No Country For Women

Mukhtaran MaiWhen Prophet Muhammad (SAW) delivered the gift of Islam, he brought a revolution in women’s rights. Women were to be respected in Islam. Women were to have rights. This was not only to be found in the teachings of Qur’an, but in the lessons of the Sunnah also. Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) first wife Khadija was a successful and influential business woman of her own making. She was also a close confidant of the Prophet who did not keep her locked away. The first Muslims included women who engaged in community affairs. They spoke out. They had a voice. In one famous incident, Hazrat Umar (RA) was announcing a change to the rule of mahr when a woman in the crowd loudly quoted an Ayat that contradicted his proposal. Hazrat Umar (RA) is said to have smiled and said, “The women of Medina know Qur’an better than Umar!” As Khalifa he even appointed a woman to oversee the market of Medina. History is filled with such incidents, supporting the words of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), “Allah enjoins you to treat women well” and “the rights of women are sacred”. Are we living up to the example of the Prophet today?

In the 2010 film, ‘Bhutto’, we were reminded that when Benazir Bhutto was elected Prime Minister in 1997, the Army resented having to salute a woman. Fourteen years later, Hina Rabbani Khar was appointed Foreign Minister, she was dismissed as less than serious as pundits preferred to focus on her wardrobe instead of her portfolio. The latest target of the ‘old boys club’ is the new Defence Secretary, Nargis Sethi. Is it just coincidence, or are men so scared of powerful women that they have to try to discredit them from the start?

But while powerful women might be dismissed and disrespected, it is the powerless who suffer the most. A new report of Aurat Foundation released yesterday found violence against women on the rise.

As many as 3,153 incidents of violence against women were reported in the Punjab during July 2011 and December 2011.

It states that incidents of kidnappings were the most reported crime (860), with Sargodha on the top of the list with 90 reported abductions. As many as 19 women were subjected to various forms of violence on daily basis with five being kidnapped everyday.

The statistics represent a two per cent rise in violent crime against women compared to the first six months of 2011. It also indicated that the incidence of violence in the rural areas was greater than in the urban areas.

More than 170 women were killed in the name of ‘honour’ from July to December, most of them under 25 years old.

In most of the almost 500 rape and attempted-rape cases that alleged offenders were related to the victims in one way or the other. The rape cases were reported from Lahore, Kasur, Sialkot, Pakpattan and Multan districts.

The highest number of incidents of violence was reported from Lahore (248), followed by Rawalpindi (239).

And let us not forget the case of Mukhtar Mai, the woman who was brutally gang raped on the order of a panchayat – the same system of ‘justice’ that Imran Khan promises to expand in Pakistan. She not only suffered the pain of the attack only to suffer the further injustice of seeing her attackers set free by the court, and then the added humiliation of a disgusting media attack.

Sadly, Mukhtar Mai’s case was not an isolated incident. Just this week, Peshawar High Court directed PC KP to take departmental action against a group of 29 officers involved in the kidnapping and rape of Uzma Ayub.

This is not to say that there is no hope. Last month Omar Derawal termed 2011 as ‘Year of the Woman’ due to the number of important laws that the government passed guaranteeing the rights and security of women. But laws are only as strong as the society that possesses them. Laws are important, but not as important as our own attitudes and behaviours. It is here that we are failing. Simply put, we are failing to live up to the commandments of Allah and the example of the Prophet (SAW).

Compassion Cures

A few days ago, Mosharraf Zaidi wrote a must-read piece titled ‘The Unthinking Pakistani’. In it, he asks why hard-hitting questions were not asked in the wake of events such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terrorists’ audacious attack on PNS Mehran, and the brutal killing of one of Pakistan’s premier investigative journalists, Saleem Shahzad.

Any questions asked were met with feeble, half-hearted answers. Mr. Zaidi correctly declares that anyone who asks a pointed question is immediately dubbed a traitor, or an enemy of Islam. But, he goes on to say, “We don’t need an inquiry commission to explore these questions, we just need a healthy respect for Pakistan.” We can take that thought farther: Pakistan, a country of 180 million, badly needs a healthy dose of respect for the individual.

When a suicide bomber detonates in a crowded bazaar, mosque or office building, chances are the public will never know the names of the innocent victims. We will never see their faces, know their ages, hear about their dreams from their families and friends. Our media does not bother with those details. After a devastating attack on Ahamdis, the media spent its time debating whether to call the site of the bombing a “mosque” or “house of worship.” This attitude is systematically dehumanizing Pakistanis to their fellow citizens. It is this thought that comes to mind when reading monotonous stories about deaths in Balochistan, disappearances in Karachi.

Governor Salmaan Taseer sought to tell the country the story of Aasia Bibi, a poor, illiterate Christian woman and mother of five, imprisoned and awaiting death for alleged blasphemy. Imagine awaiting death, merely because enough people accuse you. Imagine a court meting out such a sentence on hearsay alone. The Governor’s brave stand cost him his life, and Aasia Bibi languishes in prison, along with many others in the same situation. The images of people celebrating the cold-blooded killing of a good man will always haunt those of us with a conscience. The videos of lawyers garlanding an admitted assassin will enraged those of who abide by the principle of justice. Just today, on Eid, the country saw the killing of Shias as they prayed; this, in a country founded by a Shia.

A few brave reporters (Saba Imtiaz and Shaheryar Mirza come to mind) seek to do right by their craft and report honest, piercing stories. But they are too few and far between. We have too much of the Meher Bokharis, and they outnumber the good.

Mr. Zaidi wrote “The Unthinking Pakistani.” Perhaps the correct title is “Unfeeling Pakistani.” If there was a national attitude of compassion and fraternity, we would be (as we ought) thoroughly outraged the vile leader of Al Qaeda saw fit to plan and fund murder from our soil. We would stand with the young men of our army (as we ought), aghast at terrorists’ ability to gain access to a protected base, destroy valuable craft, and kill our soldiers. We would demand justice (as we ought) for soft-spoken, father of three, who died to tell us a dark truth.

Each shattering tragedy seems to be followed by a second, noiseless one. There is a silence, a vacuum, where the right questions should be.

Critical statements and questions are routinely shut down with some version of “It is unIslamic to ask this, you are a traitor if you ask such things.” With all due respect, this is nothing but a smoke-screen. Debates about religion have existed for 1400 years, and are never-ending. I am not a religious scholar or an authority on Islam, nor do I wish to delve into matters of faith to solve the problems faced by the diverse people of Pakistan.

But since it IS an argument so effectively used to shut down dialogue, I will venture this far: Islam respects the individual, his/her right to live, worship as they see fit. Life is sacred, and compassion is a duty. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a country full of bright, talented people. It is time we valued each of them and honored their right to life and success. Compassion cures many more evils than condemnation ever will.

Shehrbano Taseer: Hatred that killed my father hurts all Pakistan

Shehrbano TaseerFive months ago, my father Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his security guard Mumtaz Qadri for opposing misuse of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. During the investigation, we were shown a video that made my blood freeze. In a tiny madrassa in Rawalpindi, the chief cleric of a little known Sunni religious group, Shabab-e-Islami, was frothing at the mouth, screeching to 150 swaying men inciting them to kill my father, “the blasphemer”.

Qadri was in the audience, nodding and listening intently. A few days later, on January 4, he casually strolled up behind my father and shot him 27 times. As was reported this week, the blasphemy laws are still being used to persecute Christians, while Qadri, who has still not stood trial, is treated as a hero.

How did it come to this? In the 1979 Soviet-Afghan war, the intelligence agencies of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia joined together to fight a covert operation against the Soviet Union. The US offered huge amounts of aid as Pakistan became a conduit for assistance to the Mujahidin. About 20,000 to 30,000 fighters from 20 Muslim countries joined the battle, including Osama bin Laden. In local madrassas they were taught to hate and kill, and indoctrinated with extremist Wahhabi ideology. We thought the nightmare would end when Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. But it’s thriving and has come back to haunt us.

Madrassas are still the breeding ground of Islamic radicalism. More than 15,000 have mushroomed all over the country and 80 per cent teach militant Islam. Clerics can preach whatever they please, and are raising a generation of children to be merchants of hatred, who believe that their only contribution to Islam is jihad and that the only way to achieve it is violence.

Not all madrassas are evil. My grandfather was educated in one and he was a poet, the first South Asian to receive a doctorate in literature from Cambridge. But nowadays rabid clerics hijack the minds of young children, denying them contact with the outside world and teaching them to be bitterly antagonistic to non-Muslims and other sects of Islam alike.

A boy of 8 or 9 in a madrassa will not know much about history, maths or science but will know how to fire a Kalashnikov and strap on a suicide bomb vest. These children are being trained not how to live, but how to die. My father’s murder is the perfect example of the hatred and violence spewed daily to children who go out into the world deluded in this warped piety where murder and violence are legitimised in the name of Islam.

The weak Pakistani Government appeases extremist demands and allows these hate-mongers a platform. The ruthless military and intelligence agencies play a double game, dividing terrorists into good and bad, funding and arming those deemed “good”.

But Pakistan too is a victim of the ideology. We have lost an estimated 3,000 soldiers and 35,000 civilians in the War on Terror. Our mosques and market places are bombed every month. Police and military bases and training academies are attacked weekly. As a people, we are exhausted with the bombings, violence and assassinations. We are suffering because of an extremist ideology exported from Saudi Arabia.

The role of wealthy Saudi families in funding al-Qaeda and other terrorists has been kept in the background. But according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, $100 million a year makes its way from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to extremist recruitment networks in Punjab. Given Saudi Arabia’s importance as an oil producer, the presence of Saudi financial support is, perhaps, a big complication for the UK and US anti-terror effort. But it has reached the point of passive sponsorship.

An international effort to cut off the financial tentacles of the Islamist terrorist apparatus is needed urgently. No other family should have to suffer what mine have had to. No other nation should lose its brave heart because of this madness in the name of religion.

The writer, the daughter of the assassinated governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, is a journalist with Newsweek Pakistan. This piece was originally published in The Times (UK).


Over 1,000 Scholars to Sign Edict Against Suicide Attacks

Reported in The News today the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) leadership has said that preparations for the All Pakistan Istahkaam-e-Pakistan Conference at the Minar-e-Pakistan on Sunday (April 17) have been completed. Also, it has warned that people would break all barricades and obstacles set up by the government to reach the venue. This was stated by the SIC Chairman, Sahabzada Fazal Kareem, and other leaders while addressing a press conference on Thursday. They said the workers of all the component parties of the SIC were working to make the conference a major success. Fazal Kareem said the conference would issue a religious edict (Fatwa) signed by over one thousand religious scholars from all over the world against the suicide attacks.

AHR: A Deadly Silence

Agha Haider RazaWhen Salmaan Taseer was assassinated eight weeks ago, I quoted Max Weber in my article: “If the power of violence shifts from the state to the people, we also see a shift from a state to anarchy”.  Weber’s paradigm of anarchy is becoming more evident in Pakistan as time progresses.  The brutal murder of Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad has solidified the notion that the PPP led government is ignoring extremism.  This perturbed ideology is challenging the writ of the State and if not handled with the delicacy and precision required, we will surely dissolve into a state of oblivion.

During the past year, President Zardari has sent over 70 press releases to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP – GoP’s official wire agency) “condemning” deaths, murder and terrorist actions.  Yet Mr. Zardari seems ignorant of the very extremists who killed Benazir Bhutto, assassinated Salmaan Taseer, murdered Shahbaz Bhatti and thousands of civilians.  Zardari changed his children’s surname so they would carry the name of their maternal grandfather and even went to the extent of renaming his own hometown of Nawabshah to Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto district.  Why invoke Benazir Bhutto if the extremists who murdered her are still wreaking havoc in Pakistan?

I am not undermining the sacrifice Ms. Bhutto gave this country.  But what use is it to Pakistan if Mr. Zardari refuses to acknowledge the very threat of violence that has forced him to name cities after his slain wife?  Where is the speech of a President uniting a fractured country? Where is the public condemnation of murder? Sitting within the Presidency’s bubble and sending 250 words to the APP will surely not break the shackles dragging us towards anarchy.

Having recently travelled through southern Punjab, it was highly disturbing to see the number of madrassahs being constructed.  These institutions are being set-up every 20 kilometers along Multan Road through Sadiqabad.  The graduating batch is more fodder for the “extremist Frankenstein monster” Benazir Bhutto spoke of two decades ago.

It is arguably difficult to tame the monster.  However, a thoughtful analysis of threats and opportunities is required in order to break free from extremism.  The Islam being preached at such institutions needs to be modified and reexamined.  This concept of invoking fear into the hearts of “infidels” and “blasphemers” through violence is not an Islam that was practiced by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) nor advocated by his followers.

Islam can survive without violence, as it has for 1400 years.  It is truly mesmerizing where a religion that was not spread by the sword is now synonymous with suicide bomb and cold-blooded murder.

Those who are inspired by carnage and terrorism through religion need to be shown that Islam at the core does not follow such principles nor evokes such behavior.  Education is one method of response, but that is a long-term goal.  Pakistan requires a proactive responsibility from the government, opposition parties and civil society in order to marginalize the thought-process of extremist elements threatening our social fabric.

The government needs to take a lead role in countering religious violence.  First and foremost the writ of the state is being challenged as civilians are utilizing the power of violence.  Despite all odds, Mumtaz Qadri (a self-proclaimed assassin) needs to be dealt with according to the law.  If religious parties, the government and political parties constantly rally for Raymond Davis to be dealt in accordance to the laws in Pakistan, I don’t see why we should be discriminating.  Providing military training for mujahid’s in covert operations needs to cease.  Investments for NGOs providing roti, kapra aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) should be increased exponentially, while the public-private sector partnership needs to assist the government in dealing with the monster of terrorism.  The Zia-ul-Haq era of textbooks containing religious violence should to be revoked.

Islamic History is absent from books utilized in schools across the country.  From the very basic public schools in rural Pakistan to elite institutions like Aitchison College, 1200 years of Islam is absent.  Islamiyat is taught from the birth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to the death of Imam Hussain (AS).  Pakistan Studies picks up from the reign of the Mughal Emperor Babar to the inception of Pakistan in 1947.  The Umayyads, Abbasids, Ottoman Empire, Safavid dynasty are crucial to Muslim history but is overlooked.  These dynasties brought about a social cultural change through religion and would be an important aspect to countering religious violence in Pakistan.

There are some who may argue that if the government is absent, the people of Pakistan need to voice their opinions.  While this may be true, I still feel that an elected, representative democratic government is required to take the lead on such a sensitive issue.  Harping on the Shaheeds of a party will not rid us of the Frankenstein monster that has taken the life of thousands across Pakistan.  Pakistan’s very identity and survival is at stake.  Actions truly speak louder than empty rhetoric.

In his inaugural speech Pakistan’s founder stated, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.  You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State”.  It is only fair we live up to his expectations; it’s the least we as a nation can do to the very man who gave us Pakistan.  If the government refuses to provide this safety net to those who practice other religions, we most definitely are sliding towards anarchy.

The author Agha Haider Raza posted this piece on his blog 4 March 2011.