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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Poverty is sexist

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi
sexist

If you are a woman and you have an education, you are either from a privileged background or are simply lucky. There are 796 million illiterate people on this earth; women comprise two-thirds of them. Each year a girl spends in school can boost her future income by 10-20 per cent. A lack of education, in turn, will translate into lesser economic empowerment.

Let’s get specific. If the women of the world had primary education, there would be 15 per cent fewer child deaths, saving 900,000 lives a year on the planet. Excitingly, if all women had secondary education, child deaths could be reduced by 49 per cent, saving 2.8 million lives. There would be 64 per cent fewer early marriages and 59 per cent fewer early-age pregnancies. But poverty is relentless, especially when it comes to women. Some 800 women die every day the world over from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. In the absence of any reliable data, experts estimate that Pakistan loses 30,000 women every year under the title of maternal mortality.

Rightly considered the most vulnerable community, women, along with their children, suffer most at the hands of conflict, natural disasters, and especially, poverty. Much more than their male counterparts. Even if statistics are to be left aside, a few facts are obvious. From the son being preferred when parents decide which child to send to school to who gets the better piece of meat at dinner, the disparity among the underprivileged strata in Pakistan is obvious. Women, though they carry out strenuous work and bear children, are neglected even in terms of their nutritional requirements being met. A big percentage of our population is unregistered and has no CNICs, the number of females with identity cards is even fewer. This is indicative of a clear social tilt. In the absence of the CNIC, these women have little hope of attaining higher education, being owners of property, having a bank account, or even having a personal mobile phone and access to digital technology. Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand, and a lack of education breeds a culture of violence against women.

Statistics, however, cannot be left aside. Talking of gender inequality, poverty definitely has a woman’s face. Women, on an average, get 40 per cent less salary at workplaces in the Saarc region than their male colleagues. Pakistan, a developing country of the region, is not among the 48 least developed countries in the world. Yet, Pakistan’s performance in terms of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) is one of the worst. Pakistan has a GII value of 0.563, slipping down to 126th out of 149 countries in the 2013 index. According to an Oxfam study titled ‘Multiple Inequalities and Policies to Mitigate Inequality Traps in Pakistan (March 2015)’, Pakistan ranks last in women participation in the workforce among the Saarc countries. They comprise 42 per cent of the total family labour but are mostly unacknowledged.

While travelling through Pakistan by road, more women can be seen working in fields than men. However, 80 per cent of these women are given no more status but being regarded as unpaid family workers. They work in the fields all their lives, yet own less than three per cent of the land. If the world provides female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers and closes the gender gap in agriculture, it could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 per cent, raise economic output by 2.5-4 per cent, and reduce the number of people who go hungry by 12-17 per cent globally. The world, by recognising the contribution of women and providing them the same opportunities in the agricultural field, could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100-150 million the world over, says research by ONE, an international campaigning and advocacy organisation, spearheading the “Poverty is Sexist” campaign. The burden of poverty is heavy enough on entire families. Yet women, wrongly called the weaker sex, end up carrying a bigger burden of poverty than the men. The burden must be shared to provide holistic relief to communities globally.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th,  2015.

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We need to stop treating menstruation as a ‘fault’

Published: May 28, 2015

The bloody taboo refuses to be broken. Recently, an urban affluent woman was overheard commenting that advertisements for these products should be banned. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

“So what do you do when you… you know… have your monthly period?” I said to my domestic helper, after my mouth-gaping-open-in-shock reaction was over and I found my voice.

For an urban woman, what she was telling me was unthinkable. I was truly scandalised that many women in Pakistan’s underprivileged parts walk around with no sanitary cloth or napkins when they have their menstrual period. Others do use folded pieces of cloth, she told me, but even then the hygiene conditions she was describing were hardly satisfactory.

The year was 2010. Pakistan had been hit by one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history – floods that affected the lives of some 20 million people. My friends and I were collecting donations and sending them off to remote villages and affected areas. Those working on ground were asking us to send dry food items, bedding, medicines, clothes and basic items like soaps and sanitary napkins.

“People here are breaking out into skin infections due to the stagnating dirty water. Women need their supplies for menstrual hygiene,” was the message we got.

Yet, here was a Pakistani woman hailing from a rural area, educating me in a basic reality – that even if we did send sanitary napkins, would those women, for whom even seeing a midwife in pregnancy is a luxury, know how to use it?

But then, realistically, is menstrual hygiene even a priority to ponder about for people living below the poverty line, unable to even get two square meals? It is all good, noble and convenient for me and my likes, to sit in our comfortable homes in the cities and talk down to poor women about how filthy is the way they handle something so basic. The reality is they have not had the exposure, nor the access to things we take for granted.

As the world celebrates Global Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, how far is Pakistan, in reality, from providing its female citizens the means to go through a natural physiological process with dignity?

Research points out that almost 50 per cent of Pakistani girls in rural areas and underprivileged circumstances miss school during their menstrual period, and absenteeism in school can improve drastically if they have access to protective material and proper toilet facilities at school. Yet, sanitary cloth and napkins remain not a basic need but a luxury for Pakistan’s daughters who cannot afford them, or are simply unaware. The problem becomes even gorier when faced by displaced women living in slums, camps for IDPs or in nomadic setups.

To go through their monthly cycle hygienically and in a dignified manner, girls and women need access to water and proper sanitation. Privacy is needed to change; water and soap is needed to wash their hands and the cloths if they are using those, and means to either dispose used materials or a private place to dry them in case of reusable cloths.

Poverty, however, is not the only issue here. The bloody taboo refuses to be broken. Recently, an urban affluent woman was overheard commenting that advertisements for these products should be banned. Giving credit where due, advertisements for sanitary napkins are actually now more decent than many other ads, and are actually more educative in nature in an attempt to raise awareness.

A two-pronged approach will, therefore, have to be adopted to help women of Pakistantriumph against the lack of a basic human right. For starters, they will have to be educated about the health-related consequences of not maintaining menstrual hygiene management(MHM). As a society, we will have to learn more about it. Systems have to be evolved for disposal of the waste cloths and napkins to not make it an environmental hazard, as well as let women have the dignity to dispose it respectfully.

Secondly, access to products that help women at a low cost is something we need to think about. Whether it be clean cotton or rags, or affordable napkins, women everywhere should have the right to procure them and use them. We need more initiatives to address the problem.

It is time the world stops treating menstruation as a fault for which women continue to pay a price by facing embarrassment and helplessness.

The poor woman’s disease: Living in pain for 25 years, Sursan Bibi smiles again

Published: May 22, 2015
The midwives of Koohi Goth Hospital. PHOTO: COURTESY FAISAL SAYANI

The midwives of Koohi Goth Hospital. PHOTO: COURTESY FAISAL SAYANI

QUETTA / KARACHI: For 25 long years, Sursan Bibi guarded a secret, one that she has only told her husband, Musa Khan, about. Sursan had an obstetric fistula, the pain of which is only exacerbated by the sense of shame that comes with leaking urine uncontrollably.

The prospect of treatment only came up recently, when a flyer about fistula and its treatment reached her village. Travelling 400 kilometres from Harnai district, her eldest son Hazrat brought her to Quetta. While her surgery was successful, Sursan, now 65, regrets the years of her life that were wasted.

Known as ‘the poor woman’s disease’, the obstetric fistula develops in prolonged labour when the mother cannot seek proper medical care or reach a trained midwife in time. “The baby’s head may get stuck in the birth canal and if it keeps pushing against the thin wall between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum, it causes a tear,” explains Dr Suboohi Mehdi, a surgeon at Karachi’s Koohi Goth Hospital, Pakistan’s most well-known hospital for the treatment of fistula. The result is urine or stool incontinence. For such women, who leak waste continually and are ostracised from society, normal life becomes a distant dream.

Sursan, married too early, gave birth to five children at home with the help of a dai (traditional birth attendant). In her village, the women are allowed to leave their homes only to visit relatives or take cattle for grazing; they are not allowed to seek medical help without being accompanied by their male relatives.

A day after her third child was born, she started to leak urine. The smell was unbearable. The dai told her husband that it would get better in a few days but days turned into decades, during which she bore two more children. Unlike most women suffering from this condition, Sursan’s husband didn’t abandon her.

Parts of Balochistan, like most underprivileged parts of Pakistan, have a high incidence of fistula. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) provincial coordinator Ahsan Tabasum, talking to The Express Tribunein Quetta, says that the UNFPA and Pakistan National Forum for Women Health (PNFWH) are working together to eradicate this disease from Balochistan.

“We have centres for fistula treatment in three hospitals in Quetta, where the patients are treated free of charge,” he discloses. Around 515 patients have received treatment here since 2006, with a success rate of over 90 per cent, while the UNFPA has helped over 5,000 women in Pakistan with surgical treatment for the disease through its seven regional centres in the country.

A lot of women travel all the way from all provinces to Karachi to get treatment at Koohi Goth Hospital. Surgeons here are trying to salvage 33-years-old Gulzada Zaman’s bladder. But for Gulzada, it may already be too late. “If only a skilled midwife would have told her in time that her next delivery should be surgically done, this girl’s life could have been saved,” laments Noor Gul, a midwife who has been serving at Koohi Goth since nine years. “The lack of awareness, and how easily the disease can be avoided, is very frustrating. Doctors cannot always reach far flung areas, so the key is having trained midwives in every part of Pakistan,” she says.

Noor and her colleagues have to not only bathe and clean the patients who arrive after strenuous journeys, but also have to psychologically counsel them and make them believe that they are not “unclean”. Complicated cases require more than one surgery, and treatment and rehabilitation can take months.

Another kind of fistula, fast increasing in number, is the iatrogenic fistula which develops when an unskilled surgeon performs a surgery poorly due to malpractice and lack of training.

UNFPA has supported more than 5000 women to receive surgical treatment for fistula in Pakistan through their seven regional centres in the country. The campaign involves three key strategies – prevention, treatment and social reintegration of survivors. Yet, more needs to be done. According to Tariq Nisar, Media Coordinator for PNFWH, “an estimated 3000 to 5000 year new cases develop each year in Pakistan.” Women like Sursan who suffer from obstetric fistula are usually among the hardest to reach, and are often illiterate and with limited access maternal and reproductive health care. With gender and socio-economic inequality, lack of schooling, child marriage and early child bearing already holding back Pakistan’s underprivileged women, patients smelling due to the fistula suffer from further marginalization. Even when cured, the psychological impacts remain, and many are abandoned by families too.

Meanwhile, Sursan Bibi’s smile has returned. “I will not advise any woman in my village to go to the dai,” she vows. “Instead, I will urge them to visit the gynaecologist.”

Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2015. 

8 Pakistani women you should follow on Twitter

Published: May 19, 2015
PHOTO: TWITTER

PHOTO: TWITTER

Though expansive in its content, a recently combined list of Twitter accounts belonging to Muslim women from around the world lacked representation from Pakistan.

Here at The Express Tribune, we compiled our own list of 8 Pakistani women that we believe you must follow. Our list consists of Pakistani women from all walks of life: journalists, activists, academics, actors and authors. Following these women is a must for those looking to gain an added perspective to the rather male-dominated public opinion.

1. @MehreenKasana

PHOTO: TWITTER

Her bio is three words long: one woman army. And that is precisely what Mehreen Kasana is. Not only is she one of Pakistan’s top bloggers, but it is her unique take on things that makes her a top choice for our list. She is an activist and a progressive, through and through. She speaks loudly and bravely against racism and Islamophobia and truly thinks outside the box. Mehreen is one of those who build bridges between extremes.

2. @SanaSaleem

PHOTO: TWITTER

Though Sana is widely known as a rights activist, her humour and her anecdotes with her Daadi are worth a read. Director of “Bolo Bhi”, Sana is a fearless voice against state censorship, and an expert in digital rights and security. She says what she has to by cloaking it in biting wit.

3. @SheikhImaan

PHOTO: TWITTER

With the wittiest sense of humour, hands down, Imaan is an entertainer and wins over tweeps with her charm. Agree with her or not, you cannot ignore her. Reading any tweet by the Buzzfeed author is either time well spent or time well wasted.

4. @SamarMinallahKh

PHOTO: TWITTER

She makes us proud simply with all the good work she does. Anthropologist and documentary film-maker, Samar’s work for women’s rights, especially child marriage, has changed many lives for the better. Her roots are firmly planted in indigenous sensibilities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa from where she hails, and her work is thus respected both locally and globally.

5. @Mehreen Zahra-Malik

PHOTO: TWITTER

The Reuters correspondent for Pakistan is a great source for the latest rumblings in Islamabad. She might get a few details wrong here and there, but for the most part Malik tackles stories that local media can’t or won’t.

6. @Zofeen28

PHOTO: FACEBOOK

As one of Pakistan’s most respected feature writers and journalists, she brings to the fore issues that need to be highlighted. If you want to read human interest stories, this is the account to follow.

7. @NJLahori

PHOTO: TWITTER

Nadia Jamil, darling of the people, is as popular on Twitter as she is otherwise. The activist-actor, and self-claimed foodie, brings to you the much-needed zest of Lahore.

8. @RafiaZakaria

PHOTO: TWITTER

Attorney, political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Ms Zakaria is popular not without reason. She gives a less myopic and more global picture of issues that face present day Pakistan and the world.

https://twitter.com/rafiazakaria/status/595249549343629312

 

Dementia: Still Ammi

Published: May 18, 2015

“So what exactly is wrong with your mother?”

This is a question I kept hearing for seven years. Initially, I would reply, “She has let herself go after my father’s death” or that “she is depressed.” My responses have kept changing over time, as I learnt, unlearnt and relearnt about my mother’s condition, because what she was going through was much more than just melancholy or depression. The shock of my father’s death had triggered the progressive disease called dementia.

My mother showed no symptoms earlier in her life that could have indicated she could be prone to dementia. All I remember is that in her forties, she developed insomnia and began relying on sleeping pills. She often forgot where she had left the keys. There would also be bouts of paranoia wherein she felt she was being watched by someone or that someone was trying to harm her. My family and I shrugged them off, thinking she was overly cautious. Throughout this time, Ammi remained functional, meticulously managing her home, family and relationships.

Her dementia began progressing after an emotional trauma at a later stage in life, in her case the loss of a spouse and so, the deterioration began. Within months, she seemed to have aged by a decade. She was at a loss for words — literally. Having lost one parent already, we — my siblings and I, all adults — felt a double loss. We kept calling on psychiatrists and urging Ammi to stay strong. But today, we understand that she was never weak —  she was just not well.

Since then, her dementia has drastically progressed. While all the medical information one might require is available on the internet, personal details on how you can deal with dementia are sparse. It is amongst the most common ailments of old age but unfortunately goes undiagnosed and misunderstood in our society. While, I know some of my family members will disapprove of me writing about this private family ordeal, someone must speak out to create awareness regarding this debilitating condition. With this, I hope to offer support to patients, family members and caregivers who share what my precious mother and family went through and are going through on a daily basis. Since knowing Ammi, she would have wanted me to share anything that could help others.

demen

“You say she has dementia but remembers your name?”

How does one explain to an unassuming friend or relative what exactly dementia is. Most people don’t take it seriously unless you call it Alzheimer’s disease. We have all heard about Alzheimer’s so I suppose it rings a bell but in reality, the two conditions are very different. According to the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) USA, dementia is a mental disorder that affects communication and physical performance adversely while Alzheimer’s specifically hampers the parts of the brain responsible for memory, language and thought control.

Memory loss is, nonetheless, one of the main aspects of dementia. It isn’t just the names and faces of people that a patient forgets. For instance, one of the key tests our geriatric specialist (an old age specialist, in layman terms) ran on Ammi involved asking if she remembered which day it was and if she could tell the time on the clock. When she couldn’t, her dementia was confirmed. With one’s thinking affected, basic functions start getting compromised, specially language, vocabulary and communication. A patient knows what an object such as a spoon or a glass is for and uses it as well but has forgotten what it is called. He or she knows if she has a headache but has forgotten to call it a headache. They know what they feel like eating but forget the name of the fruit, vegetable or dish.

But what is truly amazing is that in most cases, the patient’s consciousness does not alter until the very last stages. Even if Ammi struggles with my name, she knows who I am. Social skills remain intact until the advanced stages so even if they don’t recognise visitors, patients generally make normal, pleasant and general conversation. However, they do realise something is not quite right with their memory and try to cover it up with generic responses. Often when someone asks Ammi if she recognises them, she smiles and says “How could I not?” She has forgotten their name but is aware that it is someone she knows and that it would be rude to admit she didn’t recognise them.

In a strange way, it is comforting to know that your loved one still feels the important things in life: a connection with other humans and the Almighty. The ability to laugh, cry and experience pain and joy are blessings that stay with the patient until the dementia progresses beyond limits. 

“I have forgotten how to walk!”

In the advanced stages of dementia, things start getting serious with various symptoms (sometimes irreversible) manifesting themselves. For instance, one morning Ammi stood up and wouldn’t walk forward. “I don’t know how to walk,” she kept repeating while we urged her to take a step, eventually giving up and letting her return to bed. Ironically, the next morning, she was walking again, with support as per normal. The doctors attributed this to a “mini stroke” which admittedly frightened us but we were assured that such episodes are common during old age. Over time, we learned to watch out for sudden changes in Ammi’s personality, behaviour or body language for possible signs of mini strokes and to deal with them accordingly.

A patient suffering from dementia often forgets how to chew and swallow. They can no longer gulp down food and water as normally as they used to. The result can be not eating enough, which may lead to wastage and eventually starvation if nutrition is not given to the body by alternate means. Another complication of this is Aspiration Pneumonia, which happens when food particles enter the lower airways, causing repeated bacterial infection. The patient can also lose bladder control and forget how to exercise basic functions like passing stool or urine, which we take for granted. The result is urinary tract infection, among many other, related problems. 

The caretakers, in this process, learn new concepts, and their vocabulary increases. Words like dignity sheets, silicon catheters, zinc oxide and peg tube are new to us. Before my mother went through this, I did not know who a geriatric doctor was. A more difficult word we learnt is “Palliative care” which is specialised care for serious patients with ongoing illnesses. Some doctors will, when you ask them what it means, say that it means “end of life care”. But that is not so in all cases, and many patients successfully come back from the palliative care stage to rehabilitation. In Pakistan’s urban centres, certain hospitals have begun home based geriatric and palliative care systems so that the patient can get the best care at home.

“But life goes on.” Or does it?

Life does not go on — at least not for the caretaker of someone with a progressive mental illness. Just recently, I texted a friend who has experienced a similar situation with a loved one and although we hadn’t spoken in months, she immediately understood how I felt. I told her that I was breaking and she said, “It does things to you. It alters you in strange ways.”

Truer words have never been spoken. The helplessness of a parent — someone whom you have grown looking up to — is perhaps one of the worst heartaches in the world. Not only must you watch them suffer but the child inside of you dies bit by bit, no matter how old you are.  Accepting that the person who raised you is no longer functional or needs an attendant or a nurse for the most menial of tasks is extremely difficult. Accepting that someone who loved food will never again eat by mouth due to the risk of aspirating and must be fed via a feeding peg in the abdomen is tough. Accepting that they will be bed-bound and catheterised for their remaining days takes a toll on you too.  In the midst of managing nursing staff, memorising sheets of medication and managing doctor appointments, one forgets that life was ever normal.

There is also that unsaid fear when a voice in the head whispers: What if you inherit your mother’s condition too? Over time, you learn to not dwell on the thought, pray to God that that does not happen, and move on.

It took me a while to accept that in so many ways, my mother is exactly like an infant. We make her do exercises and play games with her that will improve her motor skills. We sing her nursery rhymes and songs that she enjoys. Her eyes light up when she sees us. Her needs, now, are very basic, just like a child’s. But through it all, she still is our Ammi.

A few silver linings and things to do 

Here is what you can do to help yourselves and your loved ones through their illnesses: 

•  Balance and manage your work and families well and take care of yourself physically and spiritually, otherwise you end up being of no use to your loved one.

•  Breaks are a must, as is taking turns if there is more than one caretaker. It is at times like these that one thanks God profusely for the family values that help us stick together.

•  Try to spread awareness about dementia and similar disorders among your social orbit. There is still a general lack of knowledge and social attitudes need improving. For starters, tell visitors, politely, that they cannot discuss the patient’s condition in front of them.

•  Choose good doctors who can be reached at any time. Have numbers and contacts of nursing staff ready. Emergency medicines and numbers of ambulances are a must.

•  Try and develop an inclusive culture when it comes to older people in society. They need not be isolated and confined to their room.

•  Spend as much time with them as possible. Company, care and encouragement can result in surprising improvement.

•  Learn to retain the good counsel and support you get from understanding friends and relatives. Ignore patronising attitudes and unsolicited advice. Each patient is different and each family’s situation varies.

•  It helps to stay positive in such a situation and remember the good times. Keep telling yourself that your loved one has, for the most part, led a full life and that their present state doesn’t define who they are or were. Faith and prayer helps you stay strong.

•  Talk to others who have been through the same. You will realise that many other people have gone through this and you are not alone.

•  Cherish this time. It will pass, as will the exhaustion. Enjoy the physical warmth, love and the prayers of your parent.

•  Most importantly, do not give up on someone just because they are old. Even if you cannot cure the disease, there is so much you can do to make them feel comfortable and feel loved.

Understanding dementia 

Dementia is caused when the brain cells fail to communicate with each other. Damaging of nerve cells that may occur in several areas of the brain is why dementia affects people differently, depending on the area that is affected. However, even though the symptoms may vary, some of the common ones include:

Cognitive changes:

– Memory loss

– Difficulty communicating or finding words

– Difficulty with complex tasks

– Difficulty with planning and organising

– Difficulty with coordination and motor functions

– Problems of disorientation

Psychological changes:

– Personality changes

– Inability to reason behaviour

– Inappropriate behaviour

– Paranoia

– Agitation

– Hallucinations

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, May 17th, 2015.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/886462/dementia-still-ammi/

Importance of hand hygiene

Published: May 7, 2015

http://tribune.com.pk/story/882229/importance-of-hand-hygiene/

Are you one of those people who shake hands with people and go take out a fancy fruity hand sanitiser from your bag and rub it when that person has left and feel you are completely safe now? While that is a smart thing to do, it is not enough. Yesterday, May 5, the world celebrated Hand Hygiene Day, a good day to take stock of how clean your hands are.

While hand sanitisers are a good way of killing bacteria and viruses, there are a few mistakes that we make. For starters, we believe it is a substitute for washing hands, which it’s not. Many bacteria are resistant to sanitisers. Also, sanitisers at best kill up to 60 per cent of the germs, while a good scrubby washing of the hands can potentially kill up to a 100 per cent germs. Hand sanitisers are a very effective additional tool, but cannot replace soap and water.

We also use too little of sanitisers, using drops instead of a more generous blob. Thus, they lend us a ‘feel’ of cleanliness but do not actually make us germ-free. Our cell phones, keyboards, door handles and kitchen counters are breeding grounds for infections. We also somehow believe the more affluent people have less infectious handshakes, which is not always the case.

Clean hands can potentially save eight million lives in the world every year. One place to watch out is hospitals that are breeding grounds for Healthcare-associated infections. Health care givers, in particular nurses and vaccinators, have to make sure they save lives, not take them. Patients need to learn to demand that doctors and nurses use gloves.

It is not enough that our own hands are clean. The message must be spread to everyone you come in contact with. Some 100-150 children die daily in Pakistan because of diarrhoeal related complications, while 60-75 million people in the country suffer from diarrhoea each year. The World Health Organisation’s table showing distribution of causes of death of Pakistani children under the age of five shows that 11 per cent of these deaths are caused by diarrhoea. Diarrhoeal diseases caused 63.7 thousand deaths in the country in the year 2012. And the single most effective way of safeguarding yourself and others against this is encouraging a culture of maintaining hand hygiene.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2015. 

Forced to sell alcohol: Why is the ‘ummah’ silent over the plight of Chinese Muslims?

Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes. PHOTO: AFP

Imagine if you are a vegetarian Hindu and hold the cow sacred, that beef is shoved into your mouth. Imagine if you are a staunch Christian, that you are forbidden to baptise your newborn baby.

Painful? Yes.

Some of us may even say what’s new in this, and Pakistan’s minorities have suffered this and more. And they have. And no minority anywhere in the world should have to go through this.

But there is a huge difference in this and what is happening to the Muslims in Xinjiangprovince in China. In Pakistan, this is done at the hands of extremists. But in China, it is at an official level that Muslims are forbidden from practicing Islam. The last year or more has seen repeated incidents of Muslims, a religious minority in China, being coerced into going against their religious beliefs. That too under state patronage.

To remind ourselves, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan’s bestie, is where media is stillstate-owned. Instead of monitoring media, they control it! Coercion is also a norm when it comes to the nation’s reproductive health decisions. While family planning is a legitimate aim, the modus operandi is faulty and against the spirit of human freedom to lead lives as they see fit.

What is happening in Xinjiang is another example of this tendency we see in China. While it is justified if China wants to mitigate extremist groups in the region, why must all Muslims in the region have to suffer because of what some are doing?

It makes one shudder to see the news and images that on social media in recent months. Imams being forced to dance, fasting being banned, women being forcibly stopped from wearing veils and men not being allowed to grow beards . The imams were, in fact, made to swear to an oath that they would not teach religion to their children. They were forced to tell children that prayer was harmful for the soul and had to chant the slogan that,

“Our income comes from the CKP (Chinese Communist Party) not from Allah (SWT)”.

In a verdict that made headlines, a court in China sentenced a Uighur Muslim man to six years in prison for “provoking trouble” and growing a beard. His wife also, reportedly, was served a two-year sentence for using a veil to cover her face.

The recent most bit of news is very disturbing. Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and display them in eye-catching ways to undermine Islam’s influence on locals and as part of a campaign to weaken religion, according to reports.

While extremism leading to terrorism is something every nation will deal with in its own way, reactive policies end up, in fact, further fuelling extremism. The more you try to stop something by force and not via dialogue, the more it will get inflamed. The cycle of hate and violence will continue if we keep pushing communities and people against the wall.

While the Pakistan-China friendship is encouraging for our nation, one is forced to wonder how come our rulers, who claim to be staunch Muslims, have not raised their voice against all this in any forum. Is it a case of vested interests silencing an important issue?

Sadly, Pakistan is not the only Muslim country that has remained silent on this issue. The “ummah” remains conspicuous by its absence as usual, chooses its battles wisely, and only fights for causes that have an incentive in the end. There is no one to fight for the underdog. In this case, that is the Chinese Muslims. It seems that China is too strong, and the world is too enamoured by it or too indebted to it to take up this human rights issue.

What these people are being subjected to leaves us also with another introspection in the end. Part of the problem here is stereotyping. The beard. The pants above the ankles. The burqa. The face veil. Things that are expressions of a centuries’ old faith are being seen as signature marks of extremism, so much so that peace loving Muslims face reverse discrimination in their own communities and in their own homeland.

The next time we assess someone on the basis of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes we have been fed, let us check ourselves for unfairness that we all are often guilty of.