After-Image: Love and writing in Pakistan

By Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden at a stall at the Lahore Literary Festival. Photo: Arsalan Altaf
Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden at a stall at the Lahore Literary Festival. Photo: Arsalan Altaf

When I was 12, I smuggled women’s magazines into my uncle’s house for my cousin. Her strict parents would not have allowed her to read them. She was 16 years old and I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. She wore a burqa, but it was from her that I first heard the words ‘dieting,’ ‘threading,’ and ‘menses.’

She and her best friend would give me money and send me out to the bazaars with the names of magazines written on a piece of paper. Pakeeza, Akhbar-e-Khawateen, Zaib-un-Nisa, Khawateen Digest… I hid the magazines under my kameez and walked into the house, and then my cousin and her friend did what the pages advised them to: they put lemon on their faces to make themselves fairer; learned by heart the calories in a chapatti or a serving of rice; and put eggs or yoghurt in their hair; and they showed to the seamstress the new styles from the magazines’ fashion pages.

All this was in the large provincial city of Faisalabad, where I went every summer during school holidays. The house was surrounded by a thick garden where I first saw a jeweled sunbird and smelled a frangipani blossom for the first time. I heard the drone of the blue carpenter bee which is known as a ‘bhanvara’ in poetry and film songs. And at the foot of a giant crepe-myrtle bush I buried a dead hoopoe I had found, having performed the Muslim funeral rites beforehand.

One day I returned with the magazines and told my cousin that her name had been scrawled all over the neighborhood in large letters—on walls, on gates, on tree trunks, on the floors of people’s front verandahs. Every other surface in the surrounding streets and lanes seemed to speak her name. She was instantly terrified. She shook visibly as she explained that a young man in the neighborhood had fallen madly in love with her:

“He saw my face as I lifted the front of my burqa near the house. And he follows my tonga when I go to school in the mornings. And waits at the gates when school finishes. Is the name everywhere?”


“You have to go out immediately and paint over them all.” She seemed close to tears now. “I can’t imagine what will happen if Father finds out.”

With a tin of white paint and brush she sent me out and I spent the afternoon hunting her name, climbing walls and trees. Some of the letters were taller than I was. It was arduous work and I was afraid for my cousin, but I remember being excited too. She had promised that as a reward she would lend me her most treasured possession—a collection of stories from her childhood. It was a thick scrapbook and in it she had pasted every story that a writer named Neel Kanval had ever published in the children’s supplement of a daily newspaper. A bachelor schoolteacher lived with his spinster sister—and an incalculable number of cats—in the house next to my uncle, and he gave my cousin the newspaper’s children’s supplement every week.

Neel Kanval. The Lotus of the Nile. The name evoked distant vistas, a sense of mystery and vague romance.

I returned, paint-spattered, and she washed my hands with turpentine and sent me off to bathe, and afterward she carefully handed me the coveted scrapbook. She had never allowed me to handle it before, saying I might damage it.

I spent the next few days reading the stories one by one, and occasionally she would send me out to check that her name hadn’t reappeared in the neighborhood, and occasionally she would ask me what I thought of the stories I was reading.

“They are beautiful.”

“Are they?”

“Yes. They make me wish I could write.” There had been yet another power-cut and a candle was burning next to the stories. Its flame left a dark stain inside my eyes and on the page whenever I looked at it.

“Have you ever tried writing?” she asked.

It had never occurred to me.

“But I am only 12,” I said, airing my doubts.

“Neel Kanval was also only 12 when she wrote her first story.”

“How do you know?”

She leaned closer into the sphere of candlelight, and she held my eye for the longest moment before speaking. “Because I am Neel

She had had to invent a penname because her parents would have been shocked that she had “drawn attention to herself” by having her name printed in a newspaper. This immodesty would have caused a scandal within the family. Her father would have raised his voice at her, and her mother would have slapped her face, perhaps even beaten her. The conservative newspaper that her father read had a weekly children’s supplement too, but he tore it up as soon as it came into the house, wishing to spare his children the “unseemly ideas” expressed in the tales, cartoons, jokes, and poems. When in 1980 my mother took off her burqa, this man—my mother’s brother—had been enraged. My mother was a married woman, a mother of four, and her “morals” were no longer her brother’s responsibility, but he had still demanded an explanation.

“I am old now,” my mother had told him fearfully. “What’s the point of a burqa at my age?”

“What else do you plan to take off now that you are old?” he had thundered.

The summer ended, the summer during which ‘Neel Kanval’ told me I should write. I came back to Gujranwala where I lived and began writing stories, and by the end of the year my first story was published in the children’s supplement of the newspaper my Communist uncle read—the same one as the schoolteacher in Faisalabad.

The following summer when I returned to Faisalabad I learnt that my cousin’s best friend had got married to a man in Rawalpindi and had left Faisalabad. My cousin was bereft, missing her terribly, but she was growing up fast and now spent more and more of her time with the women in the family—only occasionally asking me how I was, what I was reading or writing. I was still a child and the days were passing with my small and large adventures, the whispers and yells of my miniature life. One day I went out to the bazaar to get the women’s magazines and lost the money. Another day some neighborhood boys and I broke a bough of the Persian lilac tree in the garden by swinging from it too hard. I tried smoking a cigarette. And my 14-year-old brother was almost caught doing a surreptitious adaab to a girl who lived across the street. And my 2-year-old cousin caused a room to erupt with laughter by telling an esteemed great-aunt, “I don’t like you!”

Two things happened the following summer.

A marriage was arranged for my cousin; she would go to live in Karachi.

And her best friend was divorced by her husband in Rawalpindi—and she came back to Faisalabad with a baby in her arms. It had been a difficult marriage from the outset, but she and her parents were grief stricken by the divorce.

I was 14 now, the author of more than a dozen published stories.

On my first day back in Faisalabad that summer, my cousin gestured to me to meet her in the backroom. There she quickly handed me a thick envelope and asked me to drop it off at the postbox located at the crossroads.

The address was of a women’s magazine.

“What is it?”

“It’s a new story by Neel Kanval.”

“But she used to write for children.”

“I have grown up now,” she replied. “Go and post it. Don’t let anyone see you.”

When the new month arrived I was sent out to buy the magazine but Neel Kanval’s story was not in it.

“Maybe next month,” I said.

She was somewhat preoccupied. Her future in-laws were coming for a visit in a few weeks, along with her future groom. He was in the Air Force and he had caught a glimpse of her at a wedding and had managed to talk to her at a later gathering, and had then begged his parents to arrange his marriage with her—and they in turn had begged my uncle and aunt until they relented. Her mother-in-law was a headmistress; and it was said (in hushed tones within this branch of my Faisalabad family) that she was known to wear a sari now and then.

I didn’t know she was in the room when I burst in next month with a copy of the magazine.

“Your story has been published!” I announced to my cousin, noticing too late the horror on her face, noticing too late the imposing woman who lay on the divan.

“Your story?” she said, sitting up and looking toward my cousin, who did not reply.

The woman extended her arm and I gave her the magazine—I hadn’t yet stopped being intimidated by the fact that she was a headmistress and from a city as important as Karachi—and she looked at the table of contents and frowned. “I don’t see your name anywhere, Khalida. Hand me my glasses, Nadeem.”

I gave them to her and then my cousin decided to get up and tell her which story was hers, explaining that she was Neel Kanval.

The woman read silently and we remained in the room for the duration, equally silent.

“How do you know all this?” she asked Khalida after she finished reading.

“It’s the story of a girl I know. My best friend—almost a sister to me. She was divorced by her husband and has a baby girl. Nothing was her fault—he turned out to be an appalling man.”

“So all this is true?” she indicated the story.

“Yes. I just changed her name.”

“It’s a great injustice.”

“It is.”

“And is she as wonderful as you say in the story?”

“More so.”

The graceful gray-haired lady gave a nod and seemed to think. I knew that the earrings she wore were copies of the ones a Muslim empress wore in a Chughtai painting; she had taken the picture to the goldsmith.

“Is it possible for me to visit your friend this evening?” she asked Khalida.


She smiled. “I have two sons. The second one needs a wife too.”

Decades have passed, and the two girls—who are two women now—have lived in the same house in Karachi since their joint wedding day.

On my last trip to Pakistan I went to see the house in Faisalabad, the one with the garden. A famous cricketer from the city had bought it and torn it down to erect a modern home for himself. This building was differently shaped and there was nothing but air where the old rooms were, where my cousin and I had spent the summer afternoons, the sun hanging directly above the house with its million tons of fire, and where I had taken my first steps toward becoming a writer. The garden was gone, the garden where you could almost sense the weather with your skin: the sound of trees in the midnight rain; the grapevine which produced grapes by the bucketful, the bunches as hot as glass in the sun; the foliage from which I gathered cold handfuls of dew every morning; the three-storey-high bougainvillea; the mighty rosewood tree… There is no trace of them or of those lost afternoons, except these words that I am writing, the words you have almost finished reading. Like the after-image of a flame in the eye.

Aslam is the author of The Blind Man’s Garden. This piece originally appeared in Vogue India and then Newsweek Pakistan.


FPSC cancels screen-out test for CSS 2014 exam


Federal Public Service Commission Wednesday announced that it won’t be holding the screen-out test it had announced for the central superior services examination 2014.

A public notice put on FPSC website on July 17, 2013, says, “due to some administrative reasons the Commission has decided not to hold CSS Screening Test this year.” CSS Competitive Examination 2014 will be held as per previous practice for which applications shall be invited in last week of September 2013 with closing date of 31.10.2013, it said.

The cut-off date for determining the eligibility of the candidates in terms of age, qualification, domicile, etc., shall be 31st December, 2013. The written examination commences on February 15, 2014.

The commission reportedly had to prepare for a re-test in Faisalabad and could not complete its preparations for the screening test. Some on social media said the govt. didn’t approve the measure, though.

However, the screening test would be introduced for CSS examination 2015, reports Dawn.

The screening test was being introduced to filter out the potential candidates among large number of applicants.

The screen-out test, when introduced, would also reduce the workload of examiners who would thus receive fewer answer copies to mark.

FPSC announces preliminary screen-out test for CSS exam


Federal Public Service Commission has, for the first time, decided to hold a preliminary screen-out test for those intending to sit the CSS competitive exam 2014.

Thousands try their luck at the prestigious central superior services exam and the measure, it seems, aims at filtering out the unsuitable candidates beforehand.

A total of 11,888 candidates initially registered themselves for the 2010 examination, 7,759 actually sat for it, 642 passes the written exam, and only 205 were finally recruited into the civil service. Curiously enough, 66 vacancies were left unfulfilled “due to non-availability of qualified and suitable candidates,” as per the FPSC annual report 2011, available online.

And next year, 2011, a total of 13,071 applied, 6,063 attempted the test and 882 were declared successful in written exam. There are no statistics available as yet about the 2012 exam.

The measure also shuns the impression that the civil service was no longer the lucrative career path for the youth after Musharraf regime brought in the local government system. The local govt. system, it was argued, took most power in its hands and left the District Management Group, the most sought after group in the Pakistan civil service, toothless. The numbers, however, show that a major chunk of fresh graduates each year still opt for the CSS exam, hence the need for a preliminary screen-out test.

“The screening test will be of 3 hours duration comprising MCQs of 200 marks and will be held on 15‐09‐2013. The contents of screening test are based on English, General Abilities, General Knowledge (Everyday Science, Current Affairs, Pakistan Affairs) and Islamiat. The contents of the syllabus are the same as already prescribed for Competitive Examination and have been placed on FPSC website (,” says a public notice issued by the commission on June 07, 2013.

General Abilities mean basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry (SSC level), logical reasoning and analytical ability, and general mental ability. These abilities carry 20 per cent weightage of the 200 marks.

Those intending to apply for the CSS competitive examination‐2014, may apply online for the screen-out test during July 15 and August 15, 2013, through the FPSC website.

Natives of the banyan

Hardly anybody knows for how many years it stood there, looking down at its people as they lived their lives. It was the centre the whole village life revolved around. Given its majesty and grandeur, it was hard to imagine that somebody had one day planted a seedling that grew so big that people in other villages would guide visitors by pointing fingers to it. The village came to be associated with it and would be called Borh ala Gaggar (Gaggar, the banyan’s).

On one side lay a spacious pond where the villagers bathed and their cattle drank. The pond was filled with earth sometime in 80’s as households started to have their own wells. I didn’t happen to see it and was told that just in front of our gate once lied the banni (pond). Tweens and teens, so I am told, would climb the banyan and jump into the pond at scorching summer noon.

In my childhood, we used to draw water from wells using pulleys, and when the season arrived, we would put watermelon in a net and lower it into the well water. This is how we chilled big, green watermelons. As women did the dishes and the laundry around wells, there were a few incidents of a child falling into a well. And when the water smelled unpleasant, we knew a crow, or some bechari chiri (poor sparrow) was dead in the well. We would drag a certain number of buckets and waste them in order to purify the well. There was another bigger well just beside the mosque under the banyan. This one was called khuee and was shared by the whole village, as was the banyan.

There ran a stream in east of the village where children would play and swim and women would do the laundry and bathe their kids. I have a few faded memories of accompanying my mom and other women there. Locals call this stream kass. Another such kass flowed in south of the village. They flowed full during monsoon. In my childhood, I often wondered where the kass comes from and where it goes. Now in the age of Google Maps, I know that they emanate from rugged Potohar land a few miles from our villages and fall into Nala Kahan (or River Gahan) that carries them to River Jhelum.

Elders tell us that Rohtas was the grain market that villagers went to shop at. Hindus dominated both grain markets in the area: Domeli and Rohtas. These Hindu businessmen employed many a local Muslim. There were one or two Hindu families in my village too.

Rohtas’s was the only high school in the area, until around 70s. My father and his peers went to this Rohtas school that also finds its mention in Raza Ali Abidi’d Jarneli Sarak. Market and school goers would walk it to the fort in mornings.

Then came the tumultuous Partition of 1947. Hindu and Sikh population left for India and today the only sign of that diverse era are a few old buildings that they left behind. One of those who migrated from the area in 1947 was a child Sampooran Singh Kalra who pursued his passion for words and made a name for himself. Gulzar has fond memories of his native hometown Dina.

In Feb 2013, Gulzar visited Dina, decades after he left it in 1947.
In Feb 2013, Gulzar visited Dina, decades after he left it in 1947.

After Partition, market gradually moved from Rohtas to the town of Dina, thanks to the Grand Trunk Road and a railway track. Rohtas today is just that: a village within the majestic walls of Sher Shah Suri’s fort.

People in those olden days lived simple but pure and happy lives. They had less money but enjoyed life to the fullest. Few went to college but they were more compassionate and understood each other well.

There was an old lady who frequented my grandma. She always wore a burqa. I can’t remember of any other lady who wore burqa in those years. People on the streets had more respect for ladies though.

And on hot noons, men would sit on charpoys under the banyan along with their hukka’s. People from other villages returning from the city would take a break under the banyan and discuss whatever they had to, including buying and selling their cattle.

It was around 1970 when a minibus started plying between the village and city of Dina. It would leave in the morning and return in the evening. Electricity came to our village in 1981. My father returned from UAE in 1992 and brought a Sony television set, a VCR and a few cossets of Indian films. I remember watching Amitabh’s Ajooba with my siblings. Around the same time we bought fridge-freezer, another first for the family.

In the past, people served in the army, now they drive cabs in the Gulf or work at eateries in England. Some in the ’80s and ’90s attended seminaries but, curiously enough, many dropped out, refusing to join the clergy.

And the banyan, when the pond was gone, the soil dried up and occasionally a branch would fall off and block the road. And one day the banyan caught fire. Somebody had stuffed spaces within its wide trunk with bicycle tires etc and lit them. People came out with buckets but couldn’t control the blaze. That was the first and only time a fire tender came to the village. Fire was finally put off but nearby houses feared that a branch would fall upon them. And then it was decided, after much debate, to do away with the venerable banyan. It was year 1995 or ‘96 and a team of Pathan woodcutters took several days to fell and transport the old tree.

The banyan is gone and the natives have moved on. A few more decades down the line and who will remember that there once stood the tree alongside the pond in the early years of the village!

The Banyan Tree

By Rabindranath Tagore

O you shaggy-headed banyan tree standing on the bank of the pond,
have you forgotten the little chile, like the birds that have
nested in your branches and left you?
Do you not remember how he sat at the window and wondered at
the tangle of your roots and plunged underground?
The women would come to fill their jars in the pond, and your
huge black shadow would wriggle on the water like sleep struggling
to wake up.
Sunlight danced on the ripples like restless tiny shuttles
weaving golden tapestry.
Two ducks swam by the weedy margin above their shadows, and
the child would sit still and think.
He longed to be the wind and blow through your resting
branches, to be your shadow and lengthen with the day on the water,
to be a bird and perch on your topmost twig, and to float like
those ducks among the weeds and shadows.

Raza Ali Abidi tells us Urdu ka haal

Raza Ali Abidi’s Urdu ka haal is the story of Urdu language entering the twenty-first Century. The story comes from a person who has been in the profession of words his whole life and who virtually lived off Urdu. He is known for the words he spoke and now writes, adding to the vast literature in and about Urdu.

The book is a must  read  for all those interested in Urdu linguistics. Photo: Sang-e-Meel Publications
The book is a must read for all those interested in Urdu linguistics. Photo: Sang-e-Meel Publications

Grammar says talib-e-ilm‘s plural should be tulaba-e-ilm, but what Urdu world knows is talib ilmon. And the word was varsa; we made it virsa. Abidi sahib says changes like these have been accepted into Urdu language. But he highlights the need to correct the Urdu pronunciation of many of our radio and TV presenters.

He tells us that Idrees Siddiqui had authored a 70-80 page book, Ye masael-e-talafuz, that documented the frequently-mispronounced words. The book has been consigned to oblivion and is out of print now.

Abidi sahib has travelled far and wide in Indo-Pak. He says he found Urdu wherever he went, be it the village Upshi in Ladakh or Pakistan’s northern areas.

After the Partition, Indian govt. tried to replace many of the Arabic and Persian words with heavy and strange-to-ears Sanskrit words in Devanagari script.

The Hindi Doordarshan and Akashvani broadcast is not the language the ordinary Indians spoke and understood. People’s Hindi was and is what we see in theater and Bollywood. Wherever in India Raza Ali Abidi spoke Urdu, people told him, “Aap bohet sundar Hindi bolte hen.”

One wonders whether we are losing Urdu script because popular Urdu poets like Ghalib, Fraz, and Parveen Shakir are selling more in India in Devanagari script than in Urdu one. And in Pakistan, youths are more comfortable with roman Urdu.

Urdu in today’s India: There are dozens of state-run Urdu academies (including Urdu Academy (Delhi), Anjuman Traqqi-i-Urdu (Hind), Traqqi-i-Urdu Board, National Book Trust of India, Traqqi-i-Urdu Bureau, National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (Delhi), and National Academy), courtesy a thriving democracy. Urdu is the 2nd official language in Bihar and is also thriving in Bengal. Uttar Pradesh, however, feels uncomfortable with its very own language.

Abidi sahib disagrees that Urdu is the language of Muslims only and not of Hindus and other Indians.

A chapter details the eccentricities of Urdu Mushaira (poetic symposium).

Of international Urdu conferences, Abidi sahib advises Urdu world would do well to implement the past resolutions than to hold more conferences.

The book also talks about the communication gap between the new and older generations in Urdu speaking families in the UK, the US and Canada, where one asks in Urdu and is responded back in English.

Two chapters discuss Urdu kay qaiday. Many of them were written in 19th and 20th centuries and are still in use in Indo-Pak.

The book pays glowing tributes to Molana Ismail Meeruthi’s Urdu ka qaida and his Urdu readers. Many generations learned Urdu words from Meeruthi’ qaida and his readers. They are still educating our children and serving Urdu. What Urdu needs today are modern readers and teaching methods, observes the author.

Urdu in Britain: Urdu came to England with the household staff East India Company’s Britons brought with them from India. And today, Pakistani and Indians form a big chunk of population of Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Sheffield and Leicester.

Urdu and Punjabi are widely-spoken languages in these cities. To cater to Urdu/Hindi-speaking population, BBC Birmingham started the programme Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye (meaning “Make Yourself at Home”) in 1960’s. Today, there are a couple of private Urdu/Hindi broadcasters in Britain.

BBC started Urdu programmes during the World War II to propagate their version among Indians and to reach to Indian soldiers fighting at various frontiers around the world. And now the BBC’s Urdu website is one of the best Urdu news websites in the world.

How Rabte ki zubaan (lingua franca) is different from the national language? Abidi says they are as much different as the Urdu word aurat and khatoon.

For the love of Urdu!

It was a usual chilly December evening and fish eateries at Rawalpindi’s Committee Chowk were doing good business. Beyond the fish-vendors, most of the booksellers awaited customers. There, however, was hustle and bustle at a grand bookstore.

Located a few shops from the Committee Chowk, Ashraf Book Agency boasts the largest Urdu collection in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The main hall, behind-the-wall store rooms and the upper story are full with nothing other than Urdu fiction and non-fiction. The bookshop doesn’t trade in English books. It does not sell the low-quality — both in print and content — exam guides either, like many book shops in the area do. The owner Ijaz Ahmed says this is because of his love for Urdu language.

“My father ran Ashraf Library, an aana library, at the Committee Chowk and we have been running this bookstore for twenty years now,” he said. “Is your father alive?” “No,” came his reply. But his legacy remains, I thought to myself.

One enters the store and finds a whole wall of the Sang-e-Meel Publications‘ top selling authors: Mustansar Husain Tarar, Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Dr Younas Butt, Manto, Amjad Islam Amjad, Raza Ali Abidi, Razia Butt, Fateh Muhammad Malik etcetera.

Fashion and cooking magazines, jantaries, new arrivals, Raza Ali Abidi’s latest Tees Saal Baad are piled on the floor. Though I don’t know what a jantari is, that day I knew that there is a Sunni jantari and another Imamia Jantari.

Photo by Sang-e-Meel Publications
Photo by Sang-e-Meel Publications

Beside Sang-e-Meel, another genre that strikes one is popular romantic Urdu poetry. Another rack features mystic Punjabi poets Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Waris Shah’s Heer and Mian Mohammad Baksh’s Saif-ul-Maluk. I pick them one by one, they are cheap, hand-written prints and certainly need accompanying explanatory text in today’s Punjabi. Ahmed says a certain class of readers still buys these titles.

Another rack tells me that Mumtaz Mufti wrote many titles other than Alakh Nagri, Ali Pur ka Aeeli and Talash. He published an account of his trip to India, Hind Yaatra. Another row is the gentleman series by Colonel (R) Ashfaq Husain.

The upper most shelf that touches the ceiling contains kulliyats of many of the writers including Alif Laila Kay Qissay and Leo Tolistoy’s War and Peace‘s Urdu translation.

Ahmed tells me that Urdu readership has certainly gone up over the past 2-3 decades. Unlike many booksellers and publishers these days, he says there has been a steady increase in his clientele. But then he concedes that not many young people frequent the store.

Store’s bestselling authors are Ashfaq Ahmed and Umaira Ahmed. The latter, he says, is quite popular among women.

Though the prima facie of the shop is Urdu fiction, there is a quite thick section for Qur’an, its Urdu translations, Ahadith and other religious literature. Ahmed says people usually tend to religious books as they grow old.

Another shelf contains Wehshatnak kahaniyan, Dracula kahaniyan, holnak kahaniyan, jinnati kahaniyan, khofnak kahaniyan, khoon asham kahaniyan, wehshat angez kahaniyan and the list goes on. I wonder who reads them. Small books of stories of Tarzan, sheikh Chilli and Umru Ayar reminds of the childhood.

I also came across Mansha Yaad’s Punjabi novel Tanwan Tanwan Tara. It’s in plain Punjabi. Beside it, stood its Urdu-ised PTV serial Rahen. One hopes to have time and read Sir Denzil Ibbetson’s Punjab Ki Zaaten (Punjab Castes) and Kuniya Lal’s hand-written, Persian-ised Urdu of Tareekh-e-Islam. Josh Malihabadi’s autobiography Yaadon ki baraat also looks an interesting read.

“Yes the Internet is redefining the way we live but I see no existential threat to the printed book in the next 50 years,” says the upbeat bookseller. But what the scenario will be fifty years down the lane, only the time will tell.

Pakistani women continue pushing the limits

Photo by uusc4all, taken on March 31, 2008 in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan
Photo by uusc4all, taken on March 31, 2008 in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan

Article 25 of the constitution of Pakistan says all citizens are equal before law, are entitled to equal protection of law and that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex.

Though women from upper social classes enjoy relative freedom and can pursue professional careers, it’s the female in the lower and middle classes that is still shackled to more traditional roles. They are still dependant on their fathers, brothers, and husbands even to open a bank account or apply for a visa.

The Pakistan Citizenship Act (1951) guarantees citizenship by descent only through the father. There is discrepancy in the law: minimum age of marriage for girls is 16 and 18 for boys. Furthermore, women do not have an equal right to divorce. Right of divorce given to women through delegation (Tafweez) is permissible in Islam, yet the attitude of the majority has led to its misuse. And then the procedures of women seeking divorce are very complex.

There are laws that hinder women’s development in the society. Legislations regarding sexual crimes against women favour men. The Zina ordinance confuses rape with adultery and, Society for Advancement of Community Health, Education, and Training says, places female victims rape as well as that accused adultery at particular risk.

The Muslim family Law Ordinance (1961) made marriage registration mandatory and introduced a uniform marriage contract form. The ordinance laid down a procedure for divorce. However, it lacked a fair post-divorce settlement.

Some relatively recent legislation for women empowerment includes the 2006 revision of the Hudood laws, resulting in the Protection of Women Act.

The incumbent parliament has enacted a number of legislations for the women empowerment. They include The Protection Against Harassment Of Women At The Workplace Act 2010, The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011, and Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2010.

Over 22 per cent seats in the 342-member national assembly are held by women parliamentarians.

Pic 2

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (

And women MPs are actively engaged in the legislation process. A report on parliament’s performance by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) says during 2008-09, female parliamentarians introduced and co-introduced the highest number of private members’ bill.

“In 2009-10, the maximum numbers of questions — 607 — were asked by female parliamentarians and the maximum numbers of calling attention notices — 60 — were also submitted by three outstanding female parliamentarians.” reports Dawn.

What needs to be done is to implement the women empowerment legislation done by the parliament.

There is an increasing awareness that women’s empowerment is a must for the country’s development. Literacy rate is improving; more and more youths are entering universities. The judiciary is more independent than ever before.

A vibrant media is leaving no stones unturned and parliament is more powerful in this nascent democracy. All these factors contribute to women’s empowerment. There certainly is a lot more to do, but the situation is gradually improving.

Bangabandhu remembered in Islamabad

Bangabandhu is Sheikh Mujib’s honorary title in Bangali and means ‘Friend of Bengal’.

Oxford University Press Pakistan organised the launch of The Unfinished Memoirs of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Islamabad Club Wednesday (Nov. 21, 2012). Speakers included Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs adviser to the prime minister of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mohammad Mijarul Quayes, rights activist I.A. Rehman, and Mr. Hamid Mir of Gew News.

Quoting various Pakistani historians, Hamid Mir elaborated that Sheikh Saheb, as he called him, was an active worker of the All India Muslim League and Pakistan Movement. He said Sheikh Mujib would sell Millat, a pro-Pakistan newspaper, in the streets of Dhaka. Mir talked of the unfortunate incidents on the part of West Pakistani rulers and Pakistan Army that led to the creation of Bangladesh. He quoted Faiz on the horror of 1971 war in Bangladesh and demanded of the Pakistan govt an official apology to Bangladesh for what it did in 1971. He said it’s the brave who apologise. “An official apology would not weaken Pakistan. It would rather strengthen it,” said Mir.

I.A. Rehman observed that the book is free of bitterness and harsh words. Comparing the then East Pakistan with the west unit, Rehman noted that the youth were active in politics and Pakistan Movement in Bengal – Sheikh Mujeeb being one of them – whereas the ordinary people in West Pakistan believed what they were told by feudal lords or religious gurus.

Foreign Secretary Mohammad Mijarul Quayes said Bangabandhu was a person who shaped journey of a nation to statehood and said the book is an unbiased piece of narrative on political history of the Sub-continent. He said Sheikh Mujib was one of the most powerful communicators of Bengal. He talked of his mastery of the language and his Shakespearean response to the questions by the press in London: “Today I am only to be seen and no to be heard.”

“The book is a celebration of that great man. It is also a celebration of a time that spans our journey together,” remarked Quayes. “We still can’t fathom the fullest power of this great man. That one speech on March 7, 1971, made him from an individual into the father of the nation.” He said Mujib is the first one who gave shape to a post-colonial state.

Goher Rizwi spoke of Bangabandhu rather personally. “Whenever Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would stay at our place, a young man would turn up, he was Mujib. I have seen him (Mujib) on several occasions listening to music and tears rolling down his cheeks. It is his heart and his concern for the fellow human beings that really define him,” Rizvi remembered.

Gowher Rizvi

“It was his concern for the people of Bengal that brought him into politics. Marginalisation of the people inspired him to fight the colonial masters. But when he realised that people were still marginalised after independence from the British rule, Bangabandhu demanded autonomy,” Rizvi went on.

Rizvi said Sheikh Mujib had a strong connection with Bengali literature, language and songs. He talked of Sheikh Mujib’s struggle against economic marginalisation as well as cultural (read linguistic) suppression. “Bangabandhu once was asked as to what was his greatest strength. ‘I love my people’, was his response. Asked what was his weakness, he said ‘I love them too much’,” said Gowher Rizvi.

Rizvi said Sheikh Mujib was a deeply religious person but espoused secularism. “He challenged the single identity of the post-colonial-state nationalism.”

He commended I.A. Rehman for “always being on the right side of the history.”

“The book provides us a moment to reflect on what went wrong but not in the spirit of blaming. Sheikh Mujib’s demand for autonomy is as relevant today as was back then. If this book has any value it is that it’s a reflection of a sincere, passionate man on problems facing people around him,” Rizvi concluded.

The memoirs are based on four of the six notebooks Sheikh Mujib wrote while he was a state prisoner in 1967 and covers the period until 1955. Rizvi Saheb says police record shows receipt of 6 notebooks, but only four of them have been recovered so far.

Dr. Hoodbhoy confronts the BOMB

By: Arsalan Altaf

Do you think nuclear bombs ensure a better and protected Pakistan? Well, eminent nuclear scientist Parvez Hoodbhoy challenges that notion, through the book Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out.

Edited by Dr. Hoodbhoy and published by the Oxford University Press Pakistan, the book was launched at Kuch Khaas Monday afternoon, in collaboration with Heinrich Boll Stiftung Pakistan. The book is a compilation of essays on the issue of nuclear race in South Asia by eminent Pakistani and Indian scientists.

With a brief introduction of her institution, Managing Director OUP Ameena Syed announced and invited the audience to the Karachi Literature Festival on Feb. 15-17, 2013.

Heinrich Boll Stiftung’s Country Director in Pakistan Britta Peterson talked of how the idea of the book was born one chilly morning in 2010 at Hoodbhoy’s place at QAU, Islamabad, when she consulted him for a translation of a few essays on nuclear issue into Urdu. “I asked Hoodbhoy which of the articles would be relevant to Pakistan; he said none. Well, I asked, why don’t you do a relevant book then,” remembered Ms Peterson.

After a few introductory words, Dr Parvez Hoodbhoy was in conversation with Raza Rumi. Dr. Hoodbhoy said though nuclear issue is not on our mind these days – It was back in 1998 when India and Pakistan both test-fired nuclear-capable missiles – it poses an existential threat to both India and Pakistan.

Rumi talked of the perennial issue of insecurity in this country and how our nuclear programme is based on that sense of insecurity. Dr. Hoodbhoy, however, emphatically said that the bomb doesn’t and can’t secure us. “The country is faced with multiple threats; groups within the country are out of control. Acquisition of nukes created a false sense of security. I don’t think they can secure us; we have more fear now than ever before,” said Dr. Hoodbhoy.

Rumi mentioned how efficient, reportedly, our command and control system is. Dr Hoodbhoy said nuclear programme’s command and control system is a secret everywhere in the world and thus the notion that our nukes are in safe hands is an assumption.

He said contrary to other countries, there has been no anti-nuclear movement but individual efforts in Pakistan. Dr. Hoodbhoy said anti-nuclear voice in India was a bit stronger than that in Pakistan.

Talking of using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, Dr. Hoodbhoy said nuclear electricity is not a viable option for either India or Pakistan. “Nuclear power plants are much more expensive than other sources of energy. Even in the US, nuclear electricity is more expensive than power generated through other sources. Nuclear electricity would cost us even more as we import both our reactors and fuel to run them,” elaborated the physicist.

He said nuclear-produced power amounts to two percent of the total power production in Pakistan. Dr. Hoodbhoy said the nuclear technology used for power production or other peaceful purposes is different than the technology that is used to make the bomb.

He said possible impact of a nuclear war in South Asia would be much higher than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. A chapter in the book estimates that a single nuclear bomb can cause five hundred thousand casualties in South Asia, opposed to one hundred thousand in Hiroshima.

He said in case an atomic war breaks out in S Asia, or any other part of the world for that matter, it won’t be limited to a single atomic bomb. He said radioactivity caused by nukes changes the genetic structure. “Destruction is not only physical, it’s also emotional. Hiroshima’s affected children were never accepted in Japanese society,” remarked Hoodbhoy.

Dr. Hoodbhoy said though education system on either side of the Wahga doesn’t talk about these issues, the situation is not hopeless and the trend can be reversed. He said dialogue and an understanding of the issue can halt the nuclear arms race in South Asia as negotiations between the US and Russia did. He, however, said the onus lies on Pakistan and not on India right now.

Asked about US-India deal, Dr. Hoodbhoy said, “U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement was wrong. The US, through this agreement with India, has deeply damaged the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” Asked whether Pakistan’s concerns over US-India deal are legitimate, Dr. Hoodbhoy said danger to Pakistan exists, but this danger comes not from India’s nukes but from intolerance in society and a multitude of other internal issues.

“The world thinks that if a nuke leaks at some time from somewhere in the world it would come from Pakistan. I don’t say that our nuclear programme is insecure but a number of forces in this country want their hands on the bomb. World fears this due to the extreme tensions within the country and a couple of attacks on important nuclear installations,” added Hoodbhoy.

Dr. Hoodbhoy said India is enhancing its nuclear delivery capacity, but said there is no evidence that it is strengthening its nuclear arsenal. To a question, he said Pakistan better not compete with India in arms’ race because it can’t beat India “even if it puts every penny available for this purpose. We should put our own house in order.”

Asked why he used the term of a ‘sectarian bomb’ in a scenario of Iran and Saudi Arabia both seeking nuclear power, he said it was none other than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who first used the term of an ‘Islamic bomb’.

“Age of nukes has passed. They belonged to middle of the 20th Century, not to 21st Century. Nukes don’t bring prestige to a country now,” concluded Dr. Hoodbhoy.

Place that is press club

The outside world hardly knows all that goes on at a press club. Many mistake a press club for press itself and think that it is a place of a healthy and constructive dialogue. I thought the same until very recently when the paper I worked for folded and I started to spend some time at the National Press Club Islamabad.
There happens anything but dialogue, fair play, accountability, equality and all that our media, ostensibly, call for.
Let’s start with the membership. Nobody knows when the press club’s membership opens; the reception office will always tell you that they have not started receiving membership application forms. However, those with ‘influence’ can obtain and submit applications at will.
If a young journalist is lucky enough, he or she would be awarded ‘Associate Membership’ which the press club’s constitution says would be awarded to: proprietors, partners, directors, general managers, chairmen and managing directors of news organisations; press information and public relations officers; press attaches; spouses of press club’s full members etc.
Asked isn’t awarding Associate Membership to journalists against the press club’s constitution, Farooq Faisal Khan, President NPC, said he would only comment after consulting the constitution, a few-page document.
Press club’s constitution also talks about a library. Asked if there is any plan for a library, Khan refused to comment.
At the press club, Council Members, aka full members, enjoy certain perks and privileges. It’s only them who have right to vote in the press club elections.
Hundreds of young professional journalists — many of whom are Associate Members for years now — have been demanding right to vote but to little avail. A total of 1400 plots have been allotted to members of the National Press Club under the Punjab Journalists Housing Foundation Act 2004. Associates say many a council member are not even working journalists any more.

Press club’s finances come mostly from donations by the visiting politicians and press conferences —- it charges about Rs12,000 per press conference. When a politician is invited to some function by a journalistic body, he is expected to donate/gift in cash or kind.

There are ‘journalists’ who are almost always found at the press club. If you ask them about their organisations, you will come to know about dozens of unheard-of newspapers and news agencies. Many have acquired declarations for magazines and wire services which, many years later, still don’t exist. In fact, they never wanted to bring out their publications. These declarations, as a friend put it, are just to legitimize certain privileges they receive in the name of journalism. Acquire a declaration and you are a journalist forever.

Other distinctive features of a press club include lots of tea, cigarettes and foul language.

In the evenings, some would sit in circles and argue over petty political issues. They debate the chances of various political parties in the next elections. They take sides, quarrel hours and hours and don’t budge from their stance. Curiously enough, they do this on daily basis.

There is almost every facility at the press club: cafeteria, TV room, a sports halls, computer lab and what not but a place to study.

The present governing body is quit good at introducing something new every now and then such as BBQ, summer camp, family gala etc but what it really needs to do is scrutiny of its members both the ‘seniors’ and the new comers, a bit transparency, a set procedure for membership and a project of members’ training and education.

(An edited version appeared in The Express Tribune.