Pakistan Calling: Still hope at the end of the line

DFID and British Council reports underline the existential crisis Pakistan is facing, but its people are rallying to save the nation. Salman Shaheen looks at Pakistan Calling, a new RSA project seeking to galvanise the British Pakistani community and the

Squashed beneath the seat of a train bound for Karachi, a frightened young boy hides in the hot dark from armed men searching for people who pray to a different god. Leaving behind his Mysore home that day in 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated and India was aflame with anti-Muslim violence, my father, like so many fathers and mothers of British Pakistanis, was looking to find hope, freedom and safety in the world’s newest nation.

Today that dream rests on a knife-edge. A British Council study on Wednesday found that 96% of young Pakistanis believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. They are pessimistic about the economy and the state of democracy and 40% would like to see sharia law introduced. A DFID report on the same day found that British aid to Pakistan is being undermined by widespread tax avoidance and corruption. It isn’t hard to see why the reports are gloomy. 

Whilst not a failed state, Pakistan faces mounting challenges which threaten to turn it into one. The country sees weekly suicide bombings and escalating sectarian violence against its Shia, Hazara, Hindu, Ahmadi and Christian minorities. Some 60 million people (one in three) live in poverty. Half of adults, and two out of three women, are illiterate. One in 11 children die before their fifth birthday, and 12,000 women die in childbirth every year. Almost half of children under five suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development and their ability to learn. And this situation won’t necessarily improve. Pakistan’s booming population – set to double over the next couple of generations to more than 300 million people – will put an ever greater strain on housing, education, water, transport and healthcare as the country struggling to survive.

Yet despite these challenges, Pakistan stands on the cusp of achieving its first democratic transition of power between two elected governments unmarred by the military coups that have plagued the nation in its past. Pakistan’s ability to survive its convergent crises owes much to the resilience of its people and their determination to save the nation they, like my father, journeyed over a thousand miles to create. From the furnace of partition, new institutions like the Edhi Foundation were forged. What began as one man in a van providing medical aid to the poor has now grown into hundreds of hospitals and a fleet of ground and air ambulances. It’s an example that has inspired many others.

The wealth of progressive initiatives and programmes in Pakistan, however, rarely make the front pages. A new partnership Pakistan Calling – set up between the Samosa’s Anwar Akhtar and the RSA think tank – now aims to showcase some of this work.

The project provides a forum for young filmmakers in Pakistan (and the UK), in which they can challenge perceptions of today's Pakistan and provide the basis for constructive cross-cultural dialogue between Britain and Pakistan. With approximately 1.2 million people of Pakistani heritage in the UK - part of a global diaspora stretching back many decades, Pakistan Calling aims to serve as a conduit to nourish their links with the diaspora community in Britain to aid development.

Akhtar wants to draw attention to the wider crises Pakistan is facing, not only by engaging the British Pakistani community, but by aligning the Department for International Development (DFID) with its interests and the interests of Pakistani civil society. He believes DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have not had strong access to networks within the British Pakistani community. But with the help of the RSA, he wants to set up a new model for cultural discourse to support education and development.

Despite the problems of tax collection – a fundamental aspect of any successful nation state – Britain must not turn its back on Pakistan. Tackling poverty and building a prosperous democratic Pakistan will help not only millions of poor Pakistanis, but also improve stability in the country, the region, and beyond. We must not forget that Pakistan is a nation of great potential. In Karachi and Lahore, it has two bustling metropolises that could rise to become global cities. It is rich in resources and arable land, has a highly skilled professional class and an ancient history. In many respects, it has all the raw ingredients to make the kind of successful global nation state that India is fast becoming. But it also has all the toxic elements in violence, corruption, poverty and religious extremism that could lead to its undoing if its strained civil institutions are not given the urgent help they need.

Like my father hiding beneath that train seat 65 years ago, Pakistan is perilously close to danger. But in the end, my family made it to Karachi where they flourished and my grandmother, Mumtaz Shirin, went on to become one of the nation’s pioneering authors and the kind of cultural producer for whom Akhtar wants to provide a platform. Because at the end of the line there was hope. There still is.

Salman Shaheen is a freelance journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward. Films from the Pakistan Calling project can be viewed here 

 

Celebrating Pakistan's Independence Day on the seafront in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.