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


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”

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


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

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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What ails education in Pakistan?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The major factor in the destruction of education in Pakistan has been the lack of commitment on the part of the government.

EDUCATION, one of the most neglected sectors in Pakistan, has received more attention from experts and laypeople than from policymakers. It has been investigated very often because the negative impact of this neglect is now being felt in every walk of life.
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Resisting exploitation, but …

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

BASED on a doctoral thesis, this book explores the different kinds of leaderships that control labour informally outside the workplace and those exercising authority within the framework of the factory in Pakistan. Although this research was conducted in the ’70s and focuses on two case studies of the cotton textile industry in Karachi, it continues to be as relevant today as it was then.
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How Afghanistan was lost

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE message that emerges powerfully from this nondescript looking but informative book is that for Pakistan the chickens of its Afghan policy are coming home to roost. The author, Dr Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat, who is associate professor at the Pakistan Study Centre in Peshawar, packs so much information in From Muhajir to Mujahid that it is not easy to assimilate it in one reading. There are so many details, names and events thrown together randomly that it takes some time for the reader to get accustomed to the writer’s style. As one wades through the book, all the pieces fall in place like thatof a jigsaw puzzle.
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A long, inspiring road

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

“ON the night of June 22, 2002, our family reaches a decision.” In these words begins the story of Mukhtar Bibi (now called Mai, in veneration), a household name in Pakistan today. This ‘decision’ changed Mukhtar’s life for ever. She was deputed to appear before the powerful Mastoi clan in her native village of Meerwalla (in southern Punjab) to seek forgiveness on behalf of her family for a ‘wrong’ supposedly done by her younger brother, Shakur. The boy, a low-caste Gujjar, had spoken to a girl of the Mastoi clan who kidnapped him, beat him up and accused him of theft and illicit conduct that called for atonement. The charges were false, but such are the ways of power relationships not just in the backwaters of Pakistan but also in the most modernised of cities. The upper-caste Mastois had to be appeased.

Mukhtar had to pay the price. On the order of the village jirga dominated by the Mastois, she was gang raped. Thereafter, Mukhtar had a choice between suicide and revenge. “I have made up my mind: I want to kill myself,” she writes (through the pen of the writer of this book Marie-Therese Cuny). And then a ‘surprising fit of anger saves’ her and she decides to fight back. In the Name of Honour is a sordid tale of rape, oppression and subjugation of women under patriarchy. It is also an inspiring story of a woman’s fight against these evils which makes her an icon of the women’s struggle in Pakistan.

The course the legal struggle takes makes familiar reading for a Pakistani reader. A newspaperman picks up the story and the publicity the case receives forces the administration to send the police to Meerwalla to have the case registered a week later. A long road lies ahead involving police pressures and manipulations, the start of the case with a kind judge in the chair, detention of the rapists, police protection for the victim, and the judgment sentencing six men to death and acquitting eight others. Then starts the second round of the legal battle -— appeal in the High Court and the reversal of the judgment in March 2005. The five of the sentenced men are acquitted.

No sooner than they are out of jail that Mukhtar is in mortal danger again. In a dramatically narrated account of her meetings with the interior minister and the prime minister in Islamabad, she tells the readers of her race against time to have those men hauled back into prison. That is where the matter stands today. Mukhtar’s appeal is before the Supreme Court which decided to re-open the case.

The story of the legal processes, which is central to Mukhtar’s fight against her rapists, is interestingly told. For foreigners and many of our own readers not fully familiar with Pakistan, it is also instructive. But that is not the only struggle this simple illiterate peasant has waged — and that too with a marked degree of success. She was intelligent enough to realise right at the start that her biggest handicap was her inability to read and write. Not wishing the other girls in her village to fall victim to many social evils that are the bane of Pakistani society, Mukhtar used the funds she was given to open a school primarily for girls but boys have also been enrolled. Today there are over 300 children in her school.

In the Name of Honour is not just a story of a woman who has been raped. It is a spirited account of Pakistani society and sheds ample light on the low status of women, the unequal power structure that divides the various classes and the sluggish and corrupt working of the machinery of the state. It is a book for sociologists, lawyers and women counsellors to read if they really wish to understand Pakistan. Here they will see how the wealthy exercise their power and control over society; how women resign themselves to total submission to the men in their life; how religion subtly moulds the mindset of people; how jirgas dispense summary justice in a state where the judicial machinery can be excruciatingly slow but they also have a positive dimension when they seek to create bonds between deadly enemies forced to live as neighbours by reconciling their differences.

And how does Mukhtar, the central character in this inspiring tale, emerge? Reading the brisk and direct narration full of lively comparisons one gets the impression that she is sensitive, intelligent, imaginative, deeply religious, and has an unbounded stock of humanism and empathy in her heart — Mastoi children are enrolled in her school. The book is interspersed with remarks such as, “I am a fatalist.” “You have to struggle against yourself and break out of your own prison.” “I am a divorced woman, which places me in the lowest rank of respectable females.” “I’d no idea that speaking about one’s pain, about a secret that feels shameful, can set both mind and body free.” “I wasn’t an ardent feminist. I became one through experience because I am a survivor.”

One important factor that Mukhtaran refers to repeatedly but implicitly is the sisterhood of women. She recalls the support she has received from many women activists and human rights supporters in Pakistan and abroad. This has sustained her in her hour of trial, although there were times when her passport was taken away and she was not allowed to travel. This book is one product of this process of joining of hands.

A joint project undertaken by Mukhtar, the French writer Marie-Therese Cuny and her translator Linda Coverdale, this book wouldn’t have been possible if they had not worked jointly on it. Naseem Akhtar, Mukhar’s close friend and confidant, and Mustafa Baloch and Saif Khan, two social activists, also pitched in to help with the translation since the only language Mukhtar speaks is Seraiki. This posed a challenge, especially to the writer whose knowledge of the local language, culture and geography is minimal. Punjab has been referred to as ‘a remote province’ and the ‘Nanny’ is described as a paternal grandmother. But these are minor problems for a reader engrossed in the text. One may also add, Mukhtar emerges as the “empowered” one, as her name implies.

In the Name of Honour: A Memoir
By Mukhtar Mai
With Marie-Therese Cuny and translated by Linda Coverdale
Available with Liberty Books,
Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi
Tel: 021-5832525 (ext: 111)
ISBN 1-84408-409-8
172pp. Rs595