In Pakistan, A Tale of Two Women

There is no doubt Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous 2010. Heartbreaking reports of terrorism filled the headlines as floods submerged one-fifth of our nation. Our great country is working to better itself on multiple fronts – social, political, and economic – and our current place on the world stage allowed the entire world to bear witness to our progress. Two women, in completely separate instances, have captured some of the biggest challenges we must overcome. They are Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Aasia Bibi. These two women would become respective symbols for right wing and liberal groups, as activists on both sides sought to define Pakistan’s national identity.

Aafia SiddiquiThe arrest, trial and verdict in the case of Dr. Aafia Siidiqui captured the world’s attention. An American-educated neuroscientist, she was convicted after a jury in a US federal court found her guilty of intent to murder Americans in Afghanistan. In September 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. A Muslim who engaged in Islamic charity work in the US, she moved back to Pakistan in 2002. It was reported that her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (the infamous alleged planner of the September 11th attacks) mentioned her name to his interrogators, saying she was involved in similar activities, and thus led to her own interrogation by authorities.

Asia BibiAasia Bibi has nothing in common with Aafia’s background or the terrorism links. But her situation too, captured the world’s attention and brought sharply worded criticism towards the Pakistani laws that seemingly punish minorities.  Her story begins in the blazing summer heat of 2009, when other rural workers refused water from her because she was a Christian. The 45-year old mother of five was charged under Pakistan’s archaic and cruel blasphemy laws. The case has drawn international condemnation, and even Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.

With the issues highlighted in both cases, we can see Pakistan faces challenges on all fronts – security, political, and social.

Multiple protests and riots have erupted all over Pakistan as supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, as her case has added to the fuel to the “Hate America” fire. She has become the poster child for the idea that Americans hate Pakistanis, and have framed an innocent woman. In a country overflowing with conspiracy theories, it is hardly surprising that Aafia’s tale has proven to intensify the right wing base.

Aasia Bibi’s case has brought to light the vicious anti-minority laws on the books, and a movement to amend those heinous laws has begun. But just as the right wingers sought to capitalize on this issue as well (a cleric has offered 500,000 rupees to anyone who kills Aasia), it seems the PPP has stepped up to honor its platform of equality for all.  Punjab’s Governor, Salmaan Taseer, has been outspoken on this issue, and will seek a pardon from President Zardari to stop the order of execution. We can only hope the appeals court will spare her life.

Terrorism, security issues, minorities’ rights are some of the many issues Pakistan has to face in the coming year. The hope and prayer will always be that in the end, we have created a more perfect society, one that treats all its citizens well.

I’m Optimistic About The Economy

I’m often accused of being overly optimistic. It’s a trait I inherited from my mother. While my friends’ mothers were always fatalistic about everything, my mother always tried remain hopeful. Where most saw disaster, my mother saw opportunity. So it is with me, I guess. As I continue looking back over the past year, then, I continue to find reasons to be hopeful for 2011 and beyond.

Yes, we’ve had a rough go of it this year. Militants are making potential investors anxious. Historic floods wiped out billions. Load shedding seems to get worse by the day. And yet still, when you look at the entire economic picture, there are clear signs that things are turning around.

Stock Market

The KSE 100 is finishing strong this year, up 25 percent since 1 January to close near 12,000. Growth has been steady throughout the year, including in the final quarter.

KSE 100 chart for 2010

Foreign Direct Investment

Foreign interest is actually partly responsible for driving growth in the KSE 100, with Bestway Group looking to increase shares in United Bank Ltd.

Bandaraya Development Berhad is investing $437 million over a nine-year period in a mixed development project.

China has agreed to increase cooperation in nuclear energy development including the building of two new nuclear reactors in addition to one already operating and another near completion.

Investment by a consortium of Chilean and Canadian companies continues to negotiate with the Balochistan government for an agreement to develop Reko Diq mine in Chagai district.

Ambassador of Finland H E Osmo Lipponen Katja Kalamaki recently acknowledged Pakistan as a potential market for Finnish investors, who have over 400 companies operating in South Asia.

International Trade

Chinese signed trade agreements worth $20 Billion followed by an additional $15 Billion in trade deals.

Malaysia imported $194.72 Million in goods, making it the top importer from Pakistan for the second consecutive term.

Exports surged during November to $1,776 million – 17 percent higher than one year ago and continuing a positive growth trend.

Although the WTO recently rejected EU trade concessions under the GSP facility, overcoming EU concerns to secure the agreement was a great achievement of Zardari, and to its credit the government is also not being fatalistic but continuing to fight for the trade privileges which would mean duty-free access for Pakistani products worth $500 million.

So you see, there is reason to be hopeful. Even the recent IMF extension suggests the international community has faith in the direction the economy has taken. The economic situation is going through a rough patch, but we’ve survived worse and we will come out of 2010 stronger than we were before. Here’s to a happy, successful and prosperous 2011!

Why Can’t We Have Our Own Heroes?

Benazir Bhutto in a crowd

While observing the reactions to Benazir Bhutto’s third death anniversary on Monday, I was saddened to see the number of people who mocked those who posted or Tweeted memories of the late Prime Minister as merely jiyalas who willfully overlook her flaws in order to promote a political message. I was saddened because I hate to believe that we would actually be so cynical that we don’t allow ourselves to have our own national heroes and our own

The Czechs have Lech Walesa who led the Solidarity movement and helped free his country from communist oppression. He suffered imprisonment under martial law and was persecuted by the communist government. Still, he held strong and helped free his people.

Despite this, Lech Walesa was lost election in 1995 and 2000. He has even been accused of being a secret informer for the Polish secret police in the 1970s.

The South Africans have Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison for his activities with the African National Congress party’s anti-apartheid activities. After his release from prison, he went on to lead negotiations that resulted in the country’s first multi-racial elections and was eventually elected President in 1994.

But Mandela also has been criticised for supporting the ‘blood diamond’ industry which has ravaged parts of South Africa.

The Americans have Abraham Lincoln who is considered the leader who ended slavery and fought a civil war to ensure the rights of all men.

But though Lincoln made a lot of speeches about freeing the blacks in his country, many contend he was personally very racist. Certainly nobody will claim that he solved the problem of discrimination against minorities in America who lived under a form of apartheid for over one hundred years after the American civil war ended.

While each of these leaders was flawed in his own way, they are still held up as examples of courageous leadership in their own countries and around the world. Nobody pretends that they are or were saints, but people honour the risks and the sacrifices that they made in efforts to better the lives of their people.

Why can’t we have our own Benazir Bhutto, also?

Pakistan already has a God and Muhammad (PBUH) is His messenger. We don’t need another god or another prophet. What we need are leaders who we can be proud of, who can serve as a source of inspiration for our youth. We need mentors and model leaders who tomorrows leaders can learn from and build upon, not worship as saints.

I hear this all the time from my friends – we need new leaders who we can be proud of. What about BB, I ask? Oh, well, you know, she recognized the Taliban. She didn’t overturn the Hudood laws. There is always some reason that someone can find – a misplaced hair, a slightly stained dupatta.

But Benazir Bhutto also suffered immensely when she could have just as easily walked away and lived an easy life. She fought against a military dictatorship that murdered her father so that the people could choose their own government. She fought against religious extremism and intolerance so that all Pakistanis could live in peace in their own homeland. And she sacrificed her very own life in her effort to move the country forward.

Let us have Benazir Bhutto. Her courage and her memory should not be tossed aside out of petty political spite or because she made some mistakes or because she did not complete all of her goals. Her story is inspirational when we need inspiration, and her message offers hope when we need hope. I hear so many people say, ‘She was human like everyone else, so why give her a coronation.’ But I would like to post another question: Benazir Bhutto was human, but she was an extraordinary human. More importantly, she was and extraordinary human who was also Pakistani.

Why can’t we all be proud of that?

2010 Year In Review

2010 The Year in Review

As 2010 comes to a close, a brief look back over the last year’s major events and some observations about who gained and who lost from each.


-1 Nawaz Sharif’s secret arrangement with Saudi Arabia:
This could have been something or nothing, but it does look bad for the PML-N chief to appear to be prostrating before foreign leaders. Imagine if the same story had come out about Zardari? The media would not have ignored that one, let me tell you.

-1 Media’s ‘Fakileaks’ story:
It wasn’t enough that they were obsessed with the petty name-calling in some of the documents and ignoring the more interesting stories underneath, our media was so hungry for sensational headlines that they ran a planted story that was proven fake within a day. While some of the more reputable media groups took the black eye and admitted their mistake, others like The Nation kept publishing the story, putting a final nail in the coffin of their credibility.

-1 Ahmed Quraishi, The Daily Mail and the whole Fakileaks conspiracy brigade:
Caught with their hands in the jar, these jokers quickly deleted a bunch of their fake news websites, basically admitting their guilt. But rather than go away quietly, we’ve seen an almost endless stream of pathetic excuses for hawking propaganda and exploiting the people’s sentimentalities. Where is the ‘Ghairat Brigade’ when you need them? These guys are a national disgrace.


-1 Hamid Mir scandal:
Here we have a prominent TV anchor who is so wrapped up in his relationships with militants and intelligence agencies that he can hardly keep straight who knows who anymore. Khalid Khawaja loses his life and Hamid Mir finds himself embroiled in scandal. Lucky Mr Mir, this scandal involves murder and not corruption, so the media won’t pay attention for long.

-1 Talat Hussain article about Angelina Jolie:
Really pathetic story, this one. Talat scribbles the most offensive sexist insults all in a botched attempt at playing to the gallery of anti-Americanism. He thought he would get away with it by writing in Urdu, but it turns out Urdu is not a secret code, but a language that intelligent people also speak.

-1 Jang Group operating as political party and not objective news organization:
Jang Group’s anti-government diatribes got so out of control that even the foreign governments started to notice. Not as off-the-charts crazy as some other media groups, there’s still time to fix things. The word on the street is that Mir Shakilur Rahman is trying to rein in some of the worst offenders before things get too out of hand. Lets hope so. Jang Group has a lot of young talent on board, and it would be sad to see some old has-beens sink the ship.

-1 Continued focus on conspiracy theories and silly predictions that never come true:
Despite the defections of JUI(F) and MQM, the government hasn’t been toppled. Gen. Kayani hasn’t taken up any mathematical formulas to subtract one or more Zardaris from the government, and the Americans haven’t invaded and tried to steal our nuclear weapons. Still, stories about CIA controlling the weather and suggesting that donors not give to help flood affectees because of corruption did more to hurt the nation than we want to admit. We’re not asking for a Daily Jiyala, but please, give us the facts without so much masala.

+1 NFP:
Forget Imran Khan, when will NFP start his own political party!

+1 Fasi Zaka article about Aafia Mafia:
Fasi Zaka’s article about the Aafia Mafia was exactly what we need more of from our esteemed journalists – a willingness to tell the truth even when it’s not the ‘popular’ thing to do and call out political leaders of all stripes when they start exploiting popular sentiments.



+1 Zardari signs 18th Amendment
Despite failed predictions that he was going to be a tyrant behind a wide grin, Zardari voluntarily returned powers that were grabbed under previous “leaders”. Some in the media swore that he would never sign, and when he did they tried to term it a trick. Give the guy some credit where its due.

+1 NOT abusing power
Let’s be honest, despite being heavily criticised by the media and judiciary, the PPP leadership did not abuse its power in the government by throwing out judges or banning anti-government media voices. Yes, some jiyalas may have gotten carried away and there is no excuse for that. Certainly some room for improvement, but considering the way past government have behaved facing much less animosity, I think these guys deserve a thumbs up.

-1 Zardari’s Europe trip during floods
Who signed off on this PR nightmare? Yes, I know such diplomatic schedules are difficult to rearrange, and yes I know that he was ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’. But they had to know this was going to play badly at home.

+1 Zardari’s Europe trip during floods
While it was a PR nightmare, the trip might have been bad for Zardari and good for the nation. By meeting with UK PM David Cameron, President Zardari was able to secure trade concessions that will help the national economy.


+1 Nawaz Sharif’s support for democracy:
From saying that change should only come from constitutional means and the democratic process to coming out strong against Altaf Bhai’s comments about ‘patriotic generals’ to his support – even while being critical – for the government to at least finish its elected term, Mian Nawaz is showing a political maturity that is encouraging and welcome.

-1 Shahbaz Sharif’s “Spare Punjab” statement:
Um, Nawaz buddy, you need to talk to your little brother.


+1 Saying that he will only return to power if the people elect him:
In the beginning of his ‘comeback’, Mushy was playing the right tune and saying that his mistake in the past was ignoring the democratic process.

-1 Saying that the Army should have a constitutional role in governance:
Of course, it is hard for a tiger to hide his stripes as they are a natural part of his being. So it is with Musharraf, and it wasn’t long before he revealed his true colours by going back to calls for military governance.


-1 Altaf Hussain’s “patriotic generals” remark:
Come on, Altaf Bhai. If even Musharraf understands the importance of democratic process, so should you.

+/-? MQM pulls out from federal cabinet:
It’s a bold move and one that could either see MQM with a greater voice in the coalition, or continue being sidelined as part of opposition. Let’s be honest, even if new elections are held, MQM is not going to make any sweep of power. This one we’ll have to watch into the new year…


+1 Resolving 18th Amendment case:
Another nail biting drama from the highest court, but this one ending without causing a constitutional crisis.

-1 Taking up suo moto cases against everything EXCEPT the real problems:
Suo moto is a great power, and it essentially allows the court to decide the direction of the docket. So why so much focus on old politically motivated cases and almost no eye to the jihadi terror groups that are blowing up mosques and schools every day. Someone is supporting these beats, isn’t that the worst corruption case?

-1 Dragging out NRO cases:
These should be resolved quickly or dismissed. Dragging them along is a distraction that we don’t need with the security, economy, and energy sectors requiring maximum attention. It’s time to move on.


+1 Taking the fight to the jihadis:
Whatever interest the Americans have in getting rid of al Qaeda and leaving a stable and friendly Afghanistan, the war against these jihadi terrorists is our war and our sons of the soil are proving that Pakistan’s military is second to none in the world. Any accusations of not taking the jihadi threat seriously are obviously made by people who don’t have the facts correct. We’ve lost more sons and sacrificed more resources than anyone else. And when our soldiers go in to a militant enclave, they clear them out.

+1 Not repeating mistakes of previous generals:
Ten, twenty, thirty years ago this government would have been long gone. It’s a real testament to Gen. Kayani and his commanders that there have been no attempts to seize power from civilian government. Pakistan is a democracy in which the civilian government does its job and the military does its job also. Working together, we can’t be beaten. Seeing the military brass refrain from seizing power and the civilian leaders passing amendments to devolve power shows just how far we have progressed.


+1 Setting aside differences during the floods:
For a short time, we showed ourselves that when we focus on our commonality as Pakistanis we can do amazing things. Why does it take a historic disaster to bring us together? Let’s focus that same energy in 2011 to benefiting the country without waiting for a disaster to occur.

-1 Quickly forgetting the flood victims:
Everyone would give up everything for the flood affectees until the it was asked to update the tax scheme and actually put your money where your mouth is. It’s like when I was a younger man sitting and watching the TV when my mother came in to tell me that I was to begin working for Mr Y. the next day. What!?? I yelled. She said, “You told me you wanted a job, now go!” I said, “Yes, but I didn’t think I would actually have to do it!”

+1 Standing strong during a year of historic challenges and never forgetting the words of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah:

“In our solidarity, unity and discipline lie the strength, power and sanction behind us to carry on this fight successfully. No sacrifice should be considered too great…”

So that’s my 2010 year in review. I’m sure I didn’t cover everything, and I’m sure you have some different opinions also. But don’t be quiet about it – speak up! Who were the winners and who were the losers in 2010 as YOU remember?

Remembering Benazir Bhutto

MNA Farahnaz Ispahaniby Farahnaz Ispahani

Three years ago today, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It was a dark day that indelibly changed the direction of Pakistan and I am torn both by personal and political reflections.

I was blessed and honoured not only to assist Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in the field of communications but also to know her personally. So for me, December 27 is doubly tragic — I miss her skill, her leadership, what she could have accomplished politically for our people. But I also miss her laughter, her humour, her loving attention to her family and her friends. I miss her every day, and I weep for all the ‘might have beens’ if she hadn’t been so brutally assassinated ahead of her greatest electoral triumph.

Some in our chattering class, speaking from the comfort of their couches and their salons, gossip and criticise and dismiss her accomplishments. How many of them — if they had her brilliance, her education at Harvard and Oxford, her beauty, her youth, her family wealth, her loving husband and children — would have sacrificed everything out of personal responsibility and commitment to the people of Pakistan? She had everything to live for. She could have had a life that anyone of us would have only dreamed of. Yet she came back fearlessly to lead us because of her faith in God and the people of Pakistan.

There are tens of thousands of primary and secondary schools across our country that were built during her government. There are thousands of villages that got electricity. There is healthcare in our rural areas because of her programme of 100,000 women health workers being trained in nutrition and pre and post-natal care. There are women abused by domestic violence who can now go to women’s police stations for help. There are computers, fiber optics, cell phones, access to CNN and BBC, an uncensored media and an independent civil society because of her vision. And there are 90 million women in Pakistan who refuse to accept limits on their futures because she broke the glass ceiling for all of us, shattering not only the glass but her very life in the process.

On her first day in office in 1988, she freed all political prisoners, she made student and labour unions legal, she made civil society truly ‘civil’ again, she uncensored the media and opened it, for the first time in Pakistani history, to the political opposition.

And all of that was on her first day. During the 1800 days that she served as our prime minister, she built on this record of human rights, not only in rhetoric but in practice. She appointed women for the first time in our history to superior courts. She freed Pakistani women and girl athletes to compete in international competitions. She created a Women’s Development Bank to provide loans to women to start businesses across Pakistan.

Her accomplishments are not recognised by obscurantists because they do not agree with her vision. Some others fail to appreciate the odds she overcame.

Benazir Bhutto didn’t fear dictators or tyrants. She threw down the gauntlet to jihadists and terrorists and was the face of a modern, enlightened and loving Islam to a world that had condemned us to caricature.

She alone dared to challenge Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and Pervez Musharraf in the new century. Because of her, Pakistan strives to build a thriving and robust democracy, with our constitution restored and the vestiges of dictatorship purged from the laws of our land. No one can take that away from her. And no one will ever be able to take that away from us. Benazir Bhutto was the bravest person I have ever known. She was also the smartest, the most visionary and the most selfless. She didn’t live for herself, she lived for us. And, tragically, she died for us. For me, for Pakistan, and for the entire world, she is irreplaceable.

MNA Farahnaz Ispahani (PPP) is media advisor to President Asif Ali Zardari and member of the Standing Committee on Human Rights. This article was published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2010.