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Honour and terror
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23 Jun 2010
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Rafia Zakaria
Wednesday, 23 Jun, 2010

The killers of 16-year-old Aqsa Pervez were convicted on June 18. Mohammad Pervez and Waqas Ahmed, Aqsa’s father and brother, were sentenced to life in prison by a jury in Ontario, Canada.

Aqsa was killed after being picked up by her brother from her school bus stop. She was taken to the family home where she was found dead by the police. DNA material belonging to her brother was found under her fingernails and her father confessed to the murder.

According to accounts published in Canadian newspapers, Mohammad Pervez killed his daughter because she did not subscribe to his conservative values. She wanted to get a part-time job and did not want to have an arranged marriage. According to a statement made by Aqsa’s mother, Mohammad Pervez told her that he had killed his youngest child because “the community will say that you have not been able to control your daughter” and “this is my insult, she has made me naked”.

On Dec 10, 2007, the day of her death, Aqsa was tricked into coming back home and then strangled. The cause of her death was deemed to be asphyxiation and evidence showed that Aqsa had fought for her life in her last moments. On the day the sentence was announced, Aqsa’s mother was present in court and pleaded to the judge to spare her husband and son.

Days before Aqsa Pervez’s killers were sentenced, another Canadian Muslim girl, Bahar Ebrahimi, was stabbed by her mother when she went out with friends and did not return until the next morning. On June 13, 19-year-old Bahar was returning home when her mother stabbed her in the chest and head with a knife. The mother, Johra Kaleki, has been charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a weapon. During the hearing her husband got up and started shouting that his wife was innocent and was ordered to sit down by the judge. The couple’s other children, three younger daughters aged 10, 14 and 16, have been taken away from the family home and placed with youth services. In the meantime Bahar is in hospital, recovering from her wounds.

The sentencing of Aqsa Pervez’s father and brother and the stabbing of Bahar Ebrahimi in Quebec has instigated much debate in Canada over the nature of the crimes. As expected, conservative forces on the lookout for cases that can be used to further demonise immigrant and Muslim communities have given the tragedies a place in their Islamophobic narrative. Going beyond the expected, however, commentators have also raised questions about how and why crimes such as these should be treated differently from murders stemming from domestic violence.

As one commentator noted, Canada sees several hundred women victimised and even killed by their spouses every year. Another, a Muslim woman, noted that sensationalised treatment of these crimes and viewing them as a particular kind of family violence deflects attention from the far more prevalent, routine incidents of family violence that afflict immigrant communities.

The existing debate and the construction of ‘honour killings’ as an issue particular to Muslim communities is worthy of contextualisation. Western Muslim scholars have repeatedly denounced honour killings as against Islam and a ‘cultural’ problem that does not relate to religious doctrine. While this is apt and useful, few of these scholars are willing to address the issue of how mosque and community sub-cultures contribute to ideas of male entitlement and female submission. The religious sanction given to the male to be the head of the household, and often underlined in mosque sermons in Canada, is one instance where constructs of an ideal Islamic family structure can promote the interpretation that women must be controlled.

In an abusive household, it is easy to see how faith can and does become entangled with a controlling ego and produces the disastrous consequences seen in the Aqsa Pervez case. While there is no sanction in Islam for killing an innocent girl, the existence of the complexities mentioned makes this form of violence different from routine incidents of domestic violence against Canadian women of all faiths and cultures.

It is also crucial to consider the connection between honour killings and the control of women on the one hand and terror prosecutions and the demonisation of Muslim men on the other. One consequence faced by the post-9/11 generation of Muslim children growing up in the West is the construction of the Muslim identity in response to terrorist stereotypes.

For Muslim girls this has meant an increasing push to be employed in the defence of the faith with which they identify at the occasional expense of the overhaul of discriminatory gender treatment in their communities. A girl’s adopting the hijab as a visible sign of Muslim identity is lauded by her community as a rejection of western values. On the flip side, girls such as Bahar Ebrahimi who do not wear the hijab or want to flout moral codes can become the subject of censure. Worse, they can be viewed as lesser Muslims compared to their veiled counterparts because of their failure to follow community norms.

On the same day as the sentencing of Aqsa Pervez’s killers, in a courtroom in the same Canadian town of Brampton, a jury was also sent off to deliberate the fate of Steven Chand and Asad Ansari both accused of planning terror plots as part of a terror cell known as the Toronto 18. The juxtaposition of terror and honour crimes will be a burden borne by the Canadian Muslim community for some time.

In both cases, Canadian Muslim leaders must realise that simply presenting doctrinal arguments that say Islam does not support terrorism or honour crimes is a limp argument. Unless moral codes that indirectly allow for the control of women or paint deviation from community norms as a rejection of Islam are addressed, it will be difficult to escape the monolithic portrayals that continue to demonise an entire community for the crimes of a few.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Rejection of refugees
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16 Jun 2010
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The history of Pakistan could well be written as the history of its refugees. The partition of British India saw the largest movement of people in the 20th century with nearly 14 million moving between the newly created nation states.

According to the 1951 census, over seven million Muslims migrated to Pakistan with a similar number of Hindus migrating to India. As is well known, most of the refugees migrating to Pakistan settled in Karachi and its adjoining areas. After the 1971 war, many Biharis who had supported West Pakistan in the conflict were left stranded in the newly formed nation of Bangladesh.

According to a report compiled by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in 2006 nearly 300,000 of these refugees continue to live in 66 intensely crowded and abjectly poor refugee camps in Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh after having been refused repatriation to Pakistan.

The approaching end of the first decade of this new millennium has brought another refugee crisis to Pakistan. According to statistics compiled by the UN, nearly three million Pakistanis — or roughly one in every eight persons in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata — were forced to flee their homes in 2009. Most of these refugees originate from the tribal agencies and left because of fighting in their villages. Scattered in camps, the houses of distant relations or temporary slums, these refugees constitute the living human casualties of the war on terror.

According to a report released by Amnesty International, the camps set up for the IDPs have poor sanitation, limited health facilities and many families are often crowded together in small areas. Since the onset of the conflict efforts have focused on repatriating these refugees to their ancestral villages. With the decimation of local sources of livelihood, the continuation of security operations and drone attacks this task is proving to be difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of people have been left without a permanent home.

When the first refugees came to Pakistan at partition, they were largely concentrated in one geographic area. Facing a new homeland where ethnic identity was inflexible and determinative, these migrants from India had to fashion themselves into a fifth ethnic group and the de facto label of being Urdu-speaking was applied to mark their landless status.

The bloody ethnic conflict that emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s along the ethnic fault-line between the migrants in Karachi and Hyderabad and indigenous Sindhis in the rural areas was evidence of the inability of the new nation to absorb anyone that did not fit into pre-partition ethnic structures. The reasons given for failing to repatriate stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh following the 1971 war were similar: the ethnic balance in West Pakistan was believed to be too delicate and hence vulnerable to even more conflict if repatriated refugees that did not fit into the existing structure of feudal landholdings were added to the mix.

It is this last fact, the feudal structure of systems of kinship, landholdings and ultimately political power, that lies at the root of Pakistan’s inability to absorb refugees and create a concept of citizenship that means more than the sub-category of ethnic identity. The lessons of partition, the war of 1971 and the latest wave of unwanted refugees all point to this one governing narrative.

The continuation of feudal landholdings with their attached systems of patronage based on ethnicity control the bastions of political power in the country. When a crisis occurs, the underlying feudal basis of parliamentary politics dictates that the ethnic balances of electoral districts remain unaltered to retain hereditary constellations of power. Because of this, and the fact that large swathes of land continue to remain under the tutelage of a few, Pakistani citizenship means little when one is left without the protection bought by patronage to a local jagirdar or tribal elder.

While urban areas allow some minimal exception to the rule, the concentration of nearly all post-partition refugees in a single city and the lack of mixing of ethnic groups over nearly six decades, all point to the veracity of the fact that the country has failed to evolve from the paradigm of ethnically constructed identities.

This latest crisis that has produced hundreds of thousands of mostly Pakhtun refugees is no different. The existing structure of feudal landholdings means that no province is interested in absorbing the refugees who have little or nothing to return to.

Effectively, this means that people with few skills beyond farming and animal husbandry and who are used to rural lifestyles will be directed towards urban centres such as Karachi. Largely uneducated and with few means of earning a living in an urban environment, these refugees will be vulnerable to human trafficking and bonded labour. Many cases have already been reported of women and girls being forced into prostitution and small children becoming beggars and trash-pickers. In the meantime, no consideration by any governing authority is given to the idea that small farming schemes in non-conflict regions could easily avert the tragedy.

The sad legacy of the refugees points to a much deeper problem within Pakistan’s notions of citizenship and identity. While much is made about the inherent value of the current democratic government, the undeniable feudal basis of its construction illustrates the intractability of identity in Pakistan. It points also to the possibility that, once again, maintaining feudal structures will be given priority, even at the cost of fomenting terror.

Ironically, it is this very inability to respond to changes in ethnic demography that leaves the Pakistani youth so attracted to the empty promises of Islamist recruiters. With ethnic identity determining social status and the course of one’s life, the seemingly egalitarian rhetoric of jihad provides one way for rural youth to escape the accident of birth in a Pakistan that continues to be dominated by medieval power structures. As the refugees from Fata roam the country searching for a new home, their inability to find one reflects on how little Pakistani citizenship really means.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Reinventing the Taliban
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07 Apr 2010
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CONTROVERSY has raged in recent days over whether the video of a 17-year-old girl being flogged by the Taliban, released last April, was real or staged. The initial news report published in an English-language daily alleged that Ethnomedia, the Islamabad-based NGO that released the video, paid a “local” half a million rupees to have the video produced.

The report also claimed that the girl shown in the video, which was so instrumental in galvanising public outcry against the Taliban, also received a payment of Rs100,000. The matter was even taken up by Pakistan’s Senate last month. In a debate held on the issue, Jamaat-i-Islami Senator Khursheed Ahmed demanded action against the NGO which he accused of having “defamed Islam and the nation”.

In response Interior Minister Rehman Malik, expressing grave concern over media reports of the matter, ordered an inquiry into whether or not the video was authentic. In the midst of the outcry Samar Minallah, the founder of Ethnomedia, wrote in defence of the video’s authenticity drawing attention to the fact that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Muslim Khan had publicly accepted responsibility for the video, admitting even that the case had not been properly investigated before the girl was punished. Ms Minallah reminded those questioning the authenticity of the video of the fact that videos entitled Swat I and Swat II, easily available in any marketplace in the region, showed the Taliban engaged in even more brutal acts such as beheadings and amputations.

Yet to view the controversy as an isolated case connected only to the veracity of the events depicted in the video would be to miss the trajectory of the transformation being planned for the Taliban by the political and military leadership of the country. With the completion of the Pakistan military’s Rah-i-Nijat offensive in Swat, and the near culmination of operations in North Waziristan, the endgame of a long and bloody counter-insurgency operation is now visible.

Such an endgame requires, arguably by necessity, the co-option of those among the enemy that have not been eliminated, into the inevitable ‘peace deal’ that will mark the end of hostilities and tempt with concessions those still left standing. The imperatives of the classic counter-insurgency doctrine thus dictate that the internal enemy, the Taliban, must be transformed into a friend.

The army’s strategic local objective is not the only factor dictating the reinvention of the Taliban that is under way via the Swat video controversy. Undoubtedly, the United States has been mulling over talks with the Taliban for the past several months with advisors close to President Obama emphasising their necessity as a solution to the AfPak crisis.

With the success of the Kayani-Qureshi pilgrimage to Washington DC, the delicious dreams of nuclear deals on par with India and the acknowledgment that peace between India and Pakistan is crucial to the success of the war in Afghanistan, the timing is ideal for the deployment of such an endgame. On March 11, the Los Angeles Times reported several US officials as saying that the Taliban in Pakistan were increasingly at odds with Al Qaeda militants in the area.

The distinction is notable because in distinguishing between the two, valued space is created for saying that the Taliban can indeed be rehabilitated and transformed into potential partners in peace – unlike Al Qaeda which must be eliminated at all costs. On the same day as the LA Times report was published, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband sounded the same note, emphasising in an interview the need for “political talks” with the Taliban as part of the ultimate solution to the region’s problems.

Unsurprisingly the same sentiment was echoed by Pakistani diplomatic sources four days later in a story published on March 14 in this newspaper. The sources, who refused to be identified, blamed the series of Lahore bombings on those Taliban that were “still allied to Al Qaeda militants”, echoing the American project of resuscitating some of the Taliban as possible partners in a post-war deal. Insisting that the reformed Taliban were refusing to assist Al Qaeda even in exchange for payment, the sources suggested that most of the hardcore fighters had either already been eliminated or would soon be, leaving behind those that could possibly be co-opted within a post-operation framework.

The project confronted by Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, in exchange for the military and civilian goodies inveigled from Washington, is that of making the ‘good’ Taliban palatable to a Pakistani public ravaged by their brutality. Casting doubt on a video that mobilised so many against the Taliban is one tiny part of this larger strategy that necessitates delivering some sort of ‘victory’ to the United States before the commencement of its troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Minor hitches in this project of reinventing the Taliban include civil society groups and NGOs such as Ethnomedia, that draw attention to annoying details: to give just a few examples, the over 200 girls’ schools bombed, the scores of beheaded villagers, the blast-stricken markets and the many thousands of dead civilians that the Taliban have left in their wake. Accusing such NGOs of faking a video that showed an incident that was acknowledged by the TTP is thus a convenient way of rewriting history so that the enemies of the past may become the friends of the future.

In a country where the truth is ever slippery and the suffering of women always subjected to doubt, the controversy over the Swat flogging video merely illustrates the ramparts of the revised version of the Taliban era that is to be presented to the Pakistani public. In the calculations of the civilian-military leadership, undermining the tragedy of a few women is a meagre price to pay for the successful reincarnation of the Taliban as peace-loving allies who could soon become members of Pakistan’s legislatures.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Qabool Ferma Aur
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28 Oct 2009
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Article Published In jang By Tahira Iqbal
Article Published In jang By Tahira Iqbal
Qabool Ferma Aur
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28 Oct 2009
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Article Published In JANG By Tahira Iqbal
Article Published In JANG By Tahira Iqbal
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