In Search of a Letter from 1965

7 Sep

Nana (1952) in his Guides Cavalry Formal Uniform

In 1965, my grandfather, Major Ahsan Omar, was fighting in the Battle of Chawinda, near Sialkot. It was one of the fiercest battles in the war; the largest tank battle after World War II. Amidst the heavy tank shelling and artillery fire as guns thundered and planes roared in the skies above, it did not always seem like those who fought in the Sialkot Sector would make it home. Many brave men didn’t.

One night when the fighting was particularly intense, my grandfather also believed that death was imminent. Fearing that he would not see his family again, he began writing a letter to my mother, his only child at the time. He wanted to say a final goodbye and offer some words of wisdom from the battlefield. But he was never able to finish the letter as the fighting resumed. In the chaos of war, the letter got left behind on the battlefield as his division of tanks moved to a different position. Continue reading


Things Come (Almost) Full Circle

1 Mar

I started this blog in 2009 when I was deciding whether I wanted to come back to Pakistan or not.

6 years ago,  I wrote “Against the good and bad advice of a majority of friends and family members – I have decided to return to Pakistan. I dont know if this a wise decision – I merely know that it is the right decision for me at this time. With time, the correctness of my belief might change and this might become the wrong decision – but until it does, I hope to use my blog to keep track of this transition and use it to (hopefully) reaffirm the correctness of my decision for today and all my tomorrows.”

On some days when America offered great company and conversation, or interactions with people that were interesting and interested in things around the world I wondered if I wanted to return to a country that was fast becoming a bastion of bigotry and violence over things as insignificant as lawn suits or as profound as one’s religious beliefs.

Sometimes it was the walks in Central Park or the ability to blend anonymously into the humid New York summer nights that made me want to never leave the country I had come to know and love as a second home.

My decision to come back seemed particularly wrong when Parliament passed the Nizam e Adl Regulation and handed over Swat to the violent bigots. I was so angry that I punched a wall and typed out this long heartfelt article demanding that I want my country back from the bigots.

But when I did eventually return to Pakistan in 2010 and started work at the Jinnah Institute with Sherry Rehman – I witnessed first hand the psychosis that had gripped Pakistan. As we worked on things that seemed like no-brainers like the protection of minorities and religious freedoms, I realized that it was not just benign apathy and neglect that prevented Pakistanis from protecting fellow citizens. There were powerful forces of obscurantism that enjoyed popular support that would resort to murder and violence to silence all voices that dared to challenge their world view.

As these forces grew more powerful and brave, progressive voices like Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were silenced; the rest of us who were no where near as brave or courageous also grew silent. I self censored and did not talk about religion in public.  I avoided arguments with the moral police. I bent my head over my phone and typed out a few furious tweets. But that was all. I went about my work every day. I tried to search for silver linings to reaffirm the decision I had made 7 years ago. But those silver linings seemed fewer and further apart.

Till today.

Things seem to have come full circle as justice has been done. The rule of law upheld and Mumtaz Qadri – the man who assassinated Governor Taseer for speaking up for the rights of a poor Christian woman accused of Blasphemy – has met the fate meted out to him by the law.

Many of us thought that given how powerful the religious right has become in Pakistan – the government would not dare touch their poster boy. We were wrong. Never have I been more relieved about being wrong.

The sordid saga that started in Pakistan’s history with the brutal murder of Governor Taseer for speaking up for the oppressed has almost come full circle today. It will be complete when Aasia Bibi the woman he spoke up for, is allowed to go free.

But till then, I am thankful to the Government of Pakistan for letting the law take its course and giving me a reason once again to believe I made the right decision  7 years ago.


18 Dec

On the morning of January 6th, Aitzaz Hasan lost his life while preventing a suicide bomber from entering his school. The only thing standing between the 2000 children enrolled in the local Government High School Ibrahimzai in Hangu and a suicide bomber sent to kill them was the courage of this teenager.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for this attack which targeted a school in a Shia majority area of Hangu. The LeJ has a history of targeting members of the Shia community in Pakistan and have been behind some of the most violent and deadly attacks against Shias. This attack, foiled by the sacrifice of Aitzaz, is a sobering reminder that the beast we fight has no morals or principles. Our enemy will stoop to even attacking a school full of children.

The attack on the school in Hangu was not part of the series of attacks against schools that have occurred in KPK. It was a part of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s violent campaign against the Shias. Aitzaz lost his life fighting the enemy we call sectarianism that pre-dates the war on terror or the use of drones in Pakistan.

Let Aitzaz’s death leave us in no doubt that this war is our war. These are monsters of our own making who have gained strength from our complacency.  In the wake of his death, we have mourned him and glorified him in the media. We have tweeted tributes and eulogies. The government has decided to honor Aitzaz (posthumously) with the Sitara-e-Shujaat, a civilian award for bravery in the country. But justice will not be done to the memory of Aitzaz until we commit to eradicating groups responsible for sectarian violence as well as the ideology that supports and nurtures them.

This is no easy task. This requires us to root out the hate that is entrenched within our textbooks, that is sown in sermons across Pakistan and casually thrown about in drawing room conversations. This requires cutting of funds and financing to groups that parade as charities and collect large sums of money from small traders and individuals. This means severing political alliances with groups that control urban centers within the province of Punjab and adopting a zero tolerance policy for perpetrators of sectarian hate.

The battlegrounds for this war will not be the wilds of FATA but the settled areas of Punjab. This war will require us to arm, equip and train the police force. The nature of this battle will be different from the one that is being waged against the TTP in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This battle will be tougher. But this is a war we must fight and win if we are to preserve Pakistan. And we cannot continue to outsource our toughest battles to children no matter how courageous.

There is need to provide the police with the protection and equipment required to operate against these groups who are heavily armed and well funded. In recent years, with the focus on the war on terror not enough has been done to provide the police with the protective or investigative gear required to take on sophisticated terror networks. Pakistan must invest more in the police force which will have to form the frontline against the war on sectarian terrorists.

Pakistani author, Nadeem Aslam once said, “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.” The average citizen should never have to make the choice that Aitzaz made. The state should be equipped to protect him or her. Pakistan should not have to count on the bravery of individuals like Aitizaz Hasan as its only defense against sectarianism. There needs to be a better plan in place.

I hope that when President Mamnoon Hussain stands before Aitzaz’s father to present him with the Sitara-e-Shujaat for Aitzaz; it is not just a medal that he pins to his chest in honor of a courageous son. I hope that award is accompanied with a concrete strategy for ensuring the safety of children like Aitzaz across Pakistan. Aitzaz’s memory demands it and the existence of Pakistan needs it.

Originally Published by the Jinnah Institute

House 167: The Little House with a Big Heart

3 Dec

Tonight’s the last night I will spend in the house I grew up in.  Tomorrow, my parents and I will move to a bigger house in a better neighborhood. And while this will mark a new beginning, tonight my heart is incredibly sad for having to leave my oldest friend behind. For no matter where I go, this house will always be the one that I think of as home.

My grandparents lived in this house before my parents and I moved here. I first got to know this house as the place where I came to be pampered. And somehow over the years our relationship never changed. As time went by, 167 continued to be my friend who guaranteed shelter from life’s most troublesome storms. Whether it was those sleepless nights before the O-level’s exam results or recovering from my first bout of true heartbreak – 167 was the place where I could always fall asleep after a good cry and wake up feeling better.

Even when its roof leaked and paint peeled, it held it together to welcome all those that sought refuge here or came in search of a meal or a laugh or a pillow to cry on. It was always my little house with a big heart. Somehow within its small rooms, there was always place to house friends and family. And in its tiny kitchen there was always food enough for any who needed it. Continue reading

The Wrong Defense

6 Nov

The recent case of sexual harassment at LUMS reveals many disturbing facets of Pakistani society – I will write more on the issue but for now I wanted to write about the statement that colleagues of the accused issued in the press in his defense. I have been a long standing admirer of the intellect of many of those who penned this which is maybe why their poorly thought out, sometimes utterly ridiculous and in other places downright incorrect representation of “facts” was disturbing to say the least. Pasted below is that statement they issued and in bold, inside the text, is my problem with their defense.

Nine current and recent visiting faculty members at Law and Policy Department at LUMS have issued a statement in support of Prof Abid Hussain Imam which was printed in Pakistan Today. The statement reads:

“We are current and recent faculty of the Law and Policy Department at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and write to take issue with a misleading news report entitled “LUMS teacher found guilty of sexually harassing student” printed in the 1 November 2014 issue of Pakistan Today.

We believe that the article, as well as the underlying Ombudsman’s report, does a great disservice to our colleague, Professor Abid Hussain Imam. As current or recent members of the Department, we are collectively familiar with all the facts and circumstances relating to this case, as well as the individuals involved. As such, we feel compelled to set the record straight.

The incident in question occurred in proverbial “broad daylight” in a public corridor within the Law and Policy Department, in the presence of several witnesses including the head of the Law Department. The entire proceedings were captured by a corridor security camera and the footage has been made available to all parties, and has been viewed by us.

Summary Argument: Harassment does not happen in daylight or public places

Problem with argument: Yes it does. Ask a woman. Or even men. Visit a bazaar. Get out of your privileged cocoons and cars and travel in public transport in broad daylight. Then revisit preposterous claim.  Continue reading

Ludicurous CT Policy Proposal: Teaching Arabic to Counter Terror

2 Feb

The federal government is contemplating the introduction of the Arabic language in primary and secondary schools to combat terrorism, according to a recent statement by the minister of religious affairs. It is assumed that once students are well versed in the language of the Holy Quran, they are less likely to be misguided. Those behind the formulation of this policy should consider that often members of extremist groups are well versed in Arabic but this has not prevented them from becoming extremists. Learning a language has no bearing on the world view that a person holds. If it did, then the Arab world would be an oasis of peace.

Unfortunately, the acquisition of Arabic does not enable people to fully understand or interpret religious texts. There are hundreds of years of jurisprudence and context that are required for decoding religious doctrine. Teaching children to read Arabic will not involve a simultaneous education in Islamic jurisprudence. It is, therefore, unlikely to serve the desired purpose. The introduction of a new language would require the hiring and training of thousands of new teachers. An investment of billions would be required to implement this counterterrorism strategy, the results of which — if ever apparent — would take years to manifest themselves in society.

Counterterrorism measures that offer better value for money should be prioritised. In a country where bomb disposal squads work without protective gear, surely there are more pressing priorities. Often, men with nothing but the shirts on their backs stand between the average citizen and terrorists gunning for them. Our citizens and law enforcers deserve better and sooner.

Let us put aside the efficacy and sanity of this as a counterterrorism strategy and focus on its implications for the education sector. According to the 2012 ASER survey, about 75 to 80 per cent of students in class three cannot read sentences in English or their local regional language meant for students studying in class two. We can barely teach children two languages. There is no merit in teaching an additional language poorly.

The introduction of Arabic is not a new idea. It has been implemented before and the results of prior implementation must be reviewed. The government needs to take a cold, hard look at the impact that learning Arabic has had on children previously. Both their linguistic proficiency and world view can and should be assessed. We cannot continue to let education policy be dictated by political expediency and need to shift focus on needs defined by evidence. If the government is serious about combating the extremist mindset, then teaching children to read another language will be of little use. Teaching them the critical thinking skills required to understand texts is far more essential. A review of existing textbooks riddled with hate and historical inaccuracies that breed ignorance is more urgent.

Our historic neglect of the education sector has us lagging behind regional and global peers in major education indicators, ranging from enrolment to student learning. If we continue to formulate education policy in a vacuum of both, evidence and sanity, it is unlikely that we will be able to produce a workforce that can compete globally. It is unlikely that we will produce citizens that are tolerant or compassionate and it is unlikely that we will extricate Pakistan from the shackles of terrorism that grip it and are suffocating it.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2014.

The “F” Word

13 Mar

Recently, I gave a talk at TEDxKinnaird about why everyone should be a feminist. I’m proud to be one. And it amazes me that women and men across the world are afraid to use the term feminism to define themselves. Feminists are people who recognize that we live in an inherently unequal world that does not favor women in the majority of cases and are are working to correct this imbalance.

Well …. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a feminist. And I think you shouldn’t be afraid to be one either. Words, after all, are powerful.

And so are pictures – so here is a pictoral tribute to all the brave feminists out there who have paved the way and made it easier for women like me and have served as trailblazers and inspirations to countless people across the globe.

Not Afraid to use the F word

What is Rhetoric?

10 Sep

Rhetoric is the art of using words to persuade, and it formed one of the first and most important subjects taught in a classical education. In modern times, unfortunately, rhetoric first disappeared from colleges and universities and then vanished from secondary schools, except for electives in English or Philosophy Departments. Continue reading

Let’s Talk About the Money

2 Jul

The Representation of The Peoples Act, 1976 (and not a recent Supreme Court ruling) mandates that candidates must not spend more than Rs1.5 million on their electoral campaigns for the National Assembly. All National Assembly candidates are required to maintain a separate bank account for electoral finances and submit receipts to their returning officer for expenses incurred in the campaigning process to ensure that they do not exceed the amount specified. But this number is an inconsequential joke for Pakistani politicians and is unknown to most Pakistanis who, under the same act, have the power to scrutinise any candidate’s electoral expenses. In April 2012, the Supreme Court in its ruling on the Constitutional Petition No 87 of 2011, upheld these rules and directed the Election Commission to monitor candidates’ election expenses.

The rules of electoral finance lie at the very heart of the democratic process. These regulations are put in place to ensure that elections, by virtue of their cost, do not become the exclusive domain of the filthy rich. Our criminal neglect of electoral finance is one of the reasons for the kind of democracy we live in. Requiring the Election Commission to implement this Supreme Court verdict will require capacity that the Election Commission does not possess. But this is where friends of democracy should be directing their energies if we really want to change the quality and calibre of those in power.

The lacklustre leadership in control of the country consists of those people who have the money and clout to contest and win elections, which in Pakistan are neither won nor contested on the basis of competence or the policy views held by the candidates. Instead, contested on the basis of power and money, those that have neither, stand spectacularly slim chances of ever winning an election. So, we can automatically write-off most of the upstanding members of society. Therefore, until we change (or implement) the rules of financing the electoral game, we are likely to end up with the corrupt but powerful in the national driving seat.

What could be sadder than a country that has to resort to thinking of who is the least corrupt, least dishonest or least incompetent when trying to decide who should hold one of the highest offices in the land? Continue reading

Restoring Faith in Justice

2 Jul

When Arsalan Iftikhar takes the stand before the Supreme Court on charges of alleged corruption, 180 million will watch in the hopes that justice may be served. Hanging in the balance is not just the reputation of the honourable Court, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chauhdry or his son, but the dreams and aspirations of all those who live in the hope of a better Pakistan, despite being disappointed on numerous occasions by a system that rewards the corrupt and punishes the just.

Our media moguls, the masters of spin, have already started obfuscating the case by switching the focus of the public discourse to a supposed conspiracy hatched to trap Arsalan. If the sinister forces of darkness implemented a plan to drag an honest man’s name through the mud, then they deserve to be punished. But before we begin hunting for those who hatched this cunning plan, let us first establish that the man who stands accused is indeed innocent. It must be proven that no money, gifts or foreign trips were granted or accepted with the promise of gaining undue favour from any public office. All other matters are secondary. Continue reading

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