Malala on the Cover of Vogue

“I know the power that a young girl carries in her heart when she has a vision and a mission – and I hope that every girl who sees this cover will know that she can change the world.”

Malala Yousufzai has been through a lot, hasn’t she? So to see her on the cover of British Vogue’s June issue did something to my heart. Here’s a young woman who was shot in the face, suffered facial paralysis and damaged muscles as a result (you can see it when she speaks or smiles), wears a dupatta on her head, dresses in Pakistani clothing — and she’s on the cover of Vogue. “Survivor, activist, legend” reads the caption.

Wearing a crimson dupatta draped gracefully over her head and shoulders, a matching crimson kamiz, the background is crimson – the color of blood, the color of love – and with one hand up to her face, right where her facial muscles droop as a result of her injuries. A slight smile, light brown eyes glowing, her skin neither artificially lightened nor fashionably tanned. Thick, untamed eyebrows.

The cover of fucking Vogue, bastion of supermodels, society women, movie stars and pop princesses. And there she is, a Pakistani woman, coming into her own. Most people consider it an honor to be on the cover of Vogue. In the case of Malala, Vogue is honored by her being on its cover.

She is, quite simply, herself. And that is the only accolade she needs.

The Antisemitic Charge

Very glad to have written a brief op-ed for the Dawn about Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s CNN interview. In it I also consider the larger question of what constitutes antisemitism, and what Pakistanis should do when they want to talk about Palestine (hint: not use antisemitic tropes).

Dawn has placed it on the Web site as its top Must-Read article for the day, for which I’m very grateful. Meanwhile, on Twitter, I’ve been called various things, including “fool”, “paid propagandist” and someone who has little knowledge of international relations. I’m quite proud of that too, because it means I made people think.

I’d been on a hiatus from writing columns as I finished up my latest novel, but with the first draft done, I hope to get back to more op-ed writing now.

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.”