Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

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No one burnt Fakhira – Daily Times, 31/03/12

OVER A COFFEE: ‘No one burnt Fakhra’ —Dr Haider Shah

‘No one burnt Fakhra’ was the verdict of the court as all witnesses turned hostile and the person accused by Fakhra got acquitted. Fakhra is, however, not the only victim of our malfunctioning justice system as the list is a long one

The Oscar award for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face brought the issue of vitriol (acid throwing crime) to prominence. Little did we know that the real storm was waiting in the wings as the story of the tragic end of Fakhra suddenly surfaced in the media. The acid attack victim that left Pakistan 12 years ago returned in a coffin to Karachi, as her agonising desire for getting justice accompanied her departed soul.

The story of Fakhra has all the elements of a tragic movie: her association with Napier Road, Karachi, her relationship with a scion of a feudal family of Punjab, and her ultimate end after 12 years of painful existence. But while movies help in catharsis, this story has come as an acid attack on the face of a society that lives under many pretensions about its ideological foundations. Who pushed Fakhra into the ravine of pain? I don’t want to name anyone as this is the job of the state and its law enforcement machinery to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. But let me declare my own musings first while the hunt for the perpetrators may carry on. Fakhra was not killed by a single assailant. There were many accomplices. Perhaps the whole society stood by the side of the perpetrators. Perhaps by turning my back on her I was also one of them.

The story of Fakhra reminds me of Boule de Suife, the famous short story of French writer Maupassant. Set in the times of the Franco-Prussian war, the story is about a prostitute who was travelling along with nine other local residents in a stagecoach to flee to a peaceful region. As a microcosm of French society, the stagecoach represents various social classes of the then France. Boule de Suife is shown as a conscientious person who shares her food with the rest of the travellers when they are hungry. The stagecoach accidently reaches an area occupied by the Prussian army and all the occupants of the coach are detained for interrogation. The travellers find out that the army officer in charge wants to sleep with Boule but because of her intense French nationalism; she is not ready to do so. All the nine journey mates begin convincing Boule and after providing moral and philosophical arguments, they prevail upon her. As the army officer is entertained, the stagecoach is let off. In the remaining part of the journey the hypocrisy of the so-called respectable sections of society is fully exposed as they look down upon Boule, refrain from interacting with her, and no one offers her food when she is hungry. Boule is left to herself to weep in solitude.

Like Fakhra, not a long time ago in India under different circumstances, the murdered Jessica Lal’s sister had also lost the battle against a politically backed and influential family of an arrogant killer. The readers may recall that the Lal murder case became an icon of national conscience for India when the court acquitted the killer because all the witnesses had testified against the murder charge. Jessica, a young model, was brutally killed with close range pistol shots after she refused to serve the son of a local influential politician accompanied by his friends as she had already closed the bar. The murder had taken place in front of horrified employees and guests at the club. In the court, however, no one came forward to testify against the powerful accused and as a result, the killer walked free. As a mark of maturing Indian nationalism, civil society launched a vigorous campaign that gathered so much strength that the investigation was re-opened in December 2006. With renewed interest of the law enforcement agencies and under the spotlight of the media, the accused found the tide going the opposite way and after being found guilty, he was imprisoned for life.

Fakhra’s case is much more tragic than that of Lal. While the bullets fired by the assailant ended a beautiful life in minutes, Fakhra had to experience 12 years of agony between the attack and her death. ‘No one burnt Fakhra’ was the verdict of the court as all witnesses turned hostile and the person accused by Fakhra got acquitted. Fakhra is, however, not the only victim of our malfunctioning justice system as the list is a long one. ‘No one raped her and no jirga was involved in the crime’ was the verdict for Mukhtaran Mai. Some time ago, a young educated girl of Peshawar, Samia Sarwar was murdered in the office of an NGO by a hired assassin who had accompanied the mother of the girl as part of an honour killing plot. The father walked free from the court thanks to the old tribal norms-based law that facilitates a murderer after some money payment.

The situation reminds me of a famous Hollywood movie, Predator, in which marines stuck in a jungle are killed, one by one, by an invisible alien predator. We are also unable to figure out who is killing us as our social and religious norms mockingly take aim at us with impunity. Even more sinister is the comparison with another thriller in which the lead role investigating a murder mystery is shocked to find in the end that she herself was the killer as she committed the murder while she was not in her senses due to some psychiatric disorder. Maybe we are the actual perpetrators as we have acquiesced in a legal order that enables such crimes to go unpunished. Let us be honest and not look around for anybody else to blame. The criminal is residing inside us. Isn’t it time to call the police?

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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From Islam Bibi to Faryal Bibi – Daily Times, 24/03/12

OVER A COFFEE: From Islam Bibi to Faryal Bibi —Dr Haider Shah


Of late the media has been consumed by the stories of conversion of a Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari to Islam in order to marry a Muslim boy in interior Sindh. In the print and electronic media and on social networking sites two camps soon emerged in the wake of this story. The religious camp sees the story as a victory of good over evil, and is spearheading the campaign to resist the pressure from the local Hindu community. The other camp sees the story as an evidence of forced conversion of people belonging to minorities. This camp is led by the leaders of the Hindu community and many liberal writers seem to be sympathetic to this side of the story.

Who is right or wrong is a question of fact and without access to the realities on the ground, it is very risky to jump to any conclusion on the basis of preconceived notions. The present story, however, has taken me back into the pre-partition era of 1936. If like Pythagoras I believed in transmigration of souls, I would have stated that the soul of Ram Kaur (Islam Bibi) has come back in the form of Rinkle Kumari (Faryal Bibi), along with all the communal tensions that the incident created in Bannu city of the then British India.

According to the story, a 15-year-old Hindu girl Ram Kaur of village Jhandu Khel, Bannu, liked a local lad, Amir Noor Ali Shah. The girl eloped with her lover to village Puk Ismail Khel where she embraced Islam in the village mosque and the mosque imam solemnised her marriage with Noor Ali. In the meantime, the girl’s mother Mansa Devi registered an FIR, alleging abduction of her daughter by Noor Ali and his accomplices. The elders of Noor Ali did not return the girl after initially agreeing to it as they claimed that the girl had refused to return to her family. While Noor Ali was trying to smuggle the girl to Afghanistan through South Waziristan, the Bannu police apprehended the fleeing party and the newly married couple was sent to jail.

The ordinary boy-girl romance soon turned into a communal warfare as the local Muslim community strongly favoured Noor Ali while the Hindu community sympathised with the mother of Islam Bibi. Soon all prominent leaders of the area and lawyers jumped into the fray. Islam Bibi proved a Helen of Troy for Bannu. The temperature of communal strife rose so much that FC and army troops were put on high alert as thousands of local tribesmen chanting Allah-o-Akbar (God is great) slogans encircled the bungalow of Captain E. H. Cobb, Deputy Commissioner Bannu, to demand the return of Islam Bibi after deciding the case according to Shariah. The high-ups of the British Raj had to personally come to Bannu to prevail upon local Muslim notables not to interfere in the case and the army had to be called in to control the situation that was getting out of hand. A girl of 15 had thus ignited a situation that needed a squadron of light tanks at all vital points of Bannu, a show of force of army units on the main roads of the city and imposition of Section 144 in the district for an indefinite period.

Given the tense situation in the city, the DC ordered the retention of Islam Bibi in jail as a matter of public interest. The girl’s personal statement was recorded there, and as she refused to go with her mother she was given under the safe custody of a respected local elder who was a member of the Legislative Council. The DC’s court decided the case on the basis of the girl being a minor as she was not yet 16 years old, hence her marriage was declared invalid and the elopement was seen as abduction. Noor Ali was awarded two years rigorous imprisonment for the offence. Later, when all appeals failed, the girl was handed over to her mother in the presence of tight security of police. The family shifted to Hoshiarpur and the story then turns into a local legend. The Hindu community version is that the girl reconverted to Hinduism and did not want to communicate with Noor Ali. The historians belonging to the local Muslim community, however, asserted that the girl who testified before the commission regarding reconversion to Hinduism was a different girl impersonating as Islam Bibi and that she was kept away, under duress. What actually happened is difficult to establish as the story is now part of the local folklore. Late Abdur Rauf Khalid even made an Urdu movie Laaj based on this love story, with certain twists to the actual events.

In the United Kingdom a white woman marrying a black man or exchanging vows of love with a Pakistani man is a common sight. Choosing one’s life partner is the first and foremost fundamental human right. I do not feel particularly agitated to side with those who want to come between two sincere lovers. All are equal according to our constitution. But, when it comes to matters of personal rights, some communities treat themselves more equally. What perturbs me most is that the stories of Islam Bibi and Rinkle Kumari are a showcase of our national hypocrisy. Ram Kaurs and Rinkle Kumaris have a right to choose their life partners and their faith. If a Muslim woman, however, had converted to another faith in order to marry her lover, what would have been the reaction of the local faithfuls? In the answer lies the crux of the whole matter.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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The political underworld of Pakistan, Daily Times, 16/03/12

OVER A COFFEE: The political underworld of Pakistan —Dr Haider Shah

More than anything else, it is the first test of the independence of the judiciary. Not just analysts but even a layman is on the lookout for how the SC will deal with the designers and executioners of a stinking scam

Forget about the Godfather series of Hollywood or the gangster movies of Bollywood. Just watch the talk shows on these days and you will be thrilled to see how the underworld operates in Pakistani politics with impunity.

The lid on the much-awaited Asghar Khan case has finally been lifted after much hesitation by the Supreme Court (SC). The Pandora’s Box contains not only politicians’ dirty linen but also the manual on how the real state operates while we remain busy in watching the movie. It reminds me of Plato’s famous analogy of shadows in a cave. It centred on the notion of ideal forms that resided in the heavens, while on earth we only see their reflections. Illustrating the point, he gives the example of a person who is chained inside a cave and on the wall in front of him, sees shadows of objects moving behind him. If the prisoner was born and raised like this, he would treat the shadows as real. But if he is released and sees the real objects he would then realise that all through his life he had only been watching shadows.

Mehrangate has provided us with a similar realisation as many inside stories are now open to the public. When the court began hearing Khan’s petition last week, the general expectation was that the government and the new entrant PTI would be the main beneficiaries. But as the saying goes, “Never wrestle with a pig: you both get all dirty, and the pig likes it.” If Imran Khan was expecting that his party would be the major beneficiary, he must be now repenting his insistence on putting all his eggs in one basket. The only legitimacy-providing political figure of the party, Javed Hashmi, is allegedly one of the recipients of the handouts, if Younis Habib is to be believed. The setback is that the party can no longer use the case as a salvo against PML-N, the party that it has specifically targeted in its campaign. If it declares that Hashmi has wrongly been accused, then the much smaller amounts mentioned against PML-N leaders could be defended too. Since the party had a single-point campaign of corruption, the alleged involvement of one of its main leaders damages it worse than it does any other political party.

The dust storm caused by the Khan case has not spared the ruling coalition either. One of the basic maxims of equity-based jurisprudence is, “He who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” If the then PPP government was victimised by plotters in the military, it should have challenged them on assuming power or at least shown some abhorrence. But, all the plotters were rewarded in one way or another. The more damaging revelation is, however, relating to the use of Habib’s Rs 50 million by the PPP with express approval of the then Prime Minister late Benzair Bhutto for dislodging Pir Sabir Shah’s government in NWFP. Similarly, the revelation of misuse of secret funds of the Intelligence Bureau for destabilising rival political governments by the PPP does further damage. The MQM, like ever, is in denial mode and celebrating the self-proclaimed acquittal of its saint-like leader. The religious parties wearing angelic robes have also not escaped the muddy stains right under their ‘holier than thou’ badges.

Three important points are related to the scenario. First, due process of law should take its course and the media should not dictate the outcome of the court proceedings. Sometime back when the SC acquitted the accused in the Mukhtaran Mai case, expressing my concerns, I had cautioned that the court made the correct decision in the light of available evidence. It would be a very dangerous trend if the courts start playing to the gallery. No one is above the law and no one is below the law. Therefore, all accused in the Khan case should not be treated any differently and must be considered innocent till proven guilty. Second, the role of the spy agencies, both military and civil, has become public and cannot be ignored. The recipients’ guilt is not yet proved; however, those who misused their official position made a mockery of their oath about not indulging in political activities, and tried to subvert the outcome of elections. They have already confessed their crime. More than anything else, it is the first test of the independence of the judiciary. Not just analysts but even a layman is on the lookout for how the SC will deal with the designers and executioners of a stinking scam.

The third point is the most important one. History repeats itself if lessons are not learnt and remedial measures not adopted. The underworld gangsters carried out their dirty operations feeling they were above the law. Nobody knows what is the legal framework under which the intelligence agencies of Pakistan work. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

During Musharraf’s regime Senator Farhatullah Babar moved a motion asking for the legal framework that controlled the intelligence agencies. Such is the power of our underworld operators that the then chairman of the Senate, killing the motion, did not allow any discussion. Now Babar is back in the Senate controlled by his own party. Hopefully, without delay, he would reintroduce the motion. Just a few days ago PML-N moved a motion in the National Assembly for a monitoring mechanism of the intelligence agencies. If both opposition and government are on the same wavelength, what prevents them from making an accountability mechanism of the underworld operators? Actions speak louder than words. The actions of both PML-N and the PPP-led coalition government will be keenly watched. If they just keep throwing mud at each other, and the animal farm is not properly locked, the leaders of the animals will be weaving a thicker cobweb for them.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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Between Lahore marathon and karo-kari ; Daily Times, 10/03/12

OVER A COFFEE: Between Lahore marathon and karo-kari —Dr Haider Shah

We seem to be finding it difficult to break ourselves free from the hold of stereotypical images of women that remain imposed on our thinking processes. De-learning what is obsolete and outdated is the most difficult part of a learning cycle

The International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8 all over the world. While in countries like the UK, the debate centred on the disproportionate representation of women in boardrooms, in countries like Pakistan the question continued to generate a debate between feminist human rights campaigners and the denial mode-run religious establishment. In this backdrop, scenes of women running in a marathon in Lahore a few days ago were indicative of a new Pakistan. A Pakistan with the bold and confident Sharmeen, Arfa and Malala as its symbolic faces.

One feels very alarmed to see educated youth posting very irreverent comments on stories and pictures in the social media that depict confident and inspiring women. We seem to be finding it difficult to break ourselves free from the hold of stereotypical images of women that remain imposed on our thinking processes. De-learning what is obsolete and outdated is the most difficult part of a learning cycle. Many are failing to pass this compulsory phase and hence are lost in the transition from antiquity to modernity.

The Family Fun Race in Lahore brings to my mind the Race for Life event; it is held in the UK every year and was conceived specifically for raising awareness of women’s cancer. Starting in 1994 with 680 women participants in London, subsequently it has grown to become one of the UK’s largest fundraising events. According to an estimate, so far 4.7 million women participants have jogged in Race for Life across the UK, raising over £327 million for the Cancer Research charity. The event has become a fun day for the whole family. The Lahore Fun Race can also become a family fun activity day if we stop treating women as mere baby-making and cooking machines. In ancient Athens women were not allowed to take part in the Olympic games and only men would run in marathon races. We don’t want to bring ancient Greece to Lahore and other cities of Pakistan in the 21st century. Do we?

While I was busy thinking about the right of women to participate fully in all sports and our duty to provide an enabling environment, my glasshouse of the imagination was shattered to pieces with the stone of a single news item that appeared on news channels. In Shikarpur, a tribal jirga (council of local elders), declared two women kari, i.e. liable to death for bringing disrepute to their family. In another incident a husband shot dead his wife after declaring her a kari. A few days ago in a separate incident in a village of Muzaffargarh, a group of over three dozen men paraded an elderly woman naked around the village after accusing her son of forcibly marrying a girl. The Uzma Ayub case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still in the court with all its gory details. Due to the electronic media we have a much greater exposure to these obscenities of our social life that in the past remained hidden under sheaths of silence. These incidents are a stark reminder that we do not live in one Pakistan but many Pakistans. The Pakistan of a few major urban centres like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi is entirely different from the Pakistan of the tribal areas and much of our rural belt. When we call for equality for women we must first determine which Pakistan we are referring to. I have been proposing a three stage framework for categorising gender equality and here it is reproduced.

Gender equality can be seen as a progression of three stages. First, equality in survival rights. This is the very basic level. Women need to be treated at par with men in terms of their lives. A woman should get enough food, clothing, shelter and medicine to have an equal survival chance. She should not be used as a reward or penalty to settle family or tribal feuds. In this regard, in societies where tribal notions of honour prevail, women do not have equal survival rights. They regularly get killed to satisfy the perceived sense of male honour. Second, equality in positive development rights. A society where women, by and large, attain equal survival rights, thanks to urban life, they then strive for equal development rights. These mean equal access to education, job, choice of life partner, sports, and career enhancement. Where women are denied equal access due to social taboos, for instance, they are not allowed to play sports or study abroad, or legal reasons — they are not treated as an equal witness — the feminist struggle is for attaining this stage of equality. In societies where women attain the second stage as well, the natural progression is towards the third stage, i.e. equality in negative rights. This means women treat themselves no different from men in taking part in activities that are generally not considered good for personality development. For example, British women are equally affected by the drinking culture and certain feminists want better education for women to control their drinking habits.

It is not the 21st century in all parts of the world. Different communal groups are living in different periods of time as is reflected by their social customs and ways of life. In Pakistan the vast majority lives in rural and tribal areas. This is the real Pakistan and it is still in the tribal phase of evolution. Due to petty political expediencies, the state has not helped these areas to expedite their transition to the 21st century. The constitutional and legal system of Pakistan cannot work in communities that are frozen in time. In a previous piece I had referred to the proactive role of the Supreme Court of India in castigating tribal culture based on local legal arrangements. The Indian court not only declared all extra-constitutional arrangements as illegal, but also ordered registration of disciplinary cases against police and district administrations in whose jurisdiction any tribal jirga decides honour killing kind of cases.

Abraham Maslow had pointed out in his motivation theory that for a drowning person, survival is more important than caring about his hairstyle. Similarly, our women rights activists need to remember the distinction between equality of survival, development and negative rights. While ensuring equal survival, our focus should be on attainment of equal development opportunities. This, in turn, should not mean undue preference but rather removal of social and legal restrictions so that a level playing field is ensured for both men and women in all walks of life.

The writer teaches public policy in the U.K and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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You have lit a candle, Sharmeen! Daily Times, 2/03/12

OVER A COFFEE: You have lit a candle, Sharmeen! —Dr Haider Shah

It is hoped that young girls of Pakistan will find their hero in Sharmeen, and will draw inspiration from her work for making their dreams come true 

Nothing succeeds like success. And when the success is of the magnitude of winning an Oscar, even the most talented has to rub his/her eyes once to make sure it is not a dream. But, the reason I am devoting this piece to Sharmeen today is not merely because of the Oscar award. Perhaps more important than the Oscar was the graceful glamour and the confident gait with which she symbolised the Pakistani woman at one of the most talked- about events of the world. This symbolic potency is what is more laudable from the perspective of our social dynamics.
If it was not for Sharmeen, my piece would have been a case of the blues today. Just shut your eyes and imagine what images come back to your mind. A zameendarni (feudal landlady) of Sindh, unleashing a powerful slap on the face of a defenceless female official of the Election Commission in broad daylight, and in the presence of TV cameras. The spectacle and the election commission’s response reminded me of the Phil Woolas case in the UK. In the last election, the losing Liberal Democratic candidate Elwyn Watkins had complained to the election court under Representation of the People Act 1983 that the former immigration minister Phil Woolas knowingly misled voters in Oldham East to stir up religious tensions by claiming in a pamphlet that Watkins was sympathetic to Islamic extremists, and that Watkins had no intention to live in the constituency. The election court found the complaint valid and disqualified Phil for lying during his election campaign. Later, the High Court also upheld the decision and Phil not only lost the seat, but also got disqualified for three years. This happened in a country that is regarded as the mother of all parliaments. The Labour party did not come to the rescue of its comrade in trouble. More recently, another Labour MP was suspended by his party after he allegedly head-butted a Conservative MP in a bar.
And now look at the conduct of Waheeda Shah…a would-be lawmaker. She not only committed the offence of assault, but also publicly disgraced a government servant, which in itself is another criminal offence. Even far worse is the symbolic damage she has done to the cause of democracy in a country where the enemies of the democratic order are well entrenched. As if the echo of Waheeda’s slap was not deafening, another news item was even more worrying. Women voters were deterred from voting via announcements made in local mosques in Mardan and Mianwali. Then, TV footage showed supporters of winning candidates resorting to heavy aerial firing in sheer mockery of the law of the land. Why do we complain about the Taliban if they don’t respect the writ of the law? Who else does? While the Election Commission is enjoying a sleepover after hectic work, all these occurrences will be swept under the carpet of political expediency and business will remain as usual.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa saw the return of a wave of violence at the hands of fanatic extremists. The sectarian killings were gruesome and appalling. The US recently declared that the Taliban were not their enemies and hence they were holding secret dialogues. Yes, from the very beginning the US Af-Pak strategy was built upon this premise that it was Al-Qaeda that was their enemy, while the Taliban is a localised problem better left to the local governments to deal with. The Americans live thousands of miles away from them, and hence can conveniently decide that the Taliban are not their enemies. For us it’s a different situation. Our way of life is under threat from their obscurantist ideology. Do we also have the luxury of treating them as not our enemies? The resurgence of deadly attacks has once again forced us to think whether living with an unruly Rottweiler in the presence of infants in the house is a strategic option at all.
Amid these thoughts of despondency, when I saw tastefully attired Sharmeen marching up the stage to receive her Oscar, and listened to her brief but inspiring speech about dedicating the award to the feminist struggle in Pakistan, I could feel the optimism of Faiz Ahmed Faiz returning to me with the comforting words: Door dard ka sitara timtima raha hai jhunjhuna raha hai muskura hai (Very far the star of pain is twinkling is jangling is smiling). In a black moonless night, it is as if someone has suddenly lit a candle.
In times of social transition, the importance of role models and symbolic heroes cannot be overemphasised. Recently, a young, gifted girl, Arfa Karim, made a big name for herself. She has now become a positive role model for our young females after her sudden and tragic demise. On the other hand, the extremist and Ghairat (honour) brigade-inspired sections of our society have been trying to sell their own role models as well. For instance, our unsuspecting media and religious establishment bestowed the title of ‘Daughter of Pakistan’ upon Aafia Siddiqui. In all fairness, in her case, one can only offer deep sympathy and regrets. But, instead of conferring any titles or honours upon her, we should use her as a case study to teach how to not destroy children’s personalities by brainwashing them at an early age with obscurantist and hatred-prone ideas. Listening to a press conference of Aafia’s mother, I could easily gather what could have been the source of Aafia’s tendency to be drawn into extremist ideas. Aafia had received education from the finest universities of the US and then, unfortunately, threw everything away in order to see her extremist pamphleteering turning into a much more dangerous activity. And I also saw with interest the press-conference of Sharmeen’s mother, after her daughter won the Oscar. It might sound like a cliché, but children in general are the products of training received from their parents. Injuries caused to the mind by relentless extremist propaganda at home are very hard to be healed and reversed at a later stage.
Sharmeen’s fame and recognition will go a long way in popularising much of her other work, which has remained relatively less known to the common man. For instance, Sharmeen’s documentaries on how suicide bombers get brainwashed are worth watching by all. It is hoped that young girls of Pakistan will find their hero in Sharmeen, and will draw inspiration from her work for making their dreams come true.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com