A Moral, if Meaningless, Victory

A Facebook friend shared a video last week titled "Slap on face of Jamat islami fanatic Fareed Paracha."  I've never heard of him, but I do know of the JI - anybody with a passing interest in Pakistan would have heard of the religious fundamentalist party -  so I took a look.

The video is from a panel-discussion type of show called "Frontline" which airs on Pakistan's Express News Channel. I don't know what the discussion prior to this clip was about for sure, but the first woman they refer to is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist extradited to and convicted in the US of attempting to kill US army personnel who were interrogating her in Afghanistan.  The second woman referred to is Asiya Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law. She has appealed the verdict and has been receiving some amount of support from politicians, but it seems if you support her and - implicitly or explicitly - criticize the Blasphemy Law, there is a strong likelihood that fanatics will kill you. Salman Taseer, former Governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Minister for Minorities, found that out the hard way.

So as Pakistan rushes headlong into a future bleaker than its past, seeing someone really lay into one of the (many, many) architects of that collapse elicits a certain amount of glee. The first speaker is lawyer and activist Asma Jehangir, who is well known for speaking out against fundamentalism and the oppression of women and minorities in Pakistan. Her comments, while accurate, are reiterations of things she has said - and no doubt will have to say - hundreds of times before.

The second speaker was a complete surprise however. As I watched the video, I realized that the very familiar-looking commenter from the audience is Zarina Saeed, one of the most inspirational teachers I've ever studied with. How's that for a bonus?

Most of the discussion is in Urdu, so I've added a translation after the video.

Asma Jehangir, mid-discussion: Did you see no women other than Afiya Siddiqui? We petitioned for her; when the ISI took her, you stayed quiet. You didn't say a word.


Fareed Paracha: What can we do? We're obliged to work. We talk about everyone (meaning we represent everyone, I think)


AJ: Look, what I'm saying is that this debate should not be twisted. They claim to be the friends of the poor and the enemies of the US when they spent ten years with Zia-ul-Haq working shoulder to shoulder with the US. After that, how can they...?


Host: [indistinct]


FP: I'd like to say a word here...


Other panelist: [inaudible]


AJ: We [The NGOs working for women and minorities] were never with the US [repeats over the babble]. When the US was working with/through them [the Jamat] we were out there organizing protests for the rights of women. There was no Afiya Siddiqui back then.


When the ISI took Afiya Siddiqui, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court, Petition no.5, that very same day. They stayed silent. Nobody spoke up then.


When they took her to the US, when she was out of our jurisdiction, that was they day they decided to make it an issue. Other than Afiya Siddiqui, do other women live here or not?


FP: [talking over AJ] We talk about all of them.


AJ: Why don't you talk about them too? I am threatened daily. Talk about me too. People have tried to kill me, people have insulted me, and yet you have never spoken about that.


FP: [sounds like he's asking the host to intevene] I just want to say one sentence...[Drowned out by applause]


Audience comment:


Zarina Saeed: These panelists seem to be in a kind of denial, that there is no extremism, no intolerance, no nothing. Tell me something, what is the definition of intolerance and extremism? When a society is extremist, there is some parameter against which that can be checked. And that parameter is that those who are weak, those who belong to marginalized communities, how are they living? What is the status of women in our country? What is the status of minorities in our country? Are they prospering?


You're all sitting here...our Mall Road...once upon a time, there were lots of properties here that were owned by minorities. Where are those property owners now?


Host: Who got rid of them?


ZS: They...you...this is an intolerant community. The Mafia can take them...you can put a notice up in front of a house saying that the owner is a heathen or a _munafiq_ and the community will harass them and force them to leave. That's what happens in our country.


Then there's Asiya Bibi who we've been talking about. Asiya is...we're  talking about an illiterate, uneducated woman and we think Islam is in danger from her? Our religion isn't so small...for God's sake...don't make Allah out to be so small...that is the biggest of blasphemies..when you reduce God to human beings. This [God, I imagine] is something beyond us.




I am amazed that there is such outrage over Asiya Bibi, who is uneducated and illiterate, and yet when one of your ministers from Balochistan buried women alive, nobody issued a fatwa.


[Host: He's a People's Party minister.]


ZS: That is a heathen. He is a heathen. He committed blasphemy. Because he turned around and said that this was a 'tribal custom'.


[Host: [echoing ZS] 28 August, 2008]



Did any political party accuse them of blashpemy then? They did not. Why were you quiet at that time? Why were you silent at that time?


Now you're talking.. the Jamat people are talking... Mr Paracha is very respected...he's talking about how they've served the poor. Putting the poor aside, this rich man, this feudal as you'd call him, his power scared you off?


FP: I would very respectfully like to say that her own tolerance is so low that she refers to a person who has a PhD and academic distinctions worldwide, three times as uneducated and illiterate simply because she professes a belief in Islam, simply because she...


Host: [interrupting] She's talking about Asiya Bibi, not Afiya Siddiqui.


[Brief discussion - I can't make out who says what, but eventually Paracha realizes his mistake]


ZS: My response...my response...my reponse to this is only that they are reinforcing my point. We are in a state of denial and we are not willing to listen to the Other. We are that biased.




None of this means anything, of course. The country - at least the idealized one I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with all my life - is pretty much gone. Displays like this can make us feel good for a moment or two, but the "crossroads" that everyone seems to think Pakistan is at, as Ahsan Butt suggests, are actually fast disappearing in the distance.

Armistead Maupin in Brisbane

Armistead Maupin was here and I missed him. *sniff*. Buuut, thanks to the wonders of teh tubes, here's a link to his talk at the Brisbane Writers' Festival as broadcast on the Book Show on ABC Radio. This'll take you the page about the talk where you can either listen to it or download it for later. Click me.

In it, he reads a bit from his new book Michael Tolliver Lives and then gives a bit of a directed talk. I loved hearing him read, and I love that Mouse is back and that Anna Madrigal is still alive and kicking.

Maupin makes some excellent points about visibility for the GLBTI community and why it's important for authors and artists to align themselves with it if they happen to be part of it (or even if they don't, really). He takes on Gore Vidal's refusal to do so particularly well, and I think he's right. If it really was just about who you have sex with and nothing else, it probably wouldn't be such a big deal. It becomes a big deal though because being gay or lesbian or bi has to do with who you love and who you build a life with - that's what gets up people's noses because it says to them that there are other, reasonable, valid ways of living than theirs. I just find it funny how, despite the lip service payed to loving one's neighbor, charity, community, etc., hate is by far the easiest emotion to stir in people. Anyway, not getting onto that soapbox just yet. Listen to Maupin.

How pathetic can you get?

I have an ex I'm very fond of. We got together back in high school in Kathmandu and broke up some time after it, but more because the relationship just died a natural death and there really wasn't any point continuing it. No dramas, no scenes; just a see you later, take care of yourself and hey, keep in touch. I was about 19 back then. Over the years, we've seen each other through various relationships, mistakes, breakups, fallings out, disasters and ultimately each of our 'holy shit I think this is it' moments.

I have and have had similar relationships with what I now realize is a fairly large number of men. To be clear, I never dated any of them, but I absolutely adore them because they're all some combination of intelligent, creative, funny, sweet, talented, silly, downright weird (on occasion), gorgeous (in the 'I have my shit together' sort of way), great to talk to, supportive, generous, well-read, able to listen, interested in things I find interesting (animals, cars, motorbikes, books, music, politics, history, physics, whatever), well-travelled, kind, honest, inventive, original and so on. In short, they're people. Real, functioning, thinking human beings around whom I feel challenged, switched on, comfortable, safe and happy.

I'm all for the whole imprinting on one's parents thing because my relationship with them is basically a repeat and expansion of my relationship with my father (and arguably all of that formed a blueprint for my relationship with Ameel). It's always a bit silly to say 'if not for X, such and such wouldn't have happened' becuause X was there and whatever it is did happen and you have no real way of knowing whether your statement is true. But, coming from a relatively 'conservative' nation (for lack of a better word - I wasn't born in Pakistan and spent more time outside the country than in it, so I feel that, if anything my passport makes me from Pakistan-the-idea rather than Pakistan-the-place), I lucked out. I'd always thought so, because bad fathers are an unfortunately world-wide phenomenon, but I realized just how much when I went back to Lahore for college and discovered the utter monsters that are allowed to raise children there. Some had attitudes similar to those of my father (after all, he's from there too), but what the apparent majority of men(with the collusion of their wives and families) put their children - particularly their daughters - through was appalling.

With some notable exceptions, the men my own age that I met there were just as appalling. (So, too, again with some exceptions, were the women, so ultimately I guess they pretty much deserved each other.)  I made an effort. I really did. But seriously, if a man's fool enough to pull the macho crap and try to tell me what to do...

But that's just it. They really, honestly don't seem to know any better. The few that tried it with me probably still don't know where they went wrong (or what hit them), and I doubt that they really have any need to seeing as how they're probably now with women who do the whole subservient little woman thing anyway. And everyone involved is probably quite happy with things too, which I suppose is fine. Just because it's not my thing doesn't make it automatically' bad'.

But what does make it bad is when this crap spills over into my life. The web makes it possible for me to reconnect with all the wonderful people I've had to leave behind because our lives went in different directions. I've found people I haven't seen or been in touch with for ten years or more through things like Facebook and Orkut and have, thanks to them, actually managed to stay in touch with people. They're good applications, specially for us wanderers, because they bring all our different worlds into one easy to manage space. It's more of a home than any real place I can think of because everyone from evereywhere is there. Virtually.

Along with all of that, unfortunately, comes the aforementioned crap. Because my network or nationality or name or friends or some combination of these usually place me within reach of the 'desi' presence on the web, I am occasionally pestered by men seeking to be 'friends'. Now in desi-speak, 'friends' (or 'frraands' as it is generally pronounced) does not mean friends who chat once in a while, perhaps even over coffee or drinks, or friends who know each other a bit better and are interested in each other's lives, generally helpful and kind, and mostly truthful except perhaps when concerning an unfortunate haircut, etc. A 'friend' request from a desi man to a woman he does not know means simply that he thinks she's hot and that he has a chance of getting into her pants (virtually or otherwise) for some reason, be it that he thinks she's 'western(ized)' and therefore a 'slut' (read: a woman who has clapped eyes on a man not of her family oh, maybe once?), stupid enough to fall for his 'friend' routine, or so starved for attention that she will immediately fall to her knees in gratitude. Need I mention that these men are quite often also delusional?

Unfortunately, they obviously have some measure of success because they just don't go away.

When faced with a 'no thanks', they first begin to pepper you with messages asking you why not. When you don't respond, they beg for reasons why their oh so manly manliness hasn't had it's 'normal' effect (excuse me while I snort). When they still get nothing ( I don't believe in feeding the animals at a zoo either) they go and steal pictures they find of you on the web, put them in their own photo albums on said networking site, usually with some kind of inane caption, and then leave you a link to it. Now, this generally does get a lot of (desi) girls to contact them, if only to ask them to remove the picture because they're usually compromising (sometimes the mere fact that a perfectly innocent picture is in the possession of a 'stranger' is enough to get them into a world of trouble). This generally gives the harasser a 'way in': he's achieved his objective of getting a reaction and can now blackmail the girls into further contact, whether on the 'net or, more dangerously, in real life.

The problem that these shits run into with me is that I'm not too fond of being harassed or blackmailed and I'm not one to run from a fight if provoked. I'm also not liable to stop till I've ground them into a pulp. This is why I generally stay away from physical fights. I don't need the lawsuits or the possible jailtime, thank you. But in the virtual world, you can kick someone's ass from here to next Tuesday quite nicely, and all without getting your hands too dirty.

So when this particular idiot took a picture of me off this site and did the usual (on Orkut, this was), he didn't get the expected hysterical messages. Instead, Ameel and I

  1. put all the messages I had from him up on my Orkut page,

  2. messaged my friends about his harassment, pointing out the stupidity of 'stealing' a picture that is already in the public domain (under a creative commons copyright),

  3. asked them to check out his nauseatingly pedestrian profile, his visible harassment of other women on Orkut (scrapbooks are publicly viewable), his messages to me, and then

  4. invited them to come express their opinion of him on my page.

It was hilarious to see him scampering to delete his trail and remove most of the pictures from his album, all the while leaving idiotic messages in his defense. The last was the usual 'I just wanted what was best for you and promise me you'll be happy always and I would have been a true and devoted friend'. When that got nothing but jeers (Thanks, mate, but I already have all the dogs I want.), we were all told that this person had had a terrible accident and was in intensive care and that we should all be ashamed of ourselves for being such meanies. When that didn't get a reaction, we received another message saying that he had died and asking if we were happy now. From his account. A 'friend' of his logged in for him you see, because obviously the first thing you do when a friend is dying in hospital is log into his Orkut account and inform all the people there who have expressed overt dislike for him that someone they don't give two shits about has had a completely random accident, most likely caused by the stupidity he so blatantly exhibited online. Naturally.

If any such thing happened at all. Since I've had similar crap pulled on me before (I know. But I didn't fall for it then either.) I knew not to take it seriously. Sure enough, a while later a person with the same name starts commenting on this blog. Nothing untoward was said, so I didn't react. Then someone, again using the same name, sends me a friend request on Facebook. Now, I like Facebook because you can ignore requests and keep these people out of your circle and therefore unable to harass you (other than by private message, and that's a bit of a bother to do. You have to, like, articulate and stuff.)

All was well until lo, one day I get a friend request from a Nadia Niaz whose profile has a picture of me (again from my website, and this time from Ameel's photo page) on it. Another friend had also received a request and was wondering if it was some kook. So I reported it. Obviously. And so did a number of other people. Facebook removed the account. Bye bye, troll.

Or so we thought. Now there's a Nadia Niaz on Orkut whose profile picture is the same picture this loser first took off my site (and which I was using on Facebook for a while). Oh and get this, this Nadia is also 28, is single, and is only interested in women because she has had 'bad experiences' with men in the past. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I think I'm meant to be offended or something. I mean, my goodness, a lesbian. How very original. Hands up the women who've been called dykes by men they weren't interested in? I think it's even funnier because, really, I have no issues being called a lesbian. I think women are lovely. The person I ended up committing to happens to have been born male, but it really wouldn't have made much of a difference to me personally either way. So umm, no, sexuality's not really an issue kiddo.

What I would find fascinating, if I could be bothered to investigate this phenomenon more, is why these people don't give up. It's not just on the 'net that this happens. While in Pakistan, pretty much the moment I got a cell phone was when I started getting random phone calls from people who wanted to 'get to know' me. How do these people have the time? Are they really all at that loose an end? No wonder the country's going to shit. And really, how pathetic and frustrated do you have to be to do this ad nauseam? Eventually, I wouldn't bother hanging up. I'd put the moron on hold and let him talk. (They always want to talk - one of the made up this very entertaining story about why I wouldn't speak. He probably wouldn't have figured out he was on speakerphone addressing not just me but my husband and a few friends as well if someone in the background hadn't burst out laughing.)

It comes across as cruel at times, I realize. But I've tried being nice, and I've tried reason, neither of which I think they're entitled to. I've also tried ignoring them. And yet he/they seem to think their lives are some shitty bollywood movie where the hero (them, of course) must pursue the heroine (whatever woman they're fixated on) even though she claims to not be interested in him because, of course, she either is secretly mad for him and is simply too dishonest to admit it, or is just too stupid to realize how great a catch he is and so must be repeatedly dazzled with his...er....well...nothing much really...but...it's just....well...he's male dammit and he wants her so how dare the impudent female say no? That's not what happens in the movies! And movies, specially big bollywood productions, are absolutely realistic. Oh yes they are!


Anyway, I've reported the creep again. Let's see how we go. Orkut is apparently less stringent about such things, but then most of my friends have migrated to Facebook already, because it affords one more, obviously much needed, privacy from such fuckwits.

A review

Some time before the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I started to volunteer at my junior high school library. I shelved books, checked books out and in, sorted index cards, and did all the other things you do to help keep a library running. In exchange, I got first dibs on all the books that were discarded at the end of the year. I think my haul that summer was about 120 books. Most were tattered and dog-eared and quite a few fell apart before the year was out, but what an amazing find. I'd been a good little overachiever and was already familiar with all the 'serious' authors my anglophile upbringing required I know, so nobody objected to my bringing home this 'young adult' stuff. I was free to read all I wanted. And boy did I read. Science fiction, fantasy, biography, horror, suspense, mysteries, mythology, poetry, and books that were simply about kids growing up. I've forgotten all but a few of the authors' names, but I always imagined them to be magical beings, almost. Adults who could somehow bridge the gap between their grow-up selves and the kids they used to be and who could use this amazing ability to tell other kids trying to muddle through this whole growing up thing that we'd make it to the other side ok. Most adults I knew at the time couldn't do that. Most I know now still can't. Like me, they got to the other side and just kept going.

And I might have kept on going had I not met a few people through my MA who still have that magic about them. I've spoken of Penni Russon before - she's written the amazing Undine trilogy, Undine, Breathe and Drift and has other projects underway - but this semester I also met Jennifer Cook. Soon after meeting her, and having just come off the fantastic ride that Penni's books had taken me on the previous year, I decided that I absolutely had to read her books as well. So, the day I handed in my thesis, I headed over to the library and picked up Ariadne: The Maiden and the Minotaur.

Now the thing about this book is that it's not like anything I've ever read. And I'll bet it's not like anything you've ever read either. Having been 'into' mythology aeons ago, I knew the story of the Minotaur and of Ariadne and Theseus and I was curious to see what Jen had done with it. I was expecting a strong female voice. I was expecting something written for smart thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds. I was expecting something exciting and eventually empowering. And I have to say Jen delivered on all of these things. But the thing about Jen, speaking as someone who has the priviledge of being able to call her 'Jen', is that she does everything in a way that is absolutely, unmistakeably, uncompromisingly her own. You sit up and notice when you meet her. And you sure as hell sit up and notice when you read her.

Ariadne begins with a girl, sixteen and dumped. Yes, it's thousands of years ago and she's on a stony island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, but that's not the point. The point is she's angry and from the get-go you know you don't want to get in her way. Her heart may be broken, but she isn't and from the story, you get the feeling she won't be, no matter what the gods throw at her. She'll get bruised and battered - she already has after all - but she's the sort who cusses her head off at fate and keeps going. She may be the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of gods, but our Ari is no 'princess'. Yes, as the blurb on the back and the prologue will tell you, she's had it a bit rough the last few days and does need "a good lie down", but you know, you just know, that she's going to get up again and come out swinging.

The book consists of the story of the events that led Ariadne to this desolate island and is written in Ariadne's voice. No hemming and hawing for this princess though. She calls a spade a spade and often much worse, and I have to say that the book deserves prizes for the inventiveness of the cussing alone. It is hilarious and so real that you forget at times that you're actually in "Mythical Greece".

And that's the beauty of it. Behind the hilarity and the fantastically indignant voice that Jen weilds so effortlessly is the incredibly meticulous and ultimately convincing retelling - re-weaving, really - of a story as old as Western culture. It is fascinating to watch as the King and Queen of Crete, for example, are shown not just in all their terrible mythical glory but in their role as parents. Jen explores the relationship that Pasiphae and Minos have with their daughter and, for the first time, you see them as real people with real problems and worries and duties and obligations and fears and jealousies and all the rest of it. You see how they (and by extension, we) set traps for themselves and paint themselves into corners. But while you're reading all this, somehow, at the same time, Jen makes sure you are aware of the politics at work, of the cultural landscape of the age.

Ultimately, yes, this is a book about a girl finding her way into womanhood and working out her relationship with her mother, with her legacy, with other women, and with what it means to be a woman in any age. That's plenty already, but Ariadne manages to be more than that as well. By the time you read the last page you've travelled so far and back that it's hard to believe the book is actually only 200 pages long. There's the incredible tale of the Minotaur and the story of Theseus's battle with the beast, there's the story of Ariadne's sister Phaedra and their relationship, there's the story of how Ariadne ends up on the island. And then there's the 'real' version of all these events, as told by an Ariadne who will brook no romanticised nonsense in the telling of her tale. And I can't think of a better, more magical person to tell it than Jen Cook.

A brief history of Pakistan’s leaders

In his May 20 column, Cowasjee lists all the leaders Pakistan has had. The list begins with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, naturally, but it's frightening how quickly the downward spiral starts after Jinnah's death. Cowasjee has comments and a few insights to offer, which is only natural given that he is of the generation that was born under the Raj and was present when Pakistan's history began. Come to think of it, once our grandparents are gone, there won't be too many people left in the world who can claim to have seen a country being born.