Sunday, April 5, 2015

On Vogue's #MyChoice Video


Maryam Sakeenah

The debate around Vogue’s controversial ‘My Choice’ video goes deeper than those on either side of it would think. While I do not make much of critique from those who take anything feministic with a pinch of salt, I understand that for many who sympathise with the feminist cause like myself, the message of the video is disturbing for other reasons. The problem with some of the most controversial statements in the video is not that they are offensive to conventional patriarchal attitudes, but the problem is with regard to a deeper question of personal faith and values.

The question really is of individual choices and individual freedoms to make those choices. The idea of choice in the video is overweeningly individualistic- a choice of one’s own that refuses to take into consideration any factor outside of the self and its interest; a self-centred choice; a selfish choice. This message is disconcerting for reasons beyond the gender debate which the video is about.

In confining choice to the self and its narrow interests, it refuses to consider that choices are made in a broader milieu, and that our choices are inadvertently and inextricably interconnected to a host of other factors and elements outside of the self. This perspective on human choice clashes head-on with the faith-inspired sensibility.

In the Islamic understanding, a requisite to accepting faith is a voluntary stepping back from the self’s desires, obsessions ad impulses for a deeper personal liberation. Faith is an act of submission to another higher, more perfect, sublime being beyond the self. It sets one free from the crippling bondage to the base, carnal and selfish; the material and the merely temporal. This liberation, for the believer, lifts the spirit onto a higher plane of consciousness where one becomes capable of acting impersonally, and altruistic choices become gratifying and heartening; one becomes capable of living larger than life. This is why throughout human existence, some of the most extraordinary acts of selflessness and heroism have been inspired by some form of faith. At this level of consciousness, one becomes mindful of one’s relationship with one’s context, those we share the planet and our lives with, the realm of existence and the Giver of all life.

In Islam this individual consciousness attainable through faith has a communal dimension. It is the most basic element of a social order that aims at justice, equity and the sanctity of individual rights and freedoms intrinsic to all creation. To achieve this is the collective goal of the community and requires regulation of personal conduct and laying down of rights, duties and responsibilities towards oneself, the community and the Creator for a larger purpose that brings the greater good for all and in turn impacts individual well being. In this scheme of things, the exclusive pursuit of absolute and unrestrained individual liberty above all simply does not fit in.

This is why the message that the choice of sexual orientation and sexual behaviour within, outside, prior to or without marriage is offensive to the sensibility that is rooted in the ethic of faith-based submission. It refuses to consider that human choices operate in a context that is not isolated from other lives and that we are part of ordered communities based on and seeking to achieve universally accepted moral ideals- justice, public welfare, equity, rights and liberties, peace, prosperity, harmony. The message of complete and uncompromising personal autonomy in disregard to all other factors and considerations is actually a call to irresponsible action, moral chaos and anarchy.

On the other hand is the issue of the video’s message attempting to pit women against men- a crass and peevish brand of feminism which again flies in the face of the beautiful balance and the Islamic concept of the genders being complementary rather than competing. According to the Quran, Allah has created everything in pairs. Muslim blogger on women’s issues- Sameen Sadaf explains, ‘Pairs symbolize sharing, unity, togetherness, complementarity and completion. The nature of this universe thrives on the complementarity of pairs. It celebrates the interdependent nature of both genders that beautify each other and by working together can they complete the task assigned to them by their Creator. Men and women together weave the intricate web of society in which women are the binding force who strengthen the exquisite fabric of human relationships.’

For all that women suffer, the panacea is not asserting a mutinous, defiant individualism, but in living to the full our multifarious roles as women within our respective contexts in pursuit of common goals for the greater good and as active agents to promote values that subvert oppressive patriarchal structures and attitudes that keep the suffering of women going. The commercial media industry is one such oppressive structure that objectifies the woman’s body for commercial ends. It is ironical that the video has been sponsored by and features prominent members and components of the commercial media.

If the message of the video was against the unfair judgement on women, it has been recklessly presented with a dangerous ambiguity that makes it easy for the core message to be eclipsed. Perhaps this too was for creating a sensationalism stoking controversy that could sell- yet another mark of the commercial media that produced it.

The debate around the video borders on deeper fundamental questions on our choices and liberties and our deepest convictions. The makers and promoters of this sensationalist piece of work should stop pretending that it is a voice or choice of all or even most women, or that it ought to be. To take that message or reject it is also a matter of choice that comes out of deeply embedded personal convictions.    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Attacks on Churches and Mob Violence in Lahore


Maryam Sakeenah

My parents chose to send me to a Christian missionary school- a decision I have always been grateful to them for. The Convent’s ‘Character Building’ programme instilled in me values which, owing to the essential kinship of the Abrahamic faiths, facilitated my appreciation and practice of my own faith as a Muslim later in life.

Incidentally, all serving staff in my household happen to be Christians. In Ramazan they prepare the Iftar, and at Christmas and Easter we give them an extra something to partake of the family festivity. Through all my extensive and longstanding interaction with Christian friends, colleagues, subordinates, there is no unpleasant or uncomfortable memory I have. And I know I am no exception.

In fact, when I condoled with my Christian domestic help about the unfortunate recent events targeting churches in Lahore, I sensed in their comments the same sentiment I have gleaned from my experience as a Pakistani Muslim. ‘We have been brothers and sisters living together for decades- there was never a problem. And now some unknown enemies wanting this country’s destruction want to create hate. We have nothing against each other- Muslims too are under attack from the same people. We need to be together’, said my illiterate Christian kitchen helper- (translation my own).     

There was an understanding even within these unlettered members of a less privileged minority community that something had gone wrong in recent years; that violent religious hate was not the ethos of this land; and that there was a common enemy out there whose triumph was in sowing discord and hate between the two communities.

And yet ironically I find a complete absence of this simple understanding in the opinions of vociferous social media commentators both from the secular-liberal and conservative perspectives. In fact, the polarity in their views is striking whenever I browse through my newsfeed. While sadness over the attack on the churches was palpable among all shades of opinion, there was a callous lack of sympathy for the innocent Muslim victims of the post-bombing mob-lynching by Christians, and a brazen attempt to paint the ensuing violence by Christian mobsters as ‘but natural.’ This selective sympathy shows our own deeply rooted prejudices. On the other extreme there are outrageous calls for indiscriminate reprisal against the Christian community of Youhannabad where the lynchings happened.

The problem with the narrative that emerges from these polarized, clashing perspectives is that it sees the recent events through the blood-stained lens of ‘Us versus Them’; as a ‘Christian versus Muslim’ issue which is both inaccurate as well as dangerous. In fact, the terrible mob violence that occurred in the wake of the church bombing was also a tragic result of dangerously viewing the attack on the church as ‘Muslim’ violence against ‘Christian’ victims. More accurately, it was violence by an extremist militant minority group for whom all who do not share their violent ideology are potential targets.  This is why the anger was directed at Muslims who had been engaged in routine business in the Christian locality. The two innocents picked for the barbaric lynching were lighter skinned (a characteristic of the Pashtuns) and at least one of them bearded. The mob violence was hence fired by ethno-religious stereotyping and the blind hate born of such prejudices.

In response to the ensuing violence by the Youhannabad locals there is brewing anger amidst neighbouring Muslim communities which sets the stage for potential clashes waiting in the wing. In the climate of fear and anger many families in Youhannabad are planning to relocate or have done so already. This is the triumph of the real enemy as it fulfils the malevolent agenda perfectly. The victory of the enemy is when its victim turns into a savage perpetrator like itself, continuing the cycle of violence.

Violent incidents targeting the Christian community in Pakistan in the recent past certainly fuel the anger by creating genuine and understandable grievances. However, it has to be understood that such targeting of the Christian community has always been resented and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population of this country; and that the extremists involved in terror attacks on Christians are a fringe element rejected by the mainstream public opinion. Terrorist outfits are all out to exact vengeance that spares none- mosque, imambargah, church- Muslim, Christian, Shiite- all are fellow sufferers in this great calamity that has gripped us as the terrible cost of owning the US’s Great War on Terror.

The Christian community of Pakistan never has been, is not and should never be an oppressed minority hated and targeted by Pakistan’s Muslim majority. Those trying to reinforce this idea- whether extreme rightwingers, conservatives or the secular liberals- are utterly wrong. This is a false picture that will fuel more rage and blind hate.

What is required in the wake of this frenzied violence is a communal introspection by both communities. The Christian community needs to examine why its young members descended into such rank savagery, and must take responsibility to curtail simmering violence that utterly betrays the Christian spirit of forbearance and compassion. The Muslim community must also engage in a serious endeavour to root out the ire and vengeful streak building up in its ranks in this charged atmosphere.       
The pulpit and the minbar both must take up their vital roles to defeat this false ‘Us versus Them’ narrative. Both religions contain voluminous and powerful content on tolerance and compassion which needs to resonate to drown this madness in the name of faith. Faith must be the healing, the mending and the force inspiring peacemaking. The Quran questions the validity of a faith that justifies and inspires evil. "Say: "Worst indeed is that which your faith enjoins on you- if you indeed are believers." (2:93) It reminds us with a vital message that has never been as relevant as it is today. Let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety... Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.”  (5:8)
In the midst of this senseless melee of wrathful hate, the words of Islam’s blessed Prophet (PBUH) for his Christian citizenry from Najran become a beautiful encore played to a deaf audience.

"This is a message from [Prophet] Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion [in religion] is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate...
...Their Churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."
(Text of the Charter of Privileges, Treaty of Najran)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pakistan's Response to the Peshawar Attack


Maryam Sakeenah

Tragedies like the one in Peshawar are litmus tests for any nation- either bringing out the best, or exposing the bare bones. Pakistan’s response is curiously similar to the U.S response to 9/11. The fact that the U.S’s counter-terror strategy accounts for the genesis of a much more brutal TTP and ISIS is lost to us. In the same manner as the US filled up prisons contravening law and depriving suspects and inmates of fair judicial process in its paranoia after 9/11, Pakistan is all set to establish special military courts in contravention of constitutional procedure, for swift conviction of ‘terrorists.’ The horrors that were unleashed in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the name of national security are a forgotten narrative in the new Pakistan post 16/12.

Our collective response to the tragedy shows a febrile national demand for vengeance. Ironically, we are baying for the enemy’s blood just like the enemy is baying for ours- in the process, we lose the moral high ground we think we possess. In the process, ‘the faces change from pig to man and man to pig, and pig to man again- and already it is becoming impossible to say which was which.’

At present there are two extremist discourses in the country: the first, of course, is personified by the likes of the clerics at Lal Masjid and other fanatical groups, invoking religion to justify fanatical militancy. This religious extremism has come handy for movements like the Taliban who hide behind it for moral cover of their actions. There is, however, another extremist discourse: it comes from the liberals who have joined the chorus for an unrelenting militarist approach in response to the Peshawar attack. This high-pitched chorus decries any counter narrative or stirring of dissent. In the new Pakistan post 16/12, no one can take a different approach to dealing with the problem of terrorism in Pakistan, and have their opinion respected.
Anyone who does not take sides in these extremist discourses and believes in giving a chance to stable peace through justice and effective longterm peacebuilding is termed unpatriotic at best, and a terrorist-sympathizer, even supporter more commonly. There is no room for dissent. In this extremist furore, all hardline stances seem to have suddenly been vindicated. The iron-fisted policies of Musharraf that helped create the TTP are now being interpreted as farsighted wisdom. Frenzied calls for razing madrassahs to the ground or burning down mosques no longer sound outrageous in the spirit of febrile jingoism.

The strongly militarist strategy  gives overweening powers to the army to deal with an issue that requires a more variegated longterm approach. It is likely to turn the country into a military state. The policy is uninsightful as it aims to do more of the same that created this monster, in order to eliminate it. The TTP emerged as a much more brutal and militant force than the original Taliban movement as a result of Pakistan’s disastrous decision to support the US in Afghanistan and sending its forces in the tribal areas to stop support for the anti-US Afghan resistance. This made the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes turn their guns against the Pakistan army and state. A renunciation of this ill-advised national policy is necessary as a first step to heal and rebuild, even as we take necessary firm action against the unrelenting perpetrators. Besides, the clandestine channels of support and funding to these militant groups must be traced and exposed before the nation. The enemy is not just the gun-toting Taliban militant, but his trainer, financier and facilitator. These vital connections have always been the state’s well-kept secret. And now, questions cannot be asked as we give a free rein to the military to ‘exterminate all brutes.’

In the tide of this nationalistic fervour to exterminate the brutes, drone operations in Pakistan suddenly and silently receive endorsement by national consensus. Questions are no longer welcome about civilian casualties or other fallout of the operation in the tribal areas. Answers are no longer deserved by the nation. The supreme ultimate goal is invincible national security, and ‘to this end, all means must give way.’ While the need for security is vital and understandable, bypassing all that is legal and rational and moral ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.   

The deeper problems have to be dealt with through a wider, more insightful non-military approach: combating extremist discourse that misuses religion to justify terrorism and creating an effective counter discourse; listening and understanding, dialogue, mutual compromise and reconciliation; rehabilitation and peacebuilding. There are numerous examples in the past- even the recent past- of how war-ravaged communities drenched in the memory of oppression and pain, seething with unrelenting hate, have undertaken peacebuilding with some success. Possibilities to create the conditions that had led to ceasefires that brought temporary respite to the nation during this war, should have been explored with sincerity.

The series of executions after the Peshawar tragedy is also regrettable on many counts.  Many of these convicts were juveniles when they committed the crime, brainwashed and swayed by passions. Many had confessions extracted through torture. These were the small fry, while the big fish have escaped the noose. So many high profile murderers and criminals go scot free, whereas these brainwashed juvenile offenders from an ethnic minority, a disadvantaged background are picked out selectively for blind 'justice.' Selective justice is injustice. Two such cases which have been highlighted by human rights groups are that of Shafqat Hussain convicted at the age of 14, and Mushtaq Ahmed who was tortured into a confession without being given access to a fair trial.

Our uninsightful reactionary policies reflect a loss of head and heart in the wake of the Peshawar tragedy. In this feverish frenzy of extremisms baying for each others blood, voices of moderation , justice and peace are dying out.  And the rest is Silence.