Raza Rumi: A step towards a progressive Pakistan

Raza RumiAsma Jahangir’s victory in the Supreme Court Bar Association elections is a momentous event in the country’s political and legal landscape. Even the worst of her critics grudgingly admit that her principled stance has remained consistent in a country where intellectual honesty and integrity are in short supply. More importantly, her reasoned approach to recent bouts of judicial activism has been a source of strength for stakeholders in the democratic process. Almost every progressive Pakistani has been overjoyed with her election as head of a professional body which was on the verge of losing its credibility due to indulgence in partisan politics.

Since the lawyers’ movement created a stir in 2007, the bars had started to assume the role of a political party with an exaggerated notion of their power. Instead of focusing on what ailed legal education and the maligned profession, the regulators had turned into rowdy mobs, televangelists and spokespersons of the free and restored judges. Encouraged, a Supreme Court judge reportedly remarked how ‘popular will’ was above the Constitution. The pinnacle of this approach was the judgment in the NRO case. Asma Jahangir and a few other sensible lawyers highlighted the problematic aspects of the verdict. This was a game-changer and Jahangir was at the centre of this rational discourse.

Her detractors, which are many in a radicalised, post-jihad Pakistan, construed her independent view as affiliation with the government. This limited understanding of her persona and principles, ignoring nearly four decades of activism, was disingenuous at best. The tirade against her by a few zealots in the media even on the day of the election will go down in history as a shameful episode. Positioning her as an opponent of the judiciary was simply untenable as she has always been at the forefront of movements calling for an independent judiciary and democratic governance. Of course, the majority of senior lawyers have proved the media non-gurus wrong by discarding their biased rants.

Pakistan’s fragile democracy is compromised and corrupt; it can only evolve if adequate space is provided by the power players. Asma’s success comes at a time when a courageous voice, free of corporate interests, is required. Above all, her election is also significant for she is the first woman to hold this office, having defeated a wide coalition of right-wing lawyers who even used the Khatam-e Nabuwwat card to demolish her image and credentials.

Asma Jahangir has faced threats to her life and remains undaunted. She is the conscience of Pakistan and her international acclaim is based on her steadfastness, which our bigots wish to ignore. An Urdu columnist called her a danger to Islam and now the usual black-coated suspects are levelling charges that the government injected resources into her campaign. Obviously they have lost their control over the apex bar body and know that Asma will be a fearless and independent leader. They can worry for their agendas but liberal, democratic Pakistanis are rejoicing this much needed respite in the gloomy times that we live in.

This column by Raza Rumi was originally published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2010.

Sana Saleem: Distorted priorities?

Sana SaleemHow many of us remember the three-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and thrown in a sewer, or the 13-year-old boy from Korangi who was gang-raped on Eid-ul-Fitr last year, or the five-year-old girl who was raped, strangled and later recovered from a garbage dump at a ground in Gizri?

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Annual Report 2009:

“968 children, 285 boys and 683 girls were sexually abused. Around 1,404 women murdered, including 647 in the name of ‘honour’. Around 928 women were raped and some 563 committed suicide.”

Another survey, conducted by Sahil, an NGO which raises awareness regarding child sexual abuse and exploitation, paints a haunting image:

“Out of a total of 1,216 cases reported in six months, 331 boys, whereas 885 girls had been sexually abused, and the percentage of the female cases was 72 per cent as compared to 28 per cent of male cases.”

Rape is grossly under-reported in Pakistan. The culture of silence and shame has been one of the biggest hurdles victims face. It is then a pity that the few, who choose to overlook cultural barriers and gather the courage to come forth, are forced to go through the ordeal for years before justice is served. In most instances, alleged rapists are acquitted due to loopholes in our judicial system, while sometimes the victims are pressurised to withdraw their case. The role of police in such cases has been extremely notorious. For instance, take the case of a 10-year-old boy from Lahore; despite medico-legal reports proving rape had occurred, the police was reluctant to file an FIR against the accused pedophile.

In Khipro, a student of class X was given sedatives and gang-raped but her ordeal wasn’t over. The heinous crime was filmed via a mobile phone camera and the video posted on various websites. In the aftermath of the incident, parents of more than 100,000 students have stopped their daughters from attending schools and colleges.

Even more shocking are reports of an alleged gang of blackmailers comprising boys and girls, from ‘respectable’ families, who have sexually assaulted girls, recorded videos of the victims and used it to blackmail the victim’s parent or posted it on the Internet.

What kind of people would commit such an atrocious crime, film it and upload the videos on the Internet is beyond me. Unfortunately, this is not new phenomenon, such incidences have been reported before. In March 2009, a teenage boy was gang-raped in police custody and the footage distributed over the Internet. Child porn continues to be accessed throughout Pakistan and now,  rape videos have also joined the league yet we see no outrage by these ‘upholders of morals and justice.’ The lack of coverage and public outrage at such incidents is extremely disturbing and worrisome. But then our priorities have been distorted for quite sometime. It is a pity that we live in a country where hundreds will march on the streets, calling for an all out ban on social media platforms because of an isolated incident, while horrifying stories of abuse do not merit our anger. If alarming figures from the HRCP reports and the increasing incidences of rape and abuse of women and children does not bring us back to our senses, I don’t know what will.

Sana Saleem is a Features Editor at BEE magazine and blogs at Global Voices,  Asian Correspondent and her personal blog Mystified Justice. She recently won the Best Activist Blogger award by CIO & Google at the Pakistan Blogger Awards. She can be found on Facebook and tweets at twitter.com/sanasaleem.

Drone Distraction

Drone Distraction

Walking around with D.S. the other day, the mood was low. Taliban bombers had just attacked Baba Farid shrine in the latest of the ongoing attacks against such places – Ahdullah Shah Ghazi a few weeks ago, Data Darbar earlier. I was downtrodden, shuffling my feet in the dust, my head hanging in despair. “If all this is really Taliban revenge for American policy, why are the militants attacking our holy places? How is that supposed to be an attack on America? I feel like I’m the target. Like it’s personal. But nobody seems to care.” D.S. just shrugged and kicked a rock. “I wish the Taliban had drones. Then somebody might care.”

I stopped walking for a minute and we both looked up at each other and burst out in laughter. We started coming up with these stories about how the Americans were using suicide bombers against Taliban hideouts, and the Taliban was attacking shrines with drones. We laughed about how The Nation front page would be filled with stories telling ISI agents to cut ties with their pet Lashkars. D.S. acted an impression of Imran Khan defiantly telling the military to go in and defend the nation’s sovereignty by taking out militant bases in NWA.

We laughed and joked for a while because it was the only way to keep our minds off the reality, which is not so funny.

I remembered this conversation today when I was reading Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood’s comment in Daily Times, “Demystifying the drone“. After reading their analysis, it occurred to me that D.S. might have been joking, but his joke was funny because it raised a really troubling question: Why are people more upset about drone attacks against militants then suicide bombings against innocents?

The answer, according to Saeed and Masood, is that certain elements are exploiting the drone strikes as part of a political strategy to upset the public and then use their anger to gain power.

Drone strikes have evolved to become a national political issue with the media and public opinion constantly pressing the government to take up the issue with the US. Opposition to drone strikes is mostly based on ill-conceived notions of sovereignty, ghairat (honour) and figures that seem to suggest that drone strikes are inaccurate and lead to a high number of civilian casualties (not to suggest that there cannot be any informed opposition to drone strikes). From Imran Khan to Munawar Hasan, right-wing political parties and religious groups have used drone strikes to forward their agenda by misguiding people through erroneous, fabricated and fictional data. As a result, thousands of people have been mobilised across the country to oppose these strikes.

So, how are these right-wing politicals able to fool so many people? It turns out they have a powerful ally – the media.

An online database of suicide bombings and drone strikes in Pakistan is maintained at a website called Pakistan Body Count (hereinafter referred to as PBC) by Dr Zeeshan Usmani, a former Fulbright Scholar and currently Assistant Professor at GIKI. Fulfilling the tradition of the lack of intellectual integrity and dishonesty, his data has been used by various media outlets without giving him credit. The data reports that as of late September 2010, only 32 al Qaeda militants have been killed by US drone strikes in comparison to 1,778 civilians giving a paltry 1.76 percent strike rate accuracy. As we shall show categorically, much of this data is erroneous, flawed and plagued by numerous transgressions. Academic credentials alone cannot guarantee lack of bias and the use of technology cannot assure authenticity of data.

Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood don’t just make some claims without having the evidence to back them up, either. They have put together their data on a website: Dronedata.wordpress.com. Take a moment to check it out.

Look, obviously I’m not defending drone attacks here. Neither is Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood. But let’s be honest with ourselves. You and I are much more likely to get killed or know someone killed by some jihadi than in a drone strike. We need to start asking ourselves if all this attention to drones is distracting us from the real problem.

What’s that? Another militant bombing in Quetta?

Scene of jihadi bomb attack



Senator Talha Mehmood’s Media Circus

Is Talha Mehmood Senator or Media Circus Ringmaster?Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani is a favourite punching bag of far-right-wing political types. With regards to the case of Dr Aafia, the first thing out of the mouths of these people was that it was a set up devised by the PPP and orchestrated by Haqqani who they say is a puppet of the Americans. Only one problem – all their claims proved false. So why are they now calling the Ambassador away from his work to attend a media circus?

If PPP and Haqqani had devised to send Aafia to US custody, they have a much more amazing political machine than anyone gives them credit for. Actually, Aafia appears to have been detained under the rule of Musharraf, that darling of the right.

It was General Musharraf and the leaders of an elite intelligence agency who arrested Dr Siddiqui along with her small children and, having separated her from her siblings, presented her as a gift to the US military in one of the most disgraceful acts ever committed by the head of an Islamic country or by the ruler of any country. The “commando” president would later audaciously claim credit for handing over such suspects (refer to his book In the line of fire). It is this aspect that now needs to be analysed and addressed.

So what has Husain Haqqani’s role been? According to Aaj TV, Haqqani has been one of her most ardent defenders. Of course, Haqqani was working through diplomatic and legal channels, not on TV talk shows.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has also taken a keen interest in the Afia Siddiqui case given its political importance at home, sources say. He had two meetings with the Bush administration’s Attorney General and has made President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder at least four times to discuss the case. The US government has been unusually considerate in allowing these meetings, American officials point out, as it is not usually US policy to let foreign ambassadors get involved in cases pending before its courts.

Senior diplomats from the Pakistani embassy in Washington have been following Aafia Siddiquis case since the beginning. On the insistence of her brother Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, an expensive team of lawyers was hired to defend her in court with special approval from Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was unusual for the Pakistan government to pay top human rights lawyers, who had successfully defended other Al-Qaeda linked prisoners in the past, to defend a single Pakistani citizen who was not arrested while in service.

Unfortunately, that work was not good enough for Senator Talha Mehmood (JUI-F), who has now requested the Ambassador to return to Islamabad to explain why all the money spent could not secure her release.

But perhaps the problem is actually one belonging to the Senator, and not the Ambassador. It seems Talha Mehmood is still hanging onto that old belief that money will buy results. Is this not the same Senator who was exposed by Ahmad Noorani’s 28 January 2009 article for The News, “The sorry story of political blackmail of a 72-year old lady“?

The chairman of a Senate standing committee has been almost caught red-handed while trying to deprive a 72-year-old lady of her only but expensive F-7 bungalow in Islamabad and the story of the legal and physical abuse and torture depicts the plight of all those citizens who are victims of the powerful political elite of this country.

In this gory drama of illegal misuse of power, outright fraud, cheating and use of blackmail and physical force, The News talked to all the parties concerned, met them several times, saw the documents they provided, some of which turned out to be fake later, and found that the old lady and her 90-year-old husband had become victims of brute political influence.

Senator Talha Mahmood Aryan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Interior, a ruling-JUI-F senator, has been occupying the house of the old woman in a posh Sector F-7 of Islamabad for the last seven years and not ready to vacate it despite high court and lower court’s verdicts while the whole Islamabad Police is openly siding with the chairman of the Senate interior committee.

Senator Talha, when approached by The News, provided some documents for proving the legality of his occupation of the house. However, all these documents given by Talha to this correspondent proved fake. When the documents provided by Talha to The News were found fake, a close friend of Talha, associated with the issue, approached this scribe and asked to mediate and close the issue.

Senator Talha’s anger seems to be based in his belief that justice in America works the same way as in Pakistan where it is simply for sale to those with enough money and influence. In Senator Talha’s mind, our Embassy spent millions to buy a result – so where is it?

Of course, for all its faults, America does not suffer from the same level of corruption in its courts as we do. It is telling, also, that the Senator is happy to make some political circus by calling a hearing for the Ambassador, but was not able to provide any assistance to the actual defense of Aafia.

And that’s what all of this is about, really, is it not? Whether the booing at our Minister or the requests for explanation from our Ambassadors, we seem to revel in beating up our own officials and never considering whether what they are doing is advancing our interests. You don’t win a match by only hitting sixes – you have to be able to hit block strokes also.

If Senator Talha really wanted to help Dr Aafia, why not call a session to go over what has been done in her defence and identify what has helped (diplomatic pressure, surely), what has hurt (her outbursts, certainly), and what is missing from at least getting her transferred home where we can conduct our own investigation and trials.

But helping Dr Aafia does not seem to be at the top of Senator Talha’s priorities. Rather, he seems intent on making a political media circus by calling home an Ambassador for a confrontational hearing. It’s a waste of time that helps no one. Take the advice of another MNA, Ayaz Amir, who is neither PPP nor JUI-F:

This should be a time for everyone concerned to sit back and take stock of things. We have wasted too much time. Perhaps this was only to be expected but now is the time to leave the past behind and move forward, leaving it to historians to fight over the battles of yesterday.

The best interests of Pakistan are served by putting aside petty political battles and working together to achieve our potential and our goals. Unless our goal as a nation is to have more media circuses than any other country, maybe we should stop wasting time on them.

Take Up The Challenge

I was talking to my friend M. recently about the strategic dialogues and after he went on for some time about a particular point, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I couldn’t shake that feeling which stayed with me for the rest of the day. It was only after I had eaten my evening meal and was sitting in front of the television being a couch potato that I broke the spell. It wasn’t déjà vu – actually I had heard this same point before in almost the same words from a TV show!

That’s why I really liked Mashhood Rizvi’s first part of his Challenging the Mass Media series in Express Tribune. What really struck me was that in a way he is actually telling something that is so obvious it is easy to overlook. As “passive consumers” we are not reading, listening, and watching media and thinking critically about it. Rather we are just taking in words, phrases, and ideas and then repeating them later.

I will admit that I am just as guilty. There are commentators that I like and respect and I follow their opinions pretty regularly. Sometimes I find myself saying something that I think is very brilliant, when in the back of my mind I realize that I am repeating someone else’s idea only! Certainly that’s natural to some extent – we all learn from each other and build on each other’s ideas. But we should at least be thinking about what we’re saying, not just repeating like an echo.

Here’s what Mashhood Rizvi says:

Challenging media and education means renouncing our roles as passive consumers. It means breaking free of the limits placed upon our actions and interactions and instead thinking about opportunities for unlearning, co-learning, and self-learning. Today, many people are questioning the media and education, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly — how can more of this happen? Perhaps by each of us first asking ourselves certain critical questions such as: How can I live and interact in ways that challenge exploitation and indoctrination?; How can I break the monopoly that education/media has?; How can I encourage people to reclaim learning as inherent to themselves, not as something given to them by experts?; How can I engage in and promote local, diverse self-expressions?; How can I ask more questions and encourage others around me to ask questions?

The ancient philosopher Socrates used to learn and teach by asking questions only. It’s an interesting exercise to try the next time someone is talking on and on – keep asking them why they think this and where is their evidence to support their ideas. But most importantly, challenge yourself to the same questions. The worst thing that can happen is we all might learn something!