Profile: HGSE Magazine

I’m profiled in the Summer ’16 issue of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s alumnae magazine Ed. HGSE is where I got my masters degree in Education, and the profile is written by Lory Hough. (photography by the talented Wahaj Alley, whose photos from the same shoot are on this blog)

BBC Impact Asia: Awareness, Attitudes, Action

Here I am speaking to BBC Impact Asia about the CII’s proposed “Women’s Protection Bill” and the state of women’s rights in general.

In making notes for this interview, I realized that there are three elements to consider in any movement for social justice:

  • Awareness
  • Attitudes
  • Action

As I said in the interview, we have to raise awareness about the status of girls and women, before we can go about changing attitudes, and taking action to protect and safeguard those rights. It’s not a linear progression: often all three elements happen at the same time. But all three are vital and cannot be omitted from the process of social change.


How to Honor Islam by Honoring Women

In response to the landmark Punjab Women’s Protection Act, which laid out mechanisms for the prevention and prosecution of domestic abuse, the Council of Islamic Ideology unveiled their version of a Women’s Protection Bill last week. That their recommendations make a mockery of the concept of women’s protection should not surprise anyone; the CII is determined to codify a patriarchal system that usurps the constitutional rights of Pakistani women to safety and security. It also seeks to undo the years of progress made by Pakistani women in their struggle to become emancipated, educated, and fully-participating citizens of the country.

Amongst its numerous clauses was the recommendation that a husband should be legally allowed to “lightly beat” his wife in order to discipline her. Other recommendations included enforcing the wearing of hijab by beating, banning co-education and the mixing of men and women in schools, hospitals, and offices, and disallowing women from combat. In a day and age when Pakistan ranks as the third-lowest country in 2016’s Global Gender Gap report, and when violence against women is endemic, these recommendations are illogical at best and irresponsible at worst. 

While some Pakistanis understand the CII’s recommendations for the misogyny that it is, most men and even some women are content to accept their words as divine law. Where is the spirit of equality and compassion that encourages us to question whether the Quran truly sanctions violence against women?

If only we would dig a little deeper, we would learn that alternative interpretations of the Quran with regards to women and corporal punishment exist in the wide body of Islamic scholarship. The most well-known Quranic verse on the issue of marital relations, Surah Nisa 4:34, has classically been translated as:  “If you fear disobedience from your wives, first admonish them, then forsake their beds, and then strike them.” This is widely interpreted as divine sanction to physically chastise or hit a wife in order to discipline her.

Many female Islamic scholars (and some enlightened male ones) have pointed out that the word adribuhunna in the verse (from the Arabic root word daraba), has twelve different meanings. Only one of those meanings means “to strike” or “to beat”. Another meaning is “to separate.” What if the verse were interpreted as: “If you fear disobedience from your wives, first admonish them, then forsake their beds, and then separate from them”?

This interpretation correlates much better with the example and words of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, whose last sermon enjoins Muslim men to treat their wives with kindness as they are “partners and committed helpers” to the men. Tellingly, the Prophet never hit any of his wives, nor any other woman in his lifetime.

Ultimately, though, the problem doesn’t lie in the words of the Quran or the Prophet’s words and actions, which are clear and unquestionable. Our own arrogant mindsets, shaped by our culture and society, convince us that a man has the right to hit his wife. Whether it’s in the name of Islam, or to keep her well-behaved, or to promote order in society, or the man’s authority in the household, men gladly accept the privilege that allows them to control a woman by physical means, which can and does result in grievous harm. It is our resistance to Islam’s compassion, kindness, justice, and humanity that makes us tolerate and even perpetuate such a contradiction in our midst.

There is much in Islam’s rich history that points to the emancipation and empowerment of women. Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, is seen as one of the best examples of how to govern a nation, with her intelligence, fairness, and enlightenment. The Quran encouraged women to participate in the Mubahalah (Surah Imran 3:61), a public debate between Muslims and Christians of the tribe of Najran. Women freely chose to become Muslim, gave their allegiance to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in mubaiyat and emigrated to Madina with the Prophet and his Companions (peace be upon them). Women like Summayya Umm’Ammar even gave up their lives in defiance of the oppressors of the early Muslims in a clear example of women’s martyrdom and political protest. These were honors bestowed upon women in the early days of Islam, and should not be taken lightly or dismissed as anomalies.

It is good to observe that the Government of Punjab has not been swayed by the CII’s arguments; they are starting to implement the Punjab Protection of Women Act by establishing a Violence Against Women Center Authority. In this way they are paying attention to the injunctions of Islam which order Muslims to protect women, girls, and children against mistreatment and harm.

There can be no nobler way of honoring the Prophet’s instructions than to honor women.

The Living Museum

You can read a short story of mine, “The Living Museum,” in the latest edition of the journal Weber – The Contemporary West. It’s a beautiful issue with a focus on South Asia, so lots of good stuff in there.

The short story, which I wrote before the refugee crisis but turned out to be eerily prescient of its scope, features the poems of the hugely talented Syrian poet Golan Haji. Read the story for those alone, if nothing else.

Also, enjoy the interview with Shabana Azmi (I didn’t write it) – true cinema gold.

Nothing’s Wrong With Pakistani Feminists

Is there something wrong with Pakistani feminists? Yes, according to the author of this piece in the Daily Times. He’s an acquaintance whose enthusiasm for women’s rights I do recognise, but here he calls Pakistan’s feminists “so-called” and that they give feminism everywhere a “bad name”. And yet he’s got it terribly, terribly wrong on so many counts that I felt I had to write a rejoinder. 

TL;DR (this means if it was Too Long and you Didn’t Read), the author asserts that Pakistan’s feminists have managed to achieve nothing of substance in the last 30 years. He says that women are each others’ worst enemies in the push for women’s rights, and that men have been pivotal to any success seen by the women’s movement in Pakistan; he uses the example of white men being central to the abolition of slavery and by extension, the civil rights movement in the United States as grounds for comparison to any similar triumphs women have made or ever will make in Pakistani history – in other words, that it won’t happen until and unless men step in and take the lead.

Furthermore, he calls the new generation of Pakistani feminists “incapable of reading critically or understanding the diversity of the feminist movement worldwide”. The unequal status of women in Pakistan, he argues, is a “cash cow for milking”, and this is why Pakistani feminists have been unable and unwilling to actually enact change.

On his original blog post, I commented that Pakistan’s feminists have united on many fronts and worked hard to enact legislation that is pro-women: the Honor Killing Bill, the Sexual Harassment Bill, the Domestic Violence Bill, the Acid Attack Bill, to name a few in recent times. Historically, the seminal group WAF (Women’s Action Forum) has been instrumental in women’s advocacy, and so has WAR (Women Against Rape) for the last 40 years, especially during the Zia times. Concerted agitation against the Hudood Ordinances has led to their becoming largely defunct, although no leader has been brave enough to actually try to get them repealed. 

Here’s what the Women’s Action Forum has been doing for the last thirty years:

(WAF is) A women’s rights organization and has a presence in several cities in Pakistan. It is a non-partisan, non-hierarchical and non-funded organization. It is supportive of all aspects of women’s rights and related issues, irrespective of political affiliations, belief system, or ethnicity. Women’s Action Forum came into being in Karachi in September 1981. The following year, the Lahore and then the Islamabad Chapters were formed. Some years later, the Peshawar chapter came into being. And in May 2008, a Chapter of WAF started in Hyderabad, in the Province of Sindh. WAF does active lobbying, advocacy on behalf of women in Pakistan. It stages demonstrations and public-awareness campaigns. It is committed to a just and peaceful society based on democracy. The issues picked up by WAF have included challenging discriminatory legislation against women, the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, dress codes for women, violence against women and the seclusion of women. WAF’s activism has led to the birth of many women’s rights groups and resource centres thereby increasing its outreach. WAF considers all issues as “women’s issues” and has taken positions on national and global developments. It allies itself with democratic and progressive forces in the country as well as linking its struggle with that of minorities and other oppressed peoples. (From Wikipedia; click on the link to find out more about its impressive history)

The author replied to me that the Hudood Ordinance is not defunct, and that only the Sexual Harassment act was signifying of real progress; that too because it was supported by men such as Makhdoom Ali Khan and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, and pushed through by General Pervez Musharraf when he was in power.   The women’s groups I mentioned had nothing to do with it, he said.

Well, here’s proof that the author is wrong: this article by Dawn’s Naziha Syed Ali outlines exactly what Pakistani women activists and legislators “(not least those belonging to the women’s parliamentary caucus) have been doing to convince the parliament to enact hugely important pro-women legislation,” as Syed said an email to me. She notes that all the bills, incidentally, were tabled by women legislators. It is an excellent roundup of what has been achieved so far, what still remains to be achieved (the Domestic Violence bill, for example, still needs to be passed) and the hideous, regressive attitudes that male lawmakers still hold towards women’s rights.

I simply cannot understand how anyone calling themselves a supporter of women’s rights can overlook the pressure that women’s groups such as WAF and WAR and other advocacy groups exert upon policymakers. Pioneering journalists such as Zubeida Mustafa, Beena Sarwar, Sherry Rehman, to name our best, are also feminists who changed public opinion in favor of women’s rights. And excellent work has been done by the National Commission for the Status of Women, led until recently by the feminist Anis Haroon, in terms of recommending changes in policy and law with regards to women’s rights.

It’s true that men have to be 100% committed to the battle for gender equality for us to see any progress.     What’s even more true is that patriarchy and inequality is so deeply embedded in our society that the women’s rights movement has active opponents – in the religious front which joins forces with the conservative elements of political society – that do their best to push back against any kind of progress made in the name of gender equality. That “lack of progress” the author writes about in his piece is  based in reality, but the causation is mistakenly described as women attacking one another and their male supporters, when it is actually caused by men who do not want to see any change that threatens their stranglehold over one-half of the entire population of Pakistan.

There is nothing wrong with Pakistan’s feminists; they’re doing remarkably well in the face of so many decades of blatant opposition. For argument’s sake, I could have appreciated a more detailed analysis of all these groups and consortiums, with an evaluation of both their triumphs and failures. But this one-sided post feels much more like an opinion piece than an unbiased examination of the women’s movement in Pakistan. Perhaps someone has doubted the author’s feminist credentials and he is reacting to that accusation, but that’s no reason to discredit Pakistani feminists as a whole, who have sacrificed so much in their fight for women’s rights. 

That a Pakistani man sees fit to attack Pakistani feminism as a whole is a disappointment, but it is not very much of a surprise.


Ever since Ali Gul Pir made the hysterical video “Wadera Ka Beta” (Son of Feudal), there’s been an increase in the popularity of the Sindhi phrase “Saeen tau saeen” (saeen is an honorific or title of respect that Sindhi men use for each other, denoting that the person is a gentleman, but has been mistaken as synonymous with feudals, the social class of landowners in the rural areas of Sindh, or even crudely, a king) in the country.

The Sindhis say the phrase “Saeen Tau Saeen” as an in-joke; this phrase is used when someone’s acting high and mighty and you want to jokingly call attention to their high-handedness or delusions of grandeur. But ever since the video came out, non-Sindhis have become familiar with it too, and are using it with much glee to express their dislike for Sindhi feudals and their ways.

On Twitter,  I’ve noticed that people are using the phrase with me when they don’t like what I have to say, the implication being that because I’m from a Sindhi feudal family, I refuse to brook any argument.

I’ve also been called “Wadera Ki Beti” (daughter of feudal) but anyone who knows my background knows that this is no insult to me.

I believe that while the video of Wadea Ka Beta is hilarious and clever (Ali Gul Pir was a student of mine at SZABIST, and also Sindhi, although not a feudal), it’s opened the doors for a lot of people to channel their class hatred and in some cases their anti-Sindhi racism in a socially palatable way.

Class hatred is a worldwide phenomenon. It exists in Pakistan, in India, in the UK, in any society where there is a division of classes and little social mobility between them. In Pakistan, it plays out as hatred of “elites”. (Read Ayesha Siddiqua’s excellent column, “What is Pakistan’s Elite” for more background on this subject). People in Pakistan have good reason to hate their “elites”. But some “elites” are more hated than others, and the Sindhi feudal definitely falls into that category.

When I said as much yesterday on Twitter, making it clear that I wasn’t ashamed of my Sindhi landowning background or my own “feudal” family, I was met with a barrage of tweets attacking me for “defending” feudalism. My jaw dropped as I saw the depth of people’s ignorance and misinformation coming alive. “Are you in favor of marriage to the Quran?” “Why do you make haris (sharecroppers) sit at your feet?” “What’s your stance on karo-kari (honor killing)?” “Why do you keep your haris so poor and uneducated?”

My stance on all these issues has been clear for years. You can read my thoughts on feudalism here. And my stance on honor killings here. As for “making haris sit at your feet”, whoever thinks that has never been to the interior, where waderas and haris alike sit on the floor at occasions such as funerals.

What are we talking about when we talk about feudalism? The agricultural system of Sindh, or the culture of excess and abuse of power that has sprung up around it over the decades? Every class and every subclass of Pakistan’s society has a culture, an attitude, a behavior. Sindhi feudalism’s culture isn’t exemplary. Abuses of the poor take particular iterations in the interior, such as bonded labor, village girls being kidnapped and raped, honor killing, and blood feuds (you can easily think of the equivalent of these abuses happening in a factory in Faisalabad, or a tribal village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, or even on the streets of Karachi, I’m sorry to say).

Its scions do commit excess, therefore Wadera Ka Beta. The Sindhi feudals need to face up to those realities, and do some soul-searching about whether this is really the legacy they want to hand down to their children. It’s definitely a system that thrives on ignorance and illiteracy.  Education and industrialization, when and if it happens in Pakistan, will reduce the influence and power of the feudals as has happened in other countries around the world. Yet this particular system sprung up out of the vacuum that successive governments left in Sindh by refusing to allocate funds for its development or to provide the services of education and healthcare that were Sindh’s due for the last 60 years.

But I’ve found that the worst of the stereotypes against the Sindhi landowning classes have been spread for decades by a sensationalist media, and that people remain willfully ignorant of both the business of agriculture as practiced in the interior, and any of the strong cultural traditions of the interior, besides a very superficial acquaintance with Sufism as imagined by Salman Ahmad and Rumi. I directed one of my Indian Twitter detractors to read my article on feudalism but he said he “stopped reading” when he got to the part about the feudal code of honor. It’s closed-mindedness like this that allows the hatred and misunderstanding to flourish.

I was asked why, for example, haris touch the feet of the zamindars. I explained that there were many Hindu traditions that have continued in Sindh. Namaste is one of them, pau-pheri is another. “But why don’t the feudals touch the feet of the haris?” I was asked. I couldn’t decide whether this was real naivete or faux naivete, but I answered it on face value. “Because it’s like when a child touches his mother or father’s feet in the Hindu culture. Does your mother or father touch your feet? The zamindar is like mother and father to his people.”

(This symbolic comparison, I’m afraid, was taken out of context and bandied about on Twitter as proof that I’m defending feudalism. I’m familiar with this sort of smearing. It happened before, when at the first Karachi Literature Festival that quote “I’ve been in a rickshaw” was used for months afterwards as proof of my elitism and disregard for the poor.)

And yet, YES, the zamindar is like a parent to the villagers on his land, because he provides them with protection against the larger forces in the interior: people from rival tribes, the police, dacoits (bandits), so on and so forth. Anyone who doesn’t believe this doesn’t understand much about what a wilderness the interior really is. They continue to harbor dreams about the farms being like some kind of Bollywood movie, where if only the poor villagers were liberated from their evil landlord, everyone would sing and dance in the fields and the hero and heroine would be free to love without fear…

People don’t want to hear much about any good qualities or practices or traditions Sindhi landowners might have. They don’t want to hear about the hospitals, schools, jobs, operations, scholarships that landowners have provided to their people, without fanfare or advertising. That’s just dismissed as “noblesse oblige” or exaggerated benevolence. They want to stick to their imaginings of feudals as bloodthirsty bastards who beat and abuse their haris and steal land and are worshipped as false gods by their poor, ignorant villagers.

In short, they only want a monolithic monster that they can hate with a clear conscience, a combination of Darth Vader and Don Corleone with cartoon-like mustaches and a gaggle of daughters married to the Quran.