in my website, http://gawaahi.com. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go over and have a look.

Gawaahi.com was conceived at a wedding. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. Sana Saleem had just returned from Islamabad where she had trained to record digital stories. I had returned from Bonn, Germany where I had participated in an inspiring conference hosted by Deutsche Welle — the annual Global Media Forum. At the event I had met the creators of crowd-sourced websites, and was enchanted by the idea. Sana and I got to talking, and thought we have to do something like that here in Pakistan. We wanted to do stories, and create a site that sought submissions of digital stories, but we didn’t want it to be news-based.  A bit of her training, a pinch of my experience and that’s Gawaahi.com.

Then came the next step: an idea is great, but it needs support. That came to us first through Jehan Ara, President of P@sha and fairy godmother of Pakistan’s IT industry. The site was started with a Small Grant from the MDG3 Fund as part of an Asia-wide program initiated by APC WSNPTake Back The Tech!, a collaborative campaign to reclaim information and communication technologies to end violence against women, and Bytes for all, ‘a networked space for citizens in South Asia.’ Our second nudge came from my good friend, Guido Baumhauer, Director of Strategy, Marketing and Distribution at Deutsche Welle and new friend, Nadeem Wahid Siddiqui, DW’s Pakistan representative, also Tobias Grote-Beverborg and a host of others at the German media house. Valerie Khan of theAcid Survivors Foundation Pakistan and Samar Minallah, the documentary filmmaker, entrusted us with their support by sharing their film, Against All Odds.

With all that faith in us, we set to work. When it came to developing the content you see now, and we’ll share with you over the next few weeks, there is no way any of it could have happened without Nofil Naqvi, our Technical Consultant, my not-so-little-anymore brother and ace cameraman/editor. In what’s turning out to be a bit of an Oscar rant, I would like to mention Rabia Garib, Editor-in-Chief of CIO Pakistan, whose brain I picked endlessly with the most naive questions, and she responded patiently every time.

Finally, Mehreen KasanaZaina Anwar, Hira Saleem Malik and participants of the Feminist Tech Exchange in Pakistan shared their work with us based on sheer trust.

Phew! To end, if you read our ‘About’ page, you’ll see more about who we are and what we aim to do. Do send your comments, and please send us your stories!

 


In the Keamari Town Camp for flood survivors relocated to Karachi, a woman with grey hair and strong capable hands sweeps the inside of her tent. It may be nothing more than a plastic sheet held down by four pegs, its makeshift doors flapping in the wind, but it is the hearth of her home. For now. Or perhaps forever. Her ever at the very least. Prepubescent girls collect sticks for the fire over which their mothers and elder sisters will cook dinner.

Photo credit: Nofil Naqvi

A man holding a knee-high metal stand that blooms in a bunch of fluorescent fabric flowers waits outside a tent. A camera dangling at his side, this is his mobile studio. He charges ten rupees for a photo, he tells me. A new bride pops out of her tent, a black bindi in the middle of her forehead, plum lipstick on her mouth, her dusky skin powdered and rouged, dressed to be photographed. Are you ready, she asks the photographer, who holds up his flowery prop, indicating he is, as is the studio. I ask her if she will allow me to take her picture. He takes ten rupees; how much will you charge, she asks. When I explain that the picture I take will stay with me, she hides behind a wide smile and her tent, shakes her head, and says that it is not their tradition. Young men in groups saunter about aimlessly, twirling sticks like batons. Older men huddle together talking in tents or on chairs placed in the shade of tents. A small child, only just learning language, sits at a makeshift store, selling packaged popcorn, sweets and candied sesame seeds.

The Keamari flood relief camp is one of many that have become home with daily routines sketched out for the hundreds of thousands of homeless who are unable to return to their villages. Those who have gone back regret it, the menfolk tell me, for their landlords, their feudal masters, are demanding a harvest of rice and wheat promised in exchange for seeds and fertilizer. The harvest that these rich ‘agriculturalists’ know never came to be because of the worst floods in Pakistan’s history. Our homes, already made of mud have dissolved into the earth, our fields destroyed, our animals dead or lost — what can we go back to, they ask. They insist that they would rather live in tents than go to that.

As the months have passed many of us have forgotten about the 20 million — a conservative estimate — that were affected. In a report titled ‘Six months into the floods,’ Oxfam has reminded us of the urgent need to continue ‘ a nationally led, pro-poor reconstruction programme,’ after the ‘monsoon floods that began in Pakistan in July 2010 caused a colossal disaster.’ In the Daily Times’ coverage of the story, the paper points out ‘the Pakistan government is due to stop emergency relief operations in most of the flood-affected areas from January 31.’

This would be a catastrophic move for millions of Pakistanis. As UNICEF have revealed in their six-monthly findings, ‘a new humanitarian crisis: child malnutrition’ has developed. This is hardly surprising, you may think. Think again. The UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan, Karen Allen describes the situation as ‘shocking, shockingly bad,’ adding that she hasn’t ‘seen levels of malnutrition this bad since the worst of the famines in Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad.’ I need not add that mass migrations to already overpopulated urban centers, malnutrition, unemployment and extreme poverty are problems that could lead to increased unrest, crime, (food) riots and all kinds of violence.

According to UNICEF,

the crisis is the consequence of a combination of factors, including extreme poverty, poor diet, poor health, exposure to disease and inadequate sanitation and hygiene, as well as a lack of education.’

 

These are all long-term problems, but we should try to reawaken some of the initial spirit that so many Pakistanis here and overseas showed in the immediate aftermath, and keep making any individual contribution we can.


Power and fear

19Jan11

Picture courtesy Abro Khuda Bux

Last night I went to an unusual event in Karachi. Some of the wealthiest people of Pakistan sat next to the poorest, and when I say that, I mean it literally. Leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party were invited to speak at the same stage as those of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Labour Party to name just a few at the Pakistan Medical Association House where a couple of hundred sat in attendance. Till a day before, the event organisers, Citizens for Democracy were desperately searching for a venue as at the last minute, citing threats from clerics, the Arts Council withdrew the offer to host a remembrance of the assassinated Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. I should point out that the Karachi Press Club also refused to allow the event at their premises. Knowing of these threats, there were not forty-thousand, but there were enough to fill the large hall and then some. It was an eclectic mix of human rights activists, independent journalists, politicians, doctors and trade unionists with one thing in common — the awareness that there needs to be a change, and their presence proved that while it may be improbable, it is not entirely impossible. Continue reading ‘Power and fear’


Photo published in the Express Tribune site courtesy Reuters

Ten years ago Pakistan was a different place. The country had many problems, and has had since its very inception, but it was not somewhere a man would fire forty bullets into an unarmed man’s back and be lauded as a hero. In the Pakistan of today there are rows of security checkpoints at every major street of the federal capital, and yet we feel unsafe, constantly asking for more police officers, who it seems will shoot us in our backs. Women have all but disappeared from the streets, and those that are visible are shrouded in black with only a pair of eyes to be seen. Continue reading ‘We buried a man not his courage’


Violence against religious minorities protest - The Nation

On November 25, 2010, Pakistan People’s Party MNA Sherry Rehman, submitted a bill to the National Assembly seeking amendments to the Blasphemy laws. Since then, the Islamist parties of Pakistan have been in a tizzy. Aside from the announcement of two major rallies – one on December 31 and the other on January 8 – we see that the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) or the ‘top Islamic body’ of Pakistan as it is known has a response to Rehman’s bill.

I admit that I am wary of the Council. My skepticism stems from their reaction to what could have been a great achievement, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill. Many claim that the legislature has not been implemented primarily due to the obstacles created by the CII. The Council labeled the bill as ‘discriminatory,’ argued that it would allow police to violate the ‘sanctity of the home,’ and also lead to higher divorce rates.  What it would have done is broadened the definition of abuse, and created protection committees providing legal care and medical facilities to victims of abuse. These are just a couple of the positive changes the bill would have brought.

Interestingly, in October 2009 when the bill was moved in Senate, it was a senior member of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), who had raised the most vociferous objection to the Domestic Violence Bill. In November 2009, in a move noted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as ‘alarming,’ that same senior member of the JUI-F, Maulana Mohammed Khan Sheerani was given the valued and influential position of the chairman of the CII.

I bring up all that not to highlight the Domestic Violence Bill, which lies dormant and forgotten, as does most legislation that aims to help minorities. It is to return to the matter of the Blasphemy laws, and point out that while the CII’s watered down changes can be viewed as a counter-proposal, they can also be seen as a major success for Rehman. For it seems that those interested in maintaining the controversial laws sense a momentum for change that they cannot stop. To ensure a large turnout at the two rallies that I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the names of all their major players are being pushed. This includes all the leaders of the ‘outlawed’ parties, organisations that remain the same while thriving under new names. Be it the Jamaat ud Dawa, the Sipah Sahabah or whatever they are now called, Hafiz Saeed and his likes under one banner are ominously gathering in a show of strength. (The problems in allowing Hafiz Saeed to participate in a rally deserves a column of its own.) They could also find in this an opportunity to recover from the damage caused by the Wikileaks cable that revealed Maulana Fazlur Rehman to have kowtowed to former US Ambassador Anne Patterson for power in government.

It may be true that most opponents of the Blasphemy laws, and I include myself in this, believe that the law should be repealed, scratched altogether. However, an amendment or specifically, Sherry Rehman’s proposed amendments can be a good start. At the very least it brings some change, some initiative where there has been none for decades. As activist Beena Sarwar said to me, “Politics is about compromise, dialogue and negotiation too.”

Rehman has also stated that she hopes this will be only the beginning. In her moving piece titled ‘Stand up against the blasphemy laws’ as published in the Express Tribune, she wrote:

“This is the time to push for repeal of the blasphemy law in the legislature. If that does not work, just like the Hudood repeal bills did not when we moved them, we need to build positions and craft laws that amend these laws so they become toothless…”

I say let us be roused by Rehman’s appeal to stand together to make things better in whatever way we each can. This could be that bit of hope after which we are constantly clamouring.

For those who have not already done so, and are interested in studying the Amendments to the Blasphemy Laws Act 2010, it has been published with Sherry Rehman’s consent on Marvi Sirmed’s blog. To compare with the Council of Islamic Ideology’s changes, you can refer to this Express Tribune article.


Picture courtesy Reuters

In 2009, about 3 Pakistani children were sexually abused every day. A total of 2,012 reported cases of child sexual abuse were recorded from all over Pakistan. To lend perspective to that figure revealed this year by the non government organisation Sahil, let me add some numbers. Child abuse is a global phenomenon. As the Sahil report points out, the Human Rights Watch World Report 2008 says that 150 million girls and 73 million boys around the world have experienced rape or other sexual violence. Most of it was perpetrated by members of their own family. The statistic does not necessarily mean there were more girls abused although it is probable; it could indicate that many cases of abuse against boys go unreported, ironically, also for reasons of pride and honour. Continue reading ‘Heal someone’s world’