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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The PTI candidate who wants to meet Imran Khan

Published: April 29, 2013

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KARACHI: “I have never met Imran Khan in my life, but I am his supporter, his comrade, his party’s candidate. His ideology and manifesto, I am convinced, can save Pakistan. Just, please, could he meet me once? It will help motivate me in my struggle. And it will re-energise the people of Thatta,” says an earnest looking Fazlullah, a tad bit nervous as he talks to The Express Tribune.

The deteriorating situation of Thatta brought him to a point where he felt he must wage a fight, if nothing else. “The whole of Thatta is like the ruins of Thatta,” says this candidate of the NA 237 constituency. Fazlullah shares his sadness over how, in the wake of the devastating floods, normally self-sufficient people were forced to beg in the streets of Thatta, with no help in sight.

Like many Pakistanis who choose to stay back in Pakistan in this era of mayhem and do something to improve the status quo, Syed Fazlullah Shah, aka Nasir Shah, made a choice not to go abroad although he has visited Europe many times for business and had other options. “I can speak five languages, including German,” he says proudly.

To Fazlullah, solutions to the building frustration came in the form of all what the PTI manifesto offers. “I am no political analyst but I do know that PTI has a fair chance since political space has been generated because of the previous government’s dismal performance and the people being disillusioned,” he says, adding that PTI is a great attempt at stabilising and reviving Pakistan.

“The feudal and the powerful don’t have patent rights over this country! The average man can get up and take charge, like me,” he says.

In a community where power is passed on as a legacy and new faces are not welcome, especially those from non-political average backgrounds like Fazlullah, he has taken a big chance and invested everything into the election campaign. His direct opponents include Marvi Memon of PML-N, Syed Riaz Hussain Shah Shirazi (Shirazi group) and Sadiq Memon of PPP. Incidentally, President Zardari’s foster brother is contesting from the same area for a provincial assembly seat.

“My mother is old and was initially very concerned that I may land into trouble,” says Fazlullah, adding, “But even she has understood that for improving future of Pakistan, the common man has to stand up and support those leaders, like Imran Khan, who genuinely want to change this country for the better. Now, my mother’s prayers are with me.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2013.

The man who sold his wife’s jewellery for ‘Naya Pakistan’

Published: April 28, 2013

Gul Muhammad Keeriyo PTI’s candidate from NA-213 Nawabshah (Shaheed Benazirabad district). PHOTO: HYDER ALI

KARACHI: Dressed in an off-white shalwar kameez and leather chappals, he has an unmistakably humble stance coupled with a firm, almost naive resolve when he talks. Gul Muhammad Keeriyo is PTI’s candidate from NA-213 constituency in Nawabshah (Shaheed Benazirabad district).

Gul owns just 12 acres of land. He had just Rs300,000 in savings and one jewellery set of his wife which she willingly volunteered to sell for his election campaign as she was willing to make a sacrifice for change. “When I discussed it with my wife, I told her ‘what if this jewellery set were to get robbed tomorrow? Why not use it for a good cause by free will?’ And she agreed saying ‘I am doing this for a better Pakistan for my children’.”

“It all started when I saw Khan sahab’s jalsa of October 30th 2011 on television, which he held at Minar-e-Pakistan. I was convinced that very moment that this is the solution to what this nation is going through. Khan sahib sacha aadmi hai. Aadmi ka pata chal jata hai baji(Khan is an honest man; one can tell what people are inside),” says Gul, who had gone to the local PTI office the very next day and joined as a PTI worker. With hard work and encouragement from Qazi Nadeem Siddiqui, district president of PTI of the area, Gul climbed rungs and became more active in PTI till he finally got a chance at candidature.

Gul, who proudly calls himself a sipahi (soldier) of Khan and calls Khan anmol heera (rare diamond), is inspired by Khan’s leading from the front approach. “Yes, I am a candidate against some big names. And what has to happen will happen. When my leader, the only brother of six sisters, can risk his life, why can’t I? I still have more males in the family to support me. It’s a risky business but dying for a cause is martyrdom,” he says, convinced.

Gul’s opponents include Asif Zardari’s sister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho of PPP, Inayat Ali Rind of MQM and Zahid Hussain of PML-F.

Poverty and oppression, according to Gul, have resulted in social disparity that has frustrated people to the point that it has affected the law and order situation adversely of late, even in rural areas. “Or women’s gold bangles are cut off from their hands when they travel in rickshaws. Our mobiles are snatched when we go to drop our kids to school on bikes. It is not just about economics. It is about self-respect as the people of this country, something we are losing fast.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2013.

Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha – Hajiani Lanjo, Tharparkar’s first female candidate

Published: April 23, 2013

“Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” says Hajiani Lanjo. PHOTO: AMEER HAMZA

MITHI: In Tharparkar, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a Hindu. If you happen to be a woman then you’re automatically at the lowest rung of the social ladder, regardless of your caste or creed. For the women of this region, standing for elections is a distant dream, and most are not even allowed to cast votes. Now, one determined woman hopes to change all that. Meet 32-year-old Hajiani Lanjo, a lawyer and social activist who is the first woman in the history of Tharparkar to stand for elections.

It won’t be an easy fight. Contesting for the coveted NA-229 constituency from the platform of the Qaumi Awami Tehreek (QAT), Hajiani will be going up against political heavyweights like former Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Faqir Sher Muhammad Bilalani.

“She may not be a winning candidate, but I salute her courage,” says Dr Ramesh Kumar, health coordinator of the Participatory Village Development Program (PVDP), which works closely with local communities on gender issues.

Hajiani, despite the odds, is confident about her chances. “Leave aside women, not even men are not willing to contest against these powerful people,” she says.  “But I have faith that if the elections are free and fair, I will win without a doubt. I have worked for my people and they will vote for me – the women, the youth, the civil society.”

This isn’t the first ‘first’ for her either. The daughter of an uneducated farmer, Hajiani was the first person in her family to gain an education. Growing up in a small village some 18KM from Mithi, she recalls how hard it was to convince her father to send her to school.

“I would pester my dad to send me to school, but nobody was even willing to buy me a book,” she says, her eyes moist at the memory. “I kept insisting and my father finally gave in. I started by going to learn the Quran in the mosque and then joined the small school of the mosque.” Most people thought that would quench her thirst for knowledge, but in fact it only whetted her appetite. Despite poverty and the pressures of patriarchy, she found her way to college and then university.

“Learning the Quran is enough for girls, why do they need more education?” she says, recalling the kind of comments people made.

During this time, her tilt towards activism surfaced and she started to work in different NGOs and finally got in touch with members of the Sindhiani Tehreek (Sindhi women’s movement), which was formed in alliance with the QAT. Here she met women from all social stratas, from farmers’ daughters like herself, to educated professionals. The QAT’s leftist and progressive ideology filtered into the kachehri (get-together) sessions, and Hajiano proved herself an apt pupil indeed.

“People are searching for life on Mars, but the child of Tharparkar is still malnourished, our women are still dying during childbirth, we still have no clean drinking water. How long will this continue?” she asks with obvious passion.

Already a Masters in Sociology from University of Sindh, Hajiani has just completed her LLB. “There are very few female lawyers in Tharparkar. Male advocates often cannot relate to a woman’s plea and this is where I step in,” she says.

Luckily, she can also count on her husband for a helping hand. “He is uneducated but very supportive. He understands the cause,” she says.

In her gentle voice, this woman of substance gives a warning to politicians. “My message to the political leaders responsible for the mess that we are in is that you need to get your act together or the people will take matters into their own hands.”

Hajiani is in this fight for the long haul “I trust God, myself and my intentions. In the past, Pakistan has not chosen the correct leaders due to fear or greed. But we can no longer afford to do that,” she says.

Her biggest dream is to change the fate of her people through education, and especially the education of women. “Mard parha to fard parha. Aurat parhi to ghar parha

(If a man is educated, an individual is educated. If a woman is educated, an entire family is educated).”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2013.

Writing versus editing: What’s your pick?

I am a doer and a fixer. When I write, I am a doer. When I edit, I am a fixer.

As a writer and editor, I have a tough time deciphering what I like doing more: writing something from scratch, with my name under the headline, and the promise of a growing readership? Or ripping someone else’s work to shreds and rebuilding the story.

Writing is like making a dish from scratch (not reporting, where you basically state facts): you choose the ingredients and the recipe. You are responsible for the end result. The credit is yours as is the criticism. But editing is like fixing somebody’s half-cooked dish. You can renovate it, rebuild it. You can add a few additional ingredients and basically make it better. But it still has someone else’s stamp on it. Always.

I am a doer and a fixer. When I write, I am a doer. When I edit, I am a fixer.

A dear friend called me the other day and asked,

“Are you enjoying editing? But you are a writer! Editing is such a thankless job!”

And I honestly didn’t agree with her.

The joy of fixing is unmatched. Something like, well, a non-platonic relationship. Often, the person we meet in our lives and fall for is a recipe that is almost cooked. Almost. And so are we. Each one of us is an editing project, for no story is perfect, as is no human.

It also depends on the discretion of the editor. Because often, according to the writer, what he/she wrote is perfect. But what does the person editing it feel? Is it perfect to him/her?

Mostly not. Yet, some stories are a joy to edit. Often, the really messed up and hard ones. The ones that suck the most energy out of you. Provided that the story did have some substance. In the end, that story smiles back at you. Polished. Poignant. You look at your own work in admiration, inwardly comparing it with what the original looked like. Something like spouses look at the happier or more groomed versions of the person they married, years down the lane.

Writing is beautiful. It is cathartic. But it is also pure narcissism. Editing, though, is tougher, because you are the unsung hero here. I think I need to do both.

Read more by Farahnaz here or follow her on Twitter @FarahnazZahidi

Barcelona: Where Gaudi meets Gujranwala

Published: April 14, 2013

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Farahnaz Zahidi discovers that you can order a cup of tea here in Punjabi and still have a very Spanish experience.

I have arrived in Barcelona: el corazón del Mediterráneo. Spain, the land with Andalusia in the south, of AlHambra where La Ghalib ilAllah (there is no conqueror but Allah) remains inscribed at every turn of the head, centuries after the worldly conquerors have left. The dark lure of Gaudi beckons, truck art pales in comparison. It will be 10 days of hearing nothing but the seductive lisp of the Catalan ‘c’ and its rolling honeyed vowels. I am soaking it all up, taking my first walk down the tree-lined Rambla del Poblenou…

“Baji jee, Pakistan toun aaye o tussi? Koi chaa shaa?”   

The all-too familiar invitation came from a 23-year-old Salman aka Sunny. He stood outside his dhaaba-sized restaurant whose signboard was in Spanish but also carried the telltale ‘halal’ stamp in Arabic. In a corner a man stood in front of a gambling slot machine. A couple by the window pored over the menu while sipping their glasses of house wine. People queued up for the €5 meals of falafel, samosa and doner kebab takeaways.

And so, I accepted Sunny’s offer for tea and with it an invitation to enter the world of Pakcelona as the Pakistanis of Barcelona fondly refer to it.


According to estimates, there are at least 35,000 Pakistanis in this city, one of the highest numbers in any European city, barring those in the UK. It is a proletarian existence. They own or work in butcher shops, convenience stores, the small pay phone locutorios, Internet cafes and restaurants. Some have taken up the latest business of selling beer from street stalls. Pakistani labourers sweat on Spanish construction sites. A majority of them hail from Punjab, mostly Gujranwala and Gujrat, Jhelum.

Understandably, Punjabi is the most common first language spoken among them. That is the language Sunny speaks, although Spanish is his first. “Kaisee gal karday o tusee?” he says as he dismisses my offer to pay for the many postprandial coffees at his establishment. Pakistan toun mehman aaye o, coffee de paisey chaddo!” And in the same breath he will turn to a customer who has walked through the door: “Hola. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué te gustaría?” Hey there, how are you? What do you fancy having to eat?

Sunny came to Barcelona when he was barely five years old. His first crush, his first day at school, his first scraped knee, all happened on its streets. “I visit Pakistan every couple of years to meet my daadi,” he explains. “But I crave coming back when I am [there]. Barcelona set hai jee.” A football match flickers across the huge TV in a corner. Sunny is, naturally, cheering for Barça.


Life is good and is getting better. Sunny’s father owns a chain of restaurants today. But when he arrived 18 years ago he was empty handed. The initial sleep-deprived years were an obstacle course of odd jobs, dodging immigration laws and the law enforcers. He couldn’t go back home to see the family till he got the work permit. “Abbaji has worked hard at making us comfortable,” admits Sunny.

Pakistanis began settling in Spain, mainly in Barcelona, in the 1970s, but a greater influx was seen after 2000. In a post 9/11 world, unskilled labour found it harder to immigrate to the US. Spain, however, had no such qualms. Relaxed immigration laws strengthened the gravitational pull.


“The laws are not so strict,” says Ikram, 27, who came here on a tourist visa two years ago, and never went back. “Usually within three years or so one can get a work permit.” And then he grins. “Even if they put us behind bars, it will be for a few days and then we are out.” He has found a job serving food in a more upscale restaurant right across the Sagrada Família church, Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece.

On the surface, Barcelona may seem like an unusual choice for a Pakistani from Jhelum or say Gujrat. But 35-year-old Sajid has an explanation that is simple, elegant and evidence of Barcelona’s multicultural tolerance: “Moderate weather. Greater acceptability among the friendly locals… Barcelona is the best! Nowhere [else] have I been so comfortable.” He should know after having looked for jobs in Italy and other European countries. Today he works as a helper at Sunny’s restaurant and even sleeps there at night, a discomfort he gladly suffers as he dreams of a bigger future that is just within his reach. He earns about 600 euros a month. “Convert that into rupees,” he challenges with pride. It comes to about Rs90,000 which is roughly what an entry-level MBA is paid in a bank in Karachi.


Half of the money is sent back to Pakistan and now that Sajid has acquired a Cuenta Ajena or work permit there are plans to bring his wife and children over as soon as he can save up for a small home. “Ab Pakistan mein kya rakha hai jee?” What is left in Pakistan?

Thus, for many workers who would never earn as much back home, Pakistan may not seem as attractive in the long run now. But this does not always mean that moving to other countries comes without its challenges. While there may not be much anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan bias in Barcelona, sometimes events can alter the landscape. For example, the immigrants went through a bit of a rough spot in 2008 with arrests of 12 Pakistanis on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Barcelona subway station. It is perhaps testament to the immigrant’s resilience that while the Pakistani community was a bit frazzled temporarily, it sprung back to claim its space eventually.

While I saw many Pakistani men working in Barcelona, Pakistani women were not a visible part of Spain’s workforce. There were none in areas that make Barcelona what it is — its centres of art and history. I looked around for them as I stepped out of the spectacular Casa Llotja de Mar, a 14th century Gothic building which used to be the city’s stock exchange till the 20th century. I didn’t see any at the 16th century fort Castell de Montjuïc, a popular spot for families on weekends. The few I did catch were at the Maremagnum shopping mall, moving around only in close groups, doing exactly what I was doing there – searching for good deals.

Pakcelona may prosper as migrant communities can and do financially. Indeed some traditional values adjust to accommodate economics which Sunny sheepishly calls “compromise”. For example, he sells liquor and bacon along with the halal food. But his 18-year-old sister is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned. “We may have moved to Barcelona,” he says, “But we have not forgotten our religious and traditional values.” It appears that the community has unspoken rules that limit complete assimilation. These rules apply much more strictly to the womenfolk. But when it comes to marriage, men have to adhere to certain rules too. While Sunny may date local senoritas, he is quite sure he will marry a Pakistani girl. “Shaadi mazaaq naheen hai jee,” he says. Marriage isn’t a joke. “It should be a girl who can adjust with my family. A goree couldn’t.”

Names have been changed on request of those interviewed.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 14th, 2013.

Let’s give Shaista Wahidi a break

April 10, 2013

I’m not a Shaista Lodhi fan, but i was irked by how people on social media kept taking her divorce as “a big drama”. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

Shaista Wahidi, sometimes referred to as Dr Shaista or Shaista Lodhi is Sahir Lodhi’s sister. The brother-sister duo have a way of ruffling both the wrong feathers and the right ones; they can be called ‘famous’ or ‘infamous’.

Shaista is one of Pakistani television’s most known faces. People have loved her and have been irritated by her simultaneously, but have not been able to ignore her. We have talked about her antics, her typical laughter in which she covers her face with her hand, her metamorphosis in how her face looks and have broken her down multiple times.

One of the most consistent faces on the mini screen, she disappeared for a few months, only to appear again on a promo the night before her re-venturing on Geo’s morning show. While Shaista looked the same, perhaps a bit slimmer than usual (which has also been inviting speculation), something about her had changed. Skimming through channels, once I caught sight of her on this show, I couldn’t change the channel. While it was very obviously a promo show meant to create hype of her return to the mega screen, parts were real – one could see a real person beneath the glamour.

She was asked about what she did in this hiatus of a few months and she confessed to having re-discovered her faith and religion, of having started to enjoy her namaz. She said she had found what she took too long to discover. She was moved to tears, almost choking, as she shared how she had discovered realities of faith. An almost worried Ahsan Khan hosting the show called for a break.

For those who still wondered, Shaista confirmed that she was no longer married to the father of her children. She said as to ‘why’ the marriage didn’t last, this was her personal business but maintained that her children’s father is a “very good father” and that she didn’t intend on bad-mouthing him on TV.

(Shaista with her children. PHOTO: PUBLICITY)

And this is the point where this blog needed to be written.

Here was a woman going through what was  very clearly a tough time in her life. She paid the price for being a celebrity and gracefully handled the questions, rather than pretending that this chapter never happened in her life.

Yet, in a very typical voyeuristic pattern, while people devoured the air time and watched Shaista carefully on the show, social media in the following hours started showing comments in which everybody thought all she did was “a big drama”. Sadly, when it comes to celebrities, we are mind-readers, clairvoyants and know-it-alls.

Being a woman and a mother, I know what a soft spot children hold in a parent’s heart. I believe that people suggesting that Shaista was using her divorce and children to gain publicity was callous. Why do we assume the worst of celebrities, it baffles me.

Others were upset as to why she talked about her divorce on television. “How low can these celebrities go for fame?” they were asking on social media.

(Shaista Lodhi with her husband before they got divorced. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT)

I am not trying to be the devil’s advocate, but simply in the spirit of empathy, I imagined what any woman would do in her situation.

In a live television show, with live calls from the viewership, any and every kind of question can be asked. A media person in her position does not have the liberty of pretending that something never happened; she has to face what happened and be answerable even in the most intimate matters of her life.

That must be tough.

Ironically, one of the most difficult things for a woman to live up to is divorce in our society, and playing directly in to this statement was peoples’ response on Shaista’s divorce.

On Shaista finding solace in God, there were crude prophecies that “Shaista will play her religion card in the upcoming Ramadan. It is a publicity gimmick!”.

It is also not easy for people here to accept that one is drawn towards religion. A backlash starts, in which a person is placed under a microscope, in which perfection is expected. Celebrities who have begun to tilt towards religion have had a tough time in our society. Ironically, those very people who feel as though religious people are too judgmental are quick to judge those who as much as mention a connection with God.

But for me the saddest part is how bitter and mistrusting we have become. Celebrity or not, we no longer take people at face value and assume negative intentions on the part of others. We call it realism.

We call believing what people say naivety.

This is surprising when we are all too willing to wipe a tear on listening to celebrities talk their hearts out on Oprah, but we seem to just scoff and mock when those closer to home do the same.

Dr Shaista is not known to me and I am not particularly a fan of the woman, but she is a woman on a journey like all of us and has had some ups and downs in her life. It is not my place to decide whether her decisions were right or wrong, nor can I say with surety what is in her heart. All I can do is wish her the best of luck, and get on with my life.

Shouldn’t we all do the same?

What will we achieve from ripping her dignity to shards?

Read more by Farahnaz here or follow her on Twitter @FarahnazZahidi

She Never Knew…….

She never knew till it happened

That someone who was her joy could be her biggest sorrow

And the sorrow could actually ache, physically

That words that had hurt would sting like a wound splashed with salt

…long after they had been said

They always say nostalgia is selective….that all you remember from the past is good times…

….like photographs! We store photographs of smiles, of achievements, of vacations & weddings…

Not of broken glass panes or a burnt casserole or of a stab in the heart.

But her nostalgia was her bane…it kept bringing back the hurt…

Sting by sting, prick by prick, tear by tear…

She never knew her nostalgia would consist of visions and sounds and words…

Vision of the look on his face that had told her that love is not always reciprocated

Sound of his feet as he walked away

Words he had said that had actually caused gashes in her heart……

She never knew that she would have to be so on her own

She never knew that long after it was over, hope would linger on

….hope that held her back from waking up to reality

With time, she knew…

She knew that she was stronger than she had given herself credit for

She knew that pain does not ask before coming, but dwelling on that pain or not is a choice she had

And somehow, somewhere, she knew that pain, just like love, is never one-sided

Saving Sons: A woman in Pakistan dares to convince & bring young radical boys back home, with their mothers’ help

Published in Chime for Change:

For complete video and story

The landscape appears strangely rugged, despite its lush green meadows and mountain ranges topped with snow. Perhaps this is because the soil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Pakistan’s once pristine Northwestern province, has absorbed too much blood. For its inhabitants, the silence here is merely a lull. Fear lurks behind the striking green eyes of the almost European-looking children here, even as they run to school or play cricket in the streets. They seem much too aware for their young years – aware of words like terrorism, drones, and death. They overhear their mothers talking over cups of sticky sweet tea cooked over wood fires, their conversations fueled by loss and despair.

Nearly every home here has lost one or more male family members to the scourge of violence – the lost are victims, or perpetrators, or sometimes simply suspects who have vanished: either into the abyss of a grave or into nothingness. For those of us who know this part of the world through news snippets, these men are mere statistics. The tragedy of conflict in Pakistan is seldom given a human face by the international media. And the women who mourn these lost men are even more veiled to the world.

Her name is Mossarat Qadeem. She is a daughter of this soil. As the loudspeaker of the mosque near her office summons the faithful to Friday prayers, she respectfully covers her head. In her office, a prayer mat and the Holy Quran sit handy. It is this deep connection with Islamic teachings of peace and the value of human life that has given her the strength to pursue a perilous quest. In her soft, measured voice, she begins her story.
Mossarat has taken on one of the most difficult challenges a peace-builder can ever confront: to convince young radicals in the making to come back home and to embrace life. Her bridge to each of these boys is usually a woman – his mother or his wife or his sister; women reach out to Mossarat because they trust she can help them.

She never envisaged this life. Born of an educated but non-political family from the KPK region, Mossarat majored in Conflict-transformation and Peace building at university. She studied and graduated in the United Kingdom, but realized during her student days that “we were studying conflict-transformation as practiced by other nations, but not tailored to our own cultures.” With her degree, Mossarat should have become an academic in the safe bubble of a university back home. Instead, she was practically thrust into the danger zone. “When conflict began in my own area,” she says, “I realized it was time.”

While working with Internally Displaced Persons in refugee camps, she heard of a woman no one wanted to meet because her son was a terrorist. “Everybody said I shouldn’t, but I felt I must meet her. A colleague agreed to lead me to her house. But he showed me the house from a distance and promptly disappeared.” She entered and found only women. “About ten of them,” she recalls.

Initially, it was Mossarat who was interrogated. But, in the end, the mother of the boy, overwhelmed by pent-up fear and emotion, shared her story: “My son has been taken. People say that he is responsible for killing people with the help of a remote-controlled bomb. But my son is not like that. I know him! He is just 17. Please help me. Save my son.” Once this woman had opened up, the others did too. “My husband’s been taken.” “My father.” “My brother.” The stories were many, each unique, yet all similar.

“If your son is how you say he is, and is not inherently violent, I promise to help you,” Mossarat told the first woman. “At that moment I did not know what I was getting into. I asked to meet her son when he came to visit,” she says.

Months later, on a cold November night at around 11:30 pm, the desperate mother called Mossarat. The son had come. Mossarat wrapped herself tightly in a shawl and set out, traveling through the night, reaching her destination just in time to sit on the floor of that village home and have breakfast with the family.

“This could not have been possible without one-on-one trust building. I had remained in close contact with the mother for months, supporting her all along. This work is about human connection. Only through genuine trust can one convince a mother to introduce me to her son who is wanted,” says Mossarat, a fierce determination underlying the softness of her voice.

Convincing the mother to let her son surrender to security personnel was the first hurdle. “’They will kill him,’ she wailed in fear. I said to her, ‘I give you my word! They will have to kill me before they kill him.’” Once the mother agreed, Mossarat started the process of convincing the boy by having repeated discussions with him about the concept of jihad in Islam. “The base of the problem is the wrong interpretation of religion. You have to counter that with religious reasoning. If you do not have solid knowledge of religion, you can’t do this,” says Mossarat, who has studied Islamic injunctions pertaining to jihad in depth. “Not many people have the courage to have dialogue around this issue. Why are we so afraid to talk about this?”
She then gave the boy time to wholeheartedly understand what she had said. Finally, he called her himself. “I am ready to surrender,” he said.

Mossarat’s next hurdle was to reach an understanding with Pakistani security personnel. She told them she would turn the boy over only under certain conditions. “Do not torture him. Instead, give him time in a rehabilitation facility,” she demanded. He spent months there, being counseled and simultaneously learning skills like masonry and fan repair. “Tell me, the boys I save from the clutches of terrorists, if we do not work on their rehabilitation and sensitization for peace and tolerance, what use is it? Give them opportunities and another chance! The brainwashing has to be countered. We work on prevention and de-radicalization, but their reintegration into society is the toughest part of our work.” She stresses that she can only achieve this with young men not yet hardened beyond redemption.

In Mossarat’s opinion, no militant can be won back to the fold unless he is first acknowledged as a human being. Understanding where the boys are coming from is a critical part of her job. “They are hungry for recognition and respect,” she says.

This empathetic and humane approach comes easily to Mossarat because she herself is a woman and her way to these men is through the women in their lives. “You have to make the women understand the impact of terrorism on their personal life and the life of their family and community. It’s tough to develop critical thinking in these women who have been brought up in a patriarchal environment,” she says.

Life is difficult for the women of KPK. A lack of security has made things worse. Schools are often closed due to unrest. Those that are open, the girls’ schools in particular, live in perpetual fear of attack. Countless stories like that of Malala Yousufzai, perhaps the most famous daughter of KPK, wait to be told. So many homes no longer have male members older than 13, and have thus lost their breadwinners in a culture where women are often unable to go out to earn a living. Their men have either been lured into a ‘holy war’, or have been killed. Some have died because they chose to fight, others simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – a market or a wedding or a school, rocked by a bomb blast.

Poverty, cultural conditioning and social inequity leave young men and boys little choice but to take up arms. And while men are braving it out, women are braving it in, trying to keep radicalization from consuming their most precious possessions: their men.

“Part of my aim is to develop these women’s critical thinking so that they start noticing the changes in their son or husband,” Mossarat says. “If they’re aware, they will notice the sudden presence of a cell phone when the family cannot afford to spend 500 rupees ($5) a day on food. She will notice that her husband now has 25 new friends frequenting their home. She’ll notice the changes in attitude and conversation and priorities. But if she is in her usual slumber-like state she won’t know. She is not conditioned to.”

In rare cases – like that of a 21-year old boy who, thanks to Mossarat’s efforts, has completed his Bachelor’s degree and is working in a private firm – it is the mother who must be convinced. “This boy attended one of our training sessions with a hidden agenda to relay inside information to his mentors in the extremists’ network. However, he was so moved by the message of peace and the rationale behind the message that he came around,” says Mossarat. But it took months to overcome the resistance of the mother, who initially blamed Mossarat for converting her son into an “infidel”.

Mossarat has saved almost 80 boys thus far. She has also trained many mothers who are now working as peace practitioners at the grassroots level. But the journey has not been easy. There are nights she lies awake, traumatized by memories. “Particularly difficult is the part when the boys finally are ready to speak, to share, after a few months in rehabilitation. They burst out! They cry, they yell, they scream! They are uncontrollable. In many cases, they have withdrawal symptoms because they have been drugged,” she says.

Mossarat also has to walk a fine line between gaining support for her work and maintaining the privacy it requires. But her priorities remain clear: “I don’t want to romanticize my work by giving interviews and becoming a celebrity. I just need to do this. This mess of 30 years cannot be cleaned up in a day,” she says. “Conflict is about humans. It’s never about weapons. It has nothing to do with ideology or religion.”

Mossarat believes what is happening in Pakistan is too abnormal to even be termed a conflict in its strictest sense. “Innocent people are being hijacked. Those are the ones I am saving. Enough is enough. How long are we going to be killed by bullets and suicide attacks? Apathy is not an option. And believe me, the solutions are there. We just need to look deep enough.”

** For safety reasons and due to recent events in the region images of Mossarat Qadeem, the mothers and boys do not appear in this story.

The Chosen Child – Adoption in Pakistan: the roadblocks

Published: March 25, 2013

Adoption may also be hard for single fathers as the majority of babies up for adoption are girls and institutions are reluctant to hand over a baby girl to a single male parent. PHOTO: FILE

For single women, setting out to adopt a baby can be doubly difficult

We don’t choose our family, they say. We don’t get to make a choice about the ‘who’ when it comes to flesh and blood — who will be my parent, my sibling, my child. We often also do not choose the ‘when’, especially in the case of children. Often, we become parents at a less than optimal time, a tad bit too young or a wee bit too old. But when we decide to adopt, we are making a careful choice, one that is not without deliberation and careful thinking. Especially for a woman in Pakistani society, as they end up being the ones answering most questions in social gatherings — ranging from why she doesn’t have a child to even more invasive questions about ‘where was the baby adopted from’ if she went ahead with the decision to adopt. Thus couples and even single men and women have a hard time deciding to adopt, mostly because of the fear of social reactions.

But for 33-year-old Samra Khwaja* and her husband, it was the best decision of their life. “We decided to adopt a baby five years after we got married; we had been trying for a child for more than three years at that point,” says Samra, smiling as her 17-month-old adopted daughter Anaya plays with her hair and face while we talk. But in a society that is certainly baby-friendly but predominantly not adoption-friendly, it was a decision they had to carefully weigh.

“My husband and I had always wanted to adopt a baby, even if we had had our own biological children. We both were keen to give an orphan child the opportunity to be a part of a loving family. But strangely, when adoption became our only option, we found ourselves a little less certain,” says Samra.

The reservations are justified for a number of reasons. For starters, the law, or a lack thereof, makes adoption a difficult choice.

Legally Mine

“There are currently no laws governing adoption in Pakistan,” says lawyer Mishal Husain. “This does not mean that you cannot adopt a child; what it does mean is that if you do decide to adopt, the only legal relationship you can establish with the child is to become their guardian under The Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. In order to become the child’s guardian, the adoptive parents have to file a petition in court.”

Husain explains that because of this gap in our laws, adoptive parents cannot make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children, if they disclose the fact that they are adopted. “Most adoptive parents therefore simply state that the child was born at home when they go to have their birth certificate and B Form made,” says Husain, which explains why a lot of adoptive parents never reveal to the law that the child is adopted.

Tougher For a Single Woman

A few years ago, Zahra Faiz* decided to adopt a baby. She is a single woman who has never been married, but is financially independent and has strong family support. Yet, every orphanage or organisation she went to was discouraging. “They’d usually say, ‘You are young and good-looking. Why don’t you get married and have your own childen?’ My reply would be that that is a personal choice. And some of these people are famous philanthropists who run well-known centres! Their reaction surprised me,” shares Zahra.

After a long wait, she finally got a call from a a very small social welfare organisation that a baby, a couple of days old, was available for adoption. “This child is the best thing that has happened to me,” she says.

Yet, her trial is not over. While the laws of legal guardianship are strict, most couples take advantage of loopholes to avoid long procedural issues and declare the child as their own. As a single woman, Zahra could not do that. The result: her child had no B Form till five years of age and admission into school became an issue. While her own problem may have been solved, Zahra now is actively following the developments and policies regarding registration of adopted children.

Singled Out

For single parents, adoption is doubly difficult. “Institutions dealing with adoption are reluctant to give a child to a single woman for fear that if that woman subsequently marries, she may abandon that child if her new husband is not keen on raising it,” says Husain, and explains that in addition to this, the single mother faces a hard time getting a birth certificate and B Form made for her child. “Having said that, I am aware of single mothers who have successfully adopted babies in Pakistan, had their papers made and are very happy with their decision,” says Husain, confirming that if you want something hard enough, you can find a way.

Adoption may also be hard for single fathers as the majority of babies up for adoption are girls and institutions are reluctant to hand over a baby girl to a single male parent. However, Husain shares an interesting loophole here. “Despite NADRA guidelines indicating otherwise, it is not normally possible to get a birth certificate or B Form made on the basis of your guardianship of the child. The only persons that I am aware of who have succeeded in getting the birth certificate and B Form on the basis of their guardianship are single adoptive mothers and even they have to do a lot of running around.”

Faith Matters

At a certain point, religion does step in. While Islam strongly encourages care and nurturing of orphans and unclaimed children, what it does not allow is giving an adopted child or society the illusion that she is the biological child of the adoptive parents. “In Islam, the persons raising an orphan child are not permitted to give that child the surname of the adoptive father, and the child is not entitled to inherit from them like a blood heir,” says Husain. The adoptive parents, of course, may gift any asset to that child in their lifetime, and leave a share for that child in their will.

“Due to these reasons, there has been a reluctance to draft any laws governing adoption,” says Husain. “In the absence of any laws, adopted children have no legal rights. Pakistan needs to draft comprehensive laws dealing with adoption and the rights of adoptive parents to make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children and to fulfill all other parental duties in respect of those children.”

It’s in the Genes

The fear of the unknown genetic and hereditary baggage that comes with a child scares off many people who consider adoption. Samra and her husband had heard many a horrendous story about how tough it can be to handle issues of adopted children “simply because they are from a different gene pool. Because we do not know where they are coming from,” says Samra.

If a biological child makes rash choices in life, it may be just a phase. But if an adopted adolescent indulges in drug usage or promiscuous behaviour, the unknown linage and tendencies are blamed. There is a stigma attached to a shady background with adopted children, partly because we fear the unknown and mostly because of the reasoning that if these children are the ones ‘left behind’ by biological parents, it is assumed that they are illegitimate. It is also then an unsaid assumption that some of the promiscuity of that act has left a genetic residue in the child. Ridiculous as that may sound, many people believe that.

“Once it comes to marriage, adopted children face problems. My adopted daughter, 22, liked a boy, whose family was happy about the prospect of their marriage. But since they have found out that she is adopted, the ‘pata naheen kis ka khoon hai’ dynamic has come into play, and they don’t want their son to marry her anymore,” says Masuma Khan*.

The ‘Looks’ Bazaar

It seems that when children are taken up for adoption, good looks are the currency that is deemed most valuable. Children who are plain-looking have a hard time getting accepted into homes — everyone wants a cherubic angel from the calendar posters.

The problem is exacerbated if the child does not look like the adoptive parents or the adoptive parents are ‘fairer’ or deemed ‘better-looking’ compared to the child. “My (adopted) daughter does not look like me or my husband at all. In addition, while she is such an attractive young woman, she is not the typical gori chittee girl, while I am fair. We have had to face a lot of questions due to this over the years,” shares Masuma.

When to Tell

“I found out I was adopted when I was 12. It shook my foundation and made me doubt everything I have ever believed in. It was my family’s most well-kept secret, I should say,” says Shehla Ali, 39, with a tinge of bitterness. It was during a heated argument that her father ended up blurting it out, saying, “If you were my blood, you would not have misbehaved so much.” Initially, Shehla had thought it was a joke.

It is important to be honest and tell your child about their adoption at a young age so that they can take it in their stride and understand that it is just another way to make a family and nothing to be embarrassed about. Children who accidentally discover that they are adopted at a later age are more likely to deal with it badly than children who know about their adoption from the outset. However, seeking an expert opinion in this regard is recommended.

My Pride, my Joy

Despite the challenges, an adopted child succeeds in filling the emotional void childless couples suffer. “Adopting our baby daughter was one of the best things that we have ever done. She has brought us so much joy and happiness and has won the hearts of the entire family. I don’t even ever remember that she is adopted except when someone asks about her adoption. We feel blessed that God chose us to raise her,” says Samra.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 24th, 2013.