My country can constantly throw up surprises even for those who know it well. Those who want to piece together a picture of modern Pakistan often ask if I can walk outdoors without – as they might see it – a uniform of oppression. Are my freedoms restricted in a patriarchal society where progressive thinking is perceived as threatening to the status quo? It’s not an easy sell.
The first-time traveller is cautiously uncertain. I’m told it is the aspirations of the people and their stories that one never forgets as a visitor. There is a commendable kind of resurrected determination you will find in ordinary people, artists, comedians, writers, lawyers and educationists to reclaim their country from militant forces.
Interestingly, with almost two thirds of the population under twenty-five, Pakistan, one of the most populous countries in the world, is facing a demographic change. Recently it has seemed that this younger generation might be determined to carve out a better future for its country, but at the same time there is the fear that non-secular forces will threaten and intimidate those voices demanding greater political representation. Surveys show that more than 80 per cent of young people believe that involvement in democratic projects will bring change. This changing landscape of dissent is slowly beginning to hold the state and politicians to account, as is a daring to question the self-imposed religious identity of a country on the brink of chaos, with growing violence and little hope.
Pakistan’s geopolitics has for decades made it a haven for the good and bad stories that bring out the world’s press for short stints in Islamabad. This country is torn by contradictions and impossible to pigeonhole. It struggles with a deeply ethnic, political and religious conflict that can be traced back at least to the Afghan war with the Soviets in the 1980s. People suffer poverty and terrorism; women are killed in the name of honour; marginal groups and religious minorities are attacked for their faith. A climate of religious zeal has made many ordinary people intolerant of pluralistic communities. Those who dare raise their voice in support of progressive liberalism have suffered – journalists, professors, writers, lawyers, doctors, artists, politicians and activists.
There is no sugar-coating it – this is a society where secular progressives in the minority are labelled pro-Western and anti-Islam. In Pakistan, ‘they’ don’t hate us and want to intimidate us because they believe we are non-religious or liberal. Rather we are feared for our keen aspiration to participate as global citizens and for our belief that education, technology, art, religious tolerance and gender equality are prerequisites for political and economic security. We, in turn, fear them for their support of radical Islamism and our lack of freedoms because we must drop our voices to survive when the state colludes with religious politics.
The reason we are at a disadvantage is that we don’t speak collectively against violence and discrimination. One could argue that civil society has been restricted and controlled (by religious and other ideologies and a pervasive sense of fear) and unable to develop a concerted national movement that feeds off activism and the will to fight injustice. The other reason is the very nature of activism; because activism is an elite preoccupation in underdeveloped countries, where those who are privileged with opportunity and wealth find it easier to take up a cause. Providing top-down support and assistance to vulnerable groups, whether through non-governmental projects (funded by global donor agencies) or individual efforts is not unusual in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where grassroots activists from low-income communities are fewer in numbers. When starving, unemployed and worried about the safety of family, civil society is less able to protest, chant slogans or coin radical tweets. And yet issue-based activism is slowly making a comeback, with the proliferation of social media playing a small but significant role in the conversation for a progressive and educated Pakistan and in campaigning against extremism.
I have often been advised to stop talking about rights violations while working in a newsroom. News headlines focus on politicians’ statements, official visits to open bridges or motorways, foreign prime ministerial trips, anti-terrorism operations, India, or security matters. Education reform, health system failings, ghost schools, corruption, tax evasion, acid attacks on women, and positive stories of achievement or of everyday heroes seldom find their way into the mainstream Urdu language media accessible to the majority. Heritage, art and culture have never received adequate financial assistance or press coverage.
I have been made to understand there’s a difference between journalism and activism. I’m not sure I would agree there’s no meeting of territory when you live and work in Pakistan. Politics and religion are divisive subjects, although they’ve found expression in the work of writers, artists, filmmakers.
In this light I introduce you to a Pakistani filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (if you don’t already know her work). Sharmeen persists in addressing the difficult issues facing Pakistan because she has chosen to live here and she insists that with this choice comes a commitment to make it worthwhile for future generations.
I’ve known Sharmeen for nearly two decades, during which her films have brought her accolades. The Oscar-winning Saving Face drew attention to acid attacks on Pakistani women. Travel, film projects and recognition keep her busy, but these commitments don’t take away from the grim socio-political realities that must be addressed. In her work for television she tells stories of ordinary Pakistanis, those working to create hope in communities on the edge of despair. This makes me believe she is a silent activist telling stories of visionaries through television documentaries that have encouraged citizen activists to start similar community self-help projects. In Ho Yaqeen, a 6-part television documentary series, she charts the work of six Pakistanis across the country trying to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people through their various causes. Sabina Khatri teaches yoga in an upscale Karachi neighbourhood. When she first started the Kiran School in Karachi’s Lyari district – one of Asia’s largest slum settlements – she hoped to help a community without schools, hospitals or employment. Little had she imagined that she would transform the lives of a generation of children who had never seen the inside of a classroom or even dreamt of excelling at school and enrolling in college afterwards. The school started with donations from friends and family enabling Sabina to train local women as teachers; during periods of intense conflict between rival politically-backed gangs she has had to dodge bullets to keep the school open.
A sign placed on top of an arched gateway reads ‘Welcome to Lyari’ and invites you into a hostile district populated with disillusioned, jobless young men and women mourning shot relatives. You might want to drive through its narrow lanes, but the smallest of cars are unable to squeeze through this informal settlement, home to over one million people, that was famous at one time for its world renowned boxing champions. With open sewers, bullet-pocked walls with political graffiti and party flags strung on broken street light poles, the outsider is not always welcome in Lyari. Poverty is rampant. Children do not go to school but instead find work as apprentices to gangsters. Successive political representatives have failed to meet their pledges to this community, which has traditionally voted for Benazir Bhutto’s populist Pakistan People’s Party. Most families have lost loved ones during paramilitary police clashes with gangs over the past five years. When Sabina saw that the children of Lyari had lost their childhood to violence, guns and drugs, she decided she wanted to teach them about ‘the more positive aspects of life’. She takes them to parks, shows films and organises exercise and music sessions: activities often taken for granted by the more privileged, but for many of these children the Kiran School has become a lifeline.
In Ho Yaqeen we see Sabina in front of a room full of fathers: parents are also given the option to take classes. In one scene, a heated argument ensues when one of the fathers refuses to go to work, claiming the job was not what he had wanted; Sabina tries to explain to him that, given the circumstances, he must work. “Who will feed your family?” she asks. “Put your ego aside and begin working. A better job will eventually come. But if you don’t begin work now, then your wife and children will suffer.” He isn’t convinced, but eventually appears to relent.
In another episode, we are introduced to 25-year old education advocate and activist Humaira Bachal who began a community school in one of the most dangerous slum settlements in the periphery of Karachi. Driving towards the border with Balochistan on a visit to Bachal’s Dream Foundation School, I am told our landmark is a dried up cement water tower from where we must take a sharp left turn and drive along a rugged, unpaved street. Here you have to buy your water. There is talk of a murder in the only government-run school in the area, now closed. Yet in the same neighbourhood, where hot sand blows through unpaved streets and there is routinely no electricity for ten hours in the day, is this model community schooling project built with unrelenting dedication. The Dream Foundation Trust in Moach Goth started as a school with no money for books, a blackboard or chalk – just a few cautious mothers enrolling their daughters. Bachal’s own mother had fought for her daughters to go to school when their father – a truck driver – refused to send them to school and even beat her for arguing.
The project began as a three-room school in a decrepit building with 500 students and Bachal was finding it difficult to convince parents to send their children to it, especially girls. Sharmeen filmed her struggle and when Madonna watched this documentary, she pledged to raise funds to help Bachal build a bigger school. Over about a year, enough funds were collected from within Pakistan and globally to construct a new school building. Young boys and girls, some refugees whose families have fled the fighting in Waziristan on the Afghan border, have ambitions to become doctors, teachers and pilots. With about 1,200 students at the Dream Foundation School, Bachal has developed some techniques to enroll more girls. For example, if parents are ready to pay a nominal school fee for their eldest daughter, two sons can enroll for free.
Sharmeen says, “Film is a powerful tool where TV penetration is high. I have a gift for storytelling and I need to use that through my films. I celebrate people and thank them.” She sees the acknowledging of achievement as a hugely important part of her work as a form of activism for change and she looks to spotlight people fighting for change and not just reiterating socio-economic hardship.
If a vibrant civil society is a prerequisite to democracy, I ask Sharmeen why we are averse to protesting, to pressurize the state into listening to civil society demands. After all, in the 1980s the women’s movement took to the streets in response to the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regressive anti-women laws, when political activists were beaten and dragged to jail. Sharmeen replies: “I’m not naturally someone who stands on the street with a banner. In Pakistan, those who mostly stand on the streets are paid to do so with a ready pool of students in religious seminaries or by political parties. We don’t go to the streets in large numbers when we see injustices. It’s not historically Pakistani.” I remind her of the protests by the Shia Hazara community in the south-western city of Quetta – which spilled into major cities – condemning the target killing of members of their community. These were unprecedented in recent years. In February 2013, when a bomb ripped through a crowded district of the city killing 84 people and injuring scores, about 4,000 ethnic Hazara women sat in protest in freezing temperatures with the coffins of their loved ones, refusing to bury them until the government prosecuted the killers. Yet Sharmeen says, “This is not in our psyche. I’m not sure why. We just don’t come out. If you earn a daily wage and you need to feed your family, you won’t forfeit your food. We’ve never seen Delhi-like protests here unless motivated by religious clerics or a political party.”
I put the same question to Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist and human rights activist living in America since 2011 who has campaigned tirelessly for a progressive Pakistan. She believes there is no justification for violence whether in the name of honour, nationalism, culture or religion. She explains various factors behind the lack of a unified voice in Pakistan about these issues. These include military interference in politics and the lack of a democratic political process. People have different perspectives that have been inculcated by the media and various versions of history. “Through the years, history has been deliberately falsified to build hyper-nationalism and hyper-religiosity. And yet there are so many who, despite being products of this system and of conservative, feudal backgrounds, question it and refuse to fall into the trap of the mainstream narrative. Many are involved in progressive movements or initiatives,” she says, referring to her contemporaries as well as the younger activists she has encountered.
For Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, her newest project – Pakistan’s first animated children’s movie – is also part of her activism. She tells me the film attempts to explain the forces of good and evil to young adults at a critical juncture when certain segments of society are advocating messages of religious hate. In May, 3 Bahadur premiered in Pakistan to rave reviews a few days after Sharmeen returned to Karachi with her new born baby girl. “There’s a dearth [of] children’s films in Urdu made with local characters and traditions.” This film, she says, provides children with the opportunity to identify with local superheroes conversing in their own language and wearing local clothing; when heroes are not imported from globalised cartoon characters, it creates ownership. “The inherent message of this film is nobody is born bad, it’s about the choices you have in life. Your fight is not with the villains but those who have given the villains the power to destroy. We need superheroes and cartoon characters that Pakistani kids today can relate to. As kids we sat in front of the TV and watched people like us but they haven’t done that as yet,” she explains. When I ask her if she fears for her life in a city where progressive thoughts ruffle right-wing ideologues, she says she cannot live in fear if she’s decided to work in this country and raise her family in Karachi.
Where Islamists have taken away women’s rights, activists have historically struggled to reverse discriminatory legislation against women. Columnist and political activist, Marvi Sirmed reminds me about the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) that later led to the formation of various women’s rights groups and resource centres. Formed in 1981 in response to the Zia regime’s implementation of the Islamic penal code, they campaign against the invisibility of women in government plans and policies, the exclusion of women from media, sports and cultural activities, restrictive dress codes, gender-based violence and the seclusion of women. “Earlier years had seen minority leaders raising issues pertaining to their communities, but by the 1980s, the majority elite would talk about these concerns. In 1983, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy was formed with the support of various political parties to pressure Zia’s regime into holding elections. It drew women activists from elite backgrounds. Prominent politicians aligned with the Pakistan People’s Party, like activist and lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, was vocal about women’s rights.” Ahsan, a Pakistan People’s Party supporter jailed during Zia’s regime for protesting the lack of democracy, went on to lead the Lawyers’ Movement in 2007 that became a symbol of resistance against the Pervez Musharraf regime. An accomplished orator, Ahsan drove the deposed Chief Justice through Pakistan in a four-wheel drive as part of protest campaigns to challenge General Musharraf. The Lawyer’s Movement was backed by civil society, but when the media reported on these countrywide protests they were taken off air. Ahsan was detained again, this time by Musharraf, for protesting the emergency decree that dismissed the Supreme Court, scrapped the Constitution, banned protests and imposed media restrictions.
After Zia’s martial law years were over, Pakistanis became increasingly disengaged from public affairs: as long as the threat from radical Islamization and terror attacks didn’t impact their everyday lives all was well. We suffered from a crisis of democracy. The legitimacy of elected governments has always been overshadowed by military dictators. But there was unexplained apathy that drove many to avoid openly questioning the status quo – until an increase in terror attacks threatened peace and security. . Wealthy businesses paid money to make more money while the desperate and voiceless lived below the poverty line, struggled and died with no one to fight for them. The middle-income strata grew angrier at economic distresses, and young, unemployed men began to find alternative saviours. Most ‘saviours’ were champions of militant Islam and bedfellows with the powerful military who had used them as proxy fighters in Kashmir and Afghanistan. For a while questions of identity were avoided. Is Pakistan a secular, democratic nation state where people of all faiths – as envisaged in 1947 at Partition – are allowed to live peacefully and worship free of persecution? Who are we?
In 2011, the Karachi-based Citizens for Democracy – a coalition of 80 civil bodies – ran a petition campaign. In a single day, 150,000 letters were sent demanding an end to violence and an effort to protect minorities. Later, it all went quiet. I often wonder why such efforts are so sporadic. Activism has not become broad-based and effective. There are few cohesive groups or alliances with common agendas, the dominant model is elitist and exclusive with individual projection as the key driving force and poor financial resources limit the growth of those civil movements that should form the nucleus of any democracy. Rural society exists below the poverty line, vulnerable and deprived, and unlike in India, in Pakistan there doesn’t exist a vibrant civil society with moderate voices demanding rights for squatters, labourers, women and low-caste communities.
However, things are changing. Young people are moving towards issue-based advocacy in an environment that increasingly seeks change-makers. In a 2007 survey by the Centre for Civic Education with participants aged between 18 and 30, 84 per cent believed that increased youth participation within a democratic environment could result in positive political change. A similar 2013 survey by the British Council in Pakistan showed that only 14 per cent of the youth viewed the government and National Assembly in a positive light, and only 11 per cent felt the same way about political parties. 29 per cent supported democracy, compared to 32 per cent who supported military rule and 38 per cent backed sharia (Islamic law). Marvi Sirmed tells me young people raised in urban centres are coming out onto the streets to protest against radical clerics and speak out against atrocities because the bloodshed they witness in Pakistan today makes no sense to them. They take to Twitter and Facebook to protest, demonstrate outside mosques known to harbour radical clerics and initiate community projects promoting peaceful coexistence because they are living through increasing levels of political violence.
In 2014, sectarian violence claimed 200 lives, and in 2013 and 2014, more than 500 people died each year in sectarian killings, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Since 2001, 3,935 people have died in sectarian killings in Pakistan; 2,372 were Shia Muslims. In the aftermath of rising attacks against Shia, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus, civil society stood up and protested, forming human chains outside imambargahs (Shia mosques) and churches. The Pakistan Youth Alliance organized a human chain outside a Shia mosque earlier this year after attacks on the community. One of many similar groups registering their protest online and on the streets, these activists came together in 2007 to counter extremism and to promote peacebuilding and social welfare. Marvi and her contemporaries believe resistance movements in Pakistan are not looked at favourably because those who take part are said to be working against national interest. If you stand up for the rights of non-Sunni communities, it’s perceived as sinister and a ‘foreign funded activity’.
For the last month, lawyer turned activist Mohammad Jibran Nasir has been addressing Pakistani American audiences on a whirlwind US speaking tour, speaking about combating religious extremism. Beena Sarwar told me about the Alliance for Compassion and Tolerance that brought a group of Pakistanis together in New York to talk about future progress for Pakistan and it is here that she also met Jibran, who has been threatened by the Taliban for taking on a powerful radical cleric (publicized on his Facebook page) and been arrested at protests. Nevertheless Jibran has publicly pressured the government to curtail its support of extremist political groups. Beena says, “Young people interested in talking about projects focused on Pakistan’s future are professionals, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, activists, and some of the same people who were involved in activism during the Musharraf years. Their activism is going beyond being Pakistani and Muslim to being humanitarian and inclusive.”
It all started in December 2014 after Jibran organized a protest campaign outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad when the head cleric refused to condemn the Taliban attack on the Peshawar army school that left 130 students dead. After a stint as a TV anchor, Nasir co-founded two grassroots organizations with the objective to reclaim Pakistan from religious radicals. He knows all too well the risks of speaking out against militant religious clerics: his friend and mentor Sabeen Mahmud was killed last month. Sabeen had helped with the protests and worked with him in drawing up a civil liberties group, Pakistan for All, and a campaign, Never Forget Pakistan, that wants the Pakistani government to shut down extremist groups. She was forty when she was shot after leaving a panel discussion she had hosted at her arts café on enforced disappearances in Balochistan. The province has suffered a resurgence of separatist insurgency in recent years and the security forces are blamed for hundreds of missing people. She had reportedly received threats for some time before the event, called ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’, after a similar event at a prestigious university in Lahore came under pressure and had to be cancelled.
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy had co-founded a documentation project called the Citizens Archive of Pakistan with Sabeen Mahmud. “She was an online activist who led the Valentine’s Day campaign this year talking about the power of love and tolerance. Her arts café, The Second Floor, is a space where debate is welcome. She was a defiant activist.”
Sabeen’s alleged killers were arrested and there followed a disclosure that a young, urban, middle-class man, educated at an elite business university, had visited her arts café, been angered by her Valentine Day campaign and decided to kill her. This is not extraordinary. Police investigators identified him as a member of a larger sleeper cell of mostly university-educated young professionals who had learnt bomb-making and visited militant training schools. Indoctrinated and trained in militant warfare for years, they were averse to the liberalism that young people like Sabeen and her contemporaries symbolized.
“Our strength lies not in street protests but in changing narratives,” says Beena Sarwar. “Protests make you visible, but more important for activists who are also writers and intellectuals [is] policy work behind the scenes; democracy building; acting as watchdogs keeping an eye on the government, corporations, and security agencies; and lobbying for change. If Pakistan is to be a democracy rather than a security state, we need to create a body of informed and active citizens who will empower political parties, holding them responsible for forming policies rather than the security establishment that in the past has usurped this role.”
Artist Munawar Ali Syed is mostly on the road these days, supervising 15 enthusiastic painters working on stencil art on 1,500 walls in Karachi. But he invited me to look at his work on Facebook. ‘Reimagining the Walls of Karachi’ is a public space project by Adeela Suleman, artist and the head of the Fine Arts department at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, in collaboration with the ‘I am Karachi’ campaigns advocating for peace. University students and truck artists are collaborating on these projects to beautify the city’s walls, wiping out messages of political hatred. Walls stencilled with political text, anti-peace slogans and religious content are being given a makeover. Those walls newly decorated with truck art paintings, a popular form of indigenous art with floral patterns and poetic calligraphy, are brilliant eye-catchers. The determination of artists, working in hot summer temperatures to change the character of the walls, constitutes an art activism countering hate and violence by altering the way we see Karachi, say the organizers. Art activism can evolve as a creative antidote to extremism and the self-destruction of a young generation that is bombarded by messages of violent terror and swayed to hate liberal thinkers.
Real civil activism has become a high-risk strategy when it comes to the final push for saving democracy in Pakistan. There is a yearning for a more liberal, more peaceful and tolerant society. This speaks volumes of a nation tired of militancy. Following the killing of Sabeen Mahmud in April this year, a civil society protest campaign has been growing under the banner ‘Unsilencing Pakistan’. The campaign advocates the need to speak out against atrocities suffered by minorities and vulnerable communities and the lack of democratic values, but civil society activists recognize that change might not be immediate. Pakistanis traditionally don’t have much respect for politicians and political institutions, which are perceived as self-serving and corrupt-based politics. Patronage based politics has turned people away from participating in the political process. At the same time, many have realized that if they don’t speak up in defence of their rights, they risk living with insecurity and violence. In the past we have been reluctant voters, but the last election in May 2013 witnessed young people and women going to the polls despite threats from the Pakistani Taliban to disrupt the vote in urban centers, and even in districts where women are generally forced to stay at home. Political parties have stayed away from attracting young people in recent years – excluding Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf – and this inevitably keeps them from being heard and represented in politics. This could change sooner than expected: young people want to advocate change and, when educated and integrated in mainstream politics, they can make a difference to the democratic system. Being apolitical is no longer a viable option.
Razeshta Sethna is a print and broadcast journalist in Karachi. She has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan on the Taliban and peace negotiations, gender rights, youth and culture. Her writing has appeared in publications including Dawn, The Guardian, and The Hindustan Times. She is currently a Reuters Journalist Fellow at Oxford University working on the Pakistani media’s relationship with the state and intelligence services.