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 firstname.lastname@example.org