Advice to Pakistani girls who ‘commit’ love marriage

If you have married the man of your own choice (as opposed to the man your parents selected for you), never ever trust your parents who ask you to come back and they would arrange your marriage with the person of your choice. Never every go back to your parents. Never ever get emotionally blackmailed. You will not remain alive. I have come across so many cases in my 8 years association with Bedari (an organization that provides support to women/girls facing gender based violence) that I have lost count.

Zeenat murdered for committing the crime of marrying the person of her choice.

The girl is emotionally blackmailed and convinced into returning to her parents’ home. She is often promised that a proper marriage ceremony would be held, and she would be sent with her groom as per the customs and traditions of the society. Thus the family’s honor would be safe. However,  in every such case, the girl is killed – sometimes immediately, sometimes later on. In one case the girl was killed almost 2 years later by her male cousin in Chakwal. In another case in Depalpur (District Okara), a girl was killed 3 years later by her male relatives. Saba - The Girl in The River

This happened to Zeenat, who returned to her parents, and her own mother allegedly burnt her alive. This happened to Saba (the girl whose story is depicted in the Oscar winning documentary ‘A Girl in the River’. I have yet to come across a case in which such a girl returned to her parents, and she remained alive afterwards.
It is ironic to note that parents usually swear by Allah and the Holy Quran while promising her safety, but as soon as the girl returns home, they forget about Allah and the holy Quran, and kill her.

Trip to Netherlands – Some Interesting Observations

DSC_0750Recently, I had a chance to spend a few days in the Netherlands. It was my first ever visit to any European country. So here are some interesting observations:
  1. Everybody knows English: What I have heard from my friends about European countries is that people do not speak English (or they don’t want to). However, in Netherlands, it was different. I think I can’t recall any person who could not speak English. I had no problem in communicating with the people on the street, asking for directions, or sharing a comment. However, the sign boards usually do not have English.
  2. Orange is yellow: On breakfast table, I found a jug of juice. The liquid was of yellow color, so I assumed it to be mango juice. However, it turned out to be orange juice. Mango was not found anywhere. It seems the Netherlands needs to import mangoes from Pakistan. Mango exporters! Did you hear me?
  3. It is the winds: The sunlight is quite unbearable, but the cold winds keep blowing all the time, and keep everything cold. If you sit in behind a glass wall (so that sunlight can reach you but you are safe from wind), you would not be able to bear the heat. I did this experiment in a building in Amsterdam.
  4. Water .. it seems nobody drinks water in Netherlands. Here in Pakistan, water is a taken-for-granted thing. Hotels/guest houses would most probably provide free (or at least one bottle/day) water to its guests even without asking for it. We can’t even think of having no water on dining table at lunch/dinner. But there in the Netherlands, you need to ask for it. May be, it is because Pakistan is a hot country, and Netherlands is a very cold place. Still you need to drink water. I shared my observation with my hosts at ICDI, and they agreed that their water in-take is usually low. It was interesting to note that the next day at least one of the employees at ICDI was keeping a jug of water on her desk.
  5. Very Few Pakistani Immigrants: There are very few Pakistani immigrants, and they are scattered. So you don’t find a mini Pakistan anywhere in the Netherlands. My Pakistani host in Amsterdam thought that it was consciously designed policy of their government to keep immigrants scattered, so that they mingle with the local people rather than create their own exclusive communities (it was just his opinion, he had no solid information about such policy). However, Pakistanis have created their own exclusive communities in other European countries including England. My host told me an interesting anecdote: ‘Once I visited England, and saw that the locality had exclusively Pakistani people. I asked my host if there were any English people living in that particular locality; my host replied in Punjab that there were no “foreigners” in that locality’.
  6. Pakistani Philanthropists: Many Pakistanis living abroad want to contribute to the betterment of the society back home, but have been facing problems. It is especially the case with Pakistanis who want to contribute to worldly betterment as opposed to religious charity. Those who want to do religious charity have plenty of opportunities as they can support religious schools (madrassah) or mosques of their own sect. But those who want to contribute to education, health, disability etc. are thoroughly constrained. Pakistanis in the Netherlands particularly asked me to develop some reliable system for them. I told them I am already working on an online platform to connect needy people in Pakistan with philanthropists around the world.

Shattering Myths about Partition

Voice of Partition LogoMany myths about ‘Independence’ or partition were shattered. I had the honor of being part of a wonderful project Voices of Partition’ (VoP) – a project of Theatre Wallay (TW) funded and supported by many institutions and individuals including US Embassy in Islamabad, USEFP, Fulbright Commission, State Department (USA), and many individuals who contributed in cash or kind. The details of the project can be seen on TW website. Here I will give you a brief overview.
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Scene from the Play – People migrating to unknown land

VoP team went out to cities and villages in search of people who had migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition of India (1947), and recorded their interviews. We interviewed nearly 100 persons – men and women from various backgrounds now in their 70s and 80s. Quite a few of them passed away since we interviewed them. (We had no means to record stories of people who had migrated from Pakistan to India.)

Their true stories were, then, turned into a play, and performed in Islamabad, Lahore, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. In Pakistan, it was performed in Urdu, while in USA it was performed in English.
It was an intense experience for me. Being a resident of Kohat, Pakhtoonkhwa, I (or my family) was not much affected by partition. Yet I could not remain aloof to partition as it was there all over my textbooks. Additionally, most of my schooling was done in Punjab, and stories of Partition were everywhere around me.
As we progressed with our project, it turned out that all the stories written in our textbooks were just myths. The real stories told by these old men and women shattered those  myths, and changed our perception of the partition completely. It helped break the stereotypes like:
  1. Muslims and Hindus were always at each others’ throat. We interviewed about 100 people, and almost all of them started their stories by narrating that they enjoyed good relations with their Hindu/Sikh neighbors. In our textbooks, this peaceful co-existence is never mentioned. They did mention some tensions occasionally, but the situation would normalize within days, and sometimes it remained confined to a two families, and did not affect the whole community. This happens almost everywhere – wherever two communities live together. No matter the communities are divided on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or any other.
  2. The Muslims of India were dying to migrate to Pakistan. From each story, it is very clear that nobody wanted to leave the land where they were born and raised. They had strong bond with those areas, and they wanted to stay, but the riots, arson, looting, and killings, forced them to leave. So many of them originally planned to go back to their ancestral towns/villages after the situation normalized. But international borders were drawn, and return was made impossible. Some old men and women, during these interviews, recalled their ancestral villages as their ‘watan’. Most of them had not come to terms with their new homeland.
  3. People living in same villages turned against each other. During riots, people of different faiths living in the same villages/communities did not attack one another.  In fact, they tried their best to protect their neighbors irrespective of their faith. Muslim migrants told us of stories of how their Hindu/Sikh neighbors tried to protect them from other Hindus/Sikhs, and similarly Muslims on this side of the border told us stories of how they tried to protect their Hindu neighbors when other Muslims wanted to kill them. The attackers always came from other often far off places, and killed people whom they did not know personally.
These lessons are very important for those struggling to promote peace, tolerance, and co-existence. Both the states – India and Pakistan – need to learn lessons from this. They are  spending billions of dollars on weapons, and both of them have millions of people living below poverty line.
We, Pakistanis, need to pay more attention. We allowed this hate mongering to go on unchecked (rather actively facilitated it). We refused to allow and facilitate equitable development of the entire nation. Hence, we suffered another Partition in 1971,and that was based on ethnicity and language, not religion.
We have lost another 70,000 lives in past 15 years. We are not safe; our children are not safe in schools and universities where we teach them to hate their neighbors. We need to wake up, and put an end to teaching hatred. Truth is the only way to salvage ourselves, our way of life, our culture, and our centuries old civilization.

Of Child Marriages and Blasphemy

Recently, a bill to discourage child marriages was discussed in the National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs. The Committee was overwhelmingly dominated by religious right. I attended that meeting thanks to Marvi Memon (Member National Assembly from Pakistan Muslim League N, and mover of the Bill) who invited me to join and see what happens in such meetings.

Child Marriages

Child Bride

It was clear from the very beginning that the Committee had already made up its mind for rejecting the bill, and the meeting was a mere formality. As they did not want to discuss the pros and cons of the bill at hand, the chairman cut everything short by inviting the representative of Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to share the Council’s views on the bill.

Everybody in Pakistan is aware of the views of the Chairman CII on various women’s and children’s rights issue, so nobody needed to guess CII opinion on the bill. However, we were looking forward to hear their arguments in favor of child marriages.

But discussion is something that Mullahs don’t like, because when you argue you can be proven wrong. Hence, they would always resort to divine scriptures, for which they alone reserve the right to interpret. The more they resort to such tricks, the more they expose their weakness.

The CII Representative said that declaring child marriage a crime would mean we declare that (God forbid) the holy prophet committed a crime. Hence, those who introduce or support such a bill would be committing blasphemy. Furthermore, he said that setting age limit for marriage was also against Islamic teachings.

The discussion ended right there and then. Most of the other participants instantly joined the chorus, with only one feeble voice of dissent – Kishwar Zehra of Muttahida Quami Movement (a political party in Pakistan).

Their very attempt to silence dissent with a threat of blasphemy shows that they have no solid argument in favor of child marriages. They are weak. Their strength does not lie in their argument, but in their power to get us lynched. They are holding the society hostage because of their power to incite mob violence.

There is no reason Muslims should reject a bill that protects children especially young girls from violence and abuse. I am not an Islamic scholar, and would not quote verses from holy Quran or Hadith. I would come up with some very simple commonsense arguments:

  1. The holy prophet marrying a 9 year old girl is something controversial. There are Islamic scholars and researchers who disagree with this idea. 
  2. Though the holy prophet might have married a minor girl, I have not come across any injunction of Islam in which people have been ordered to arrange marriages of their minor daughters. Hence, setting a bar on marriage age is not against any injunction of Islam.
  3. The holy prophet married 11 women, and only one of them is believed to be 9 year old girl. The rest were all adult women. Should Muslims follow one example or 10 other examples set by the same prophet.
  4. Muslims are not allowed to do everything the holy prophet did. For example, all scholars and researchers agree that the holy prophet had more than 4 wives simultaneously, but Muslim men are not allowed to have more than 4 wives simultaneously. Hence, if holy prophet married a minor girl, it does not become imperative for all Muslim men to marry minor girls.
  5. There are quite a few Muslim countries which have legislated on minimum age for marriage, and set the age limit, and nobody in those countries accused anyone of committing blasphemy. (18 years in UAE, Egypt, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Tajikistan, Jordan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Oman, Turkmenistan; 20 in Libya)
  6. A convention of Islamic countries was held in Cairo in November 2009. The declaration issued at the convention asks the OIC countries to set 18 years as minimum age for marriage (page 6). Of course, nobody in the Muslim world accused them of blasphemy.
  7. The world has moved on. There are things which were allowed 1400 years ago, but are not practiced today … for example slavery. Atricle 11 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan says that slavery is forbidden. Should we turn the wheel back on the progress, and reintroduce slavery because it was allowed during the life time of the holy prophet?

Hence, it becomes clear that CII and Members of National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs have no ground to block this bill. They are threatening us to incite mobs against us to silence us. They have already acknowledged their defeat by resorting to such threats.


Muslim Countries Committing Blasphemy

Muslim Majority CountriesRecently, Council of Islamic Ideology (Pakistan) has declared that setting age limit for marriage is akin to blasphemy. I have come across a list of Muslim countries which have legislated on this important issue and set minimum age of marriage. I though I should share with Pakistani people in general and child rights activists in particular this list of Muslim countries which have committed blasphemy by setting minim age of marriage at 18 years or above.

  1. UAE,
  2. Egypt,
  3. Nigeria,
  4. Azerbaijan,
  5. Morocco,
  6. Tajikistan,
  7. Jordan,
  8. Algeria,
  9. Bangladesh,
  10. Oman,
  11. Turkmenistan;
  12. And Libya where age limit is 20  years.

Justice Khawaja! … Your hearing is as much a joke as the National Action Plan is

Today I came across this news item:

559639fc699e6NAP is a big joke, devised to deceive masses, says Justice Khawaja

NGOs are an easy target.
Though NGOs personnel do not carry weapons, and have not been found involved in any terrorism related incidents, but anyone and everyone is interested in curtailing NGOs’ activities. It should be noted that many NGOs have been attacked or have received threats (including myself and my organization – Bedari​). Plan International’s office in Mansehra was put on fire in 2007 when 8 people were burnt alive, I was living very close to that office in those days. I can list scores of many more incidents, in which NGOs offices were attacked, and/or their staff were targeted and killed.

However, the government, military, judiciary, media – nobody has the courage to talk about those who carry weapons, who have hid weapons in the mosques, and madrassahs – those who have illegally occupied government and private lands by building mosques and madrassahs without any permission. They do not dare act against those who openly express their allegiance to terrorist organizations, against whom multiple reports have been registered at various police stations (Mullah Abdul Aziz is a case in point).

Justice Khwaja: how many unregistered NGOs are working Pakistan, and how many unregistered and unregulated madrassahs are functioning in this country? Does anyone know how much money is being received by the Madrassahs, and where that money is spent? Does anyone care who throw rose petals on the ambulances carrying dead bodies of terrorists? Does anyone care about those who say terrorists can not be Muslims (or Muslims cannot be terrorists) but when a terrorist dies, they are the first ones to join the last rituals.

Justice Khwaja! your hearing is as much a joke as the NAP is and these two jokes are a big tragedy for this nation.

Gah – Manmohan Singh’s Village


Yesterday, we visited Gah – Manmohan Singh’s Village. Manmohan Singh is the former prime minister of India. He was born in Gah – a village in present day district Chakwal (Punjab, Pakistan), which was part of district Jhelum at the time of Partition of India (1947). We were looking for old men who could recount the days leading to the Partition of India. We took a round of the village and met three senior citizens. ‘Voices of Partition’ is the latest project of my group ‘Theatre Wallay’.

DSC_0008 DSC_0013

The above two photos are of the old village mosque. Gah had a significant Hindu and Sikh population. The Hindus were dominant lot, and minor skirmishes were common as per the old men of the village. As Hindus dominated, they would not allow Muslim population to eat beef. Usury was another significant irritant. When situation started deteriorating, the Hindus and the Sikhs had sensed the danger. In early 1947, Hindu/Sikh population, fearing an attack, gathered in this mosque seeking protection. The Imam of the mosque assured them that they would be fully protected. He announced from the pulpit of the mosque that no harm should reach the non-Muslims living in Gah. The matter was settled as people had profound respect for the Imam.

However, some miscreants decided to seek help from people of other Muslim villages. Thus another more organized attack took place, but that too failed to harm the non-Muslim community on large scale. The Muslim population provided all possible help to the non-Muslims. The women were protected and when it became impossible to protect them, they were safely taken to another village, so when the more ferocious attack was launched, the female population had already moved to safer places.

DSC_0005These solar street lights were installed after a package was approved by Manmohan Singh. It was decided that Gah would be turned into a model village. However, it fell prey to usual apathy and lack of any structural support. The money has been spent on buildings and infrastructure, but there is no system/arrangement for the maintenance of the facilities provided. The school buildings are there, but are not being fully/properly utilized. Street lights are not being repaired. We fear that these would vanish in a year or two. This could have been saved if we had local government system, and this infrastructure had been handed over to the union council administration. Now there is no institution to take care of this infrastructure and ensure that it remains functional.

DSC_0016This was the most interesting thing for us. I don’t know what this is, but was amused to see that it was something of Indian make and was being used for a mosque in Pakistan.

Media’s Dual Standards

Media's Dual Standards

This photo shows how the reporting differs for different audience. The Express Media group publishes two daily newspaper – Express Tribune for English readers and The Express daily for Urdu readers. I have put the screenshots from the two websites side by side.
The English website simply states that Mullah Abdul Qadir has been hanged for his war crimes, while the Urdu website has captioned it “Support for Pakistan is a crime, Bangladesh hands Mullah Abdul Qadir of Jamat-e-Islami”

Girls’ Education – observations at the grassroots

A girl in a secondary school in a remote village in Chakwal

Girls’ education is all the more important because they are the ones who are going to bring up our next generations. That saying of Napoleon Bonaparte has become a cliché now, “Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized, educated nation”. Nonetheless, it remains as relevant as ever. I would not elaborate it any further because the purpose of this blog is not persuading you to educate your girls – I am sure those reading this blog do not need any persuasion for that – but to share my personal experiences while discussing girls’ education with communities in some remote villages. I have been associated with a project ‘Girls’ Education beyond Primary Level’ being implemented in district Chakwal by Bedari with financial support from Girls Education International – A US based organization. I am a kind of Program Advisor/Consultant. I have used this term just because my friends in development sector would understand it, though my relationship with this project is difficult to define.  This project has provided me opportunities to interact with various communities in remote villages, and discuss girls’ education with men, women and girls themselves. I have drawn two conclusions:

  1. It is a myth that people are against girls’ education or not interested in educating their girls.
  2. The biggest hurdle in educating their girls is not lack of schools, money or will, but lack of transport.

Let me elaborate the above two points:


Malala Yousufzai

I have, through my personal interaction, found that most of the people/communities want to educate their girls. Some of them are taking serious pains to send their girls to school. Zia ud Din Yousufzai (Malala’s Father) is not the only one. I have come across so many Zia ud Dins trying hard to keep their girls in school. In my recent visit to Maira Aemah (District Chakwal), I found that there were at least 13 families that relocated to nearby town Kallar Kahar just to make it easy for their girls to attend secondary school. Another 15 girls were traveling over 20 kilometers twice a day to reach their schools. Please note that 20 kilometers is a huge distance in remote villages where there is no public transport; where you may have to wait for hours to find a van; where it would take you around 90 minutes to cover a distance of 20 kilometers. In another village Thirchak, the situation was more or less the same. Some families had moved to the nearest town with a secondary school; another 40 girls were traveling 22 kilometers twice a day to attend their schools. There were many more who could not afford this. In Chakki Rangpur, the situation was even worse. It had one primary school but that was not functional. I interviewed two little kids (one boy and one girl) who had just returned from their school but were not carrying school bags. They told me that all the kids from their village walk to the primary school in the neighboring village which is 8 kilometers away. Carrying school bags for such a long distance is too tough for most of them, so the community has found a solution for them. They are allowed to leave their bags at the school. They stay around an hour or so after the school is officially closed. They do their homework at the school, leave their bags in the class room and walk back to their homes. Girls’ mobility is a very serious issue in Pakistan. Boys can use bicycles, motorbikes, or can hang onto any available transport – bus, pickup, truck etc. Girls, on the other hand, have none of these choices. They must have a decent van or bus to carry them. Bicycle or motorbike is not an option. These hurdles in their mobility turn out to be the hurdles in their growth and empowerment. Transport is very expensive. With rising petroleum prices, the fares are going up and up. Though education is free, girls have to pay for their transport. In the three villages I visited, each girl was paying around Rs 2000 (US $ 19) per month. That is a huge cost for a poor family. Other issues are timings of public transport, sexual harassment and personal safety of the girls. Through my discussions with the communities, I have concluded that free transport would be one big step towards putting millions of girls into schools. Interestingly, government provides buses to so many schools and colleges in large urban centers to transport students from their homes to school and vice versa. But this essential facility is not provided to any secondary school in the remote villages and towns.

I would strongly recommend to the civil society organizations to join hands and make one demand from the government – provide buses to all the secondary schools in the country.


Government Girls Primary School, Thirchak (District Chakwal)

Aitebaar – Street Theater

I would like to share the recent experience of doing street theater aimed at raising awareness about the problems faced by women returning to their families/communities after completing their prison term. The play was to be performed in the twin cities – Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It was to complement a project “Aitebaar” being implemented by Strengthening Participator Organization (SPO). The script was provided by SPO. However, I revised it to enhance the duration of the play from 7 minutes to 12 minutes. We held 8 performances of this play – 4 in Islamabad and 4 in Rawalpindi.

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Synopsis of the Play

Aitebaar is a story of Sohni – a woman who was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. The play opens when her husband Saeed receives a letter from jail authorities informing him that Sohni’s jail term is about to end. Saeed is not sure whether he should receive her back or leave her to her fate. Saeed’s uncle, representing the community, is hell-bent on convincing Saeed to forget about Sohni.

Sohni is also not sure whether she should be happy or sad. She does not know whether Saeed would take her back as Saeed has not come to see her for over one and half a year now. Her mate in prison tries to comfort her and assures her that Saeed would come to jail and would take her back to his home.

The final show-down or climax comes in the third scene. Saeed, probably under the influence of his uncle and the community, has decided not to take Sohni back. However, he is confronted by his 16 years old dauther Ghazala, who tells him that people do not care about him. She reveals that Sohni has got prison term not for her own crime but for a crime committed by someone else. This puts Saeed off, which shows that Sohni must have been imprisoned for a crime committed by Saeed. Ghazala has more and stronger arguments when she says people would not care for Saeed when he would be ill or hungry. Only Ghazala and Sohni would care for him. She tells him that he should not listen to the people but to his own heart. Saeed is convinced by her aggressive arguments, and decided to receive Sohni from jail. The play ends with Saeed and Ghazala meeting Sohni as she is released from the prison.

Audience Response

The theater team interacted with the audience informally, and found that people had enjoyed the performance a lot. Women in Shelter Homes were particularly moved by the performance. Some of them had tears in their eyes while watching the play. The intended message was delivered successfully, as mostly people agreed that women should be welcomed after completing their prison term and should be facilitated to reintegrate into the community/family, instead of turning them away.

Lessons Learnt:

Theater is a very strong tool and always appeals to the masses. However, it needs a lot more time to prepare and execute a street theater project. It is not a stand-alone activity. It must be complimented with community mobilization, and it should be integrated with other components of the project. Only then, it can bring about an effective change.