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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Nation jolted: Rape of minors a rising trend

By Farhnaz Zahidi / Sumaira Khan
Published: April 29, 2014

child rape

A positive change is that more victims report the crime but experts fear number of minors being raped is rising. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI / ISLAMABAD: The sexual assault of five-year-old “S” who was then dumped outside a Lahore hospital jolted the nation. The story made headlines for several days. In her, each saw their own child. Much was written and promised, but some seven months later the rapists remain at large and the government continues to chase shadows.

In this particular case, there were some lessons to be learnt. The most shocking is that the rape of minors is a growing trend in the country. “The average age of the rape victim in Karachi, according to data collected, is now nine years,” discloses Shiraz Ahmed, who works for the Karachi-based NGO, War Against Rape (WAR). “Child-rape is definitely on the rise. Many more cases are now being reported, but we can safely estimate that these are only 5 per cent of the actual number of cases.”
Ahmed says that influential perpetrators or their allies intimidate or bribe victims and their families into silence. “And society encourages the issue to be brushed under the carpet,” he adds.

In Punjab alone, there were 2,576 cases reported, according to a report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released recently.

The father of “S” continues to fight for justice. “Due to weak laws and punishment, these beasts continue to destroy the lives of women. I demand action that would set an example,” says Shafqat Mahmud. So far Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government has been helpless. Possibly this inaction encourages rapists.

Experts say that the more accessible a child is, the more at risk he or she is. Street children top the list. No official numbers are available regarding their exact number, but it is estimated that there are 1.5 million street children in Pakistan, according to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC). To add to this, according to the HRCP’s 2013 report, 1,400 juveniles are in jail and the country has some 12 million child workers, half of them below 10. They all fall under the high risk category.

The role of police and the media

WAR’s Shiraz Ahmed says that on one level, more cases are being reported which shows a social change. At the same time he laments the fact that the trend of child rape is growing.
The media and the police also need to play a more positive role, he adds. The media has to be sensitized on how to handle such cases. “The media crosses lines. It shows the faces of the victims, their names and the images of the family,” laments Ahmed, concerned on issues of privacy and safety. “More sensitive reporting of such cases, especially of minors, is what will help in the long run.”

He also feels that the police need to be made more aware and more answerable. Sometimes corruption is the reason why they record complaints under sections that have loopholes.
Shiraz feels that the correct sections should be applied for the concerned crime.

Cycle of abuse

The cycle is never ending. Sarah Jafry, counsellor at WAR, comments, “a sexually abused child may indulge in risky sexual behaviour, wandering from one intimate relationship to another, because the child sees this as a way of feeling valuable and approved. Most of this is unconsciously done.”

Once abused, most victims almost never recover. Dr Rizwan Taj, head of Psychiatry department at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) says that the younger the victim, the longer lasting the impact. “Young victims lose trust and confidence they had in relationships.” The victim chooses isolation rather than trying to stabilize relationships with people.
Experts say that the government should arrange for free medical treatment and long-term counselling. This remains a dream for most, however. Many say that the government should wake up to what is becoming a crisis situation. So far, the government has only been sleeping, experts say.

Alarm: Rapid rise in child-rape

• 2,788 child sexual abuse cases were reported in 2012, as compared to 2,303 in 2011.
• On an average, eight children a day were abused during 2012.
• 71 per cent of minors who suffered abuse were girls.
• The age group most vulnerable to sexual abuse among girls and boys was 11 to 15 years.
• Some 5,689 abusers were involved in nearly 3,000 abuse cases, out of which 47 per cent were acquaintances
• 1,214 cases took place either at the acquaintances’ or the victims’ houses, according to the report.
Source: The annual “Cruel Numbers” report by NGO Sahil.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2014.

Shaking it like Sheila, moving it like Munni

Sunday Magazine Feature
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: December 30, 2012


Contact Bollywood Aerobics class’ instructor Fehmida Maskatiya at:

They gather every weekday morning outside an innocuous looking house in an upscale neighbourhood of Karachi. As 11am approaches, women of all ages from six to 65 clamber in hurriedly through the gate, each trying to outpace the other. Every minute counts. The earlier you get in, the better front row spot you get; the closest you’ll be to the instructor.
The women are an interesting mix — some sport trendy designer sportswear, others wear figure hugging leotards under the abayas and chadars that they hang on a rack before they enter the classroom. The room’s walls are all mirrored, giving an illusion that the room is bigger than it actually is. Dot on time, the class begins. No nonsense and no delays. It is serious business to all the women — students, working women and home makers alike — who have come there after squeezing out time from their busy schedules. All are here to dance their woes away, get rid of flab, rediscover their femininity and have a rocking good time while they’re at it. This is ‘me time’ at its best, and the place for it is Fehmida Maskatiya’s “Bollywood Aerobics” class.

Maskatiya is a warm, pretty and gregarious woman who is incredibly fit for a mother with grown up children. Dressed in her signature black dance-friendly sportswear, her energy is contagious and she is a hard task master when it comes to dance. This is no place for the slackers and the morose. If your moves appear half-hearted and bored, rest assured Maskatiya will notice and will make sure you give it a hundred per cent.

That’s because teaching dance isn’t just a business for her, but a passion. A natural born dancer, losing herself to the beats and steps always made her feel alive and happy, along with keeping her enviously fit. But three years ago, a point came when she realized that many of her friends needed to feel the same way. The women she met in her daily life had gotten so sucked into the whirlpools of responsibilities that they had forgotten how to have fun and take out some “me-time”. Her classes began some three years ago. That’s when she decided that she needed to share her passion with others. But before she could teach, she first had to learn.

Maskatiya then went off to Mumbai. “I learnt at the famous choreographer Saroj Khan’s institute, not how to be a dancer, but how to be a dance teacher, how to share with students the moves that come naturally to me. Here I learnt how to bring out their natural talent and help them shed their inhibitions, how to help them get into the groove,” she says. Once back in Pakistan, she wasted no time in starting up her classes. The trend of Bollyfit, as it is called, was a fairly recent idea at that time, but one that caught on pretty quickly in the fitness world. That’s not surprising when you consider what else was available at the time. After all, Yoga spells peace, but requires a regimen and a degree of discipline. Gyming is a great way to stay in shape, but less fun and, according to Maskatiya, it “does not give women the feminine curves and shape they are looking for. Most women want to be toned, slim and fit, but do not necessarily want manly biceps.” Bollywood aerobics was an answer for many women — fun, fitness and femininity all rolled into one.

While her own niche is semi-classical dance form, Maskatiya incorporates many dance forms into her classes, including steps borrowed from Middle-Eastern belly dancing for which her students even got coin belts for that extra bit of jingle. The choice of songs will vary from the raunchy “Halkat jawani” to Jennifer Lopez’s “On the floor” for faster moves that can burn up to 300 to 500 calories per session. As grace-builders, more delicate numbers like “Tere bina” from the movie Guru and some more vintage classics are included. More recently, the Colombian dance form called Zumba has been included for variety. Maskatiya keeps reminding students throughout the moves and shakes exactly which muscles they are working on. Stretches and cardio make it an energetic and fun moderate intensity workout. The only thing that seems missing, though, is regular warm-ups and cool-downs, which are optional and sporadic.


Regular workout shows results, with both flexibility and agility increasing. “My energy level has gone up since I joined Fehmida’s classes. I’ve not just lost weight but also am more curvy. Clothes look better on me. It’s exciting. I had given up that I could look this good again. More than anything, the woman inside me feels alive again,” says 56 year old Shabana Ali (name changed on request). Her daughter-in-law also dances alongside her, in a fun bit of female bonding. What’s really cute is that they’re sometimes joined by the little granddaughter too.
She is not the only youngster at the classes either. Mothers send their little daughters to the class for two reasons: to fight the increasing trend of obesity among children, and to help develop grace and a feminine touch while helping improve their postures. That grace, say some parents, is being lost and needs to be rediscovered.

As Maskatiya aptly says, “My greatest achievement is not just the fact that I see my students slimmer and fitter. What’s most exciting and gratifying to see them rediscover their confidence. Women multi-task and work and devote their lives to their families. My class is their emotional detox. A time for stress release. They walk out as happier women.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 30th, 2012.

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Female Genital Mutilation – The Dark Side of Custom

Female Circumcision – Taking Away A Piece of Me
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Originally published in “Newsline”.

“I was seven years old. One day, I was told that I would be taken shopping to buy crayons, just as a special treat. I did get the crayons and was very happy. But with the crayons tightly clutched in one hand and my other hand clasping my aunt’s finger who led the way, I was taken to a dingy old place. A strange old woman violated me though I did not even know that I was being subjected to the traditional custom of genital mutilation. I was just seven! Nobody, not even my mother who was not with me at the time, told me or prepared me for this. I clearly remember being scared and afraid, but I let her do whatever she wanted to do with me quietly….The feelings were of shock, embarrassment and sickness. I don’t remember it being a very painful procedure though. Even when I came back, I did not question my mother….I never even spoke to her about it and neither did she. When I grew up, I realized that it was not just me. All of my peer female cousins had gone through the same. It was called circumcision but I don’t know what it was! I don’t know what I lost that day. I don’t know what I have missed out in life. I will never find out. But I do know one thing for sure. I will never put my daughter through it. Never!”


The above is a real life account. Of a real person – a woman. A woman who shared this memory only on condition of anonymity. Not an African woman or an Egyptian woman as the term Female Genital Mutilation might suggest to you, but a Pakistani woman. Yes, Female Circumcision is done in Pakistan too. Sometimes invasively, and sometimes merely symbolically in a gentler manner. Sometimes hygienically by a certified medical doctor and often by an unskilled traditional practitioner in obscure places. And almost always in a secretive and clandestine manner. It is an unspeakable. Something not discussed even between mother and daughter, but done nevertheless. In Pakistan, it is not a common practice, but is done in isolated communities, who guard the tradition with life.

Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The term refers to a variety of operations involving partial or total removal of female external genitalia.

In 2007, the World Health Organization classified FGM into four broad categories:
1. Clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood.
2. Excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
3. Infibulation: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and placing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris.

4. Unclassified: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

(Source: World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, An Interagency Statement, Geneva: WHO, 2008: 23)

The causes of FGM are a mix of cultural, religious and social factors. Perpetuation of this practice is often due to social pressures. In many cultures, it is considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking it to virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, and thereby is further believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.

When asked about his opinion on the matter, Dr Shershah Syed, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who devotes his practice to helping underserved women in Pakistan, confirms that he has come across cases in urban Pakistan where women have undergone the procedure. “In Pakistan it is not done very invasively, and now with growing awareness, they are doing it merely symbolically with only a bit of skin being removed. But even then, I find it to be in clear violation of human rights! This is a cultural custom in specific communities who consider it a part of religion. There is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting any medical benefit of the procedure. It can lead to health complications,” says Syed. Side effects can include severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus, infection, infertility, cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, and sexual as well as psychological problems.

* Dr. Zahra Ali belongs to the community in which Female Circumcision has been done since generations, and still continues. When asked, she confirms that this is something that has been the done thing in her community, and is considered a religious obligation. “Earlier,” says Ali, “it was mostly done by untrained daais (traditional birth attendants) who did it in a crude manner. Also, in the previous generations, even a few decades ago, the entire clitoris of the woman would be removed. But over time, I have seen a reform. Now doctors like myself are taught the entire procedure and it is performed very hygienically. Now we only remove the skin, just for symbolic purposes, which does not harm the woman in any way, and also does not affect her libido. It is done under local anesthesia, is pain free and very cheap.” But Ali admitted that the not-so-aware members of her community still get it done by the daais. “I agree that the insidious way in which it was done earlier was painful and denied women a basic right. But now things are much better.” Ali claimed that female circumcision has medical benefits, but research yielded no recorded benefits. “It has no health benefits what so ever,” says Dr Shershah categorically.

When Dr Zahra Ali was asked why the procedure is usually done at the age of seven, she said that apart from other reasons, one reason is that “at that age the girl can be small enough to be held down forcefully if she tries to resist.” Asma Pal, Counselor, feels that “more than the act itself, the method adopted could cause serious psychological damage. A seven year old would retain the memory of being accosted literally and violated, which would result in long standing physical intimacy issues.”

Dr. Uzma Ambareen, a renowned Psychiatrist, feels that “the child should be forewarned simply and gently, if at all the family decides that this has to be done, even if just symbolically, otherwise it can have traumatic effects later. Upon reaching adulthood, this issue should be discussed to determine any psychological damage to that woman.”

But not everyone has had a traumatic experience. * Shaheen Abdullah says, “I have two daughters and five nieces, all circumcised by doctors. I do not consider it a human rights violation because, according to our teachings, it has been divinely ordained. My faith dispels any doubts that some might put in my mind.” Recalling her own experience, Abdullah says, “The procedure took all of one second, and the kind, sweet, gentle lady who had done it comforted me later. It was not painful at all. Neither has it negatively affected my physical urges.”

Journalist-activist and founding member of Shirkat Gah, Najma Sadeque, finds it a “violation of human rights. Awareness needs to be increased about this issue, and the media needs to play its role in this. The lack of awareness about the fact that this is practiced in Pakistan is surprising in itself.”

While some see it as part of their faith, others see it as a denial of human rights, even if done merely symbolically. As * Hajra Husain, another woman who had it done as a child and never talked about it since, says, “If you believe in it and it doesn’t harm you, I don’t see it as a human rights violation. But we need to question more. Whenever I have questioned, I have gotten satisfactory answers from the religious and social elders of my community. We simply don’t question enough.” Perhaps, it is time.

(* = Names changed to protect privacy)

Samina Ahmed – “…a lot more opportunities now”

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Originally published in The News on Sunday


Samina Ahmed is emancipated, opinionated, a trail-blazing female actor who embarked on her acting career when the realm of acting was highly male-dominated; the first woman (particularly in Punjab) to have started her own television production house, a serious performer who dared to venture into comedy to challenge stereotypes. And, most importantly, a proponent of and activist of rights for women.

Nothing synthetic about this woman of substance. She is who she is.

A whole lot of carefully thought and some not so carefully thought, extempore questions followed with an equal amount of succinct and poignant answers — about media, drama, acting and especially about the women of Pakistan.

The News on Sunday: As a female actor in a male dominated field of work, what has the journey been like for you?

Samina Ahmed: Initially, it was not easy for me. But over the years, I have to say it has become easier, partly because I have carved a place for myself and am an established actor now.

More importantly, I think social attitudes are changing. Today, men have the heart to take orders from a female colleague if they are working under her. Back then, it was not so. I worked at Lahore’s Alhamra for about 20 years, and I remember that one had to face resistance even from stage hands, carpenters and helpers, let alone co-actors and co-workers. I would have to work doubly hard to prove my mettle as a female, and for them to take me more seriously. At times, I felt they were waiting for me to fail. But over the years, things have changed.

TNS: And, how have things changed for women in the media?

SA: When we talk of media, particularly television, we are basically talking of two sub-divisions — there is news and current affairs and then there is the entertainment side of it. And, I feel women have managed to carve a place for themselves in both areas. A lot many women are hosts and anchors of political talk shows and morning shows. They are producers and directors. When we look at entertainment, a lot more roles are being written for female actors than ever before. On an average, if we have 10 channels in the country that are airing 4 dramas a day, may they be comedy or serious, we have about 40 being aired daily!

When the volume of work has gone up, so have co-incidentally opportunities for female actors. They are behind the camera and in front of it as well. It is still a young industry, but things are looking up for women in the media and for Pakistani women in general.

TNS: You were associated with the more potent phase of the women’s rights movement in the 1980s. What do you think it has achieved? How do you see the status of Pakistani women now?

SA: That phase of the women’s rights movement was so potent because it immediately followed an era of severe repression. We were extremely charged up, the women activists that is, following the oppression of women as an aftermath of the Hudood Odinance. Over the years, the work done for women rights has progressed. So many non-government organisations and activists are in the field and working on many issues. To me it seems things are looking better. While legislations may not wave magic wands, we at least have progressed to a point where there are bills and legislations for victims of domestic violence, harassment, honour killings etc. It’s a step forward for sure.

TNS: How was your experience as the first woman to have your own production house in Pakistan?

SA: I believe Sultana Siddiqui started her own at around the same time, but yes, I was definitely the first one in Punjab. The experience was not smooth all the way and it had its risks like anything new one does in life. But in life, nothing’s easy. So I took the challenges in my stride and enjoyed the experience. It gave me a free hand to do the kind of roles I wanted to. If you remember, in Family Front, people saw me and Saba Hameed doing comedy, though we were recognised as serious actors. And, that was not a random decision. It was a product of deliberation, because I wanted to create chances of diversified roles for women. Comedy remains a focal interest for me.

TNS: Are you satisfied with the portrayal of women in media?

SA: People complain that drama today shows women only in melodramatic, weepy kind of roles. But I don’t worry over this. I think this is natural progression and over time female actors will find themselves getting diversified roles outside of the box.

As I said they have a lot more opportunities now compared to earlier decades.

TNS: So as an industry, would you call media women-friendly?

SA: It is not women-unfriendly, but television production as a business is still very male dominated. The United Producers Association still has just a sprinkling of female producers, which means major decision making and power still rests with the men. But we still have a Sultana Siddqui and a Seema Taher Khan in positions of control, which is positive.

TNS: Any parting thoughts — hopes and dreams, especially for women?

SA: I hope to see the television industry grow further and wish to see the progress of Pakistani theatre and film industry. I am lucky that I still enjoy what I do. I want the same for other actors, especially female actors, because they are sidelined at times and come with a lot of baggage. My hope is that the baggage of being a woman doesn’t pull them back from reaching the top.

Child Labour – Extinguishing Young Dreams

Originally published in the monthly “Women’s Own”.
By Farahnaz Zahidi

We see the horrific details of atrocities committed against child labourers on media, but we want to switch the channel and move on to something more entertaining. Yet, as conscientious civilians, it is our responsibility to be aware and spread awareness, and for beginners stop snuffing out underprivileged children’s childhood by making them our servants.

Parveen's Children - Hoping for a better life

His father is a labourer, his mother a maid scouring floors for the rich and famous. He is barely 12, but touch his hands and the coarseness is like that of grown man’s. Something about his facial expressions makes him look eerily grown up….as if a withered soul is encased in a child’s body, though his stature is much smaller than his peers, due to malnourishment. He no longer dreams of going to school; there is a resigned acceptance in his eyes about his today and tomorrow. He works as a domestic helper in a saab’s house. He is more trained to respond to words like chokra, ae larkay, chotey and a plethora of abuses, rather than his name. His day starts early and ends late. He earns a meager Rs. 3000, but keeps hearing taunts that he isn’t worth this much. He is titled sly, street smart…..titles that are true….titles that are descriptive of what this job since the age of 8 has taught him. We needn’t know his name. He is just another child labourer of Pakistan….one of the many shoved into the work field at too tender an age.

Horrific stories of the exploitation and violation of children who are made to work surface time and again. They are an unaccounted for, invisible part of the world’s, and Pakistan’s, workforce Staggering statistics tell us that over 132 million children aged 5-14 years old work in agriculture – up to 70 per cent of all working children. Many are exploited in homes, in orphanages, on streets, in slums, in refugee camps and war zones, in detention, and in fields and factories. One such recent story is of the alleged murder of thirteen year old housemaid Shazia Masih, who worked as a maid for a former president of Lahore Bar Association. The autopsy of Shazia Masih tells horrendous details of the marks of physical torture on her body. Shazia’s case has triggered discussion on not just the issue of child labour, but also protection of rights of minorities. But is it enough that leaders and politicians promise that justice will be meted out, and that a compensatory payment is made to the family in return for a priceless loss? It is time that the Pakistani law defines the rights of the child and these laws are enforced.

A “child” is defined in Pakistan as a person younger than fifteen and the legal minimum age for employment is 14 for shops and commerce, industry, and work at sea, and 15 for mines and on railways. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan prohibits slavery, forced labor, the trafficking in human beings, and employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory or mine or any hazardous employment. The Factories Act 1934 prohibits under-14 employment in factories, the Mines Act 1923 in mines and the Shops & Establishments Ordinance 1969 in offices and restaurants. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989. The scope of this convention extends to persons up to the age of 18. Pakistan has ratified this Convention in 1990. Article 32 of CRC reads “State Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”. This landmark treaty guarantees children the right to be free from discrimination, to be protected in armed conflicts, to be protected from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, to be free from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, to receive age-appropriate treatment in the justice system, and to be free from economic exploitation and other abuses, among other rights.

ILO’s Minimum Age Convention 138 was adopted by ILO in 1973. It states that minimum age for employment may not be set lower than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any event not less than 15 years (initially 14 years in the case of developing countries). Although spirit of this Convention is reflected in several Pakistani laws, it has yet to be formally ratified by the Government of Pakistan.
Yet, how many of us reading stories about child labour can testify that a child has never been employed in our homes? In a write-up in “Dawn” (dated 27th January 2010), Anees Jillani writes, “Millions of households all over the country are employing children under the age of 18. Are they not all guilty of the same crime, although many continue to justify it on the grounds of helping a poor child? Child labour is generally legally permissible in the country, due to major loopholes in the relevant legislation. Employment of all children in the age group of 14 to 18 years is allowed in all sectors whether formal or informal.”

The reasons why children are popular choices as domestic servants and labourers are the following:

• The remuneration given to them is much lesser than grown-ups and so they are a much cheaper commodity
• Any complains they voice either to their parents, employers or law enforcers are not taken seriously. As such, they mostly cannot protect themselves against the inhumane treatment they are subjected to
• Children are quicker in learning and grasping menial tasks and are more active
• They are often forced by their parents and families, on the pretext of poverty, to slog as something similar to bonded labour

We justify employing children as labour by saying that they get a better quality of life, more security and food in our homes as compared to their own homes. Yet, are we honestly making efforts to send them to school? Do they eat like our children and enjoy that afternoon nap? Do they get a chance to enjoy physical recreation like normal children? The economic disparity that the poor witness when working in our homes builds up pent up anger in them. As adults they grow into bitter people, harbouring enmity against the affluent. Nothing justifies usurping the right of a child to education, health and security. It is time that the laws are revised and enforced to protect the rights of the child, and the perpetrators of crimes against children are taken to task, so that the Shazia Masihs of this nation are not violated in the future.

Polygamy – When One Is Not Enough

Originally published in Dawn Magazine
By Farahnaz Zahidi

The furore of animated debates about polygamy in the institution of marriage were triggered off by the statements of MPA Sameena Khawar Hayat, in 2010, who asked the assembly to pass a bill that encourages polygamy, and said she would be glad if her husband re-married. Surprisingly, Hayat is not the only one pro-polygamy! Read on to discover why there are arguments both for and against it.

Snuggled away in a posh area of the throbbing metropolis called Karachi is a beautiful house that belongs to Asad Ali (name changed to protect privacy). On the surface, it is just another well-off household. Big cars, an army of servants, a lush lawn, and the sound of children playing in the garden. But a visit to this house and you realize this household is anything but ordinary; you will be greeted by not one, not two but three ladies of the house. The house has a total of 11 children in all, born of different mothers but the same father. The rooms of all three wives of Ali have exactly the same décor, save the colour of the curtains. If one of the children gets a pet cockatoo, well, so do all others who are in the same age bracket. Neighbours vouch for the fact that they have never heard any voices raised due to squabbles. The wives seem happy and content, sharing the control, the social status, and the man in their lives. All three women are beautiful, healthy and bore children. This is a real story of polygamy being practiced amicably.

Polygamy has existed since time immemorial. According to Wikipedia, “Polygamy can be defined as any “form of marriage in which a person [has] more than one spouse at the same time. In social anthropology, polygamy is the practice of a person’s making him/herself available for two or more spouses to mate with.”

The commonly understood meaning of the word “Polygamy” in our part of the world is when a man has more than one wife. Islamic Shariah allows a man to have upto four wives, and consequently so does Pakistani law, but with the condition that justice is maintained between the wives.

The Qur’an states, “……marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them), then (marry) only one…. “(Qur’an 4:3). This, the Quran says, is closer to not doing injustice. Polygamy is not mandatory in Islam, but merely permitted. Many utilize this permission, but few follow the example of Prophet Muhammad (saw) who set a precedent of marrying women most of whom were widows with children.

Words of the Quran clearly state that men who choose to have more than one wife have to deal with their wives as fairly as possible, making sure that they spend equal amounts of time and money on each one of them. The social, physical and emotional rights of each of the wives have to be fulfilled. If the husband cannot deal with his wives fairly, he should not have more than one wife. Women, on the other hand, are only allowed one husband, although they are allowed to remarry after a divorce, or widowhood, unlike many other cultures further east. However, no law states that the man needs to provide equal amount of time, devotion, emotional and physical support to all his wives. “The law does not deal with these issues,” says Advocate Summaiya Zaidi.”Such emotional needs do not come within the realm of statutory law, and instead are factors that are taken into account by the court if divorce proceedings or any other cases are brought before it.”

The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance [Ordinance no. VIII of1961], states about Polygamy that, “No man, during the subsistence of an existing marriage, shall except with the previous permission in writing of the Arbitration Council, contract another marriage, nor shall any such marriage contracted without such permission be registered under this Ordinance.” [6(1)]

When asked whether a man is required by Pakistani law to take permission from his first wife for his second marriage, Zaidi says, “Pakistani law is actually a bit confused; parts of it are from our Colonial Heritage, parts are based on Shariat, while some are what we have enacted ourselves. There is sometimes a tussle because as you know Islamic Jurisprudence is a rich and evolving area of religious studies. So while one school may adhere to the fact that a man before marrying another woman needs the consent of his first wife, other religious scholars may believe that this consent is not necessary.” But Zaidi’s personal opinion is that the first wife’s opinion certainly matters as it is she and her children who will be affected the most with the advent of a new family member. “It is crucial in my view that the first wife’s consent is obtained, but also it is imperative that the way the man treats both his families is fair and just. If he is unable to do so there are more who will suffer at his hands, and the families will pay a high price at the expense of his desires.”

Although many Muslim countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygamy, it is something that is considered a social taboo even in Pakistani society. Kashif Ansari, a finance executive, feels that, “solutions to a lot of social problems like infidelity, birth of children out of wedlock, and exploitation of women lie in acceptance of polygamy. But because it is a social taboo, a woman would rather allow her husband to have an affair, but would not like the ‘other woman’ and her children to share the social respect and financial benefits that come with the husband’s name tag.”
Justice Nasira Iqbal says, “The Qur’an gave permission of polygamy for certain reasons, where looking after widows and orphans was the prime purpose after battles, when they lost a lot of men. We are a country in which the men outnumber women! If need be, for example the first wife cannot have children or has an illness, the man can remarry. But only if he can maintain absolute equality between them, which is next to impossible.” Law of the land clearly states that he needs permission of the arbitration council for a second marriage, which will also involve a representative of both the husband’s and the wife’s family.

In a country like Pakistan, where it becomes difficult to make both ends meet with even one wife, only the rich and loaded can afford to feed two or more households, but average people who live hand to mouth can’t. Dr. Tarannum Ahmed, a resident of Saudi Arabia for many years, shares her observation that, “generally, the incidences of more than one marriage have reduced in Saudi Arabia. First wives generally make the husband spend so much, and have so many kids, that he doesn’t even want to think about having a second one! But if they do marry more than once, the Arab women know their rights and culturally all wives get the same rights.” Ahmed feels that, “Allah has given this permission, and there is no denying that, but it is rare that a man can do justice to several wives; it mostly culminates in a mess. In today’s world of cut throat competition, when we want to give the best possible education to our children, this would impose a greater financial burden on a man with many children and wives.”

Polygamy is one of those permissions of Islam that are generally considered patriarchal, and in favour of men. However, many feel that this, in fact, protects the rights of the second wife who otherwise would not enjoy social benefits and inheritance rights if the relationship is to remain an affair and the man does not marry her. MPA Ms. Hayat said, “If there is no bar on them marrying again, all of men’s frustrations would be reduced, while women would be able to salvage their honour and lead secure lives.”

Sadaf Farooqi, a writer, blogger and Islamic teacher and preacher, opines that, “I think that polygamy should be encouraged, since it is a part of Islam and the divinely-revealed religions that preceded it. If a few brave people will revive this trend, others who are inclined towards it will muster up the courage to join the club.” Farooqi, like many others, feels that polygamy is an extremely beneficial remedy for numerous social ills, not the least of which is the prevalence of relationships outside marriage. “Women always outnumber men in society and have longer life spans. Every woman should have a chance at marriage and motherhood, if she wishes; however, this would just not be possible with only monogamy.”

Love in the time of Marquez

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 18, 2014


I woke up today and switched on my cell, a morning ritual. The first ping was a WhatsApp message from fellow journalist and dear friend Shai Venkatraman,

“Marquez is dead!”

It was followed by an emoticon denoting sadness. I sat up, partly due to disbelief. Illogical disbelief.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was 87-years-old. He was sick and frail. Reports of Alzheimer’s pointed in the direction that the beautiful mind that had given us works that pulled us through our years of solitude had exhausted its reservoir of memories. He had done his job. He had given enough to this world. It was his time to go. Yet, a strange sense of loss hung in the air.

“He introduced me to the wonders of literature, of the world he wrote about. No one has written quite like him… (experiencing) a sense of loss.” wrote Shai to me.

And I knew what she was saying, exactly.

Marquez came into my life much too late. Like a lot of the best things that have happened to me, he happened to me when my teens were over and practicalities stared back at me. I always pacify myself that I got to read him when I was ready for him. But I envy people like Tooba Masood, a young brilliant colleague who shared today at work that the first time she read One Hundred Years of Solitude was when she was in grade six. She said,

“And I told myself this is how I want to write one day.”

“But nobody can write like him, right?” I retorted.

She agreed saying that the reason she wanted to visit Colombia was that she dreamt of meeting the man. She even had plans of storming into his house. Mournfully she said,

“Now I will have to visit his grave.”

Tooba and others like her must have had the liberty of revisiting just the right Marquez works when things happened as they grew along in life. I did not. Even now, I do not know his works as well as I should. I cannot talk about his work or quote him from memory, but I know enough to feel his books etched on me. I know some of the nuances will dawn on me after I have read his books more than twice, have dog-eared them, have marked the quotes I love best, have left my fingerprints on them. Not via Sparknotes or Goodreads quotes, but the real books.

And I must. How can I not read and re-read the man who managed to see magic in the mundane?

Living in a world where one is compounded by pragmatics; where even dreams are calculated; where the mundane threatens to take away remnants of creativity and desire, Marquez helps us fantasise but within the framework of the real and the physical. His world is the world I want to live in while I live in my actual world. He has given me and so many of us a doable way out.

Like the clouds of yellow butterflies heralding the arrival of a lover as Shai reminded me today.

Maybe the magical realism came easier to him due to his ethnicity. He himself had once said,

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

It may be that cultures that have disconnected with mythology will have a hard time understanding Marquez. To me and others from cultures like mine, I believe understanding his work comes naturally.

He wrote in Spanish. And Spanish does not come naturally to most of us. I recall a moment in Rome where I was attending a journalism course, and we met an amazing Brazilian colleague. During a tea break in freezing Rome, we gushed about how she speaks Spanish and how lucky she is,

“Fernanda, that is the language Marquez wrote in!”

So one inspiration for a distant dream of learning Spanish is that maybe one day I can read his original words.

Marquez is an inspiration of sorts. He was a journalist yet, he produced these fantastical works. When cynics try to tell me that day after day churning out uncreative journalistic reports and editing them will rob me of chances of ever writing fiction, I will remember Marquez and silently ignore those cynics.

He also inspires me in his relationship to Mercedes, his wife of 50 plus years. They give me hope. With a man of his mind, it must not have been an easy ride. But Marquez makes me believe that relationships of creative people can be magical yet real. They can be sustained.

And one day, just maybe, one day, if I go searching for ancestral roots both in Jalandhar, India and Khairpur, Sindh I will be carrying a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in my hand while I dig into my family tree.

Timelines of friends, even unexpected ones, are filled with sad updates about Marquez. Some have used the word ‘mourning’ for what they are experiencing. But his life needs to be celebrated. And it will. As it always happens, sales of his books will go up. People who have never read him will talk about him. And that is a good thing. For whether you read him or not, you already know him, because he essentially wrote about love, the truest kind.

He wrote in his book Love in the Time of Cholera,

“The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

I am sure he died a satisfied man, sans regret.

I hope to do the same because as he wrote,

“There is always something left to love.”

Music for peace: Of dolls, dreams and a girl-child in Sindh

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 16, 2014

meena 1

Meena, the latest offering of the Jamshoro-based Sindhi band The Sketches, brings forth the issue of education for the girl-child as well as peace and harmony in a soft package.
Soft music, vocals, pretty cinematography and the moving image of a little girl-child from rural Sindh clutching her doll on her journey to school. Whether or not you understand the Sindhi language, this song’s video will strike a chord. Meena, the latest offering of the Jamshoro-based Sindhi band The Sketches, brings forth the issue of education for the girl-child as well as peace and harmony in a soft package that will tug at the heart strings of viewers.

meena 2

As Saif Samejo, the lead vocalist for The Sketches, croons in the backdrop of the scene of a child’s journey between dreams and reality, the seriousness of the problem hits home. And for once in a post-Malala world, the girl-child from a part of Pakistan other than Swat is the focal character.

This is the band behind the Lahooti Music Aashram, the first ever formal music school in Jamshoro and Hyderabad. The band became famous via Coke Studio 4 with the song Mand Waai.

It is encouraging that a song sung in a regional language is inspiring interest and making viewers think about the plight of the child who both wants, and deserves an education, but finds an empty ghost school staring back at her when she and her doll reach school. However, this sadness is coupled with hope at the end. This child grows up to be a teacher in the same school, teaching other little girls like her. One would hope that Sindhi language channels, as well as mainstream prime channels, will give this song its due acknowledgement.

meena 3

While being simplistic in its approach and trying to squeeze in more than one social message in a single song makes it a bit heavyheaded, the effort is one that needs to be lauded. Both the messages tackled in the song are important ones. With some 5.5 million Pakistani children out of school, according to the latest UNESCO report, Pakistan has the second highest number in the world for out of school children. Equally important is the sensitisation of people towards pluralism. “There is a dire need to provide a counter narrative,” is what Saif Samejo had said in an earlier interview with The Express Tribune, talking about the powerful impact of narratives that lead to extremism and sectarianism. He had added that “Sindh is a place where Ramdas and Allahdita are buried together, and nothing should threaten such pluralistic values.”

The stereotypical image of the people of Sindh as complacent and not into full-throttle social activism may be changed through the work of Sindhi musicians of today. They are out there with their messages, proactively talking about what they believe in, whether through satire like Ali Gul Pir, or through message-laden music like Saif Samejo. These musicians deserve a pat on the back for throwing a pebble in still waters. A ripple effect may well have begun.

Sindhi language and music stemming from the culture of Mehran already have an advantage when it comes to mysticism and spirituality. The message of peace thus comes naturally to them. It is also interesting to note that the message is coming from a province, the inherent history and culture of which boasts of harmony and peaceful co-existence. Thus, The Sketches have drawn upon the province’s inherent reservoir that brims with the message of peace.

Watch Video:

Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2014.
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Minority report: 1000 Christian & Hindu girls forcefully converted in 1 year

A matter of faith

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 9, 2014

Alarming statistics released by a report highlight forced conversions of women. ILLUSTRATION: FAIZAAN DAWOOD

As he cites the example of that case that happened in 2008 when two young Christian girls were abducted, the voice of Nadeem Anthony breaks with emotion. “During the last ten years, the Christian community has seen an increasing number of abductions of young girls and they being forcefully converted.
A big number of these girls are poor child labourers who work in brick kilns or as domestic help. Abductions from schools have also happened,” said Anthony, a lawyer, a Christian rights’ activist and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The case mentioned by Anthony was of the abduction of ten year old A and 13 year old S from Muzaffargarh district in Punjab. Both were converted forcefully, and one of them was forcefully married. Despite the case being highlighted, Anthony says only the younger girl could be recovered.
The issue of forced conversions is once again in the spotlight due to the findings of a report released on Monday by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan (MSP). The report titled “Forced marriages and forced conversions in the Christian community of Pakistan” states that an estimated 1,000 women from Christian and Hindu communities are forcibly converted and made to marry Muslim men in Pakistan every year. The report estimates that up to 700 of these women are Christian and 300 Hindu.
As 42 per cent of Pakistan’s minority population, the Christian community stands at over two million in number, mostly settled in Punjab. The report mentions that according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), 80 per cent of the minority community is poor while 40 per cent lives below the poverty line. Poverty, as always, makes them more vulnerable.

The pattern

The report describes a predictable pattern of what happens to these women. “Christian girls — usually between the ages of 12 and 25 — are abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or a third party. The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity. Upon production in the courts or before the magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or if she was abducted,” states the report.
By the time they come to the court, if at all, intimidation has taken its toll. “We have followed up a lot of cases. By the time the girls are produced in court, they say under pressure that they have converted of their own free will, because in a lot of cases they are living with the abductor during court proceedings. Survival becomes tough under pressure,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP.
The report raises valid concerns about the future of these women. “Once in the custody of the abductor, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse,” states the report.

Willful conversions

Providing recommendations that can help solve the problems, the report also touches upon the societal attitudes that end up granting immunity to the perpetrators of crimes.
“If the girl is an adult and converts out of her own will, then it is her choice. Then that is not forced. However in most cases even if the husband accepts her wholeheartedly, the family of the boy never accepts her. They taunt her with titles like choori (sweeper) for life. In many cases they send the girl back to her parents,” says Anthony.
The entire social context has to be seen when analysing the issue, and the MSP report does that. Touching upon the historical and social contexts, the report discusses the grievances of Pakistan’s Christian community.
Yusuf is of the opinion that “even if the girl is willfully converting, the issue is actually connected to the broader issue of tolerance for minorities in Pakistani society. We have to give minorities the space to practise their faith.”
Anthony appreciates the efforts of voices like that of Maulana Abdul Khabeer Azad, the Khateeb of Badshahi Masjid, among others, who support what is just and fair. In the opinion of Anthony, one of the reasons for the recent spike in migrations of the Christian community members to countries like Thailand and Malaysia is that they feel scared for their girls.
“What is happening is unacceptable. The findings of the report should be taken seriously and the government should take notice of this,” says Anthony.
Along with the report, an appeal was issued by the MSP. An inclusive coalition is being mobilised by the MSP to sensitise people about this important issue.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2014.

Need to make Karachi more resilient in face of natural disasters

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 6, 2014

According to Ahmed, an earthquake would result in 87 per cent of Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s buildings being partly damaged or completely destroyed. PHOTO: PAKISTAN RED CRESCENT SOCIETY-SINDH FACEBOOK PAGE

The city boasts a population of at least 20 million, placed in one of the world’s most seismically active regions — on top of three tectonic fault lines.
With a population density of 4,000 per kilometre, research shows that Karachi is the world’s third-most congested city. It is a coastal city and, considering its location, it is fortunate that no recent major natural disasters have been recorded.
But if they do, and a cyclone or earthquake does hit Karachi, is the city prepared? More importantly, are its people prepared? Are they trained enough to know what must be done?
To address these questions, a seminar on ‘Humanitarian Response on Urban Disasters’ was organised by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society Sindh, with the support of the International Red Cross Committee.
As experts shared their knowledge, those who understood the importance of the subject listened intently, while others in the audience continued to chat in hushed tones instead of listening to what may, one day, prove to be potentially life-saving information.
The seminar focused on three key themes. The first was response, which included recovery and relief procedures in case of a disaster. The second was resilience, which was about working towards the community’s adaptation in case of any potential hazard. The final was transformation, which discussed how to make the community less vulnerable to natural disasters.
What would become of Gulshan-e-Iqbal?
Professor M Ahmed of the NED University of Engineering and Technology presented the findings of his research paper, titled ‘Seismic Risk Assessment’, and the findings are alarming, to say the least.
According to the academic, his study, which focused on Gulshan-e-Iqbal as a sample of Karachi, is 85 per cent accurate. The research involved studying in great detail, the buildings of the area — the architecture and the building materials used and hence, their vulnerability in the face of an earthquake. According to Ahmed, an earthquake of average strength would result in 87 per cent of the area’s buildings being partly damaged or completely destroyed.
Risks and solutions
“Karachi has more people living within a 30-km radius of its nuclear plant than any other city in the world – around eight million,” said the former Sindh IG, Niaz Siddiqui, who talked about ‘Reducing Social Vulnerabilities to Urban Disasters’. “We are not prepared and we must raise awareness.”
However, he added that there is a difference between early warnings and creating panic. “Warnings empower, while panic does the exact opposite,” he said. In this context, he emphasised that the media must exercise restraint in the wake of such situations.
Siddiqui then discussed global instances where disasters relating to radioactivity have caused havoc. “Luckily Pakistan does not have such a history [of a radioactive disaster],” he said.
The director of the Karachi Regional Metrological Centre, Sardar Sarfaraz, while presenting his findings and experiences on ‘Threats of Coastal Disaster to Urban Settings’, reminded the audience of previous disasters and discussed the risks Karachi faces due to its location. “April to June and October to November are the most vulnerable months in terms of cyclone development,” he said.
A representative of the Pakistan Disaster Management Authority explained that the government’s task becomes tougher in the face of disasters because of Pakistan’s uneven population density and the diverse geographical characteristics of various regions. “Poverty feeds vulnerabilities,” he said, echoing what most speakers had shared.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2014.