Thinner Than Skin

I’ve just finished Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, the novel which won the inaugural French Fiction Prize at the Karachi Literature Festival this year.  I’m very, very impressed and am still trying to make sense of all the images, emotions, and thoughts that it has stirred up in me. It’s a strange, sad tale, written in a minor key: the characters’ voices are weighed down with melancholy, with memory, and most of all, with yearning.

The book was published last year and here’s a quick summary of its content from Google Books:

Thinner Than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It’s also a love story: between a young Pakistani man trying to make his way as a photographer in America, and the daughter of a Pakistani father and German mother brought up in the U.S. who wants to return to a country she’s never seen. Together they make the trip to Pakistan, where a chance meeting with a young nomad changes their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever. The novel is also a love letter to the wilds of northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans come together to trade.


Khan has said of herself that she considers herself a nomad at heart: “I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up mostly in Karachi, though my early years were nomadic: three years in Japan, two in the Phillippines, and two in England.” It’s this early experience that informs the entirety of this book, because it’s all about people who are wanderers in search of themselves.  There’s Nadir, the Pakistani who’s making a living in San Francisco as a wedding photographer, but who thinks his true home lies in Farhana, the Pakistani-German American who restlessly pushes Nadir to take her back to Pakistan, where she thinks her true home is.

Then there’s Maryam, the Gujjar nomad woman from North Western Pakistan, whose family spends its winter in the Kaghan Valley and summers in the highlands, grazing livestock and existing on what temporary crops they can, a literal nomad. They all live in the shadow of two mountains above the Valley, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat (the “Queen” and the “Nude”). Maryam is a pagan, observing rituals and continuing traditions that cause suspicion in the people around her, as well as the strangers that intrude upon their lives.  They never use the word “witch” but it creates unspoken tension, to echo the tension between the old ways she wants to perpetuate, and the growing influence of men who wield Islam like a weapon against the people of the Valley. In this way, the Valley, already steeped in mythology and folklore, becomes a metaphorical battleground between the new ways and the old, the residents and outsiders, Nadir’s personal quest to win Farhana’s waning love back, and much more.

Time and space cease to exist in the linear sense, as Khan jumps back and forth between past and present, tracing the origins of Farhana and Nadir’s love like an archeologist. She never makes it clear what made Farhana and Nadir fall in love with each other, but it’s very apparent that Farhana’s heart doesn’t rest in one place for long; not in one place and certainly not with one man. Nadir seems like a fool sometimes for not understanding this about her, and for all that he’s got a keen photographer’s eye, his blindness to the reality of his situations gets annoying at many points in the book (and perhaps this is why Farhana doesn’t want to stay with him).

Farhana and Nadir, along with Wes, Farhana’s colleague and Irfan, Nadir’s childhood friend, make an expedition to Kaghan, to investigate the glaciers in the area. One of the book’s most arresting images comes from this plot line: that of mating glaciers, and the ritual that the local people enact to “mate” ice from two existing glaciers in order to create a new glacier where none existed before.  This could also be a metaphor for Farhana and Nadir’s love, or indeed romantic love of any sort, when “ice” from two disparate entities joins to create something completely new.

But for all the ice and mountains around them, it’s the flesh that Khan pays attention to: the idea that the heart is “a guest who must be fed”; the warning that forgiveness is “thinner than skin” and that skin is fragile and delicate. Then, there’s the physical intimacy that appears and disappears and reappears again, much like Nanga Parbat, which is only visible on exceptionally clear days.  And there is much nudity, too, representing the emotional and mental vulnerability that these characters are imprisoned by, which leads them to their fateful encounter with Maryam’s family.

Khan weaves a spell of her own with her descriptions of both Maryam’s visions and the environment in which she lives, where skies turn all colours from palest apricot to deep amethyst, where glacial ice litters the ground like stars, where forests and earth and trees have existed for thousands of years and where the mountains and glaciers are not fixed beings but living entities that move and crumble and kill and die.  She can stop your heart cold with an image like the mountain Nadir is climbing up having “moving feet” and the Hunza River twisting around it like “a jingling anklet”.

The nomadic people and their plight — their dealings with government officials, the laws and rulings that restrict their movement and where they can graze their animals and get water for them — form a dark background for the ominous events that take place in the story. When the Westerners, filled with negative energy that vibrates all around them like an electrical storm, come to the Valley, they wreak havoc in the lives of the nomads, and must pay for it. And they do, in various ways that are unwound throughout the book.

The narrative tension itself is driven forward by the appearance of Ghafoor, an old love of Maryam’s who has left the nomadic life to become a trader on the Silk Route moving from China to Pakistan to Iran and Kazakhstan and back again. There’s an unanswered question of whether he’s involved with terrorists from China, and this role too has strong consequences for Nadir and Farhana.

The story unwinds like a long spool of thread that has been wound tight for a long time, and the many crinkles and kinks in that thread are welcome deviations from a conventionally straightforward plot. Towards the end of the book, it meanders a little too much, and some of the tension goes flat, but Khan picks up the pace towards the end, but suddenly cuts the thread short, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t feel like a cheat – it feels like the sudden imposition of real life upon a long hallucination.

I’ve avoided using the word “beautiful” to describe Khan’s book, but that’s exactly what it is. And it richly deserved the KLF Fiction Prize, conjuring up a world that exists like a perfect prism for so many different shades of light and darkness. It demands nothing less than devotion from the reader, in order to prise out its many secrets, but there are many hidden rewards in doing so.

This is not an easy read.

Because this is not an easy life.

Malala’s Book: A Manufactured Controversy

I’ve been reading Malala’s book and although I’m not finished with it yet, I can say that there is nothing in it that anyone with any common sense would find offensive to Islam. In fact, the whole book is imbued with Malala’s love for Islam and her respect for her Pashtun traditions. To the frustration of many in the West, Malala continues to profess her love for her religion and her culture, and some of her supporters think that she should abandon Islam in order to be a true heroine in their eyes. It’s safe to say that will probably never happen. Malala is a Muslim, and that isn’t going to change.

Let’s take one of the contentions that in this book, the name of the Prophet appears without the respectful phrase “peace be upon him” after every mention of his name. In Muslim countries this is a common custom and is often abbreviated to PBUH for short. In Western, non-Muslim countries, this is unheard of. It would be the work of copy-editors and proofreaders to insert or remove that phrase or acronym, and if you know anything about the process of getting a book ready for publication at a large publishing house, you’d know that they prepare a style sheet that they use as a guide to make sure there is consistency with names, phrases, capitalisation of words, etc.

Someone in the editing process probably decided that it would be simpler and easier for non-Muslim readers to see “the Prophet” without the PBUH added every time. This is a decision made based on the expected readership of the book, and while it may not be au courant with what we do in the Muslim world, it is ridiculous to blame this on Malala.

Once a book enters the stage of proofs and production, it is out of the author’s hands. In this case there were two authors – Christina Lamb, the British journalist (who is responsible for filling in the historical and political background to complement Malala’s personal story) and while Malala may have very well wanted to have PBUH inserted into every instance, the decision was not in her hands at later stages of production. If you’re so worried about that, I urge you to say “salallau alehi wasalam” every time you see the word “Prophet” in Malala’s book (which really isn’t more than a handful of times), and indeed every time you hear it, such as when it is recited in the Azaan (call to prayer) five times a day.

The detractors have also brought up the shibboleth of Salman’s Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, stating that Malala wrote about the book in a positive way. This is not correct. The book describes the controversy and how it erupted in Pakistan, stoked in a very deliberate way, and then goes on to describe how her father and his young colleagues, only twenty or so themselves at the time, debated how best to deal with the book.

Let’s look at the passage in some detail:

The book was called the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, and it was a parody of the Prophet’s life set in Bombay. Muslms widely considered it blasphemous and it provoked so much outrage that it seemed people were talking of little else…

My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room. Many students aregued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld. My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”

In short, her father, writes Malala, found the book offensive, but thought that rather than burning it in protest, it would be better to read it first to understand exactly why it was offensive, and then answer with another, better book they could write themselves. And he said that Islam was too strong to be harmed by a fictitious book.

It’s easily seen from the above passage that instead of considering The Satanic Verses as freedom of speech, Malala’s father believed that Muslims had the right to freedom of speech and should exercise that right by answering a blasphemous book with a BETTER book: A rather sophisticated response, if you ask me, for someone so young, and a refreshing change from those who want to wreak destruction on everything around them because their feelings have been hurt. Burning and banning a book will not make unwritten what has been written, so far better to counter the negative with a positive, rather than more negativity, violence, and destruction.

Certainly this topic and others, such as Zia’s draconian policies, distortions of Islam and Sharia, and so on and so forth, are delicate ones and one wonders whether or not Malala’s story would have been better served by leaving those out of the book. But it’s obvious that Malala’s detractors are trying to stir controversy where really, none exists. They are trying to present the book’s endorsement of protecting minority rights as un-Islamic. What could possibly be their motivation? Love of Islam, or the need to bolster their patriotic credentials and get some television time and column space in the process? Anger that it’s Malala’s face on a book that’s flying off the shelves all over the world, and not their own?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. In the meantime, if you want to criticize a book, try reading it first. You might actually learn something in the process.

Here Comes the Burqa Avenger!

I’ve just watched the first episode of Burka Avenger GEO TV’s new cartoon for children about a woman called Jiya, mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, who dons a burka in order to fight villains in her village. They’re corrupt baddies who try to shut down the girls’ school and wreak all sorts of havoc on the villagers because, well, they’re villains. Accompanying Burka Avenger on her adventures are three children and a goat, who may well turn out to be the surprise star of the series because he’s so darned cute.

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack! (Theme song by Haroon and Adil Omer)

The animation is slick, the production values high (way too many commercials, though!), the motivation behind the series noble: pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns and bombs. It was funny, and quite cute, and spreads a good message, coming at a time when Malala Yousufzai and education activists and millions of school-going children are trying to prove that Pakistan is a more fertile ground for education than for terrorism.  It’s a brilliant idea, too, because rather than lecturing children from a position of adult authority, it has the potential to get children excited about going to school, placing within the context of a fight between good and evil. This way, the show can teach them values they’re easily primed to grasp because of their previous exposure to cartoons and superheroes.

I’m especially pleased that the superhero is a woman, not a man. Pakistani society is hypermasculinized: children are used to seeing men in positions of power and authority, as leaders, military men, policemen, et cetera. They absorb this as the natural order of things from such early ages that it’s almost impossible to undo this conditioning later in life. Whereas the women of Pakistan are the silent heroes on the frontlines of the war we’ve got ourselves involved in today: schoolteachers, health workers and human rights activists are targeted by extremists and attacked and killed for going out and doing their ordinary jobs. It’s wonderful to see a woman being feted for something so true to life, and also to see that when her job is threatened, she doesn’t succumb to the aggression but instead fights back and triumphs. The children of Pakistan need this lesson as well.

The show has to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes: I was troubled by the idea of one of the villains, Vadero Pajero (although the name does make me laugh when I hear it out loud) – which may lead children to think that all rural authority figures are evil and want to stop children from going to school. In reality it’s the Taliban who are closing down girls’ schools, not the waderas, but while the show’s producers shy away from naming the Taliban, they’re happy to name a wadera as one of the main villains.  It also conflates waderas (literally, influential people in a rural community) with zamindars (landowners), which I find troubling in its inaccuracy.

Perhaps children in the city will swallow this easily as most urban-dwelling people think of rural landowners as the root of all evil in Pakistan, but rural children who watch the program will become confused about their parents’ employers, who may or may not be the same as the evil landlord portrayed in the cartoon. I think the producers of the show could do some thinking about this for future episodes, and perhaps introduce a balancing character, a zamindar more sympathetic to Jiya’s cause, for example. In our divided society, it’s of utmost importance that we introduce harmony between the rural and urban populations, not sow more seeds of division and misunderstanding.

Some people in Pakistan have been questioning the celebration of the Burka in the cartoon, which is a tool of oppression for women in Pakistan.  I hold the same opinion about the burka – the burka is a cultural instrument, not a religious one, and has been used to hold women back. It use restricts you from doing any physical activity, keeps you shrouded in anonymity, and came into fashion when people wanted to look more like Arabs than South Asians. Is it right to take the burka and make it look “cool” for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

There’s no simple answer to this question. First of all, the show’s producers have made the burka a special outfit to be worn only when there’s tough work to be done: Jiya doesn’t wear a burka when she’s teaching in the school or going about her daily life.

Also, they’ve done something rather tongue-in-cheek: women wearing burkas often get compared to ninjas. “Ninja Turtle” is a common epithet for burka-wearing women who behave aggressively in public, thinking that the burka gives them the religious superiority and moral authority to break every rule in sight, especially while driving. There are gangs of burka-clad women shoplifting and pickpocketing shoppers in Pakistani shopping malls. The head of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad wore a burka to escape being killed during the siege.

The producers decided to turn this on its head and make the burka wearing Jiya an actual ninja who uses a special kind of martial arts (pens and books instead of nun chucks and swords) against her enemies. She can leap up and levitate in the air, fly from tree to tree, has the moves of Neo from the Matrix combined with an Olympic gymnast. In real life you couldn’t do any of that wearing a real burka, but Jiya’s burka is magic (and also less voluminous – and she wears black nail polish to match, a cool touch). And a superhero needs her invisibility cloak. Haroon has said it’s a step up from the tight costumes of Western superheroes, like Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

The superhero’s costume is such an integral part of his or her identity that it’s hard to escape from the question of whether or not the burka is an appropriate choice for Pakistan’s first female superhero. Yes, the burka is oppressive, and not even religiously mandated. However, we also can’t deny the fact that in super-conservative areas of Pakistan (not just rural and mountainous – many women who don’t wear a burka in their own villages will wear one in Karachi or Lahore because it’s a big city full of strangers), the burka provides women with a modicum of agency. Women who would be confined to their houses are allowed to go out if they are wearing a burka.

I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Should we perpetuate the idea that women are strong when they put on the burka? Definitely not. Pakistani girls and women need to know that their natural state of being is not hidden away, shrouded by yards of black cloth to make their presence in society acceptable, safe, or halal. They need to learn that modesty can be interpreted in many different ways, and that a simple shalwar kameez and dupatta are good enough for us, because we’re Pakistanis, not Arabs (“Why not Dupatta Dhamaka, which is more in keeping with who we are?” asks writer for the New York Times Huma Yusuf). It will horrify me if little girls start wearing burkas in imitation of their hero, because that would be indoctrination of the worst kind.

Note:My perfect ending to the Burka Avenger series would be that after the villains are vanquished, Jiya hangs up her burka in the closet and never needs to wear it again.

You can read about Burka Avenger in the New York Times here. I’m quoted in the piece.

Bonus!

Here are Adil Omar‘s lyrics for the theme song, “Lady in Black”, which I adore wholeheartedly.

Camouflage, shadows and darkness

No guns, but got ammo regardless

A backpack so she’s coming prepared

To leave the opposition in submission, running in fear

Yeah – superhero got ’em kicking and screaming

In hysterics, these clerics had envisioned a demon 

A spirit so quick to deliver a beating

To the enemies of peace, love, logic and reason

Yeah – hit ’em with a logical reason

Kill extremism, corruption and just stop it from breathing

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

So tune in for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Lean, mean, covered from her head to her toes

In a one piece, slick invisibility cloak

She got her eyes visible so she can give you the look

And lay the smack down on all these dirty killers and crooks

Like a panther going in for the attack and the win

The lethal weapon in her hands is a book and a pen

The silent ninja, vigilante in the dark of the night

Would never roll over, cause she has to stand up and fight

Her fists banging harder than the drums in the song

Reminisce about the time before the guns and the bombs

The way it was, she’ll be taking it back

so stay tuned for the story of the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Don’t mess with the lady in black

The lady in black, the lady in black

Don’t mess with the lady in black

When she’s on the attack

Easter in Pakistan

It’s Easter Sunday and we celebrate this religious holiday in Pakistan in many of the traditional ways it is celebrated in other countries with Christian populations. Even though Christians are in the minority here, there are masses and church services held to commemorate the holy day, hot cross buns sold in the Portuguese bakeries in downtown Karachi, and Easter egg hunts held for children, much the same across most of South Asia and the world.

The women are dressed in their brightest shalwar kameezes with dupattas on their heads in church, the services are said in Urdu, and there are guards and metal detectors set up outside most churches because of the volatile situation in Pakistan vis-a-vis religious minorities and violent attacks on Christian communities.

The most recent was the terrible attack on Joseph Colony in Lahore, where a hundred shops were looted and vandalized last month on the pretext of blasphemy. We now know after some investigation that the issue was actually one of land-grabbing; the land mafia encouraged several days of protests against the people of the colony that culminated in the violence and destruction of private property.

So in Pakistan, Easter is not just a day of joyous celebration, but a day of reflection for us all. We as Muslims are bound to honor Jesus, who we call Hazrat Isa, “hazrat” a word of deep respect for the Prophets of God and Isa being the Arabic name of Jesus. We aren’t allowed to think of him as the son of God, because that goes against the tenets of our religion, but the Quran specifically instructs us not to harass or harangue our Christian brothers and sisters for their beliefs, because Christianity is considered to be the closest to Islam of the three Abrahamic religions. Instead, we are reminded to revere Jesus’s holiness, his absolute devotion to bringing the message of God to the people of the world. We may not hold the same belief as Christians do that in dying, Jesus saved all of us from damnation, but we are bound to pray and send our respects to both him and his mother Mary, who has a whole chapter of the Quran named after her that is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’s conception, birth, and early life.

And we as Muslims must also think carefully about how we are treating the Christian members of our community. Have we given them the respect and rights that they deserve, as fellow human beings? Have we treated them with kindness and compassion, as we ourselves would wish to be treated? Aasia Bibi still suffers in jail, Christian sweepers feel as hopeless as if they were still untouchables in the Hindu caste system, Christians live on a knife edge knowing that at any moment their neighbors can turn against them and tear down their homes and lynch them.

Just as we Muslims have the example of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, Christians have the example of Jesus’s crucifixion to show that faith is not just about triumph, but about suffering and grief. Because Jesus suffered an infinite amount of pain and despair when he was crucified. Muslims believe that God took Jesus’s soul up to heaven before his death, in order to spare him that suffering (where he will wait until the end of times to be restored back to earth to join hands with the Mahdi and defeat Dajjal, or the anti-Christ).

Christians don’t give themselves this comfort. They believe that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans and died in the most bloody way possible, only to be resurrected three days later as proof of God’s magnificence and glory. They embrace the pain and suffering, knowing what it feels like to suffer, as they do at the hands of those of us Pakistanis who treat them in ways they do not deserve to be treated. The story of Jesus on the Cross gives them the inspiration and endurance to bear with patience and humility what we Muslims mete out to them on a daily basis — a drip-drip-drip of injustice and intolerance that hurts their hearts and souls but which they try to withstand while maintaining their dignity and faith.

I wonder which of us God will favour more on the Day of Judgment?

Hearing the Hopes of Pakistan’s Deaf World

Many of Karachi’s children go to school in the middle of the bustling Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighborhood of the city, but there’s one school located there that’s so unique, it might as well be in a different world. Walk through its doors and you’ll see the children learning their lessons, English, computers, art, math, and science just like in any other school, but two things strike you almost at once. First, there are no classrooms, just children grouped into different sections in a large open-plan space. And second, there’s no noise, apart from the occasional burst of laughter or wordless vocalization from the children and their teachers, because virtually all the communication is done in sign language: fast little hands waving in the air, forming letters, words and signs with their fingers, the children almost throwing themselves out of their chairs with eagerness to talk to you and show you what they’re doing and learning.


That’s when it really hits you: the world you’ve entered is the world of the Deaf, and you’re standing in the Deaf Reach School, a true center of excellence for academic and vocational training of hearing-impaired and deaf children (when writing about the deaf community, lower-case d – deaf – describes the medical condition, while capital D – Deaf – describes the culture or cultural group). This school is the brainchild of Richard and Heidi Geary, parents of a deaf child and foreign educators who have lived in Pakistan for over 25 years. Along with a whole host of both foreign and local volunteers and staff, they have created one of the most innovative educational networks in Pakistan today, Family Education Services Foundation. FESF is the umbrella that houses not only the Deaf Reach Schools, but also an active teacher training program, seminars and courses for teachers and parents of special needs children, community service outreach, youth leadership development, and a volunteer training program.

 
 

In Pakistan, the Deaf face challenges that start from birth and extend to every facet of their lives. Simply recognizing that a child is deaf may be the first challenge. Many parents don’t even realize their child is deaf until around the time when it’s expected that a child would start to speak, but doesn’t. Then, there’s the religious and cultural baggage that comes with that realization. A typical reaction is that deafness is a curse from God, or a punishment to the parents for some imagined wrongdoing. The embarrassment leads many Pakistani families to hide their deaf children away, particularly in the rural areas, treating the children as if they are mentally challenged, not deaf.

But awareness and education can do a great deal to combat the stigma, and reduce the deficits in learning that result from a physical handicap such as deafness. “The sooner a parent realizes his or her child is deaf, the more proactive you can be about providing education for that child at home in terms of language acquisition,” says Geary. “That’s the greatest loss – not hearing, but lack of language acquisition,  most of which takes place in the first five years. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and thus communication is limited or non-existent. On the other hand, if a deaf child is born to deaf parents, there is in depth communication in their native tongue – sign language.  Hearing or deaf, a child will learn their native language,  whether via visual or aural input  – the impact is the same.”

Yet once a family knows its child is deaf, the next question is how to educate her. The large cities of Pakistan – Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar – have at least four or five major schools devoted to the deaf: ABSA and Ida Rieu in Karachi, the Lahore Speech and Language School in Lahore, for example.  But the rural areas have no schools devoted to deaf students; in the 48 special education schools in Sindh’s 23 districts, for example, they’re lumped in with other mentally and physically challenged students, the teachers are often untrained, many schools have “ghost attendees” – ten or twelve students in a school with a capacity for three hundred, for example.

The Karachi Deaf Reach School was created to fill the gap, starting small out of a premise in Regal Chowk where thirty students, including low-income children from Baldia town were accommodated at their small premises; today, the Karachi campus is one of a network across the country that includes schools in Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah, and Lahore, with plans to open in Rashidabad, a village in Tando Allahyar. Karachi’s school is split into a primary and secondary campus, with  140 students in the morning shift and  105 students and young men and women in the afternoon. There are 72 teachers working for the Deaf Reach Schools; 45 of them, or 60%, are deaf, and according to Geary, “they make the best teachers.”

The primary school educates students from KG to Class 4, while the secondary school goes up to Class  9. Afternoon students of the Deaf Reach Training School  receive vocational training in the fields of computers and information technology, tailoring and dressmaking, cooking, arts, and handicrafts under the aegis of the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program. Across the five schools, eight hundred students are provided with education, uniforms, transportation, lunch, and all school materials at a cost of Rs. 5000 per month per child. “We don’t have fixed fees; we use a sliding scale – each family pays what it can, which averages out to about  Rs. 120 per month – far short of the Rs. 5,000 required. The rest we raise through donations.  In a year, the operating costs are upwards of Rs. 40 million a year,” says Geary.

With finances being one of their greatest challenges Geary is appreciative of the Sindh Government’s assistance to FESF. Having seen what the Deaf Reach Schools were able to achieve in Karachi and Hyderabad, the Sindh Government invited FESF to open schools in other areas of Sindh. Deaf Reach Sukkur was opened in 2010, and today has over 300 students, and a new school has just opened in Nawabshah. There’s also a large Deaf Reach School under construction in Rahsidabad, a model village in Tando Allahyar established by retired PAF officers, where a purpose-built building will to accommodate 500 children on two acres of land beside branches of other Pakistani philanthropic institutions such as The Citizens Foundation and the Leyton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust.

“The government has provided startup and two years’ running costs for new schools, but it’s making the program sustainable in the long-term that’s the real challenge. Many people are willing to contribute to capital expenditure, but who underwrites twelve years of education? Because that’s the real cost of educating a child and making him a productive member of society,” says Geary.

Through FESF’s efforts, personal contacts, community outreach, and reputation for being honest and above board – the organization has internal accountants and external auditors – word of mouth has spread to other organizations, who have extended their support in various ways. Not only is FESF supported by the Planning and Development Department and the Community Development Program of the Sindh Government, but they have operated under the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program for the last 3 years, providing six months’ training courses to hundreds of young men and women in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur,  and achieving an almost unheard of 55% employment rate amongst their trainees. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund is a partner as well, and private corporations such as PSO, HSBC, and Standard Chartered also provide funding to the Deaf Reach Schools.

“We’d been freelancing for years, but we decided to formalize our activities, and that’s when we began to achieve a momentum, a tipping point, you might say,” explains Daniel Marc, a French-Canadian who serves as the FESF’s administration director. “We registered as a nonprofit under Section 42 of the Pakistan Companies Ordinance. We received a tax exemption certificate. We moved to our new premises in 2007, where we could offer more services in a better environment. The growth is organic, but it has to be controlled so it doesn’t outpace us.”

Marc illustrates the growing need for adequate facilities to teach the deaf with a telling example: the Deaf Reach school in Sukkur has grown from 30 to 300 students, a 1000% increase, in the 2 short years that its doors have opened. “And there are more than 150 children on a waiting list for admissions. And the need is similar in every district of Sindh.”

And there’s every possibility of being overrun by the demand: in Pakistan today, 9 million people are hearing-impaired, with 1.5 million out of those children who are deaf. This number comes from the recent National Task Force planning meeting, the Audiology 2020 conference held in Islamabad two years ago, where government officials, representatives from the main deaf schools in Pakistan, medical experts, United Nations officials and global activists in the deaf world met to create a five year plan to improve the situation of the Deaf in Pakistan.  Modeled on Vision 2020 and sponsored by CHEF, the Child Health Education Foundation, and the Pakistani Government, the task force gathered these experts at a large conference and then smaller subcommittees to make recommendations to the Pakistani government how to manage hearing problems from both the medical and early intervention side, as well as the educational side.

Like many big conferences of this nature, the initial signs were promising, but the follow-through has been less strong. Still, the Government of Sindh is showing a long-term commitment to improving the situation for Pakistan’s deaf. Pervez Musharraf’s 18th Amendment’s devolution plan moved the responsibility of special needs students from the Federal Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education to the individual provinces. A Directorate of Special Education was set up in provincial government of Sindh, and its head, Imtiaz Shaikh was made Advisor/Minister Special Education Department. “He’s been very proactive in helping us,” says Geary. “He called a meeting at the Sindh Secretariat for all NGOS that deal with special needs to have a forum for discussion on the goal of making Karachi handicap-friendly by the year 2030, and he’s been active in the follow up and implementation.  He is presently working with Amin Hashwani of NOWPDP on a plan that includes city wide wheelchair ramps, a special CNIC window for special needs populations, and other tools of accessibility in the city.”

But the Deaf feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of the government’s 2% employment quota and the other benefits attached to holders of CNICs for special needs citizens: free primary school education in special education centers, special assistance in government entrance exams in certain professions, financial and equipment assistance, reduced travel fares on Pakistan Railways, for example. “The Deaf don’t like the card because they don’t consider themselves disabled. They consider themselves a minority cultural language group that speaks a different language,” explains Geary. It’s this attitude that is the key to their empowerment, a strong movement in the deaf world globally, which focuses less on the medical definition  ( referred to with a lowercase d) and more on the cultural definition of Deafness (referred to with an uppercase D), with its own culture, history, and rules.

Empowerment at Deaf Reach Schools comes from a powerful technological tool: the classrooms of the Deaf Reach School are connected to the Internet all the time, with the Internet and computer technology seamlessly integrated into the curriculum and teaching practices. Teachers use computer programs to teach sign language – a computer screen displays words accompanied by illustrative video clips of children signing the words and using them in everyday life for context, while the teacher stands at the head of the class and helps the children learn the signs. Teachers also use media constantly during school hours, to research curriculum, download lessons, find YouTube clips that will hep their students, and plan and organize lessons and timetables – anything and everything to make the learning environment more stimulating and efficient.

One of the most exciting technology projects being worked on today at Deaf Reach is the development of a “visual video dictionary” for deaf people to learn sign language. It’s being professionally filmed at the Deaf Reach School studio, and teachers and students alike are involved, acting out the signs as their written equivalent is flashed on the screen in both Urdu and English. “We hope to include about eight to ten thousand words in the dictionary, and students will learn three languages at once: Pakistani sign language, English, and Urdu. This will make Pakistani Sign Language accessible and available across the country, and also enable families to learn sign language in order to communicate with their deaf children,” explains Marc.

With no specialist training existing in Pakistan for teachers who work with the Deaf, Deaf Reach has trained their most apt students and provided them the opportunity to teach the next generation of deaf children. Sixty percent of the teachers in the Deaf Reach School are also deaf, but their deafness actually makes learning faster, according to Daniel Marc. “They understand the world these children are coming from.” That understanding and trust is a key issue in the deaf world, with the deaf population feeling somewhat mistrustful of the hearing population because they have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. But, according to Richard Geary, the Deaf are “very resilient, very independent, self-reliant. They don’t have a poor-me attitude. They’re happy and positive, they’re over-comers, even the girls. They’re not ashamed or embarrassed by their inability to hear. They write notes if they’re literate, or they sign or lip-read. They go out of their way to be heard.”

And the students of the Deaf School have ambitions beyond the classroom walls.  Working in partnership with other organizations that serve special needs populations, such as NOWPDP (Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities), FESF has managed to place their students in employment programs such as in KFC Restaurants, modeled on a similar scheme started in Cairo 20 years ago, where deaf students are working in five branches of the fast food chain in Karachi and Lahore. FESF has trained 45 students and placed them in jobs at petrol stations under the Shell Petroleum’s Awaaz program; NOWPDP helped place 15-20 deaf students at Artistic Milliners, the clothing design company in Karachi. Other former students work at United Bank Limited, DHL, and Allied Caterpillar; several deaf women who studied at the school’s Lahore campus are employed with Khawaja Electronics, where they make Fuji capacitators.

“As you can imagine, employment opportunities for the Deaf are very limited,” Geary says. “So we’re now exploring a business model for an income generation scheme. A job isn’t the only way, it’s just one facet. We want to create a line of products that can be marketed locally and internationally, and run as a company in which they will have a stake in the business. This is financial inclusion, which will eventually make them self-reliant, no longer dependent on society, their parents, or the community.”

In the end, what the Deaf Reach Schools deliver is twofold: quality education for an underserved population, and a legacy for the future. “We have a teacher working with us from Baltistan,” says Daniel Marc. “His wife came down here with their children all the way from Skardu, just for a few months so that she could get some training. He’s teaching here with us now, but they want to eventually go back to Baltistan and open a Deaf Reach School there. We worry about the future, about how the project will continue after us, but we are hopeful.”  With the intelligence, resilience, and positivity on display at the Karachi Deaf Reach School, there’s every reason to believe the legacy FESF has created for Pakistan’s deaf world will not just continue, but thrive in the years to come.

Find  Family Education Services Foundation online at: http://www.fesf.org.pk

Reserved Seats for Women in Pakistan’s Parliament

So according to this news report in the Express Tribune, Imran Khan has announced that he opposes the way women in Pakistan enter the National Assembly on reserved seats. At a seminar called “Justice for Women” hosted by the PTI, Khan said that women should not be “nominated from a list” for those seats, but should “contest direct elections” the way the rest of the seats are contested for in the Assembly.

Currently, there are seventy (70) seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly reserved for women (60) and for minority members (10) of Parliament. A woman or a religious minority can fight an election for any other seat, but these seats are exclusively for them. These seats are allocated to political parties based on proportional representation, meaning that the largest party gets the largest number of seats, and so on.

So you don’t have to be elected to hold one of these seats; you get one of them assigned to you after your party holds an election to select you for the seat.  Imran Khan says he wants to do away with this indirect system and make the women fight for those reserved seats directly like everyone else has to do in the general Assembly seats. This is the way forward to a more democratic system, says Khan.

Another criticism of this system is that the women in these seats (it is claimed) don’t actually do anything useful in Parliament; they are “placeholders” for their husbands and cannot act on their own.

Let’s deal with the first issue first: that women should fight directly for these elections, not be elected within their parties and then be nominated for the seats. Imran Khan says, “How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.” 


Okay, Mr. Khan. If this is true, that in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections in general, why are you are insisting that they should contest direct elections for reserved seats?  I find this to be a highly impractical, if not downright contradictory, stance. There will be a complete failure to find enough women to contest all these elections throughout the country, especially in the more conservative areas of Pakistan. There is even the danger that these seats may eventually be taken off the reserved list if there aren’t enough women willing to fight direct elections, and go back to men.

Imran Khan also says, “Political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”

You mean, like when women are elected by the political parties and then nominated for reserved seats in the National Assembly?

I quote the wise Marvi Sirmed on the issue of women directly contesting elections.

The matter of contesting direct elections has so many other factors involved, that do not favour women’s participation. Also, contrary to general perception, not all of the women in legislatures come from elite / feudal classes. There are so many women who have come forward from rank and files of parties. And there are many more who are ready for next elections. We have parliamentarians who have been part of women movement in Pakistan. Do you think they would be able to contest elections if snatched [from] these seats? 

Also, not many parties are going to give tickets to women from winnable seats. That’s why we raised the issue before the election commission that at least 20% tickets should be given to women candidates. The Election Commission agreed to make it 10% tickets and include it in the Political Representation Act that governs political parties. But political parties (the right wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PMLN, JUI-F etc) did not even agree to 10%. 

The problem, Mr. Khan, is that women in Pakistan are nowhere near achieving the equal status that is required for being able to participate in large numbers in direct elections, even for reserved seats. As you yourself have acknowledged, our society and customs discourage women from appearing in public, from campaigning, from going door to door and meeting their voters. They can’t imagine doing this for all the general seats of the Assembly; they can’t even imagine being able to do this for the 60 reserved seats for women.

The reserved seats system may have become a way for women to be inserted into the political scenario as “placeholders” as people so cynically put it. But I’d like to argue a different angle: that the reserved seat system, though it seems to go against democratic principles, serves as a way of getting women in greater numbers into the Assembly FULL STOP. This type of affirmative action for women in itself is empowering and visionary, and a great example for all the people of Pakistan. To do away with this system at the moment would be setting women back many, many decades.

When we have reached much closer to our goal of equality for women in Pakistan, equal rights as citizens, with justice and concern and empathy for our struggles and our obstacles, then perhaps we will be ready to take the step of having women contest directly for those reserved seats. That day is many years away. I would say it is still several generations away.

Marvi Sirmed says that it’s time to instead start thinking about the second generation of affirmative action in Pakistan’s parliaments, and the modalities of how to achieve this. “The world has evolved many modalities, e.g. direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates”.

It’s certainly reasonable to place greater scrutiny on the women in the reserved seats, to ensure that they are actually serving as they are meant to, and not just enjoying perks or furthering the individual needs of their family members. But that is not a problem limited to women in reserved seats; in fact, it’s a problem that all Assembly members and ministers and army chiefs and elected officials and bureaucrats have contributed to for the last sixty-odd years of Pakistan’s existence.

But above all, we must protect the tradition of reserved seats for women, and never, ever eliminate it: this will drive us back to pre-1973 conditions (1973 is the year they were created), according to Marvi Sirmed. She says,

It is such a shame that even ‘educated’ people are discussing whether reserved seats should be there or not. That points to a serious lack of knowledge and insight into why women of Pakistan have been striving for these seats for decades. The fact that farmer and peasant women are not represented in parliament should not be used as pretext to scrap these seats. We don’t have farmer and peasant men also, so should we scrap men’s seats too? That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth.

Hands off our reserved seats! We have fought long and hard for them, and we will not give them up easily. It’s very easy to destroy systems, Mr. Khan, but it is very difficult to build them – and you should know better than to attempt this particular “reform” in the name of your election campaign.


Here is a list I found on Wikipedia (updated on December 12) that breaks down the reserved seats and who is holding them at the moment, by province:

Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (8)

  1. Ms. Bushra Gohar ANP
  2. Ms. Jamila Gallani ANP
  3. Ms. Khurshid Begum Saeed ANP
  4. Ms. Asma Arbab Alamgir PPPP
  5. Malik Mehrunnisa Afridi Advocate PPPP
  6. Mrs. Farhat Khan PPPP
  7. Dr. Imtiaz Sultan Bukhari PML(N)
  8. Mrs. Farzana Mushtaq Ghani PML
  • Fata (0)
  • Federal (0)
  • Punjab (34)
  1. Begum Ishrat Ashraf PML(N)
  2. Ms. Qudsia Arshad PML(N)
  3. Ms. Tahira Aurangzeb PML(N)
  4. Begum Nuzhat Sadiq PML(N)
  5. Ms. Nighat Parveen Mir PML(N)
  6. Ms. Khalida Mansoor PML(N)
  7. Ms. Shahnaz Saleem PML(N)
  8. Ms. Parveen Masood Bhatti PML(N)
  9. Ms. Sabeen Rizvi PML(N)
  10. Ms. Shireen Arshad Khan PML(N)
  11. Ms. Surriya Ashgar PML(N)
  12. Ms. Tasneem Siddiqui PML(N)
  13. Mrs. Nisar Tanveer PML(N)
  14. Ms. Shaheen Ashfaq PML(N)
  15. Mrs. Anusha Rahman Khan Advocate PML(N)
  16. Ms. Rukhsana Bangash PPPP
  17. Ms. Shahnaz Wazir Ali PPPP
  18. Miss. Palwasha Khan PPPP
  19. Mrs. Belum Hasnain PPPP
  20. Ms. Mehreen Anwar Raja Advocate PPPP
  21. Ms. Farzana Raja PPPP
  22. Justice (R) Fakhar-un-Nisa Khokhar PPPP
  23. Miss. Fouzia Habib PPPP
  24. Mrs. Shakeela Khanam Rashid PPPP
  25. Mrs. Yasmeen Rehman PPPP
  26. Ms. Samina Mushtaq Pagganwala PPPP
  27. Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry PPPP
  28. Ms. Nosheen Saeed PML
  29. Ms. Kashmala Tariq PML
  30. Begum Shahnaz Sheikh PML
  31. Dr. Donya Aziz PML
  32. Mrs. Attiya Inayatullah PML
  33. Ms. Bushra Rahman PML
  34. Mrs Tanzila Aamir Cheema PML
  • Sindh (14)
  1. Mrs. Surraiya Jatoi PPPP
  2. Mrs. Farah Naz Ispahani PPPP
  3. Dr. Mahreen Razaque Bhutto PPPP
  4. Ms. Fauzia Wahab PPPP
  5. Ms. Rubina Saadat Qaim Khani PPPP
  6. Dr. Nafisa Shah PPPP
  7. Miss. Shagufta Jumani PPPP
  8. Dr. Nahid Shahid Ali MQM
  9. Ms. Kishwer Zehra MQM
  10. Mrs. Fouzia Ejaz Khan MQM
  11. Mrs. Imrana Saeed Jamil MQM
  12. Mrs. Shagufta Sadiq MQM
  13. Ms. Fiza Junejo PML
  14. Ms. Reena Kumari PML(F)
  • Balochestan (3)
  1. Mrs. Zubaida Jalal PML
  2. Dr. Zil-e-Huma PPPP
  3. Mrs. Asiya Nasir MMAP

Saeen

Ever since Ali Gul Pir made the hysterical video “Wadera Ka Beta” (Son of Feudal), there’s been an increase in the popularity of the Sindhi phrase “Saeen tau saeen” (saeen is an honorific or title of respect that Sindhi men use for each other, denoting that the person is a gentleman, but has been mistaken as synonymous with feudals, the social class of landowners in the rural areas of Sindh, or even crudely, a king) in the country.

The Sindhis say the phrase “Saeen Tau Saeen” as an in-joke; this phrase is used when someone’s acting high and mighty and you want to jokingly call attention to their high-handedness or delusions of grandeur. But ever since the video came out, non-Sindhis have become familiar with it too, and are using it with much glee to express their dislike for Sindhi feudals and their ways.

On Twitter,  I’ve noticed that people are using the phrase with me when they don’t like what I have to say, the implication being that because I’m from a Sindhi feudal family, I refuse to brook any argument.

I’ve also been called “Wadera Ki Beti” (daughter of feudal) but anyone who knows my background knows that this is no insult to me.

I believe that while the video of Wadea Ka Beta is hilarious and clever (Ali Gul Pir was a student of mine at SZABIST, and also Sindhi, although not a feudal), it’s opened the doors for a lot of people to channel their class hatred and in some cases their anti-Sindhi racism in a socially palatable way.

Class hatred is a worldwide phenomenon. It exists in Pakistan, in India, in the UK, in any society where there is a division of classes and little social mobility between them. In Pakistan, it plays out as hatred of “elites”. (Read Ayesha Siddiqua’s excellent column, “What is Pakistan’s Elite” for more background on this subject). People in Pakistan have good reason to hate their “elites”. But some “elites” are more hated than others, and the Sindhi feudal definitely falls into that category.

When I said as much yesterday on Twitter, making it clear that I wasn’t ashamed of my Sindhi landowning background or my own “feudal” family, I was met with a barrage of tweets attacking me for “defending” feudalism. My jaw dropped as I saw the depth of people’s ignorance and misinformation coming alive. “Are you in favor of marriage to the Quran?” “Why do you make haris (sharecroppers) sit at your feet?” “What’s your stance on karo-kari (honor killing)?” “Why do you keep your haris so poor and uneducated?”

My stance on all these issues has been clear for years. You can read my thoughts on feudalism here. And my stance on honor killings here. As for “making haris sit at your feet”, whoever thinks that has never been to the interior, where waderas and haris alike sit on the floor at occasions such as funerals.

What are we talking about when we talk about feudalism? The agricultural system of Sindh, or the culture of excess and abuse of power that has sprung up around it over the decades? Every class and every subclass of Pakistan’s society has a culture, an attitude, a behavior. Sindhi feudalism’s culture isn’t exemplary. Abuses of the poor take particular iterations in the interior, such as bonded labor, village girls being kidnapped and raped, honor killing, and blood feuds (you can easily think of the equivalent of these abuses happening in a factory in Faisalabad, or a tribal village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, or even on the streets of Karachi, I’m sorry to say).

Its scions do commit excess, therefore Wadera Ka Beta. The Sindhi feudals need to face up to those realities, and do some soul-searching about whether this is really the legacy they want to hand down to their children. It’s definitely a system that thrives on ignorance and illiteracy.  Education and industrialization, when and if it happens in Pakistan, will reduce the influence and power of the feudals as has happened in other countries around the world. Yet this particular system sprung up out of the vacuum that successive governments left in Sindh by refusing to allocate funds for its development or to provide the services of education and healthcare that were Sindh’s due for the last 60 years.

But I’ve found that the worst of the stereotypes against the Sindhi landowning classes have been spread for decades by a sensationalist media, and that people remain willfully ignorant of both the business of agriculture as practiced in the interior, and any of the strong cultural traditions of the interior, besides a very superficial acquaintance with Sufism as imagined by Salman Ahmad and Rumi. I directed one of my Indian Twitter detractors to read my article on feudalism but he said he “stopped reading” when he got to the part about the feudal code of honor. It’s closed-mindedness like this that allows the hatred and misunderstanding to flourish.

I was asked why, for example, haris touch the feet of the zamindars. I explained that there were many Hindu traditions that have continued in Sindh. Namaste is one of them, pau-pheri is another. “But why don’t the feudals touch the feet of the haris?” I was asked. I couldn’t decide whether this was real naivete or faux naivete, but I answered it on face value. “Because it’s like when a child touches his mother or father’s feet in the Hindu culture. Does your mother or father touch your feet? The zamindar is like mother and father to his people.”

(This symbolic comparison, I’m afraid, was taken out of context and bandied about on Twitter as proof that I’m defending feudalism. I’m familiar with this sort of smearing. It happened before, when at the first Karachi Literature Festival that quote “I’ve been in a rickshaw” was used for months afterwards as proof of my elitism and disregard for the poor.)

And yet, YES, the zamindar is like a parent to the villagers on his land, because he provides them with protection against the larger forces in the interior: people from rival tribes, the police, dacoits (bandits), so on and so forth. Anyone who doesn’t believe this doesn’t understand much about what a wilderness the interior really is. They continue to harbor dreams about the farms being like some kind of Bollywood movie, where if only the poor villagers were liberated from their evil landlord, everyone would sing and dance in the fields and the hero and heroine would be free to love without fear…

People don’t want to hear much about any good qualities or practices or traditions Sindhi landowners might have. They don’t want to hear about the hospitals, schools, jobs, operations, scholarships that landowners have provided to their people, without fanfare or advertising. That’s just dismissed as “noblesse oblige” or exaggerated benevolence. They want to stick to their imaginings of feudals as bloodthirsty bastards who beat and abuse their haris and steal land and are worshipped as false gods by their poor, ignorant villagers.

In short, they only want a monolithic monster that they can hate with a clear conscience, a combination of Darth Vader and Don Corleone with cartoon-like mustaches and a gaggle of daughters married to the Quran.