Archive for March 8th, 2011

Life in India on International Women’s Day

Amruta Mehta for The Guardian

A child of the late 80s and 90s, I was a young girl when satellite television was introduced in India.

It brought along an overdose of Bollywood, soaps and reality TV, which I feel has been brutal on India’s girls. In response to youth culture prompted by these changes, the moral police has been raising its head, targeting young girls.

Perhaps it is due to the ubiquity of information and dramatisation of the news media, but I feel that violence against women in India has increased greatly during my lifetime. While it has become increasingly easier for urban Indian women to work even after marriage, the expectations on them remain cripplingly unrealistic.

As I sought out strong Indian female role models while growing up, I found that phenomenally powerful women abound. India’s first female police officer, Kiran Bedi, has influenced tens of thousands through radical prison reforms, daring to question the practices of generations of men before her. She is bringing India’s women centre-stage in the fight against corruption. Women are CEOs of large companies, philanthropists, and icons of style and grace.

We’re a country of over a billion people, with a large young population, deep socioeconomic disparities, and an ancient democratic tradition. It should come as no surprise that youth movements working for equality are everywhere. The promise that India’s girls hold can be felt in the electrifying energy around young female doctors and IT workers, and girls who ferociously compete for the best grades with their male classmates.

I was the first girl in my extended family to travel abroad alone for study. For this, my mother faced much character assassination. I have been lucky to have had parents who responded by trusting me unconditionally.

These are the people we must celebrate on International Women’s Day: apparently ordinary men and women who blaze trails at the risk of violence and ostracism. Development progresses due to them, inch by inch, from one generation to another.

I do believe that our time has come. I believe in my generation – and I hope you will too.

-Amruta Mehta, a respected group member of Pakistanis for Peace, is from Mumbai, India, and lives in the Netherlands, where she works in scientific media.

Not much Islamic about Islamic Pakistan

By Haroon Siddiqui for The Toronto Star

In the failing state of Pakistan, a junior cabinet minister is killed. Shahbaz Bhatti was a member of the Christian minority. He had taken up the cause of a poor Christian woman condemned to death for allegedly defaming Islam. He knew he was a marked man. But on a recent visit to Canada, where his brother lives, he said he was determined to carry on.

Eight weeks ago, a veteran politician was gunned down for the same sin. He, too, had championed the woman’s cause and condemned the blasphemy law that imposes the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Salman Taseer was the governor of Punjab, the most populous and prosperous province, and an influential billionaire tycoon, a socialite and an unrepentant liberal in a society that’s becoming militantly conservative. He was a Muslim.

Bhatti was gunned down by unknown assailants. Taseer was assassinated by a member of the elite security unit assigned to guard him. More shockingly, the assassin was hailed a hero. Hundreds turned up at his house, chanting “we salute your bravery.” About 500 clerics signed a statement calling him “a true soldier of Islam.” When he appeared in court, young lawyers showered rose petals and kissed him. At a rally in cosmopolitan Karachi, marchers waved his portrait.

This is a sick society. There’s little Islamic about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The blasphemy law may have been enacted by the British colonials in 1860. But it was toughened by the Muslim rulers of Pakistan in the name of Islam. And both in its wording and implementation, the law violates the most basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence. In allowing hearsay evidence and innuendo, it ignores the necessity of incontrovertible proof for a finding of guilt.

The act is allowed to be abused in personal and property disputes. (A majority of those charged have been Muslims, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a voluntary organization). Or it is wielded as a weapon in political and religious vendettas. In one particularly horrific case, two Christian brothers were framed with a handwritten note defaming the Prophet, found in a marketplace with their home address and phone number.

Yet local police and magistrates dare not toss out such trumped-up charges. Cases have to be taken to higher courts to be overturned. Not a single person has been executed under the act. Yet more than 30 people charged or acquitted have been killed.

Under Islamic law, such jungle justice constitutes a greater crime than the alleged original one. It is deemed particularly egregious when the innocents prosecuted are poor and powerless.

The blasphemy law is just one of many flashpoints.

Christian churches have been bombed. So have been mosques belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect, deemed heretic. So also mosques of the minority Shiite Muslim sect. So also Sufi shrines, along with the devotees who turn up for the anniversary festivals of dance and music dedicated to those saints.

Not just that.

Pakistani Taliban and other militants have been killing fellow Muslims who won’t side with them. Such attacks were once restricted to the remote Afghan-Pakistan border but now they are routine in the populated south. Tens of thousands have been killed, including Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in December of 2007.

Yet the government is too weak to provide basic security and too corrupt to care — both egregious Islamic crimes. The politicians and the bureaucrats are not the only ones on the take. Too many clerics are also money-grabbing machines.

Several reasons are proffered for this sad state of affairs.

One is that Pakistan has had too many military dictators, and that the longest-serving one, Zia ul-Haq (1977-88) Islamized Pakistan, which he did. But he did so in tandem with the American-led effort to Islamize the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Another inconvenient truth is that while the military used jihadist proxy militias against India and Afghanistan, political parties use them as vote banks and to flex street muscle.

The secular-Islamic divide is also cited. Yet both religious and secular elites have pandered to extremists. It was the wine-sipping prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who in the 1970s restricted liquor and declared the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim. It is his People’s Party, once again in power, that abandoned backbencher Sherry Rahman after she proposed amendments to the blasphemy law.

Meanwhile, the economy is in ruins. Inflation is rampant, the currency is losing value and the central bank is printing more rupees.

Don’t be surprised if Pakistanis begin clamouring, yet again, for the return of the military to power.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiqui@thestar.ca

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 75 other followers

%d bloggers like this: