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.

On race

PBS in the US did a documentary on race a while ago. I haven't seen it, but I did come across the companion website, Race - The Power of an Illusion, recently. Being a show made by and for Americans, it traces the history of race in the US, but it does give a glimpse of what race meant - or didn't mean - before European settlers arrived in the Americas. It also points out, as the title suggests, that race is not a biological fact but a social construct. The terms we use so casually today - 'white', 'black', 'caucasian' - have an interesting history. It doesn't call for the abolition of racial categories though because they are useful in determining such things as social equality, which suggests that current social inequality is a function of the arbitrary classification of human beings into nonexistent subcategories, and not vice versa. And if you'd like to see evidence of how arbitrary this classification is, take a look at this page, where you are given 16 photographs to classify under four racial categories. Give it a go and see how many you get right.

But what's most interesting and, I think, most relevant to Australia is the section titled What's Race Got To Do With It? The third presentation, called "The Elephant in the Room" seemed the most directly applicable to what I've seen in Australia. I should point out that I don't know all that much about the social and racial history of Australia and what I do know comes from references made in articles and conversations about current issues (such as the Apology to Indigenous Australians made by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the portrayal - or lack thereof - of Indigenous Australians in the media and art, and Australia's rather intersting immigration policies through history). I have however been living here for just over two years now and while I honestly find it a wonderfully welcoming place, I have also found it to be one where racism is incredibly deeply ingrained. Not in the classic American sense of being discriminated against on the basis of your skin color (though it's been known to happen) but in the constant classification of people into categories and sub-categories. People born and bred in Australia are still referred to by their parents' race or, if they are of European ancestry, by their forebears' country of origin. Nobody, it seems, is just Australian. Given the intermittent noise in the media about 'Australian values' and identity, that's just bizarre.

The racism is so casual you almost don't notice it. For instance, upon meeting my husband, several people have remarked that he wasn't what they expected. They were expecting a Pakistani - and therefore presumably Muslim - male but he 'doesn't look like one.' As if that wasn't galling enough, some have remarked on how lovely that is and how lucky I am.

Another example is language. I have lost count of how many times I've received compliments on my command of English or been asked outright where I learnt it because it's really rather good. I don't think any of the people who have complimented me have meant any harm by it and have no idea that they were being insufferably patronizing. I have decided however that, rather than get annoyed, the simplest thing to do is to compliment theirs in return. You know, one native speaker to another.

My personal favorite is people who must assert a cultural difference no matter what. Everyone being spoken of belongs to some neat little category that immediately explains everything about them. What a convenient way to view the world.

Given the history of racism, these are minor irritations. But they indicate nonetheless how deeply ingrained the assumptions based on race actually are, even though most people would be hard put to explain why some people are categorized according to race while others are defined by their ethnicity, nationality, or religion and would be surprised to learn how often they conflate these categories themselves.

That's my neighborhood.

You've probably seen the images of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad up in flames, heard all about the truckload of explosives going off, the scramble to save people, the 60 dead so far and the over 200 people injured.

About 200m from the Marriott is my grandmother's house. My grandmother, my mother, my brother, our cook and his helper, and the maid and her husband were all home. They all heard the explosions (two of them) and then, moments after my brother stepped away from his bedroom window because he couldn't see anything, the shockwave from the explosion shattered every single window in the house and ripped out most of the panes and doors. If the curtains hadn't been drawn, they would all have been severely injured, my mother most of all, I think, since she was sitting right under half a wall of glass. For the past 24 hours, my family has been attempting to clean the place up.

All things considered, they were extremely lucky. Less sound houses have sustained far more structural damage. Less fortunate people are dead, dying, or lost somewhere in the rubble of what was one of the oldest and most well-known buildings in the city. There were about 1,500 people there - they're not all accounted for and I have no idea how long it will be before they are.

In the mean time, my family is cleaning up and repairing the damage to the house. They've been at it for 24 hours now. I have no idea how much more time it will take to get rid of all the glass that's lying all over the place or how long it will be before new windows and doors can be fitted.

I keep doing that. Shifting focus from my house and family to the larger, more horrific picture of a hotel full of people being attacked like that. I'm only just beginning to be able to stomach looking at footage of the blast, and images of the damage and of people being pulled from it. It still makes me cry, but that's to be expected for the time being. There's lots to be thought about - big-picture stuff like how all this fits into the political situation and all this talk of 'uniting' and 'common enemies' from the Americans and the Pakistani government, but at the moment it's the 'smaller' stuff like getting help to people directly affected by the explosion that's on my mind.