Dr. Faridoon Setna: OB-GYN and champion of women’s empowerment

Today on Mother’s Day we pay tribute to Dr. Faridoon Setna, the renowned Pakistani obstetrician and gynecologist who, through his work at Lady Dufferin Hospital in Kharadar, and as the director of the Concept Fertility Center, helped so many women become mothers through affordable IVF.

Picture taken from Dawn’s obituary of Dr. Setna

Dr. Setna passed away yesterday in Karachi after a brief illness. He was in his 80s, but up until his death remained an easily recognizable figure, with his gentle manner, amiable smile, and the constant companionship of his wife Dinar.

Dr. Setna returned to Pakistan in 1966, after his training in the UK. “I had to survive on a salary of Rs. 600 a month for six years. It was unacceptable as a young male gynecologist,” he related in an interview with Hello Pakistan.

He was known for being the gynecologist of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was pregnant with her first child while she held office. Bhutto later tasked Setna, along with Dr. Sadiqa Jaffery and senior midwife Imtiaz Kamal, with reducing the high level of maternal mortality in Pakistan. They headed the National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health, which still operates today.

Benazir Bhutto’s daughter Bakhtawar pays tribute to Dr. Setna

Over his fifty year career, Dr. Setna was a staunch supporter of midwives, or dais, as they are known in South Asia. He introduced cervical cancer inoculations for young women. He revamped the Lady Dufferin Hospital which was in one of the most ramshackle parts of town. He helped rich and poor alike to become parents through his specialization in high risk pregnancies and complex infertility cases.

Dr. Setna believed that infertility was “a hidden disease” in Pakistan. However, the burden of that disease has always been disproprotionately shouldered by women, who are usually blamed when a couple fails to conceive a child. Dr. Setna said that 30% of infertility was caused by male infertility, and always urged both men and women to get tested.

He played a large part in reducing the stigma that Pakistani men feel about infertility testing, by treating it as a medical problem, not a judgment on a man’s virility. Perhaps because he was a male doctor himself, men felt more comfortable admitting to such problems, and were more willing to undergo fertility tests.

When Dr. Setna retired, he left his practice in the capable hands of his son, Dr. Zeryab Setna, but continued to consult at the Concept Fertility Center for many years. We will miss this national icon, health pioneer, and champion of women’s empowerment. I think the government should award him the Sitara e Imtiaz, if it hasn’t already (and if it has, please let me know in the comments).

Thank you, Dr. Setna, for all that you did, for mothers and fathers and children in Pakistan.

How to Play the Aurat Card

Have you, as a woman, ever been accused of playing the Aurat Card (the gender card, the woman card) when arguing with your fellow Neanderthals about the issue of women’s rights/empowerment in Pakistan? Well now, you can actually play the Aurat Card, literally, thanks to the team at The CosmosocialPK.

The CosmoSocial is a digital magazine that was founded over a year ago by a group of young Pakistani women. Their aim is to “generate honest dialogue around equality, diversity, destigmatization and empowerment of marginalized communities in society, supplemented with a dash of entertainment.” You can find them on the Web here and on Instagram too.

They’ve produced a beautiful set of playing cards featuring 52 incredible Pakistani women, each illustrated beautifully by 17 year old trainee graphic designer Hiba Asad.

Each card has a little story about the woman’s “unique journey”, so the pack isn’t just entertaining but educational too. It’s meant as an ode to the women of the country who have “smashed the glass ceiling in every sense of the way.”

I ordered several packs to give to friends, but of course I’m keeping one for myself. I’m so heartened to see people that I know personally, and others by reputation, represented in the cards. From all backgrounds, ethniticies, fields, famous women and some whose work isn’t well known outside their field (but should be), the pack makes a great present for a girl or teenager who needs to see what Pakistani women can accomplish.

It’s an imaginative way to celebrate the women of Pakistan, and one that’s sure to give the misogynists in our society many hours of heartburn. Will we see a similar pack of “Mard Cards” coming our way soon?

Each pack is priced at Rs. 900 and can be ordered from the Cosmosocial’s Instagram page or by writing to hello at thecosmosocial dot com. Disclaimer: I received one set free as a gift from the Cosmosocial team, but not in return for this blog post.

Harry, Meghan, Oprah and the Repetition of History

The Meghan-Harry-Oprah interview is being touted as a slam against the monarchy. No. It’s a well-aimed assault at the British media, particularly the tabloids — which are merciless, evil and lacking in any sort of compassion.

This is not Meghan’s show alone. This is also Harry’s trauma about how the tabloids hounded his mother Princess Diana to death, and his attempt to do something about it, twenty-odd years after the fact. It’s almost as if he subconsciously or consciously chose the woman who would be most provocative to the tabloids (biracial! American! divorced! older!) and married her to say, you can’t win, I still have more power than you do.

And then, when history repeats itself, with Meghan’s depression and suicidal thinking (Remember, the isolation Diana faced caused her to become bulimic and attempt suicide at least once), Harry goes into crisis, triggered into reliving the past that was his mother’s nightmare. Instead of being able to help his wife, he freezes, and then activates fight or flight mode. This is an old struggle.

Let’s not forget that Princess Diana loved a Pakistani surgeon, Hasnat Khan, but was prevented from marrying him by The Firm and the power of public censure. The racism was apparent from the days when she was with Dodi Fayed, and the conjecture that she was pregnant with a Muslim man’s child who might be half brother to the future King of England. What part of history is repeating itself here, with Archie’s skin color being debated by family members?

The monarchy, as ever, are hapless pawns caught in amber between tradition, the expectations of the British public, and the hideous greed and calumny of the tabloids. They are who they are – antiquated, dysfunctional, dutiful but unloving. Love them, be a hostage to them, acquire Stockholm Syndrome and be assimilated — or leave them. There is no other option. They’re neither intelligent nor emotionally aware. To expect that from them is to misunderstand who and what they are.

Meghan and Harry went to the only person possibly more powerful in the media than the British tabloids – Oprah. They want their privacy, but they want to take down the British media equally as strongly. It is entirely possible to want two opposite things. Human beings are contradictory like that, and driven by unconscious forces that sometimes they don’t even understand. So much to examine and think about here.

Let’s also look at he fact that the Royal Family is racist and obsessed with skin color. This can only be a surprise to (mostly white) Americans, not the countless millions of people in Africa, South Asia and the Far East that experienced their colonialism and imperialism and its after-effects first hand. African-Americans may have had their suspicions about how Meghan would have been received in this non-progressive family, but there was too much enthusiasm about a black woman conquering Buckingham Palace for the warnings to be heard clearly.

Perhaps there’s another reason for the naivete besides the fact that Americans don’t know the history of the British Empire very well. It’s largely Americans to whom Britain has sold this entire monarchy fairytale (including the tragic dead Princess Di) so that American tourists (of any color) will come to the UK and spend their dollars. The UK depends on the Royal Family’s soft power abroad to rake in the cash, since they don’t have much hard power left. Americans, who always love a Disney tale, have fallen for it since the wedding of Charles and Diana.

It’s not often we get to observe a Greek tragedy unfolding in front of us. Let’s just hope everyone calms down and nobody ends up dead.

The famous Bollywood movie “Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness” applied to the Windsors. Camilla and Charles obviously too unglamorous to be included.

Bina Shah on The Common Podcast

The Common, Amherst-based literary magazine edited by Jennifer Acker, published a short story of mine last year called “Weeds and Flowers”. It’s the story of two young Afghan girls growing up on the streets of Karachi.

I had the opportunity to speak to managing editor Emily Everett for the Common’s podcast “A Sense of Place” about the story, living and writing in Karachi, and a few other interesting matters.

You can listen here or find the podcast, with more episodes, on Apple iTunes and Spotify.

Feminism is against Islam.

The preparations for this year’s Aurat March are underway and have now recently announced on social media. Already the usual accusations are being made: that feminism teaches women to hate men and that feminists oppose the teachings of Islam. What’s good is that every year, more and more men take on the types of men who make these statements. That means more and more men are starting to “get it”, especially among the younger generation.

For anyone who believes that feminism is “against Islam” (whatever that means), here is what I have to say about this, both as a practicing Muslim woman and a feminist.

What Islam teaches is is not total subjugation to any man. Men and women both should only subjugate themselves to Allah. Only Allah can and should dominate us and we must submit to him. That is the first and most important principle of Islam

Where men like these go wrong is to imagine that Islam requires women to subjugate themselves to men in the same way that men subjugate themselves to Allah. This is a completely wrong perception.

Islam in fact encourages women to be economically independent. That is the reason for haq mehr in marriage. That is the reason women can own property and earn money. That is why women do not have to change their names when they get married. That is why women are allowed to seek divorce. That is why women have a share of inheritance. That is why a woman is only responsible for bearing children. The maintenance of the household, household chores like cooking and cleaning and financial upkeep are the man’s responsibility. Check your Quran, Hadith and Sunna if you think this is incorrect. I assure you it is not.

What Islam does encourage in marriage is interdependence. This is why Allah SWT says in the Quran that in marriage, men have certain rights over women and women have the same rights over men. These pertain to sexual fidelity, companionship, privacy, security and overall satisfaction and happiness. Not one person bossing and dominating the other, but two people in a union sanctified by Allah and working together to create a home and a safe haven for their children if they are blessed with them.

Note that infertility is not a good reason for divorce in Islam, but cruelty is.

Men who shout that feminists oppose Islam seem to not have grapsed the true spirit of Islam, which acknowledges the souls of both men and women as equal, the bodies of men and women as different, and the lives of men and women as equally deserving of fulfillment and happiness. This is a responsibility married men and women have to one another in equal measure.

Feminism seeks to put right the imbalances that have made men mistreat women due to financial discrimination and a misuse of their physical strength (domestic violence). It seeks to eliminate unIslamic practices like child rape (under the pretext of marriage). Islam is very well intentioned but patriarchy has corrupted our Islamic values. Feminism is a mechanism by which women work to raise awareness of this and redress the wrongs through legal, societal, and cultural change.

If you are a man who has read what I have have written but it still makes no sense to you, perhaps it’s because you don’t like anything that challenges your need to use Islam to support your sexism. In that case I apologise if this explanation is too sophisticated for your black and white thinking.

Honored

Although this isn’t an official announcement, I’m thrilled to share that I was made a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture on September 30, 2020.

A proper ceremony will take place when the Covid situation improves. Until then, I have a very nice letter from the Ambassador naming me a recipient of this honor, which is given to artists and writers and others involved in the promotion of the arts in France and around the world.

I am grateful to all who made this possible, especially the Alliance Francaise de Karachi.

A Tale of Two Plaques

In November, the English Heritage organization placed a small but significant blue plaque on a house in Putney, South London. This marks the house as an English Heritage site, where a historical figure of repute lived. Visitors to London can find over 950 of these plaques everywhere, indicating the residences of Prime Ministers, poets, philanthropists and various other luminaries, both men and women. 

This particular plaque in Putney read “Physicist, Nobel Laureate, and champion of science in developing countries lived here.” It honors none other than Pakistan’s own theoretical physicist Professor Abdus Salam, who lived in London from 1957 until his death in 1996. His scientific achievements are too numerous to list here, the most significant of which was the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. He won this with his fellow researchers Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for their work on the electroweak unification theory.

The controversy surrounding Professor Salam’s religious affiliation is known to all. A member of the Ahmedi sect, Cambridge-educated Professor Salam served as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Scientific Advisor for thirteen years starting in 1961, during which time he helped Pakistan develop its peaceful nuclear capacity. In 1974, Bhutto declared Ahmedis as non-Muslims, and Professor Salam resigned from his post and left the country permanently. 

Pakistan held more disappointments for him after this. In 1987, when he was being considered for the head of UNESCO, Pakistan did not support his nomination and he was not selected for the post. Even today, Professor Salam can be referred to as a Nobel Laureate and a Pakistani, but not a Muslim. Yet Professor Salam, who headed the mathematics department at Government College Lahore and at the University of Punjab, was the founding director of SUPARCO, and established the Theoretical Physics Group in the PAEC, was always cognizant of his identity as a Pakistani and a Muslim, even after his departure from the nation and his expulsion from the religion. 

A film about his life, a documentary called Salam – The First ***** Nobel Laureate (the ***** refers to the defacement of Salam’s tombstone, on which the word “Muslim” was scratched out), reveals his famous diary entry on September 7, 1974: “Declared non-Muslim, cannot cope.” The makers of the film theorize that his exile from Pakistan made him even more sensitive to his status as a person from the “third world”. Zainab Imam, in her review of the documentary, writes: “To Salam, the 1974 amendment to the constitution displaced not only his identity but the vantage point from which he saw a world that couldn’t quite place him: a third worlder among Westerners, a devoutly religious yet avowedly scientific man among atheists.”

This psychological trauma in part spurred Professor Salam to become a “champion of science in the developing world.” He could have spurned his background and heritage, especially after such a terrible rejection by the country of his birth. Instead, he did what people of tremendous character do when they are faced with opposition: he used the adversity as a stepladder to transcend his personal disappointment and grief, wielding his considerable influence and acclaim to nurture future scientists from similar cultural and geopolitical backgrounds as his own. 

After the rupture between Professor Salam and the nation of Pakistan (Zainab Imam calls this “Bhutto’s political calculus”), both parties found a way to maintain ties behind the scenes. Professor Salam set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; its mission is to advance scientific achievement in developing nations. Over 2000 scientists from Pakistan have visited Trieste since 1970, several have won science prizes at the institute, and official delegations from the Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology, COMSATS, and the Pakistani Consulate visit the Centre frequently.

In Pakistan, the ITCP supported the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute and Quaid-e-Azam University’s physics department, which was renamed after him in 2016. There is now an Abdus Salam chair in Physics at Government College Lahore. Professor Salam also set up the International Nathiagali Summer College back in 1974, which continues to hold scientific meetings every year. Among his many international awards, Professor Salam won the Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1979 for his contributions to Pakistan’s scientific field. Beyond his death, he continues to shape young scientists’ minds in his own country and all over the world. 

That our officials and VIPs, scientists and diplomats maintain ties with the ICTP suggests that Pakistan would like to reclaim Professor Salam’s legacy, but because of religious pressure they cannot do it openly or whole-heartedly. Meanwhile, Professor Salam lies buried in Rabwah rather than in the United Kingdom, showing his deep love for his country despite his vilification here. And a green hand-lettered plaque placed by the Punjab Archeology Department on a small brick house in a muddy street in Jhang reads: “National Monument: Birth place of Nobel Laureate Prof Abdus Salam, Protected in June 1981 under Antiquities Act 1975.”

The Third World Guide to the US Elections

As we in nations other than the United States, who have had a less glorious history with democracy, observe the United States election 2020, I keep being struck by the parallels between this year’s election and elections as I’ve witnessed them in my own country, Pakistan.

A little history for you: Pakistan has been ruled by several military dictatorships, as recently as 1999-2007. From 1989 to 1999, our two main political parties alternated in and out of Parliament (we have a supposedly Parliamentary democracy, a President, and a very influential Army running our affairs in a sort of hybrid model that still functions less efficiently than an electric Kia). The same thing happened from 2008 and continues today, except that a third party has managed to become the winner in the last election back in 201? (I’d like to say I’ve forgotten already, but I’m duty bound to tell you they happened in 2018).

Our elections are the type of thing that makes you want to groan and hide your head in the sand. Political rallies take place across the country, the tone and tenor and maturity of said events comparable to your average big top circus, complete with clowns and wild animals (one party took a real, live lion on tour on the back of a truck. It died of heat exhaustion so they just got another one).

The election results are always questionable: people brag that they vote once, twice, and three times. Dead people end up on the voter registration records. I myself found that my constituency (based on where I live) had been officially moved from where I actually live to the city’s most drug-riddled, gang-war addled area. I only found this out when the government introduced a text-message based service where you send in your ID number and your constituency gets SMSd back to you. Needless to say, I was not able to vote that year.

In America, things have been happening that I never expected to see. I know a lot of American politicking happens at monster truck rallies, but I never thought I’d see gun-toting supporters of the incumbent, swaggering around supermarkets and suburban streets. I was astonished to see luxury stores boarding up their storefronts for fear that their goods would be looted in post-election violence. Those sights have always been reserved for my Third World hybrid democracy.

The mudslinging in the US election has been impressive even by my standards. In Pakistan, we have always had politicians who call each other names and accuse each other of corruption and graft. We had a Prime Minister who was hanged, another who was assassinated, and several who have been convicted of corruption. Never in the United States have I seen a US president too scared to leave office because he might end up in court. But his insults and taunts to the opposition have been very worthy of a Third World election.

And the dancing. Well, what can I say about the dancing? A Third World election is always marked by primitive songs and dances by indigenous peoples celebrating their culture, their joy at finally being given the right to vote. This, at least to me, is a familiar and joyful sight.

To this end, I feel that a contingent of election observers made up of countries from the Third World — Pakistan, Iran, Chile, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Somalia, for example — should have been invited to observe the US elections this year.

I also offer a few tips for those Americans who are finding themselves confused by what’s happening in your country.

— If your postal ballots are discounted, that is what we in the Third World call “vote rigging”.

— If you have to struggle to get yourself registered to vote, we call this “an attempt to sabotage democracy.”

— If you turn up to vote but find your name has been removed from the voter rolls, this is “vote tampering.”

— If you are intimidated by thugs from a certain party when you go to cast your vote, this is called “political influence/street democracy.”

— If women are prevented from voting, or are told by their husbands who to vote for, this is known as “patriarchy and misogyny endemic in Muslim nations.”

— Civil unrest after the election results are in? This is called “Election-related disturbances.”

— When both sides declare victory hours or even days before all the votes have been counted, this is known as “showing confidence in democracy.”

— And if the loser declares the result illegal, we simply call that “a test of democracy”.

Good luck, America! Vote early and vote often. (Your famous warlord Al Capone said this. I like to think we learned from the best)

Love, A Pakistani

How to make sense of a beheading

I’ve been thinking all weekend about the murder and decapitation of the teacher in France who showed his middle school class controversial cartoons of the “Prophet Mohammed” as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. The murderer: an 18 year old Chechen refugee who was shot dead on the street by French security forces. The implications: immense, for the five million Muslims in France who by and large live peacefully in that country and have integrated into French society.

I’ve been going over it again and again and thinking about what it means, what it doesn’t mean. There are no easy conclusions to reach. “He shouldn’t have done it” is being applied to both the murderer and the victim, but they both did “it”, and now we are left to make sense of the senseless. Of what cannot be explained. Of what can be understood on an intellectual level, but not on visceral level.

And yet on a primal level, we understand this slaying all too well. The world is not divided into people who kill and people who do not. There are only people who have been given the circumstances and opportunity and those who have not. “I could kill him” is an easy part of our spoken language. We flirt with life and death, we look at our hands and know that they are instruments. We make a choice. Then we spend our lives rubbing out the spots of blood that will not disappear.

I lack the words to express my sadness that such a thing should happen, in the 21st century, when humanity should be evolving, when the events of 2020 should have taught us the need for unity and strength. And yet it has happened, and may well happen again.

Does “why” and “how” even apply to something as terrible as the taking of a human life, for a principle? Cain picked up a knife and slew Abel and was forever marked, left to wander the earth, cursed for eternity. Since that first murder, humans have been taught that it is wrong to kill. Humans have also been taught that killing under certain circumstances is justified. We’re a contradictory, feckless lot, we humans. We kill when we want to and twist the reasons as an excuse for our actions. We claim that we kill for God, for country, for prophets, for self-defense, for honor. We claim we kill because we have no choice. The only other choice is to die.

Everything that can be said about Muslims, religion, barbarism, France, freedom of expression, the right to provoke, to criticise, to mock and mimic, has also already been said a thousand million times over. If you can’t tolerate Western values, get out of the West. If you punch down on a marginalized community, they’ll snap. A lone wolf. A terrorist with links to known networks. A religion that is a death cult. A country with a dirty colonialist past. Hypocrisy. Barbarity.

All the words in the world can’t erase the image from my mind: a teenager carrying the severed head of a man down the street. The children, traumatized and hysterical. The family of the dead man, grieving a senseless death. The teenager shot dead, lying in the street in a pool of his own blood. Another family, some members under arrest, grieving a senseless life.

What happened? How did we get here? Words won’t solve this murder that is no mystery. I have the right to provoke. You have no right to be offended. Take the provocation until you snap, and then suffer the consequences because you do not belong in civilized society. Is this how we got here?

I am a teacher. I shape young minds. It’s my job to teach my students about freedom of expression, about liberty, about the values that shape the nation we live in. I will ask some students to leave, because I know they may be offended by the cartoons I will show them in order to illustrate my lesson. I am doing this out of respect to those students and their beliefs. This is the way around the dilemma. It’s the humane thing to do. I make my choice, and I act.

I am a teenager, but I am also a man. I have been raised to think that my prophet and my religion are more important than anything on this earth. I am a refugee. I have seen things that are unspeakable. They may have disturbed my mind, or perhaps I am evil at heart. I hear of this provocation, and I must act. My life is meaningless if I do not defend my principles, my prophet’s honor. I make my choice, and I act.

It is an endless cycle. It is a trap. It is humanity presented as two polar opposites, when in reality, all of human life, of creation, of thinking and of belief lies on a spectrum. We have made humans out of monsters and monsters out of humans in our need to understand a beheading after the fact.

Religion tells us that human life is sacred, that we don’t have the right to kill under any circumstances, that everything we do has consequences. The existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus among them, tell us that life is meaningless, that nothing we do will make any difference in the grand scale. And yet we have religious wars and human rights declarations, theocracies and democracies.

When you really look at it, the only thing we have is the freedom to choose. Everything else is white noise. That is the only way to make sense of a beheading.