Pakistan’s quiet gender revolution

As Pakistan’s future in cinema and television appears to steadily brighten, we should acknowledge the women characters who have graced our screens over many decades.

Gender equality has a long way to go in Pakistan, but on our television sets and in cinema halls, we have progressed further than the titan industries of Hollywood and Bollywood.

Believe it or not, the first time I sat up in front of the television and actually enjoyed watching a woman in a drama was in the 90s when the beautiful, vivacious Shahnaz intimidated and eventually won over shy, insecure Gulsher in the hit series Alpha Bravo Charlie.

One woman in a show about young army men left a lasting impression on me because of her confidence and drive to fight for what she wanted.

There were many more similar women characters to choose from at the time. But television and movies around the world, then and now, still sorely need to give women in their industries more agency and more of a voice.

Also read: Border: Don’t call me ‘ba­by’

The past few years saw a spate of women-centric Bollywood films. Whether it was Kangana Ranaut proving that you don’t need a husband to be happy in Queen or Vidya Balan in almost every movie ever, I thought “Well finally, finally I can really enjoy Bollywood’s remarkable array of talented women”.

Then, Deepika tweeted angrily, her cleavage became a national debate and the fog cleared.

Women in Bollywood, with or without consent, are still marked by how titillating they can be. Forget Deepika’s acclaimed career, let us judge her by the number of times she bared skin.

Also read: Policing Mathira, Deepika — and all South Asian women

Google Vidya Balan and you will inevitably come across articles about her curves. Like it or not, Bollywood despite its talented actresses still has a woman problem on and off screen.

Virginia Woolf observed in A Room of One’s Own, the limited roles given to female characters in fiction. “They are now and then mothers and daughters” she said,

But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.

She was talking about the literature of the early 20th century. Woolf’s thinking was later adapted by Alison Bechdel, a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, into “The Bechdel Test”.

This test became the standard for feminists (primarily in western cinema) to judge whether a work of fiction was woman-friendly. The work had to fulfil three criteria:
It would have to feature at least two women,
Depict them talking to each other,
And, frame that dialogue around something other than a man.

A study by the University of Southern California shows that in 11 major film producing regions of the world, less than a third of speaking roles even belong to women. These regions include India and the United States, home to the most influential and prolific industries in the world.

When exactly zero women directed the top 25 grossing films in Hollywood this year, is it fair to expect a miniscule Pakistani entertainment industry to present a few films with genuinely cool female characters?

I think we already have.

Considering the patriarchal social space most Pakistani women inhabit, the influence of realism in our films and television – a significant number pass the Bechdel test – highlights a subdued revolution that may one day emerge as the most subversive experiment in the Pakistani entertainment industry.

Women’s rights were at the forefront of a new spate of fiction and non-fiction films that brought our industry into the international sphere.

The subject of forced marriage was broached in Khuda kay liye, the trials and tribulations of a group of sisters were addressed in Bol, a Hindu-Pakistani mother struggled after losing her husband and son in Ramchand Pakistani, and this year in Dukhtar we saw the journey of a mother and daughter as they escaped a child marriage.

Yes, these stories revolve around the cruelty of men. They also underscore how women, experiencing that cruelty, confront the patriarchal curtain that silences them.

Unravelling norms that govern this patriarchal society is the presence of women-centered family units on the television. There are supportive – and oppressive – older women as mothers, aunts and wives in almost every drama who are more than caricatures.

They are complicated characters with hopes and struggles, and a significant amount of screen time is spent showing interactions between all these women. As much as it was a love story, acclaimed Partition-era drama, Dastaan was also a tale of mothers and daughters trying to survive without much needed male protection in turbulent times.

Let’s also recognise the positive influence of the funny woman in uplifting female characters in Pakistani comedy.

We have Saima Chaudhary of Kis Ki Aayegi Baraat played by Bushra Ansari, effortlessly barging into our living rooms every evening on her designer heels. She is part of a long line of slapstick family-centric comedies (starting with my childhood favourite, Family Front) where women are bumbling, oafish and as funny as their male counterparts.

We still have a long way to go.

We continue policing our actresses who take their talents to India, starting with Meera and Veena Malik and now Humaima Malick.

Many of our stories mobilise age-old stereotypes that reflect patriarchal attitudes towards female morality.

The popular show Humsafar broke records and created stars. The chemistry between Asher and Khirad, a star crossed husband and wife electrified the nation. Yet, the show perpetuated old tropes (spoiler alert!) of the innocent, modestly-dressed, small town girl who got the guy, while the jeans-clad, modern city woman was the evil temptress doomed to suffer a mental breakdown.

Another equally popular show Zindagi Gulzar Hai sanctified a middle class dupatta-clad girl while villainising the upper class girls in western attire.

Also read: Zindagi Gulzar Hai: Pakistani drama serials win hearts in India

The good girl/bad girl dichotomy, however, fails to erase the complexities that animate out of this binary.

With a Jane Eyre-esque earnestness, the good girl pursues a career, lives apart from her husband, and carves a space, where her being is not policed by men.

It is fair to say our entertainment industry, with all its shortcomings, has no shortage of diverse women. We have created a realm where characters are in different capacities strong, struggling, long-suffering, funny, flawed, sad, old and young.

These women emerge from a narrative that still belongs to men, and thrive in an industry that places them under a microscope.

Their performances and screen time is enough to prove that there is a demand for more and that demand has been there for a very long time.

Many of us don’t acknowledge this, but it is time to take note of the gender revolution on our screens and see it as a sign of better stories to come.

As published in Dawn.

I am protesting the muzzling of Al Jazeera’s staff in Egypt. #FreeAJStaff

I am protesting the muzzling of Al Jazeera’s staff in Egypt. #FreeAJStaff

A Handful

Mirza Faheem Beram Khan, son of Beram Muhammad Waliullah Khan a prominent textiles manufacturer and erstwhile Minister of Fisheries, was about to lose his virginity to a beauty in red and gold. He could hardly believe his luck. He hadn’t been particularly good-looking in school. Short, pudgy and round, he never wanted for anything, so by the other boys’ standards, he was too much of a softie. At sixteen he realized that being stuffed with luscious dollops of halwa was not going to do him any good. Much to his adoring mother’s consternation, he began a long fast of penitence for his excesses. By the time he was twenty-five, he had blossomed into a dashing young man with a penchant for hunting, riding horses and hanging around at the hookah bar. Now he stood in the hotel bathroom, contemplating his face in the mirror. Large orbs of beetle blackness stared back at him, shining so brightly under the glaring fluorescent lights that he could scarcely recognize them.
The orbs loomed over a magnificent specimen of a protrusion. The Khan nose was a point of pride for his father. When he flared this nose, his nostrils visibly flapped outwards across the expanse of his lips, giving him the air of a bull ready to charge and impale its prey with its horns. This very nose was borne by his grandfather, when he valiantly faced an angry horde of creditors who clamored at his doorstep all those years ago. Beram Khan Senior’s nose would turn red as it twitched in anger. Its proud arch dipped ever so sharply towards the ground that the many spectacles perched on it seemed perpetually on the verge of slipping off. It was rumored that Mirza’s great grandfather had been beaten so many times in the face that his nose was permanently crooked and this same crooked nose was passed on to his children and grandchildren.
Now it had settled on a puffier but well maintained face. Thick eyebrows, large fleshy lips and a pretty strong jaw he thought to himself with a smirk. Mirza ran his hand along his smoothly shaven chin. Grey Flannel cologne mixed with the heavy scent of rose petals that had followed him into the bathroom, littering the glassy floor as he had stumbled in. Granted, his exit was not as smooth as he had hoped. After being ushered into the brightly lit hotel room by his sister and aunts, to find his bride already waiting on the bed, he was suddenly overcome with a fit of sneezing. He excused himself, slipped across all the rose petals strewn over the brocade carpet, into the bathroom and now contemplated himself in the mirror.
Outside he could hear his aunts bustling around, shifting the wedding gifts out of the room and gossiping loudly about the revealing sari Mrs. Whatshername had allowed her daughter to wear. Young Whatshername was headed for spinsterhood if she kept this up. The conversation then turned to the silent figure on the bed and he heard them ask the girl in hushed voices if she was comfortable.
Did she want to get out of those heavy clothes?
On second thought she shouldn’t, our boy has to see her in all her beauty.
Does she need to use the bathroom? Get that foolish boy out!
Poor child, he is shy.
Shywhy! He is a man now, or at least he will be tonight…
The conversation devolved into titters and Mirza bent his head over the sink and breathed deeply. In and out, in and out. His nose pressed against the cold marble sink, taking in the stifling scent of roses again and again. He had been sneezing so much for the past week that it took a visit from the family doctor to realize that Mirza was having a reaction to the roses. His mother wept and wailed that the wedding was destroyed. How were they to have a wedding without the requisite roses? She had already ordered ten thousand of the biggest and brightest red roses that were going to be on full display at the dance, the wedding day and the departure. They couldn’t go to waste! Mirza was immediately put on strict antibiotics, anti allergies and any other anti illness medicine that his mother could worm out of the beleaguered doctor.

A hammering at the bathroom door interrupted his sniffling. They wanted him out of there. They were leaving soon and the man had to face his bride at some point. He could hear his sister giggling in the background. After an onslaught of tinkling jewelry, clicking heels and rustling silks, he heard a door shut outside and the sounds faded away. There was only silence. Evidently his bride had not budged from her place on the bed. He only glimpsed her face briefly during the ceremony.
She had been sitting across from him, her head bent down towards the nikahnama as she signed it. He glimpsed a small hand covered in henna patterns, fingers that looked like they had been dipped in red paint and gold nails carefully manicured to perfection. Her hands were the only tangible part of her body he had seen in the last week or so. But he knew from other accounts that she was indeed beautiful. Her father had been pursued by many a persistent mother, looking to claim her for their sons. His sister whispered to him before the ceremony to observe the girl’s gait. Under the red veil, walked a girl with her head bowed, her hands folded in front, with her shoulder held firmly back, a good sign that she would be an obedient wife. He was very lucky, she had said, to have women in his family who had an eye for quality. His sister had had her fair share of admirers before being committed to the well-placed son of a shipping magnate in Karachi. After they signed the nikahnama and everyone stood to congratulate the couple, she pinched his cheeks, hugged him tightly and whispered in his ear: You could have done a lot worse. A whole lot worse. Thank God you lost all that baby fat. We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off. Her father is quite a choosy fellow.
He saw her face very briefly when his mother lifted her veil to kiss her on the cheeks. A flash of rouge, lowered eyelids and red lips. He managed to catch a glimpse of pearly white teeth before the red curtain was dropped and she became another heavily laden shape of jewels and red.
He thought of those white teeth when he opened the bathroom door and stepped out to face his bride. She sat silently in the center of the bed, knees drawn up with her hands clasped tightly around them. The heavy red curtain had been replaced with a light transparent chiffon cloth so that he could just make out her profile against the dim yellow light of the bedside lamp. The four-poster bed was surrounded by long garlands of flowers parted in the middle allowing him to climb on. He hesitated and advanced forward until he reached the foot of the bed. The girl made no sign that she was aware of his presence. She remained seated, until with a quick movement she lifted her hands and shifted her legs beneath her. She did this so quickly and deftly that Mirza was taken aback. Sitting at the edge of the bed, he mustered some courage and reached out to touch her veil. The shape under the veil twitched slightly and he hesitated.
For a few seconds, his hand wavered above her bent head; ready to pull back the chiffon to reveal that beautiful face he had heard so much about. For one strange second, he wondered what they must look like if one of his aunts walked back in. A stiff unresponsive girl in red sitting back on the bed and a panicked boy still in his long sherwani, gold buttons and gold slippers, perched on the edge of the bed with an outstretched hand. Caught between indecision and a burning desire to rip off the veil and make love to whatever it was beneath there he began to sweat. As he began to pull his hand away, the girl’s red-tinted hand shot up and grabbed it in a vice-like grip.
The red figure was sitting up and with both its hands grasped Mirza and pulled him onto the bed. Mirza was taken aback and relieved that the girl had made the decision for him. Yet his hands were still caught in a tight grip and felt cold and clammy. The girl had made no sound. She was now facing him, her face still covered but bent over his hands and her shoulders quivered and shook. It took Mirza a few seconds to realize that she was crying. Choked cries emerged from the prostrate red figure and Mirza was at a complete loss. He feebly tried to pull his hands out of her grasp but she held on tighter and wept. After a few seconds, she sat up and pulled her veil over her head. A whiff of lavender and jasmines wafted over Mirza. From under the red veil emerged a curly dark haired girl with a pale complexion. The rouge had been wiped away, her eye makeup had been smudged over her cheeks and the red lips had been bitten so often that the lipstick had stained her once pearly white teeth. This girl was not concerned about her appearance. With surprising strength she pushed Mirza backwards, making him tumble off the bed. She bounded off it in one swift motion, but was hindered by her heavy clothes and jewelry. By the time she reached the door, Mirza had grabbed her arms, pinned them to her and wrapped his arms around her so that her back was trapped against his body. Screaming and crying in rage, she twisted her leg backwards around his and tripped him up. They both tumbled onto the rose covered carpet, tangled in their heavily embroidered clothes, making it difficult for the bride or Mirza to get up. After a few feeble attempts to fight Mirza’s grasp, the girl let out a few keening sobs and gave up. Breathing heavily, Mirza felt her go limp against his body. Her head leaned against the floor, hair in disarray and he loosened his grip.
Mirza was at a loss. The night wasn’t turning out the way he planned, but he would not give her up without a fight. The girl was curled up on the floor beside him, her face buried in the roses and her dress spread out around her. Her hair was a black halo against the red and he could barely see the small white face buried inside it all. He tried to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
Listen to me…
The girl pulled away from him and crawled to the other side of the room. She leaned against the wall and looked directly at him and his words were lost. Her bloodshot eyes loomed large against her small face. She stared at him with a hazel gaze, like a deer caught in the headlights. Slowly she started to remove her jewelry. She pulled off the heavy gold tassels in her hair, the bracelets on her wrists, her earrings, necklaces and nose ring. One by one, she tossed them across the room at his feet with a disdainful expression and finally spoke.
Get me out of here.
I can’t. We’re married now.
Get out of my way. I’ll go myself.
You’re my wife.
I know that.
Well we’re married. You…you will just have to accept it. Now listen to me…
The girl was no longer listening. She was pulling off her wedding dress with some difficulty and once again, Mirza’s words caught in his throat. Stripping off her gharara from the waist, and her shirt she stood before him in a small slip and lacy underwear, no doubt a product of her mother’s careful ministrations. Her arms and legs were so thin and frail that he could have easily snapped them off like twigs. Stripped of her jewels and shiny red silk, her body seemed to shimmer with the residue of seven days of endless preparation, primping and polishing. Mirza could barely contain his frustration at this girl who for a few brief moments he believed was his, truly his. Now as she stripped, she did it as an act of indifference. It was no longer sensual, the way her red tipped fingers peaked out of the folds of her wedding gown—it was brazen.
As these thoughts raced through his head, she was already pulling on a pair of pale pink silk pajamas from her suitcase, wrapping herself up in the hotel dressing gown and tying a scarf around her head. Once her preparations were complete she turned to Mirza and scoffed.
I knew you were a fool from the moment I laid eyes on you.
Mirza felt foolish, lying on the floor and listening to her. But his only reaction was to feel the familiar tickling sensation running from the tip of his great big nose all the way into the interior of his skull, a reaction that made its way back out through his nostrils and resulted in a spray of liquid over the delicate red dotted all around him. Again, and again, he sneezed on the floor, struggling to hold himself together before his bride left, but she roared with laughter and ran towards the door. Mirza was still heaving on the floor when she paused and turned around.
On second thought, I will be needing my jewelry.
She had thrown it in his direction; her long filigreed gold earrings had somehow lodged themselves by the hooks into the deep soft carpet. Her gold choker, set with kundan gems framed with diamonds lay at his feet. Three bracelets embedded with emerald stones glinted green within his eye range, bright leaves amongst all the petals.
As she moved past the door to pick up her earrings, Mirza’s sneezing slowly receded. She was oblivious, caught up in dislodging the earring from its resting place. Mirza took two seconds to decide and by the time she heard his body shift on the floor and turned to face him, her mouth an O of surprise he had tackled her back onto the carpet, pressing his body to hers with surprising intensity and feeling her bony legs twitch and shake under his considerably fleshier ones. Without planning to, his hands reached towards her head, grasped her hair and pulled it back against the carpet, pinning her head down. She reacted by gnashing her teeth and squirming under the weight of his body. He caught her eyes, looking up closely into his so completely full of hatred that he forced himself to look away. At the same time, he was acutely aware of her body pressed against his, reminded that the last time he was allowed to be this close to a woman, he had been bathed by his old nanny.
He watched her like a child watched its toy, waiting to play without any rules to guide him. He was now ready to fight the necessary fight if he had to. He pressed himself against her once more, forced her down and heard her gasp, again and again, beneath him. Suddenly he felt a deep falling sensation from his chest to his loins. He was no longer in control of his functions and was ready to submit to this new impulse. His hand shifted from her head to her wrist and held her arms firmly against the carpet, grinding them in so deeply that for a brief moment he was concerned about the deep groves the carpet material could leave in that tender skin. Suppressing that feeling he shoved his face into her neck, rubbing his nose against her collarbone and inhaling more of the lavender and jasmine scent. She continued to fight him back and after feeling the pressure on her neck when he began to bite she started screaming and kicking.
He sat up and twisted her right arm behind her back until she stopped screaming and groaned in pain. Then he pushed her left down as well, until they were both firmly ensconced beneath her. He was quite certain that unless he found a way to hold them down, she would scratch his eyes out with her gold talons. Secretly he was grateful she had changed out of her wedding clothes. The silk pajamas were so much easier to slip down her smooth legs, the bathrobe was just as conveniently removed with one tug. He had never ever removed a woman’s clothing but he knew from hearsay that he had to remove all of it in order to truly enjoy the experience. His friends had warned him that if she resisted he had to make sure her arms were in a place she couldn’t use them to scratch, pull, slap or punch. She was now in her slip and that lacy underwear that he knew had to go as well. He tried pulling it over her head but her pinned arms didn’t let him. Finally he grabbed the portion between her breasts and pulled at it, ripping the silk and ribbon lining from the middle. The girl squealed in pain, her strap seemed to have cut into her shoulder leaving an angry red mark. But her breasts were fully exposed now, small, round and pink tipped. He couldn’t remember if he had ever really seen a woman’s breasts up close but he knew that these were disappointingly small, almost like a little boy’s chest. If he had not closely analyzed pictures from all those movie posters as a boy, he wouldn’t have noticed the difference. But he felt cheated regardless. He noticed that the girl had stopped moving and was looking at him with wide but calculating eyes, as if anticipating his next move. Looking down at her, he had to quickly suppress the disappointment visible in his face and eyes, but it was too late. She was smiling at him and the moon face was no longer endearing. She looked frightening, red lipstick spread over her cheek, and staining her teeth. Her large eyes shining and surrounded by blackness spread from her lashes to her ears. Her mouth was open, panting but grinning, as if she knew he was irritated, upset, disappointed. Almost in spite of her expression, he tried to cover up his disappointment by ripping off her underwear with so much ferocity that the lace tore and the elastic strap snapped against his finger, making him yelp. He heard a low laugh emerge from under him, the girl had started to giggle uncontrollably until she was shaking, mocking him for his ineptitude or perhaps his inability to manage his bride barely two hours after they were married. He was furious, confused and befuddled as to what he should do next, realizing he was still fully clothed.
With a sudden epiphany he realized all he needed was to remove his shalwar and he could enjoy her. She watched him, laughing away, as he straddled her and untied his naala with fumbling fingers. The silk shalwar was cumbersome and heavy and he resorted to leaving it bunched up at his knees. Pushing the girl’s body back down against the carpet with one hand, he searched for her legs and his opening with the other, forcing her apart and trying to position himself over her. She squirmed and laughed not letting him find an adequate hold. Frustrated by her laughter, encumbered by his clothes he decided to take drastic action, and lifting his hand briefly slapped her hard across her right cheek. Her head snapped to the side and her laughter was interrupted by a small squeal. His hand had cut across her cheek and hit her nose. He felt his wedding ring push into the back of his hand and smelled something other than the roses. A steady stream of blood was trickling from the girl’s nose, over her lips and chin and onto her neck. She had stopped laughing but she was no longer resisting either. She simply looked up at him and licked the blood off her lips.
Before he knew it he had rammed himself into her forcing his way past the tiny hips until she cried over and over. Her body grated against his silk sherwani and her legs kicked out from under him. He felt himself losing his grip but persistently stayed inside her until he no longer felt himself. He groaned and gripped her shoulders tightly leaving thick bruises on her pale skin and a deep cut where his wedding ring had been. His gold sherwani was spotted with flecks of blood from her nose as he grunted atop her. Finally he felt himself slackening. He pushed himself off and stood up to inspect the damage. She was still, her arms pinned beneath her and hair spread around her head in a large mess. He could no longer distinguish between the lipstick and the blood on her face, but she looked at him almost quizzically as if trying to anticipate his move. He was no longer sure what to do. Should he pick her up and put her back on the untouched bed? Should he cover her or just let her lie there? No one had prepared him for the aftermath; he was not sure what to do next. Finally he receded into the bathroom to inspect himself and wash the stains off his sherwani.
His face was red and he was breathing heavily. He felt foolish when he realized that his shalwar was still stuck around his knees. His eyes still shone but he was sweating. He felt sore down there but he assumed it meant he was done. Outside he couldn’t hear any movement, she had evidently not left.
She was still on the floor when he returned but had pulled on the bathrobe. She had wiped most of her face with it and was leaning against the bed, looking remarkably younger and less frightening without the makeup, even though vestiges of the red still remained. Silently she stood up and followed him to the bed. He had pulled off his sherwani and shalwar and changed into a comfortable pair of pajamas. They didn’t say a word; he simply indicated the other side of the bed to her, assuming that was where she was supposed to sleep.

The next day his aunts and sisters obliquely hinted at the night’s progress, wondering at the prowess of their once boyish man. His friends shoved him in the shoulders, laughed at him, celebrated his entry into their ranks. They asked him how it went and he described her as a handful, but hopefully after a few months they would get used to one another. She was a tease, he said, but it was a real good time.


This story was given an honourable mention by the Desi Writers Lounge Short Story Competition 2013.

For Asad

When a great man or woman passes away then the world around them slows down. We pause our lives and think about the person, about how they marked history, where they left this mark and what we have lost. When that person is no more, then adapting to their absence takes time because they were a force of immense strength and influence in our lives. History belongs to each family, the marks made impact a community at a time, and when we die, those marks are passed on to our children. But history dies with us, until new stories are created.

I fear waking up one day as an old woman with my memories faded. I fear that I will forget long walks in the mountains, the smell of a certain pipe, the terrible song that once upon a time refused to leave my mind, the high notes of a certain laugh and the furrow in a certain brow. I fear losing all that to time.

Our lives inevitably have to restart and we plough on at full speed. Two years ago, a family paused in grief around the world and wondered how they would ever recover. I was in college, at a party. Blaring music, flashing lights, laughter, exhaustion from all the activity, tired from a busy week, watching the world with a blurred, giddy vision. Stumbling my way out of a raucous affair, phone in hand, could I have anticipated the voice at the end of the line? Then running home, sitting on the bed, lying down, sitting back up, staring at the wall, waiting, waiting, waiting for the inevitable, holding onto a phone that is a lifeline to home, our past, knowing that across the world, something is crashing down and we are all getting caught under the debris.

You picked up the wreckage and dusted us off. You kept us alive and vibrant, and even when you left us, even when the spark that lit our flame was gone, you stuck around.

The last time there was a wedding in the family, you were racing around the tracks, frantically preparing for the most important moment in your son’s life. You argued, laughed, fought, hugged it out, joked, planned, prepared. You were pranked by Mamoo over our visas to India, your bar was mysteriously raided and you could never catch the culprits, you had to manage a dysfunctional gang of thirty as we journeyed across the subcontinent to bring back a new member of our growing family. Throughout that harrowing ordeal you kept your humor. While we fought over seating arrangements, dance numbers, gift-wrapping, you made sure the party kept going.

We still play games, laugh, fight, cry, argue with each other. We will play trumps in Nathiagali along with Scrabble or Poker. The victor will raise their hands in triumph. The jokes will continue being shared as the arguments grow louder. Yet our laughter is muted. Behind Khala’s smile is pain. The young now have the eyes of those who have seen years of pain. Even in our anger, we now lock ourselves up. In our furious rip roaring arguments, we now build walls to contain our deeper grief in case it threatens to bubble up onto the surface and engulf us. There is a grief that no amount of apologies or hugs or kisses can remove. Your family’s hearts broke and no amount of time can fix them.

But this family doesn’t need fixing. To mend a broken heart means to move on from grief. We don’t need to move on because we don’t want to forget you. One day we will grow old and you will be a memory that leaves this world with us. Until then, you live amongst many broken hearts. Broken, bruised, torn up, wearied and wizened, but in those pieces of flesh resides the wonder that still holds us together. I would rather live the rest of my life with this heart than wake up in peace without memories of you.

There are few families in this world that can air their grievances openly, taking the time to write letters to one another about their feelings, who have a collected network of friends that revel in their joys and weep in their grief. There are even fewer families that maintain bonds of love similar to ours. You are the reason why, despite our walls, we still stand together.

One day when our self constructed walls come down, we will withstand the onslaught of emotion. We will remain your dysfunctional, loving family. We will plough on despite the odds stacked against us. We will hold onto you, knowing that moving on is overrated and silly. In our loss we realized our vulnerability, our mortality and found a big hole in our armor that left us exposed. Perhaps we were left weaker. Perhaps we realized our imperfections. But our weaknesses pulled us closer together. Made us a stronger unit and we no longer needed armor, or walls or anything else for that matter.

The long and short of this is, that I am excited for December. I am excited to see you in your family. When we sing, dance, argue, reconcile, gather and part ways, I look forward to your arrival. In Saher’s smile, Bhai’s receding hairline, Aaminah’s attitude, Zehra’s joy, I’ll find you and remind you that you owe us a song and a dance. Don’t forget.

Why The Nobel Prize Does Not Matter

If Malala wins the Nobel Prize tomorrow she will join the ranks of another esteemed Pakistani, Abdus Salam, who won the award in 1979 for his work in electroweak unification. In his acceptance speech, Salam quoted the following verse from the Quran, a verse he described as the basis of faith for all physicists:

"Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary."

The mortal gaze is inherently flawed and imperfect. We look upon an object of perfection and see our deepest desires reflected. We search for truth, the perfect truth constantly, struggling along the way, knowing that only a few amongst us will reach those heights of discovery. And when one in a million discovers the Answer to the bigger Question, they make history. Abdus Salam made history for his country, becoming the first Pakistani to find one form of Truth in his science.

As a Muslim, he was taught to believe that nothing was perfect except God. As a Muslim, he knew that he was God’s servant from the day he entered this world until he left. In science he found a found a way to serve God, by constantly searching for perfection. The same perfection that our gaze keeps returning to, despite the dazzling power that makes us squint and look away. Salam sought knowledge akin to a Sufi’s search for unity with God, the perfect being.

The Quran shows us perfection in God’s creation, and asks us to “Return” to that image. Again and again and again, no matter how weary we become or how painful the ordeal.

Searching for Truth takes guts, and courage. It takes years of study, research, struggle and one never really gets there without a miracle along the way. Many of us are content to live our lives in blissful ignorance, grateful for our comforts, unwilling to step out of the boundaries we have constructed for ourselves. And some of us are forced by circumstances into fighting for the Truth. Fighting for the right to sit in a classroom and open one’s mind to the Truth.

Malala was forced by her circumstances into a position where she had to fight for the Truth against those who were more powerful than her, who were ready to stifle her. She emerged victorious, at age 16, saw more violence than many of us can imagine and brought her battle scars to the world’s attention. Tomorrow’s award may mean little in the long run for the girl who was forced to leave her home, who still struggles at a new school, in a strange land, who misses her friends and her Swat valley. A girl who just wants to go home and strive for her version of the Truth.

In this media frenzy around Malala, we have forgotten how much she suffered. When a bullet pierced her head, we don’t know what she felt as she blacked out. We don’t know if she wakes up at night in pain and fear, shaking from the effects of a nightmare of another faceless young man with a gun pointed at her head. We don’t know if her friends have fully recovered from the trauma of seeing their classmate shot in front of them in a school bus, a comfortable haven for little girls to joke, argue, fight, make up and travel to their next stage of youth. We don’t know how overwhelming it is for her to meet hundreds of people every day and reiterate a wish that should be common sense to all of us.

We know she is a little girl who wants to go to school and play cricket with her brothers (she likes to bat). We know she likes Justin Beiber and admires Benazir Bhutto. We know she once wanted to be a doctor and playfully butted heads with her ambitious father, who like many parents, pushed her to do more. She now wants to be a politician.

The Nobel Prize is not a validation of Malala’s struggle towards Truth. It may be a celebration, but it certainly is not the endgame. Malala has more to prove, more to achieve and she knows it. If she wins we can all celebrate with her, but true victory is a tougher achievement. A real victory would mean bringing Malala back to a Swat valley devoid of threats, where she can rejoin her friends and be a normal girl, but with renewed vigor to learn and succeed. A real victory would see Malala going off to a great university, becoming a brilliant doctor, or humanitarian or politician and showing Pakistanis what they have been missing all along. A real victory would be Malala stripping herself of Malala the icon, to transform into Malala the woman, we all strive to be.

Her message is very simple. And sometimes Truth is found in the simplest and most basic elements of life. Perfection is in the struggle where we are bruised, battered, shot at, trodden upon, but emerge from the maelstrom, victorious.

I can see a world where Malala wakes up without fearing for her life, picks up her books and goes to school, comes home, plays some cricket and then starts her homework. I hope winning or losing the Nobel Prize does not change that vision for Malala. I hope Malala comes home and discovers her Truth.

I Don’t Think Imran Khan is Change

It is important to question and not call any one man the messiah for Pakistan. Bhutto was a “messiah” in his time as well. What unsettles me is the vociferous protestations of PTI-ers who refuse to accept any criticism of their leader. A leader who has done a lot, but whose track record on women’s rights (look at representation of female leaders in his own party, look at his flawed logic in voting against a landmark bill) is abysmal and focus non-existent, and contradictory statements and actions on minority rights, is problematic and worth questioning and criticizing.
Now here is a balanced PTI supporter whose reasons for supporting PTI are somewhat more justifiable than the ones thrown my way. Yet in the spirit of healthy debate and democracy, I acknowledge the many grey areas that exist in all parties. If we want minority rights and a focus on womens rights then vote for the liberal yet corrupt PPP? If we want some infrastructure and development then look at PML-N. If we want overall change go to PTI.

We all want what is the best for Pakistan but the choices are not easy. Vote PTI, vote PML-N, vote PPP, but vote for the right reasons- because you believe and not because the rest of your university or all your friends love a leader to the point of blindness- and definitely vote.

A Good Time for Love

When news about the Boston Marathon attack hit social media and the web, Harvard was immediately swept up in a wave of frantic calls, tweets, texts and posts. We searched for people we knew who were at the Marathon, friends participating, anyone who could have been in Boston at the time. Within the first fifteen minutes of the breaking news, I got three text messages, 2 Facebook messages and a phone call, asking where I was and if I was alright. I thought I was fine, and most of my friends had emerged unscathed from this tragedy. 

But we were not fine. Boston will never be the same after this and in our hearts we were bracing ourselves for the change. After a tragic, senseless act of violence takes human life, we try to make sense of it when there is no sense to be made. Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet wrote about the same incident from a different time and place:

A good time to meet a new

Love is the same time

Good for placing a bomb.

At the juncture 

Of season and season, 

In blue absent-mindedness,

A slight confusion in the changing of guards,

At the seam.

Someone else, somewhere else, also thought it was a good time. At the finish line, between a moment where you are tested to the limits of endurance and the relief of victory, completion and relaxation. A moment in time that should have been of exultation, is also the perfect moment to attack you at your weakest. A moment where you are vulnerable because you trust in the goodwill of those around you to celebrate with you, not to attack you. Someone, somewhere saw fit to use a moment of love and our absent-mindedness to attack us at the seam. Where we were the weakest. 

I have seen glass from buildings, lying on the streets after blasts hit my home town. I have felt fear when my parents were at the scene of an attack and their cell phones were not working. I have woken up to text messages from home, telling me about another attack where 20, 30, 40 people were killed, mere minutes from my house. I have felt that irreplaceable sense of loss when another part of your home is torn away from you and innocence is no more. 

Which is why Boston is in my heart and in my prayers, because like homegrown Bostonians, I too feel like I lost something today. And I am relieved when without question, my friends will hug me and each other in the dining hall, because they too want to make up for what is gone forever. By holding each other, we can remind ourselves of the humanity that remains intact. We can say that any time in the world, is a good time to meet a new love, a new friend, regardless of the vulnerabilities from exposing ourselves. I can always derive comfort from that. If you see me today, come up to me and hug me, because I am looking for some love as well. 

A History of Violence

She had many names. Until recently she was Damini, “Lightning”, an icon of hope for women everywhere. She was named Nirbhaya, Hindi for “the fearless one” and Amanat the Urdu word for “treasure.” For a few months, she was an anonymous woman, who became a symbol for a long overdue movement. A movement that has been simmering for decades below the surface in modern day India, and for that matter the entire subcontinent. Now she has a face. Jyoti Singh Pandey is the face of the movement fighting for gender equality in the wake of the tragic rape incident that has rocked Delhi and most of India in the past few months.

Jyoti, Damini, Nirbhaya or Amanat is the latest victim of a long-standing history of violence in the subcontinent. Rape is prevalent everywhere in the world and is considered one of the worst violations of a human body and soul. It has been used as a weapon of war for centuries in countless battlefields. But in 20th century South Asia, rape resulted in entire generations of victims and survivors. They carried their own stories of war, stories that remained discarded to this day. Even in the wake of this tragedy these stories are not accounted for in the national discourse. Damini is the latest example of an act that has had many implications on the narrative surrounding gender violence in the subcontinent.

On February 20, 2013, from 4-5:30 p.m. in CGIS South S -020 the South Asia Institute in conjunction with The Harvard College Women’s Center and other on campus student groups are sponsoring a discussion on the many faces of rape and gender violence in the subcontinent. Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Director of Research at the Francois Bagnoud Xavier Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and the University Adviser on Human Rights Education to the Provost at Harvard University will be facilitating this discussion. We hope to address lessons learned from this incident and ways to move forward, to build an action plan that allows us to battle this issue head on. In order to do that, we have to take many steps back and look at rape collectively, keeping the statistics as well as the individual stories in mind.

The Partition of 1947 is an incident that is gradually fading from memory. Through scholars like Veena Das who worked directly with partition survivors in Punjab, we know that women bore the brunt of the violence of those times. Countless rape survivors ended up in brothels post-partition, after suffering violent assaults and being subsequently discarded by their families. The voices of women were lost in the post partition narrative that focused on nationalist pride, extolling the virtues of the new nations and the departure of the colonizers, while vilifying the existence of the “other.” Violating the body of the Muslim or Hindu or Sikh woman was likened to violating the honor of a community. Women in the subcontinent, while traditionally subservient, were extolled for their virtue, their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and assaulted women were a mark of shame for their entire community—they became outcasts or silent sufferers, forced to carry their stories but never speak of it to anyone.

Bangladesh in 1971 was no exception, even after the bloodshed had abated and the government made a concerted effort to rehabilitate rape survivors and children born out of rape. Here, it must be stressed that the Pakistani army and the Bangladeshi fighters raped Muslim, Hindu, Bengali and Pakistani women primarily because it was less apparent who the enemy was and who was collateral damage. Once Bangladesh was born, rape survivors were given their own symbolic title by the Bangladeshi government, birangona, the “brave women” or “heroines” and became subjects of a new national pride. They would be rehabilitated through their liberator, the Bangladeshi male, who was given land and government benefits for marrying a birangona. Yet through this naming, they were marked and vilified by their communities. A woman named birangona was seen as damaged, ruined and impure. Yasmin Saikia, a professor of History interviewed countless Bangladeshi women who survived the war and looked at the government policies at the time. In her book “Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh” she describes a government mandated abortion program to rid the country of the “bastard Pakistanis” born out of rape. Women who wanted inclusion into their communities were compelled to participate in these programs. Saikia from her research and interviews concluded: “Ideals of purity and impurity, belonging and inclusion, were worked out and physically enacted on the body of women—the site of alleged national dishonor, and the site where men could display their power to control the imagining of a new “liberated” nation.”

A rape in a New Delhi resonates in South Asia because it marks those countless rapes that took place over history, downplayed by governments wishing to maintain the South Asian woman’s role as a symbol of sanctity and honor. These rapes were interwoven with historical change as it happened in the founding of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and institutions overlook even today. We need only observe the countless incidents of rape in Kashmir at the hands of Indian military forces to realize that our discussion on rape cannot be limited to this particular instance.

Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Diane Rosenfeld, Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at Harvard Law School and Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, will head this group. Their principal task this semester is to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee. The committee in a bold move, points out the need to reassess the military powers that are allowed to operate with impunity in conflict zones. Part of our discussion will focus on real reparations and support for survivors of sexual violence, in a manner that allows them to function as integrated members of their communities.

Arundhati Roy in her observations on this incident alluded to the dangers of restricting and focusing attention on certain incidents of rape. The attention being given now needs to have a holistic perspective on the nature of a woman’s body and how it is used and abused over centuries of conflict. The conflict seems to have shifted to the cities and onto the image of a young urbanite, and has thus been given necessary attention. We need to widen this attention and attach names, stories and memories to the countless birangona, Daminis, Nibhayas and Amanats who have been left behind in our bid to hide the bloody nature of the subcontinent’s history. 

This post is originally featured on the Harvard College Women’s Center blog.

This is my final project for my introductory videomaking class. Raquel Blake, a drag queen and one of the hosts at Machine (a Boston nightclub) graciously allowed me to cover her and her friends for a night of revelry. This is the finished product.

In Sympathy with the Words of Tahir ul Qadri

Having faith in any leader is tough, especially in Pakistan where failed promises, the old corrupt guard and army interference are staple parts of our diet. With every Supreme Court decision marking the supposed “turning point” for the country and “Breaking News” unveiling the next political scandal that threatens to upturn the very fabric of the corrupt culture we belong to its no surprise that people have reacted to the change this newcomer Mr. Qadri brings, with suspicion and disbelief. During Qadri’s speech yesterday, the Supreme Court called for the arrest of PM Raja Ashraf on a case which has been pending while he was selected as Prime Minister by Zardari last year.

The news on arresting “Raja Rental" (1) came at such an opportune moment that immediately the media started speculating on whether or not there was a connection. From the rooftops people were shouting "Conspiracy!" Conspiracy to derail democracy and bring the army in, some "international establishment" conspiracy was afoot and in more troubling news, Musharaff lauded Mr. Qadri and a news anchor jokingly asked him on air, "Will we be seeing you back here soon, Mr. Musharaff?"

These days conspiracy theories abound. And there may even be some truth to them, I don’t know for certain.

But lets pause for a second and look at what Mr. Qadri is actually saying. For anyone who has seen his 3 hour long speech today there is little disagreement that he wants what everyone else has been thinking. He wants elections to take place, but with a new caretaker government that can ensure they are free and fair. He wants a better election commission. He asks for justice against the corrupt politicians, justice for the hundreds of Hazaras and Shias who were affected in the massacres these past two days, and asks people to come out to the streets and fight peacefully for a new, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. His presence on this stage and his message of change reminds me of an old man I met two summers ago.

The women in my family are real believers in the power of prayer. When my uncle’s health was failing, I accompanied my mother and aunt to a mosque, where a religious man would write out prayers for people who wanted their problems solved. A woman wanted her child to stop crying so much, another wanted a way to heal her ailing mother. These people were gathered around him and one by one asked him to give them a prayer. He would write a few letters and numbers on a piece of paper, fold it up and direct his companion to stitch it into a leather pouch with string. This ta’aweez served as protection and carried the answer to all the people’s problems. My mother wanted one and I was naturally skeptical of the point of such an process. He recommended that we read a verse from the Quran a certain number of times a day. When people wanted their prayers answered in villages, they would run to their peer who would in return for his prayers and blessings, ask for money, favors and other things that would invariably put the people in his debt. In most villages, the peeri system has tremendous influence to the extent that it becomes exploitative. This sounded similar.

But upon arrival, I noticed that the process was very simple. The man asked for no money from his visitors, people donated as much as they wanted. These donations were placed in a box and every evening the money was used to buy food that was laid out in the mosque for people of the community. All they asked for was the power of his prayer to solve their problems and he gave it to them. And my mother believed firmly that if a man can pray sincerely for another, why shouldn’t it be taken into account? A man of faith has a stronger prayer than the rest of us more selfish folk.

I am not saying Qadri’s prayer will work more than anyone else’s. He does however, not ask for anything from the people of Pakistan. He does not aspire for elected office (he can’t, he has a dual nationality with Canada and that is another point for the naysayers), he does not want to be part of this caretaker government he proposes and he claims that the army (his supposed backer) will never come into power again. Then what does he want? There has to be a catch somewhere right? And he isn’t an angelic hero sent to save Pakistan either, the man has made some outlandish claims, stating in an interview last year that he saw the Prophet Muhammad’s caravan travel past him on the road to Islamabad. 

He is however, someone who regardless of his background and motives expresses what the rest of us have been too cowardly, jaded and unable to articulate. He has managed to bring together a set of demands and thrown down the gauntlet. The people have spoken and now the ball is in the government’s court. Never in the history of Pakistan, except during the judicial crisis, have people united outside of a political party affiliation and protested. Today, inspired by the actions of the Hazaras in Quetta, people began to protest in Peshawar, bringing the bodies of their loved ones who had been killed in terrorist attacks with them. In moments of crisis, we are defined by how the powerful treat the common man and so far, the government has failed. Now the people have to define the rules and through Tahir ul Qadri they have found a voice with which to do it. 

The old man in the mosque is not an image of Qadri. Qadri is an image that eludes the liberal elites and the Wahabi right wingers. He is a man who symbolizes modern Pakistan, a country that has shifted firmly right but stubbornly sticks to the belief that in this religious state, survive the very secular principles of democracy. Without them, and without the elections this year, we can’t get out of this mess we’re in.


(1) As he is affectionately referred to by our media, having received kickbacks from government funded power stations, losing the country millions of rupees while failing to improve the electricity situation.