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.

Are transwomen real women?

The remarks of Nigerian writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche have created some controversy this week, as she appeared to state that trans women (where someone born biologically male identifies with a female gender identity and lives life as a woman), on account of biology, cannot be considered “women.”

“When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women,” Adichie shared with Channel 4. “If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Feminists who take this side in the debate are sometimes known as TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist. They believe that transgender women should not be considered the same as biologically born, or cisgender, women. Some merely state this as a position while others speak out against or actively work against the inclusion of transwomen in women- or female-centric activities, health services, communities, etc. The most famous example of this is Germaine Greer, who said that trans women can’t be “real” women and that they are “ghastly parodies” with “too much eyeshadow.”

My perspective on transgender people, and transgender women, has been shaped by my life and experience in Pakistan. The situation for trans folk in Pakistan is very well summed up by Mahwish Akhtar’s excellent report for CityNews Pakistan here. Everything she writes about is true, from the attitudes towards trans women as freaks and objects of ridicule, to the difficulties of finding education and employments, to the government’s allowing trans people to identify as “third gender” officially — which hasn’t translated to changes in attitude or anything concrete in their lives.

I urge you to take a minute to read her report, as it explains everything very clearly. Transgender people in Pakistan today are marginalized and often brutalized. They are one of the most vulnerable populations in Pakistan today, perhaps even more so than women born biologically female. Their numbers are very small; only perhaps 2% of the population. Transgender people have always been a part of Pakistani culture, but we have yet to actually respect them as valuable members of our society.

The good thing is that thanks to intersectional feminism, transgender people in Pakistan are starting to find their voice, and to organize, and advocate for their rights. Thanks to global links with trans organizations and advocates all over the world, they are beginning to gain courage and believe that they deserve more than they get in this country. Respect and safety – not too much to ask for, is it? And education and employment, so they don’t have to spend their lives dancing and clapping on the street?

The recent killing of two Pakistani transgender women in Saudi Arabia upset me a great deal, especially the manner of their death – violently, in police custody, alone and terrified. There will be no inquiry, no diplomat summoned to the Foreign Office and asked to explain why two Pakistani citizens were killed on foreign soil.

The question of whether transwomen are “real” women is also a disturbing one. It’s one that offends me, actually. It’s the same thing when someone asks you if you’re a “real” American just because you’re an immigrant. Certainly you didn’t grow up American, your experiences are different and not comparable to a born American, but does that make your passion or your love for the country any less? Did you dream of being an American all your life and go through tremendous sacrifices to get there? Doesn’t that count for anything? Should foreign-born Americans be excluded from all the rights and opportunities of those born on American soil?

Perhaps it isn’t a valid allegory, but it’s how I feel about trans women. Of course they weren’t born with a vagina or uterus, don’t have their periods, didn’t experience life as biologically born women. But their commitment to the idea of being a woman is sky-high. They’re willing to risk their lives for it. A biologically born woman is subjected to violence against women by default. Trans women undergo it because they can’t live their lives out of alignment with how they feel inside themselves.

If we as feminists don’t believe that possessing a penis should give you automatic privilege and status over women, then should we believe that possessing a vagina and ovaries and breasts gives us privilege and status over transgender women?

Is transgenderism a genetic issue, or a psychological one? Nature or nurture? Is it about sexual organs and hormones, or is it about soul and heart? There are certain biological facts that are inescapable: to deny them is foolish. But when transwomen transition from male to female, they are undergoing a spiritual as much as a physical transformation: we need to recognize that and respect it. To split hairs about their bodies seems unnecessarily cruel to me. And I come from a country where we’re downright cruel to transgender women.

I can’t do that to other women. It’s not part of my feminism.

On “Lightly Beating” Your Wife

Yesterday the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory committee on all matters Islamic to the Pakistani Government (which was only meant to be formed for ten years but has never been disbanded), came up with its own “Women’s Protection Bill”. This 136-page treatise is in response to the laudatory Punjab Government’s Women’s Protection Bill, which introduced mechanisms for protecting women from domestic violence.

The CII and other religious groups had protested vociferously against this bill (even though similar bills that go further than the Punjab bill and actually criminalize domestic violence have already been passed in Sindh and Balochistan). They promised to present their own version which was based on Islam and the teachings of the Quran. It’s important to note that the government is under no obligation to listen to any of their recommendations, and even within the CII there was opposition to many items in the bill. The CII’s token female member was not present on the day the bill was agreed upon in the Council.

What they came up with yesterday was in fact a group of very strange recommendations, the most outrageous of which was the idea that a man can “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeys him, doesn’t wash after sexual intercourse, doesn’t let him have sexual intercourse when he wants it, doesn’t wear a hijab. It also recommends that coeducational education not be allowed in primary school. And on and on.

It boggles the mind that anyone could find any of these recommendations sensible, but they don’t come out of nowhere. The vast majority of Pakistani men do believe that it’s their divine right to discipline women and keep women under control. And they confound masculinity with violence: therefore, the masculine thing to do is to keep your women under control by using violence. They know no other language: not the language of warmth, or kindness, verbal and non-verbal, which is actually prescribed in Islam.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) never raised his hand against a woman, neither his wives nor his daughters nor any of the women in the Muslim community. We can point to verses in the Quran which have been translated to prescribe “beatings” (translated and interpreted by men, of course, reflecting their own patriarchal values). But the spirit of Islam and the actions of the Prophet go in the opposite direction. In the Prophet’s last sermon, he instructed Muslims to treat their wives with kindness, because they are “your partners.”

For a breakdown that looks at the rights of Pakistani women as citizens of this country, a conversation on GEO with human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir shines a clear light on this entire episode.

What do you think of these recommendations given by the CII?
Asma Jehangir: It’s an insult to me to even discuss these recommendations. The scholars who give these recommendations should think carefully about what they’ve said. Those who recommend that Pakistani women should be beaten need to realize that Pakistani girls and women are not here to be beaten. The rest of the recommendations are so bizarre that I think these scholars need to think about the effect this would have on the next generation’s way of thinking: do they really think a husband should monitor when his wife bathes and when she wakes up, what she’ll wear? Has a man married a wife or a concubine? Where is the sense in any of this?

These scholars are part of a state institution. Have they forgotten that a woman is as much a Pakistani citizen as they are? If our Parliament has any shame, they will appoint scholars who want to protect and take care of our vulnerable and innocent girls and women. Our girls have won Nobel Peace Prizes and played international cricket – what have these scholars done for our country besides promote violence and war and advocated the beating of women?

Do you think these recommendations are an attempt to make women into second class citizens?
Asma Jehangir: The whole world’s mullahs can get together but they cannot implement these laws. Pakistani women know how to protect ourselves, and we want to live in dignity.

There is a recent saying that has become popular with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It is clear that the men of the CII and this cockamamie bill they’ve come up with reflects the fears of men in Pakistan that their superior status as males is being threatened by the emancipation and empowerment of women in this country. This bill is part of the ongoing backlash against the women’s movement in Pakistan. Men are starting to feel oppressed by women standing up for their rights.

The best thing women can do in this case is to not back down, refuse to treat this bill as anything to be even considered seriously. In a country with such severe problems of domestic violence and violence against women, this is a mere distraction, a smokescreen to cover up the real problems we face as women and citizens of Pakistan. Those of you who are our allies will continue to fight the realities of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.

The rest of you can line up with the CII and get ready to go the way of the dinosaurs.

NOTE: Here is an excellent explanation of verse 4:34 in the Quran which most classical scholars and today’s misogynists take to mean the Quran sanctions wife-beating. You’ll see that there is another, more logical meaning to this verse if you follow the link.

PS: Here are some of the recommendations the CII missed out on, according to the Khabaristan Times

Pakistani women and national defense

The way nations wage war, make peace and protect their borders has changed immeasurably over the last fifty years, and Pakistan, at the forefront of today’s conflict zones, cannot remain immune to these changes. One of the fundamental transitions in this respect is the growing recognition by global security experts of the ways that war and conflict affect men and women, civilians and soldiers. Because of this reality, neither can war be conducted nor peace achieved without the active participation and inclusion of both women and men in all aspects of safety, security, and peacekeeping. This change presents an exciting opportunity for Pakistan’s women to participate more fully in Pakistan’s national defense system, to the benefit of the nation only.

Historically, women have been part of Pakistan’s military since 1947. At first they were only allowed to serve in the medical branch; even today the majority of Pakistan’s 4000 women officers serve either in the Army Medical Corps or the Armed Forces Nursing Services. Within these limits, there was no restriction for how high women could go; Pakistan is the only Muslim or developing nation to have had two women generals, both serving in the Army Medical Corps. In this way Pakistan has led the system for both developing countries and Muslim nations in the inclusion of women in the armed forces.

Gradually women began to serve in different non-combatant branches of the military: the Education Corps, ISPR, Signals, Engineering, and IT departments are currently the most popular avenues to military career for women. Combat roles for women is a bit controversial issue, because of social conservatism and strong opinion beliefs that women should not be on the front lines of war. While a select few have been trained as pilots in Pakistan Air Force and as paratroopers, and while Pakistani women serve in the police and in the UN peacekeeping forces, it’s unlikely that Pakistan Army will induct women in any significant numbers to fight alongside men on the conventional battlefield.

In Pakistan, the military and national defense arenas have always been dominated by men making all important decisions in strategy, logistics, peace talks, treaty negotiations, and peace-keeping efforts. However, in the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which recognized “the inordinate impact of war on women” and “the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.” And while this resolution applies to UN peace and security efforts, Pakistan, as a member of the United Nations, by incorporating and implementing its clauses in national security policy mechanism, it in its own national defense strategy so can become a role model for Muslim nations and developing countries in the forward march towards women’s empowerment.

The UNSC Resolution 1325 reaffirms “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stressing the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.” This resolution recognizes the fact that war has changed in profound ways: it has been increasingly targeting civilians, with an upsurge in gender-based violence such as rape and sexual assault, as seen in the Syrian war or the Kashmir conflict. It also recognizes that women have been significantly left out of any peace processes, such as in the current peace negotiations taking place in Afghanistan.
The four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325 are:

• Increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
• The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
• Improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women.
• Advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens.

Pakistan’s women have much to offer in terms of talent, skills and capability in the all-important role of defending the country against attacks or security threats. Yet as the UN resolution illustrates, Pakistani women can help build strong institutions to maintain peace and security by offering their perspectives on the analysis of conflict, as well as their strategies on “creating ties across opposing factions and increasing the inclusiveness, transparency, and sustainability of peace processes.”

The increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making is most necessary in the case of Afghanistan’s peace-making process. Pakistan must play a guiding role in encouraging the participation of women in this process, as a successful peace treaty will not last without the inclusion of women in the negotiations. In Pakistan, treaties negotiated amongst and with warring factions have never included women negotiators, and at places women have been excluded from election process which weakens the democratic institutions of the country.

Women’s peace representatives should also be made part of any conflict resolution processes in Pakistan, such as in traditionally male-dominated jirgas. This is the only way to achieve equitable solutions to conflicts that are fair to both men and women in communities affected by war, terror, and insurrection.

Involving women and women’s networks in conflict resolution, in peace settlements, and in voting will result in increased security for women, not just in refugee population and camps in Pakistan, but also in communities and areas where lack of education and opportunity lead to instability and loss of security. The only way to create a comprehensive and empowering role for the most disenfranchised women of Pakistan is to emphasize their role as leaders, not victims, by including them in all aspects of decision-making, including national, international and regional institutions, in mediation and conflict resolution, in peace-keeping forces like the police and the Rangers.

The protection of women against gender-based violence in conflict must be one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s national defence policy. Usually the women are perceived as “second-class” citizens, the gender-based violence is counted as a “second class” crime. The prevention of gender-based crimes should be top priority of the state, with Pakistani women involved in the creation of intervention strategies specifically designed to protect female cader. Women must also be involved in the prosecution of those who violate national and international laws and commit gender violence. Women should be given a lead role in strengthening laws for the protection of women, because they are best-placed to advocate for what women need from Pakistan’s legal system. A simple example is the tribal practice of using women as compensation for crimes; it is only when women are part of legal reform that these “solutions” – which are in fact gender-based crimes – are eliminated by gender-sensitive laws, and those laws are enforced by a gender-sensitive security and legal system. This is the way forward to a more just and equitable society, preventing destabilization and insecurity in vulnerable communities.

Addressing relief and recovery measures during times of crisis through a “gendered lens” means, very simply, including women and their perspectives in all aspects of humanitarian relief, refugee camp design and administration, and building mechanisms that respect the civil and humanitarian nature of refugee camps, refugee resettlement programmes and the special needs of girls and women in these camps. Refugee camps are places where women are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Humanitarian disasters also increase women’s likelihood of experiencing sexual violence as traditional structures of security are devastated in the aftermath of earthquakes or floods. Any military or national defence response to these situations has to give special focus and measures for women’s protection in vulnerable places and situations.

There is also a need to formulate a national action plan on women, peace and security as outlined by four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325. This plan can outline mechanisms for the inclusion of women in all areas of peacekeeping and security strategy. Existing guidelines and plans such as the ones that already exist in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom can be adapted to the Pakistani environment, and its unique needs and challenges.

In order for national defence to benefit from women’s perspectives, women need to be appointed in greater numbers in departments and organizations that oversee all aspects of security policy for Pakistan. This includes the Prime Minister’s office; those ministries and governmental departments that deal with security, such as the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Law Ministry; the Police and Rangers; any committees that deal with defence and the defence budget; all intelligence and secret services bureaus; the National Atomic Energy Commission; and any parliamentary committees that deal with any aspect of defence, security, foreign affairs, and the armed forces.

This list of organizations, departments and committees has always been assumed as the natural domain of men. The idea of including women in these corridors may seem a radical departure from conventional governance, but in line with the increasing visibility and participation of women in all walks of life, the inclusion of women in these arenas will result in a more comprehensive approach towards the national security of all citizens of Pakistan.

National defense is not just about building up military strength or possessing sophisticated equipment in order to vanquish a common enemy; the true defense of a nation means shoring it up against vulnerability. A nation cannot achieve its defense objectives without involving its female population in this process and making their needs a priority in all national defense strategies. This is a long-term investment in the future of Pakistan, for studies show that when women are empowered, nations enjoy higher rates of safety and security. Indeed, in our rapidly changing world, involving women in all aspects of Pakistan’s defense will have to be an indispensable part of protecting the country for generations to come.

First published in Hilal Magazine

Daddy’s Boy

Very little fanfare’s been made of Shandana Minhas’s third book, published last month by Harper Collins India. Strange, because this Karachi-based writer’s work is very well known in Pakistan, and received acclaim: her first, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth First Book award, while her second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the French Fiction Prize at KLF last year. But then, that’s Minhas’s specialty, to come out of left field and surprise you as a reader with her wit, acerbity, and prescience.

Daddy’s Boy is no different in the Minhas tradition, then. It’s a quick read (I finished it in 2 days, and at 200 pages, it’s at the shorter end of the novel scale), and one that’s hard to put down once you start. The premise is this: a young man in Lahore, Asfandyar, has always been told by his mother that his father died when Asfandyar was a child. But suddenly he learns one day that his father was alive all along, and has just died, and he, Asfandyar, must go to his funeral in Karachi.

Following his mother’s instructions, buoyed on his love for his beautiful but dull fiancee Lalarukh, Asfandyar makes his way to Karachi, where he comes across three old men who are friends of his father. With rapid-fire dialogue and entertaining jabs, they win over the young man’s trust. He follows them through the restive city as they bury his father, then help Asfandyar to dispose of his father’s flat and whatever is inside it.

But this is no straightforward tale: things quickly go out of control for Asfandyar, and he’s struggling to understand just what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing’s as it seems, not the uncles, not the beautiful, capricious woman who shows up at his father’s funeral, not the city itself. Everything overwhelms Asfandyar, and he finds himself making one choice after another that leads him deeper and deeper into a quagmire, caught between morality and mortality, desire and duty.

Minhas plays with words in a way that no other Pakistani writer does. In this book, the result is a boisterous energy, a story that’s sometimes dialogue-heavy, sometimes description heavy, but always teasing and tricking the reader. “I wanted the prose and the rhythm to mimic the manic nature of our lives in Karachi, be suffused with it,” she says. She also recounts how she wanted to do “something ambitious with the idiom,” in “using the English language to tell a local story.”

As always, Minhas’s work is characteristically dark and cynical, and I struggle with the fact that her characters never seem to find the redemption the reader wishes for them. In Daddy’s Boy, this is because it’s not a morality tale but “an amorality tale.”  She refuses, in fact, to give the reader what he or she wants most in order to convey what she knows to be true about Karachi, and Pakistan. “The dark heart of it is the point that patriarchy creates broken people. Broken women, yes, but also broken men.”

Yet the book contains beautiful writing, especially the moment when Anis is buried, and another tableau describing the city of Lahore in breathtaking prose. “I wanted the Lahore stretch to be tonally different to emphasise that difference between cities,” says Minhas of this shift.

Lahore reclines by a river, secure in her charms. Men pass through her. Their gifts outlive them. The Moguls left palaces, pleasure gardens and tombs. Birds nest over their bones. Her present owners too seek to mark her. Green and white minarets watch the sky, their bases tile-lined to wash what has happened away. Recently built roads are bangles on her wrists, every meal in her markets offered as aphrodisiac.

It’s this contrast between ugliness and beauty, between action and observation, that can leave the reader completely off balance, or punched in the stomach, as Minhas’s best friend said after reading the book. Her energetic writing sometimes veers on this side of feeling out of control, but then again this could be a deliberate effect to keep the reader guessing. My preferences tend to lean towards symmetry and elegance, but Minhas’s style is far too punchy for that. She deliberately goes instead for discord and clamour, much the way Picasso’s Cubism shook up the artistic idiom and turned it into something entirely different than what was expected.

Perhaps it’s this daring and disregard for the predictable that ensures Minhas remains an “alternative” instead of “mainstream” fiction writer. Yet as her style evolves, her instincts deepen and her prose progresses towards an ever more polished form, it retains that distinctive capriciousness — much like the women in her stories — that make her work, love it or hate it, un-putdownable. And that’s really what every writer wants.

Pakistan and Valentine’s Day

The Algerian writer Kamal Daoud published an essay called “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World”, a masterful piece with echoes of Focault on the Arab world’s obsession with sex and its neuroses towards women and virginity. Daoud encapsulates perfectly how religion is hijacked to preach a hypervigilance about sexual matters. This causes a type of moral sickness which is spreading to Europe with the refugee crisis and the migration of large numbers of Arab men to European countries.

Orgasms are acceptable only after marriage — and subject to religious diktats that extinguish desire — or after death. Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.

It’s necessary but painful reading, especially as I contemplate, on February 13, certain elements of the religious right’s attempts to campaign against Valentine’s Day in Pakistan. I was in traffic the other day when I spotted two vans bearing this banner:

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen anti-Valentine’s day campaigns in Pakistan; in previous years religious extremists have gone around to shops selling cards and flowers and other paraphernalia and threatened them with violence. And it doesn’t just happen in Pakistan; in India, anti-Valentine’s Day ads have shown up in the metro stations in New Delhi this year, and in previous years similar thugs have gone around shutting down sales of roses and teddy bears and the rest.

In response to the anti-Valentine’s Day two years ago, Sabeen Mahmud started a counter-protest. This caused a lot of controversy, which I won’t go into here. But when questioned about why they assassinated her in 2015, her killers stated this counter-protest as the reason they were offended by her liberal views.

The anti-Valentine’s Day campaign in Pakistan has been surrounded by rumors amplified on social media that Valentine’s Day has been “banned” in various cities of Pakistan. The President of Pakistan found this important enough to mention it in a speech yesterday. The reasoning is that Valentine’s Day is a Western tradition, offensive to Islam. No word yet on whether or not a man is allowed to present his wife with a bouquet of flowers on February 14.

In the West, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest money-spinners in the year. Men and women are exhorted to perform extraordinary contortions, sexual and otherwise, to declare their love for one another. Flowers, chocolates, dinners, spa weekends, engagement diamonds and romantic getaways are all pushed onto eager consumers who are perhaps making up for 364 days of neglect with one big bang.

There are people that refuse to take part in this spectacle, and there are others who buy into it whole-heartedly, or go along with it because it’s kind of fun. When I was in school you could buy a Valentine gram (a cupcake and a rose) to be delivered in class to the person of your choice. It became a contest to see who was the most popular person, while others had to bear the utter humilation of not receiving a single cupcake, or got one bought by their mother.

Is Valentine’s Day a danger to Islam, to eastern values, to pocketbooks? Is the anti-Valentine’s Day another way of protesting the influence of Western values on vulnerable adults? Will we become better Muslims by turning our backs on teddy bears and chocolates? Will those who would have spent the day weeping because they don’t have a partner turn their anger and bitterness into religious righteousness and a morally upstanding position against Satan’s Day?

I don’t really have the answers to any of these questions. Valentine’s Day tends to pass me by like a plane in the sky, distant, but impossible to ignore because of all the noise it makes. I do know one thing though: love, like anything else, becomes all the more exciting and seductive when it is forbidden. Just ask Romeo and Juliet, or Heer and Ranjha, or Sassi and Pannu, or Ram and Leela.

Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

Continue reading Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan


When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

Pakistan’s Hidden Shame

Mohammed Naqvi and Jamie Doran’s documentary film (airing on Channel 4 in the UK tonight), “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame,” takes a devastating look at one of Pakistan’s biggest taboos – the sexual abuse of boys.  It relates, with sensitivity and compassion, the stories of the young boys who suffer the abuse, the men who harm them with little remorse or guilt, and the small band of social workers, human rights activists, psychologists and medical practitioners who are desperately trying to rescue these damaged boys and keep them together, one child at a time.

Pakistan is a country where sexuality is obsessively repressed, and women have little chance for gender equality – a World Economic Forum report recently named Pakistan the world’s 2nd worst country for equal opportunities for women. The film contends that these two factors have resulted in the horrifying practice of bachabaazi, or pedophilia, as men with sexual needs that can find no other outlet end up abusing vulnerable young boys who wander on the streets, earning money for their families, or having run away from their homes or places of employment.

The idea of bachabaazi was openly talked about in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, where the narrator must rescue his Afghan nephew from the clutches of a depraved warlord. But bachabaazi is neither a wartime phenomenon nor confined to one particular geographical area; it is rampant all over Pakistan, although the filmmakers have focued on Peshawar in order to give the film its narrative anchor.  And one out of every ten children who are abused end up being killed by their abusers in order to keep the crime hidden forever.
Mohammed Naqvi

In this conservative capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, boys are forced to work on the streets because of desperate poverty. Their freeedom of movement and easy access to public places like truck stops, streets, and cinemas makes them the main targets of pedophiles. But this could happen anywhere in Pakistan – Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, or the myriad villages and towns in every province – and it does.

We’re introduced to several young street children under the age of ten or thereabouts who talk with frightening candour about the rape attempts that have been made on them. Then the filmmakers focus on Naeem, a boy of about fourteen who has run away from home after the death of his parents. He has been gang-raped at a bus stop by several men; the pain and trauma of this has turned him into a drug addict, and the film follows him with an unblinking eye as he spirals into self-harm and suicidal impulses.
The film also portrays the efforts of Afzal, a Peshawar-based social worker who tries to help Naeem by bringing him to the day center he runs for street children and getting him off drugs. Afzal’s persistence, compassion, and dedication to his job and to the children he serves lies in stark contrast to Ijaz, the bus driver who admits openly to having raped a dozen children, but claims he is “helpless against [his] desires”.  And there’s Naeem’s older brother, who beat Naeem before he ran away, and says that had he known Naeem had been raped, he would have killed his younger brother with his own hands for bringing shame to the family.

Zia Awan, the lawyer and famed human rights activist, provides a sobering account of how widepread the problem of pedophilia is, while psychologist Rukhsana Malik gives her perspective on how children are first traumatized but then become numbed in the face of the onslaught. And Ghulam Qadri, the Country Director of Save the Children, provides the key to understanding the practice: most of the abusers, he says, were themselves abused as children, so cannot sense any wrongdoing in their actions.

Jamie Doran interviewing Imran Khan

Most Pakistanis would prefer to deny the existence of pedophilia, but the sobering weight of these experts’ words make it impossible to live in such denial.  Yet the experts, and Afzal, the selfless care worker, display a refreshing openness in talking about the issue. So too does Imran Khan, head of the PTI, the political party that rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who professes surprise at how bad the problem is, then promises to create a task force to tackle it. With some progressive Pakistanis willing to accept that there is a problem, perhaps all isn’t lost for the street children – but it will be a tremendous struggle to implement laws and make an uninterested police enforce them.

Naqvi and Doran match each scene of ugliness or horror with an image of equal beauty or innocence: the scars on Naeem’s body as he turns to self-harm, versus the light in his clear-brown eyes and the smile on his face as he watches a Bollywood film; the dust-choked streets where pedophiles lurk versus the jauntily decorated buses and the city of Peshawar wreathed in early morning mist; children laughing and larking around as they swim in a dirty, polluted canal. It’s these startling juxtaposition of images that makes the film visually arresting, accompanied by traditional music and a thoughtful narration that immerses you completely in this depressing world.  But the film requires a strong stomach to watch, and few will be able to actually see it all the way through, so searing is its impact.
This is a film that speaks honestly about the scope of pedophilia in Pakistan, but refrains from blaming or sermonizing. Mohamed Naqvi and Jamie Doran have shown tremendous courage in making this film, creating a much more nuanced picture than if they had laid judgment squarely at the feet of any one entity or cause.  The film will certainly cause controversy in a country where most people would prefer to pretend pedophilia doesn’t exist, or point fingers at the West for having a worse problem with child abuse. But for the sake of these ghost children, who are haunted by their abuse, not just their abusers – Naqvi and Doran have shown us that it’s a far braver decision to tell the truth.

The filmmakers had tremendous support from Pakistani NGOs “who work tirelessly for the betterment of these children,” says Mohammed Naqvi. “These included and If you would like to contribute and learn more about these groups- please do get in touch. Sahil’s Executive Director Ms Manizeh Bano can be reached on

Here is a blog by filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi on his experience filming the movie. His observation that absolute, desperate poverty makes for an alternate moral paradigm in Pakistan is one of the most profound observations I’ve ever come across.

Thank you to Laura Kramer at Clover Films for the images of the filmmakers and the film.