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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Living in a world of flirting, net addiction and quick fixes

When we use quick fixes like flirting, followers on the net, retail therapy and coffee meets to fix us, does that mean that we know ourselves?

Not making sense? Let me explain.

Chatting with a colleague at work today, we had a moment in which a huge existential question stared at both of us in the face: How much should we know ourselves? And is it actually good to know one’s self? And do we ever, eventually, reach at stage where we know ourselves? The incredible French philosopher Michel Foucault once said ““I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”

And so it is. There is a certainty and a comfort in not knowing….in not knowing what the next day will be like, and who I will be in that day. There is also a reason why we are not know-it-alls…that has been left for the Almighty to be. There is a reason why we know partly but not fully how we will react to the unforeseen, both the good and the bad.

Self-actualization is an interesting idea. To some extent, it is an inevitability. Knowing one’s self is important. But I suspect the world today may have taken this “know thy self” business too far.

We live in a fast-paced world full of oxymorons and paradoxes and ironies. We quote and write profound ideas which were produced after lifetimes of reflection and contemplation, but we google them within seconds and shrivel them down to 140 characters. Big ideas. Small gratifications.

Why, then, knowing what we do, do we still need these ego boosts and gratifications? Simple. We know ourselves so very well that we treat ourselves like mechanized beings. We know exactly which button to press where, and we know what reaction this mechanized “I” will produce. And this is sucking away the joy that is a by-product of the spontaneity of unplanned human experience.

When we feel down, we want instant solutions. In a world of fast food and faster drinking, we gratify ourselves with things that give us short-lived but sure distractions. Giving in to cravings distracts us for a while. We know the actual issue that is causing us to feel down will come back eventually because we have not really dealt with it, but we also know that we can feel better within an hour for the next 1o hours.

Life slaps you around at times. Failure hurts, both at work place or in relationships. People are not just mean at school….they can be mean even when you are an adult. Loneliness. Feeling unwanted. Or simple boredom. So what does one turn to?

Retail therapy may work for many of us. There is a certain sense of power in swiping plastic money and returning home with bags that promise to make you look and feel better about yourself. So we indulge.

R therapy


When even that doesn’t work, we resort to fishing compliments. On the net. Flaunting our photographs and strutting on the catwalk of cyberspace with our achievements and our prowess.

Still not good enough? Feeling bored and in need of the human touch and some tender loving care? Flirt! Fickle compliments loosely thrown around in virtual space feel so good, as does the newness of discovering someone new. We experiment, talk, discover, share. We give attention because we seek attention. Mutual flirting is a need-based arrangement, really. It’s even cheaper than using retail therapy as therapy. By the way, even retail therapy is cheaper than going for counselling!



So we know ourselves so well that we know how to fix ourselves.

But what we may have forgotten in the process is that all of this is very very short-lived. It doesn’t last. We may know ourselves pretty well but may have forgotten that inherently we have been designed to feel out things in an organic, slow manner. Quick fixes are unreal most of the times. Even if one is ok with that, all of this doesn’t really fix things in the long run. Those aches and pains and voids come back. And we again embark on an endless journey of fixing ourselves.

The long haul, no-short-cuts approach is problematic and complicated and exhausting, no matter how rewarding in the end. But it IS the real thing. And there is a certain peace in it.

We all know ourselves well enough. We know exactly what we are doing with our lives, and why. And on these crossroads, the choice is ours.

What’s your pick?

Ashura’s message: Looking away, being indifferent is not an option

By Farahnaz Zahidi Published: November 15, 2013

What’s more important, actually, is the stuff we all agree upon; the stature of those who were martyred that day, what they stood for and how we can draw lessons from that fateful day for our present day. PHOTO: REUTERS

There are days when one just wants to give up and look the other way. Become indifferent. The inner argument is,

“What difference can I make, realistically?”

I recall feeling that way so many times. Like when I see “small” things like bribes being taken and given in front of me. That gnawing feeling, when people in your area steal water through suction pumps and you are the idiot who doesn’t do it because you think it’s wrong.

Worse still, is the feeling you get if you stay quiet when you see a close relative scolding a small child, working as domestic help, and holding back his salary as a form of reprimand. When someone in a position of power refuses to get their baggage scanned at the airport and breaks the queue conveniently, while the labourer going to Dubai in his chappals is met with dismissive glances and extraordinary checks.

Killers and goons go scot-free. The weak relent, simply because there is no option. The mightier becomes stronger. The system supports it — the jungle raaj, where might is still the biggest right.

An initially reluctant and then habitual silence follows. We don’t say anything to anyone. Not even politely. The world looks on. Or looks away.

Imam Hussain (ra) could have looked the other way, but he didn’t.

He could not.

Brought up in the lap of the Prophet (pbuh), indifference was never an option. Imam Hussain (ra)’s grandfather taught people to help both the oppressed and the oppressor – the oppressed by taking up their cause and the oppressor by trying to stop him/her from being unjust.

And so Imam Hussain (ra) chose the tougher path. The road less travelled. The 9th and 10th of Muharram, year after year, reminds me of exactly this.

It is irrelevant whether I am Sunni or Shia. I say this because that is what people quizzically ask me whenever I express love for the Prophet’s (pbuh) family or talk about lessons from Muharram.

But I digress.

Coming back to what today means to me, what I do know is what I need to know. I learn this from what happened at Karbala, among countless other lessons, that the grandson of Allah’s beloved (pbuh) stood firm on his ground and chose to be martyred rather than live a life where one makes the choice of brushing injustice under the carpet and pretending it never happened.

There is a story I remember reading in context of the explanation of a part of the Quran. It is the story of a people who disobeyed God in a crucial matter and consequently faced punishment. The story tells us that in that town, there were three groups of people; those who defiantly sinned, those who did not sin but remained silent and, those who did not sin and also tried to persuade the disobedient ones to stop.

In the end, God only forgave the third group.

For us as individuals and as a nation, speaking out against structural violence, systematic injustice and oppression has never been so important. Our related apathy and indifference has never been a bigger offence. When silence becomes habit, submission becomes the norm and indifference reigns. Consequently, injustice and tyranny rules to the detriment of a nation.

What’s important, however, is how we make our voice heard. A lot of tact, wisdom and sincerity is required, as is empathy.

As I entered work today, I overheard at least three different conversations on different tables where small groups animatedly talked about what actually happened at Karbala; the how, the why and the many versions of history were spoken about.

What’s more important, actually, is the stuff we all agree upon. The stature of those who were martyred that day, what they stood for and how we can draw lessons from that fateful day for our present day. We channelise energies arguing, debating and proving that we are right and the other is wrong, instead of focusing on what Karbala teaches us all:

Looking away is simply not an option.

World Pneumonia Day: Saving lives with cell phones

By Farahnaz Zahidi / Creative: Munira Abbas
Published: November 12, 2013

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Pneumonia claims an innocent child’s life every 30 seconds, making it the number one cause of childhood mortality. DESIGN: MUNIRA ABBAS

KARACHI: As she steps out of a small grocery store in Korangi, she is carrying her nine-month-old baby in one hand and bags of grocery worth Rs300 in the other. Her baby is pneumonia free and she is one of the lucky mothers who have more than one incentive to ensure her baby gets regular vaccinations at Karachi’s Indus Hospital.

In this part of Pakistan, cell phone technology is being put to good use, often ending up saving precious lives. Under the “Save Life – Zindigi Mehfooz Hai” programme by Interactive Research and Development (IRD), a system has been set up to not just treat children with pneumonia, but track them and their progress by using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

In a country where reportedly some 92,000 children under-five die annually of pneumonia, which contributes to 18 % of the total child deaths in Pakistan, this is good news indeed. It is also encouraging that there is no refusal by parents of children when it comes to the pneumonia vaccine. “We have immunised 15,000 children in the last one year in Korangi alone, and not had a single instance of refusal,” says a proud Dr Subhash Chandir, director of vaccines program at IRD. The Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) was introduced in Pakistan’s Extended Programme on Immunization in October 2012. “What fundamentally changed the game in Pakistan was not medical advancement but the fact that the price of vaccines came down,” says Dr Aamir Khan, IRD’s executive director , adding that a big part of the solution lies in social business models.

This use of RFID technology started with small water-proof, rugged looking bracelets given to children, which were scanned by assigned health practitioners to get a medical history of the child. Now, a small chip is placed within a sticker on the child’s vaccination card. Through that the child’s progress is tracked and reminder texts are sent. “Apnay phool jaisay bachay ki hifazat karain. Jamal Khan ka agla hifazati teeka aaj lagna hai (Protect your flower-like child, Jamal Khan’s next vaccine is due today).” Standardised texts like these serve as reminders.

To incentivise it further, a “lottery” is set-up whereby one in five mothers with children under the vaccination program may win grocery.

Pneumonia claims an innocent child’s life every 30 seconds, making it the number one cause of childhood mortality in the world. In the 2010 World Health Assembly, a resolution on the prevention and control of childhood pneumonia was passed. The UN MDG 4 states that childhood mortality should be reduced by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015. However, even now, globally an estimated 22 million infants are not fully immunised with routine vaccines.

The PCV vaccine costs around Rs1500 for Pakistan, but people can get their children vaccinated for free. The Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) vaccine was introduced in Pakistan even earlier.

Unicef shared with The Express Tribune that “The World Pneumonia Day serves as a call to action for parents, caregivers, and healthcare providers to ensure that infants are fully immunised against all vaccine-preventable diseases. Immunisation prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths globally every year by protecting against the nine deadly diseases of the childhood including pneumonia under 5 years of age.”

While the vaccines are there, they don’t seem to be reaching all Pakistani children who deserve to be vaccinated. “We have a grudge. We are pumping vaccines into a broken system. What needs to be corrected is vaccine delivery,” says Dr Khan. He feels routine immunisation needs to be strengthened, and it is wasteful to introduce new expensive vaccines into a system which is unable to deliver them.

Dr Chandir goes on to explain that the reasons include issues with the “Cold Chain”. Vaccines have to be stored at certain temperatures, but by the time they reach children, they may have lost their effectiveness. “EPI may have a network of vaccinators but often doesn’t have its people in strong positions at district levels. The human resource may not be enough, or is, may be, not being used effectively.”

“It is a crime because it is a right of these children to be protected against these diseases. Usually media stories focus on the vaccines — and not on the system. We need a better system in the country,” says Dr Khan.

Facts about the disease

• More than 99% of deaths in children due to pneumonia occur in the developing world, with half occurring in five countries – India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

• Only 61% of children with pneumonia are reportedly taken to a qualified health practitioner in developing countries.

• Globally, pneumonia kills more children under five than any other illness.

• Infants not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die due to pneumonia than those who are.

• Using a clean cook stove results in a 50% reduction in the risk of a child contracting pneumonia.

Source: World Pneumonia Day website

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2013.

Ladies, it is not ‘cool’ or ‘empowering’ to smoke


By Farahnaz Zahidi Published: November 5, 2013

“All the intellectual, arty women I knew smoked. So, it must be cool.” PHOTO: FILE

I still remember how my brothers would deftly hide their cigarettes when ammi or abba entered the room. Those were the best and worst of times – times of unawareness and lightheartedness, when I’d sit for hours in a smoke-filled room with my brothers – chatting and laughing over senseless things like one only can with siblings.

All that while, I was inhaling 250 toxins and carcinogens, quite unsuspectingly. I didn’t know any better and neither did my siblings. We were secure in our belief that we, the girls, were not smoking actively.

Fast-forward life.

As a teenager, I started interning at a magazine and this is where smoking began to look ‘cool’ to me. Even as a woman. I saw my seniors, mostly women – bright, accomplished and sincere women, all trying to make a difference to society – weaving words beautifully story after story. These were people I looked up to and they all had a cigarette pack on their table.

What was an innocent teenager supposed to think?

Obviously, that it was cool to smoke.

After all, this was something that all brainy, intelligent, arty and literati types did. Consequently, I began to believe that this was something that helps the creative process; something that helps one act with clarity; gets the creative juices flowing, so to say.

On the other hand, I also came to see smoking as something you rely on when you have a break-up or when you hang out with friends. It was one of the lesser evils; in fact, since everyone around me was doing it, it didn’t seem all that evil at all.

Of course, being a woman and smoking somehow made it seem even cooler.

Having said that, fortunately enough, I did not go on to become an active smoker, but I have at some level, like many of us, equated smoking as a right that I have as much as a man does.

Then, the other day, in a room full of journalists talking about lung health in the 44th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Paris, a speaker cut through the jargon and made a point that hit me. According to him, research shows that,

“Women say we have rights equal to those of men. So they say ‘hey, I have an equal right to lung cancer’!”

That literally jarred me into re-thinking my perspective on smoking. Of course, I knew all of this already but had somewhere along the line simply chosen to stop reading more into it.

Experts reveal that in stage two of the tobacco epidemic, smoking in females rises by 50%. It seems that Pakistan’s urban cities are already there.

Did you know that cigarettes are the only legal consumer product in the world that has the potential to kill half its users?

They carry 700 chemicals that include carcinogens, can affect one’s immune system and cause greater susceptibility to respiratory tract diseases. Moreover, smoking takes away the glow and sheen of our skin, hair and nails over time and leaves us looking lifeless. Yet, we can’t seem to stop smoking. Why?

Simply because it is one of the most addictive substances in the world that quite literally re-wires the brain.

Talking to a female journalist friend, I asked her how she started smoking. She replied,

“It all started off as a new experience, just a couple of friends trying something new. Also, at some point there was that feeling that I too can do anything I want as a woman. But once you ‘grow up’, you really see how stupid it is.”

However, in most cases by the time one realises how stupid smoking really is, one is already too far gone to get off the addiction. At least, too far gone to get off it easily.

It’s funny how humans are strangely stupid most of the time. We walk around thinking that we know it all, while in reality, we are basically sponges. We absorb what’s around us. We are conditioned to believe what’s cool and what’s not. We are affected by what’s around us. We are always changing, evolving and growing, but sometimes the changes take us in the wrong direction.

However, therein lies hope as well. Since we are creatures of habit, it is in us to undo certain habits. We can learn and unlearn. So, it is possible to push our boundaries by questioning ourselves too.

While women smokers are definitely on the rise all over the world, we tend to forget that women are also more susceptible to certain health risks than men when it comes to smoking. For instance, they are much more likely to develop arthritis than men if they smoke, and 14 per cent of pre-term deliveries happen to mothers who smoke during pregnancy.

As a gender activist, I believe that humans are equal, irrespective of their gender. So, as far as I am concerned, the reduction in the gender gap is generally a good thing; but does that mean that I must make the same mistakes as men?

Will that make me feel more emancipated, free and able?

I would be dumb to believe that, right?

Unfortunately, I suspect at times I may have been just that.

Now, let’s get to some more hard facts.

Smoking causes 5.4 million deaths each year.That means that out of the 1 billion smokers alive today, 50 million will die because of tobacco use.

Tobacco will kill some 175 million or more people between now and the year 2030. And I, for one, do not want to be one of them. Although I truly believe that death is not something we can control, we do have the ability to make informed decisions about how we want to lead our lives.

It almost shames me to think that in spite of knowing all these statistics, I chose to conveniently forget them and lived in a state of denial that this self-destructive addiction is simply part of being a creative person.

At the conference, Indian journalist and TV presenter Lotty Alaric, nailed it when she said,

 “I don’t smoke because l don’t need a four inch paper roll billowing smoke to measure my cool quotient. I’m too secure a woman to rely on that.”

So, whether it is a secret desire to be able to do what men can, or simply a bad habit, it’s time to call it quits.

Ladies first, please.

Should tobacco be declared an illegal substance?

  •  Yes
  •  No

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