Category Archives: Book Reviews

NON-FICTION: Keeping a record

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa

SALEEM Asmi has worn many hats. Beginning his professional life as a sub-editor in The Pakistan Times in 1959, he rose to be the editor of Dawn. Versatility is his virtue, which means his writings always have a freshness about them. Having known him professionally as a newsperson demonstrating his skills in the newsroom, and later as the editor of Dawn, one who was always willing to go an extra mile to test political waters, I was happy when I saw the collection of his writings from the early years, Saleem Asmi: Interviews, Articles, Reviews. The collection sheds as much light on the writer as the numerous personalities he interviews or writes about. We now see Asmi at his best, as an erudite critic of arts, culture and music.
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Book Review: This Is Not That Dawn

By Zubeida Mustafa

The partition of India in 1947 was an epochal event. It inducted the post-war era of decolonisation that came to form a landmark in world history. It also raised popular expectations: the people would be the beneficiaries of the promised 3D phenomena of decolonisation, democratisation and development. Leaders decided the fates of nations and the people provided the backdrop in the shape of slogan-raising crowds cheering the demagogues. Continue reading Book Review: This Is Not That Dawn

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Pakistan through a journalist’s lens

Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTAN has been described as a dangerous country for journalists. Since January 2010, 15 journalists have lost their lives here. But more than that, it is not a country easy to write about. So riddled is it with contradictions and so strong are the emotions it evokes that a writer must have superhuman capacity to be dispassionate and write without social, political and ethnic biases.
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Book Review: Tyranny of Language in Education

tyranny-of-language-in-education-large

By Zohra Yusuf

The Language Divide

When the Bengali language movement started, leading to the killing of students on February 21, 1952, no one – and certainly not the establishment in West Pakistan – thought that in the second decade of the 21st century, this date would begin to be commemorated by the UN as International Mother’s Language Day. Bengalis have been known to be passionate about their mother tongue. But apart from the passion, perhaps they realised early on that language is an instrument of power and control. Consequently, they rejected vociferously, Governor-General Jinnah’s decision to make ‘only Urdu’ the national language of Pakistan. It’s also worth noting that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, experienced his first arrest at the hands of Pakistani authorities when, as a student, he led a protest following Jinnah’s ill-conceived public speech in Dhaka.

Well-known journalist and a former senior editor of Dawn, Zubeida Mustafa, studies the linkage between economic and political power and language in considerable depth in her recently published book, Tyranny of Language in Education. Urdu in Pakistan was promoted as a unifying force by the early policy makers, at the expense of the rich diversity the country possesses. As the author notes:

“Man’s speech and language ability have not per se proved to be a challenge for the unity and solidarity of a nation. It is the social and political dimensions of language and its implications for the acquisition of political power that have given rise to phenomena such as linguistic nationalism, linguistic imperialism and linguistic chauvinism. Since ethnic groups also tend to be divided along linguistic lines, ethnic conflicts also have linguistic dimensions.”

Those living in Sindh would certainly agree with the author’s assessment. The province has seen many conflicts related to language, which a deeper analysis would show to have had roots in various ethnic groups’ quest for political power.

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Food: an area in which Pakistan excels

Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTAN is famous internationally for its cuisine. The versatility and richness in their culinary style and contents make Pakistani restaurants popular eating spots abroad for those in search of exciting and unusual flavours to tickle their taste buds. Shamsi Qurashi, the editor of Heirloom Recipes from Pakistan, says she wanted to produce “something beautiful about Pakistan and its ancient cultural heritage” that would be a pleasant change from the doom and gloom we are surrounded with.
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The three exploitations

4Frontier

Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa

Given the crisis that Pakistan faces today, it is important that political analysts make an effort to understand in the light of scholarship the factors that have contributed to pushing the country to the brink. We tend to look at the contemporary situation, especially the interplay of political forces, and draw up conclusions that lead to “false analyses”, to use the words of the renowned author of The Taliban, Ahmed Rashid. In that context, Frontier of Faith by Sana Haroon, is a book that must be read. It will certainly add to the reader’s understanding of the north-western regions of Pakistan that have spawned the militancy and extremism that is the bane of the country today. Continue reading The three exploitations

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The whole truth?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Paradise Beneath Her Feet captures succinctly the contradictions in some Muslim societies where religion is a powerful force that exercises an overarching influence on the socio-cultural, economic and political life of people.

As women exposed to modernism struggle for their rights to education, economic empowerment and political representation in the power structures of a country, they very often find their progress obstructed by elements propagating an obscurantist version of Islam. In many parts of the Muslim world they have had to devise strategies to overcome these barriers. Isobel Coleman, the author of the book under review, terms this approach ‘Islamic

feminism’.

According to her, after ceding the space of religious authority to conservative forces for centuries, women in the Islamic world are now trying to gain control of their own lives by demonstrating that equality and change is possible within the ambit of the faith.

Female scholars are now studying the Quranic texts to advance a liberal and progressive interpretation of the religious doctrines which is not in conflict with women’s rights as perceived in the modern context.

By adopting this approach ‘Islamic feminists’ do not have to enter into a confrontation with the ulema. They also find it easier to enlist supporters from the masses for their cause by using a liberal religious discourse. Female activists are now using the power of religion to empower women.

Research in Islamic laws on the status of women forms the underpinning of this strategy. Be it Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Iraq, women are engaged in finding the Islamic solution to the challenges posed by gender inequality in their societies. And they are succeeding, if the author is to be believed.

Isobel Coleman, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, has reached this conclusion after studying the status of women in a few Middle Eastern countries for a decade and travelling to them to interview activists and scholars engaged in projects for women’s development.

They are trying to establish that Islam and women’s rights as we understand them today are not in conflict. Coleman is firmly convinced that the only road to emancipation for women in the Muslim world lies in this strategy.

That is why she attaches so much importance to the birth of Musawah (equality) in 2008 in Kuala Lumpur which she describes as a ‘global movement’. It is intriguing, though, why a movement that is supposed to be global has not even gained a toehold in most parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan.

Pakistan’s is a case quite different from the others. It appears that Coleman, who had already reached some conclusions about Islamic feminism, attempts to stretch her ideas to fit the women’s rights situation into her hypothesis.

Coleman concludes the chapter on Pakistan in these words that seem a bit too far-fetched: ‘Women’s rights in Pakistan will continue to be a hotly contested cultural, political and social arena where tribal, feudal, religious and liberal secular interests clash. Islamic feminism is helping women and men to work across these lines to encourage women’s empowerment.’

The author’s research on Pakistan appears to be sketchy. The fact is that activists who tried to work within the Islamic framework found it impossible to reconcile the conflicting doctrines advanced by different sects and jurisprudence that claim to represent the ‘true’ faith. Justice Munir who had looked into the violence against the Ahmadi community in Lahore in 1953 had testified to the absence of consensus on various issues among various schools of Islamic thought.

Small wonder Women’s Action Forum (WAF) clearly announced in its charter in 1990 that its approach will be secular (Coleman fails to take note of this). Besides the fundamentalist religious lobby in Pakistan has been so strong that those on the other side of the divide have found it impossible to make a dent.

It is therefore not surprising that Dr Riffat Hassan, the moderate Islamic scholar interviewed by Coleman, failed to counter the retrogressive Farhat Hashmi of Al Huda fame whose reach has been growing phenomenally.

The Iqbal International Institute for Research, Education and Dialogue that Hassan set up in 2005 under General Musharraf’s patronage with funds from the ISI (as reported in the book) failed to create an impact.

Coleman would do well to research the subject in greater depth in Pakistan. She is again way off the mark when she projects GEO TV as championing the cause of liberal Islam. Those who have watched the obscurantism being spewed from the channel would be taken aback at the claim made in the book that GEO has stimulated ‘critical thinking’ and controversy on many sensitive issues.

The strength of the book lies in the first chapter titled ‘Why Women Matter: The payoffs from women’s rights’. It sums up succinctly how women make an impact on society when those working at the grassroots level are given some support financially and policy wise.

Some notable examples that Coleman cites are the kitchen women in Somalia who keep schools going during civil war and famine, the Bangladeshi women who borrow from Grameen Bank for small businesses and in the process benefit their families and Chaggibai Bhil, the Dalit woman who became the head of a panchayat in Rasalpura (India) and changed the lives of people in her region. These examples prove that whenever women achieved some success it was as a result of secular empowerment.

If religion has exerted such a powerful influence in the Islamic world it is because women in Muslim societies were kept in a state of illiteracy and ignorance for centuries. Education and enlightenment are necessary to lift them out of their backwardness. Research into Islamic doctrines will not empower women unless changes on the ground make an impact on their lives and thinking.

Changes are taking place in Muslim societies but the process is not holistic. As a result small pockets of liberalism in an ocean of backwardness have been created. How far this will empower women in these societies is the key question.

As Coleman points out, in Saudi Arabia nearly 60 per cent of graduates are women, but only five per cent of the workforce comprises female workers.

She does not adequately explain the sharp disparities between the highly empowered women and the under-privileged. Apparently a conservative cultural tradition rooted in religion continues to hold back progress.

Paradise Beneath her Feet: How women are transforming the Middle East
(women studies)
By Isobel Coleman
Random House, New York
ISBN 978-1-4000-6695-7
352pp. Rs2,050

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Richness of diversity

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PROF James Ron of Carleton University, Ottawa, complains that mainstream students in Canada are oblivious to the role of religion in contemporary life. He says that they achieve competence in secular politics but have no interest in learning the basics of different religions, even their own.

This is an interesting observation on Canada. But it holds true only partially for most young people in our society. Given the religious environment and our religion-centric syllabi, students pick up quite a bit of knowledge of their own faith. But unfortunately they learn little about other religions — even those of the minorities living in their midst.
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Change for the better?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THIS little book is the story of the `Third Estate` of the world. Borrowing the term from French history, Prof Jamal Naqvi uses it to refer to the Third World, that is the poor countries that were decolonised in the post-war years.

They shared the characteristic of being underprivileged, deprived and oppressed as were the masses in pre-revolutionary France who were dominated by the clergy and the nobility.

Prof Naqvi was deeply involved in the politics of the Left in Pakistan until 1990. He has not attempted to trace the history of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the ideological context in the book under review.
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Futile chase for justice?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

They Hang 12 women in my
portrait gallery
By Syeda S. Hameed
Women Unlimited,
New Delhi, India
ISBN 81-88965-26-X
183pp. Indian Rs275

Violence against women has now come to be recognised as a widespread phenomenon that has historical antecedents. As many as 69 per cent of women have reported being physically abused by a man in their lifetimes, the UNFPA reports. Hence there have been organised and collective efforts by the United Nations to address this problem in a bid to check it. With so much being said and written about gender-related violence, one would not have expected a book on this subject to shock its readers.
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