Monthly Archives: November 2010

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

The question of nationalisation

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PRIME Minister Gilani stirred a hornet’s nest when he termed Z.A. Bhutto’s 1972 policy of nationalisation of schools and colleges as a mistake.

Most people, especially those who have watched the slide in education over the years with dismay, have joined forces with the prime minister on this issue. Others have defended the PPP’s founder on grounds of principles. In the debate that has ensued, the polarisation between the two sides is sharp.

It has also clearly emerged that there is very little understanding of the conditions in which the nationalisation policy was pursued in the education sector and the reasons for the poor results we see today.

In today’s age when the marketplace reigns supreme no compunction is felt when the poor are left to their own devices by limiting the role of the state in the social sectors. It is a pity that none of those who have argued for or against the statement made by Mr Gilani has deemed it necessary to place the issue in its historical and ideological context to understand why such an extreme move was contemplated and why it failed. When it is dubbed a ‘mistake’, the yardstick presumably used is the appalling state of public-sector education in the country today.

But this gives the impression that it was all hunky dory in the education system in Pakistan in the pre-nationalisation era. The fact is that the system was flawed even then; the only difference was that the flaws were of another kind. A solution was needed but to be effective it had to be more focused than the nationalisation policy.

Before 1972, the public sector in education — at least at the school level — was larger than the private sector. There was no private university at the time. The performance of government schools was considered to be satisfactory enough if not ideal. Their examination results were relatively better. The key problem of the education sector was that of accessibility. Expansion of the government school network was not taking place fast enough to reach all sections of society and not keeping pace with the rapidly growing population. The private sector could not step in to meet the shortfall.

Another problem was that private institutions, with a few exceptions, were mismanaged. The teachers were treated with contempt and corruption was rife. A report by a committee set up in 1969 by the commissioner, Karachi division, to probe “into the affairs of the private colleges in Karachi with particular reference to irregularities and malpractices prevailing in those institutions” was quite an eye-opener.

Some findings are worth quoting: “Salaries are not disbursed regularly … [the teachers] were not paid their salaries for several months…. The teachers were forced to sign on higher amounts of salaries than actual payment.” Maltreatment and abuse of teachers was commonly reported and this included “the slapping of teachers by the proprietor”. In one case a part-time teacher served as the principal of a college and the hiring of under-qualified teachers was quite common.

Some of these irregularities were confirmed by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission set up by the Ayub regime to investigate the causes of unrest in universities. Anita Ghulam Ali, who was then the president of the West Pakistan College Teachers Association, recalls that her association had sent a charter of demands to the PPP leader in April 1970. Among other things it suggested that the government pay the salaries of the teachers of private colleges while setting up a body to regulate the working of these institutions.

Nationalisation did not rectify the weaknesses in the system existing at the time though not because the government could not cope with the financial responsibility it entailed, as is generally suggested. It was more a case of bad management that characterised the working of many private institutions as well.

All senior, experienced and meritorious teachers above the retirement age were sent home and the positions vacated were stuffed with loyalists of the ruling party. Time and again it has been proved that loyalty is no substitute for merit.

Intrinsically, the nationalisation of schools cannot be faulted. It was its flawed implementation that doomed it from the start. It was not that the government could not bear the enhanced expenses incurred on education. Previously the government had been subsidising the private sector considerably to make education affordable for all. It was another matter that much of this subsidy went into the owners’ pockets. After nationalisation the subsidies were discontinued and have never been revived.

The need of the hour was, and still is, the regulation of the private sector and the expansion of the public sector concurrently under an efficient management system. That is why the denationalisation policy introduced in the Zia era and the boost to the private sector thereafter failed to improve education in Pakistan. Even today when the private sector is having a field day and private institutions account for nearly a third of school enrolments, matters have not improved. If anything education is in a mess.

The simple reason is that the private sector cannot provide education at affordable rates. It has to earn a profit on its investment. Neither can it make education universal at the school level. It will not open a school in a remote low-income area — be it rural or urban. Only the government has the resources and political compulsion to do that.

The problem with the nationalisation policy was that it was implemented in a ham-handed manner and not professionally. The sooner Mr Gilani understands that the better will it be for education in Pakistan. The upscale private institutions that are providing excellent education to the elite are no solution. The bulk of the children who need education are not from the elite class.

Yet the government wants to shed its responsibility of educating the youth of Pakistan by entering into partnerships with private entrepreneurs. The world over education is preponderantly in the public sector and does pretty well in providing this service to the people. By criticising Bhutto’s nationalisation policy Mr Gilani appears to be looking for a pretext to renounce his government’s role in the education sector.

Atoning for our sins

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IS change in the offing? I should hasten to add that I am not talking about political change in Islamabad which is perennially the subject of much speculation. It is socio-economic change I want to write about this week.

Recently at a two-day conference of stakeholders titled `Floods and Beyond` hosted by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research some speakers spoke of the changes that will mark people`s lives in the post-floods period.Dr Kaiser Bengali, adviser to the Sindh chief minister, pointed out that the floods have brought a general awareness of the measure of poverty in the rural areas and what this means for the people. According to him, this has stirred even the residents of Defence Housing Authority to talk about it today. This should augur well for the future.

Two days later, at the Hamza Alavi distinguished lecture, social analyst Arif Hasan delivered a thought-provoking talk on feudalism and the process of change. Arif Hasan pointed out the numerous changes — many of them very subtle, nevertheless profound — that he has observed over decades of travelling to big and small cities and the rural areas of Pakistan. He considered these changes inevitable because the nexus between the administration and the landlords that held the social structure in place has broken down.

Given the dismal state of existence of the overwhelming majority of Pakistan`s population today, these prophecies of change should give rise to hope. But why is there scepticism? There are a number of reasons. The general awareness that has been created, which Dr Bengali so correctly identified, can only be translated into reality if those in a position to act actually do something. The awareness that had sent many into a state of shock is fast dissipating. qurbani

The back-to-normal atmosphere on Eidul Azha would have been reassuring to those who want the status quo to continue. Cows and goats were sacrificed in massive numbers at a time when the headcount of livestock losses in the flood was said to be 234,982. Plea for conserving cattle and making cash donations to the flood victims as a symbolic fell mostly on deaf ears.

Can we then hope for change? The feudal who is no longer believed to be as strongly entrenched as before can still not be written off for he continues to control the lives of the people living on his lands. They have nowhere else to go and they seek his help for their livelihood or for other `favours` which in democratic societies are citizens` fundamental rights. To acquire the latter, `connections with high quarters` are not needed.

This explains why change is such a difficult process in our society. Arif Hasan attributed the difficulties being encountered to the failure of the intelligentsia and the media to provide a value system I think more to blame is the failure of the state to provide protection and the basic human rights a person seeks to make life tolerable. wadera

Apart from employment he also needs healthcare, shelter and education for his children. If the system cannot guarantee these, he has to turn to someone — be it the family, community or the .

And don`t think it is only the poor who suffer from insecurities of this kind. Remember the axiom `uneasy lies the head that wears the crown`. In the absence of state protection and a social security net even the elites fear change. After all, how can they assume that a change would be in their favour?

Change, especially if it comes fast, can be emotionally destabilising. It is human nature to create a comfort zone where a person feels settled and relatively stable as he adjusts to the changes in his wider environment. But if he has to make adjustments in quick succession that can be a challenge for even the most well adjusted. Linked to this is the need one feels to be in control of one`s own life.

Pakistan`s poorest have never enjoyed that luxury. Upward social, economic and political mobility has enhanced the control factor progressively. But today, as recent events have shown, upward mobility is virtually absent and whatever informal support systems people had created for themselves have become fragile. It might be a natural disaster, an act of violence, a criminal activity or even a policy decision by a foreign government that can play havoc with a person`s sense of security today.

It is interesting to see how people have responded to this growing insecurity that has quietly crept into their lives over the last few decades. Religiosity characterises our national ethos. More are turning to religious rituals that enable them to hand over responsibility for their own actions and decisions to a supreme creator.

If it had simply been a case of the whole nation adopting religious values, should not there have been a fall in corruption, a rise in ethical norms, a decline in crimes and an increase in human compassion? After all, we are told that this is what Islam teaches us. On the contrary, this is not happening. Many who are suspected of being involved in wrongdoing of the most heinous kind resort to rituals in a big way because they believe that these are atonement for the evils they have committed.

Take the case of Eidul Azha. On account of soaring prices of sacrificial animals the number of sacrifices offered may have declined somewhat. But that was because of economic compulsions and not in support of conservation. Those who were financially well endowed, celebrated Eid as they have always done — with ostentatious display of their sacrificial booty.

Scant attention was paid to this telling verse from the Holy Quran published by the newsletter of a philanthropic eye hospital in Malir headed by a leading ophthalmologist of Pakistan, Prof M. Saleh Memon: “It is not their (sacrificial animal) meat nor their blood that reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him.” (22:37)”


Pakistan’s health burden

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE government has ingenious ways of naming evils in our society. A ghost school is termed as a dysfunctional institution. Quacks are called “unlicensed medical practitioners”. The National Assembly was informed by the health minister last Friday that Pakistan has 200,000 — bluntly termed — quacks who are posing a serious threat to people’s life.

This unpleasant fact of our health system has been known generally for long. But what has not been fully known so far is that conventional wisdom regarding the flaws of our health delivery infrastructure needs to be updated.

It is generally believed that quacks flourish because health facilities are not accessible to the common man who is forced to visit the so-called unlicensed medical practitioners when he falls ill. The government is held responsible for this failure since it has not opened enough dispensaries, clinics and hospitals to address the health needs of the ailing population.

The data released by the federal health ministry for 2006-07 is quite dismal. With the ratio of one doctor to population being 1,475 and one health facility catering to the need of 11,413 people, we cannot really expect the scenario to be satisfactory.

Besides, national averages present a distorted picture. For instance, if the health facilities are concentrated in the urban areas when the bulk of the population lives in the countryside, most people would be denied easy access to healthcare. Thus there are only 595 basic health units in Pakistan which is said to have 45,000 villages.

It can be said that people are forced to turn to quacks. And that is why the government does not even bother to crack down on them because it knows that it does not have the capacity to provide the service, howsoever spurious, the quacks are providing — while posing a serious threat to the lives of many people.

However, an uneven picture emerges in the urban scene. Many low-cost primary health facilities catering to the needs of the common man have sprung up in big cities like Karachi and Lahore. parchi

Those set up by the private sector charge a fee, but a nominal one (ranging from Rs30 to Rs100), which people pay willingly if they are assured of good professional care. Besides, some departments of the public-sector hospitals offer excellent services while charging a few rupees — the fee as it is called since Gen Ziaul Haq deemed the people to be undeserving of any free healthcare whatsoever.

In the government hospitals the services offered depend on the head of the department concerned. If he is an honest, compassionate and dedicated medical practitioner with a vision he manages to uplift his department notwithstanding the constraints a public-sector institution faces.

There are quite a few such examples, the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation being a notable one. With an OPD attendance of 700,000 patients per annum, the institute has come a long way from its humble beginnings. It has grown into a leading urology/nephrology centre in Pakistan that does not charge a penny from its patients and has an international standing.

All this is not enough. Many people have remained outside the pale. That has benefited the quacks. Cracking down on the quacks will drive them underground if alternative facilities are not provided. In this situation it is shocking to see how minimal the government’s role has been in the area of preventive medicine. Reducing the incidence of disease would automatically reduce the burden of the health sector. This has always been the Achilles heel of our public health system.

It is well known that sanitation and the supply of potable water would cut down phenomenally diseases, especially diarrhoeal disorders and parasite-borne illnesses. The dissemination of health education can also help people lead healthy lives without visiting hospitals and doctors to obtain treatment.

Why is it not being done? We do not know where the funds for sanitation, the malaria control, AIDS prevention and family planning programmes and immunisation drives go. These efforts do not appear to be paying the expected dividends although none call for great expertise. But they do call for commitment, integrity and dedication that have been eliminated instead of the parasites and viruses that cause disease.

Another neglected area is that of public health education. The electronic media which should have been an excellent instrument for the dissemination of knowledge on health has apparently forgotten its social responsibility and is more concerned about the rat race. If a health message is linked to an ad — as one exhorting children to wash their hands — it will receive much air time because it generates revenues. But not every message has a commercial dimension.

Health professionals should seek to fill this gap by arranging for trained volunteers to talk to people who visit hospitals and clinics. The waiting room of any hospital or private practitioner is jam-packed. Here many patients would benefit from a health talk. This can be done by volunteers who could be briefed about the kind of information they should disseminate.

Given the prevailing state of ignorance on health matters — even the educated are not always well-informed — and the constraints on time that doctors are faced with, it would make a difference if enlightened and educated volunteers talked about health issues as patients await their turn.

This would certainly help to reduce the disease burden in the country and lighten the load on the health sector. It would also improve the quality of life, enhance productivity of the labour force and upgrade the academic performance of students.

A study estimates that childhood and infectious diseases (most of which are preventable) account for 66 per cent of the burden of disease in Pakistan. Chronic diseases and injuries were among the top 10 causes of HeaLY (Healthy Life-Year) loss. With health education, the spread of disease can be minimised.

What the Future Holds for Flood-Affected Pakistanis: Will Zuhra Go to School Again?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Zuhra is four and she has recently learned her Sindhi alphabet – 52 letters in all. She wants the world to know about her achievement. When I met Zuhra at the Indus Resource Centre’s (IRC) tent city for the flood affected in Dadu – a small town in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh – she tugged at my sleeve and insisted I listen to her recitation.

Data collected from IRC tent cities in Khairpur, Dadu, and Sehwan in Sindh provides an idea of how women fared the ravaging floods in July through September. Of the 8,089 people housed in these camps, 49 percent were females and 47 percent were children, indicating the prevalence of large family sizes and its implications for women.
Continue reading What the Future Holds for Flood-Affected Pakistanis: Will Zuhra Go to School Again?

Will Zuhra Go To School Again?

The floods of 2010 have been forgotten. Do we remember the plight of those who suffered. This article was written when the displaced people were returning home. They were happy to be going back to their villages. But their feelings were also marked with trepidation What did the future hold for them?

Today we know that the flood victims have been pushed back into their suffering. It is time we remembered the flood victims. The government is so caught up in crises of its own making, that nothing is being done to rehabilitate the victims. This article has been put up here as a reminder that the miseries of the flood victims are not yet over.

Click here to read the full article.

What next for flood victims?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE narratives of Pakistan’s flood experience are drawing to a close. According to the National Disaster Management Authority’s latest data (Oct 30), 1,984 people lost their lives in the deluge that swept across large tracts of the country.

Nearly 1.7 million houses were damaged and 20.1 million people affected. Gradually, the displaced persons are returning to what were once their homes. If the long queues of wretched flood victims sitting by the roadside awaiting relief are gone and TV talk shows have reverted to the stuff that passes for politics in Pakistan, it doesn’t mean that life is back to normal. Some flood victims still remain in tent cities. Their presence is a powerful reminder of the inept ways of a government trying to cut corners.

Those left behind comprise mainly victims whose homes and lands are still flooded, as in Dadu district. A network of roads built thoughtlessly at an elevated level have facilitated communication no doubt but at what cost? They have trapped the water in the plains and now people simply have to wait for the water to evaporate.

Even those who have managed to return do not have much of a future to look forward too — at least right now. A lot of scepticism is being expressed. In a natural calamity the immediate need is to organise rescue operations and provide relief to the victims to ensure their survival. That phase has passed. What next?

The NGOs and community-based organisations that did a lot in the first phase do not have the financial resources and manpower for the rehabilitation stage. There is also the trust deficit vis-à-vis the government that marks the public’s perception of how the emergency was managed. Thus the truth may never be known about the breaches that were made in the embankments of rivers ostensibly to save the barrages. Besides, there is a widespread impression that the government is not performing.

Isn’t it time for the government to draw up reconstruction plans and start putting its act together? It is important that transparency is observed at every step. Every government department now has its website. A ‘flood rehabilitation’ section must be created where the goals and timeframe for rehabilitation activities are posted. Information about the implementation of the plan should be given on a daily basis so that interested parties can monitor the official performance. The need is to make the government accountable to the public.

This approach may cause less discord and it would certainly reduce the blame game in the provinces if Islamabad distributes the resources for flood rehabilitation among them, allowing them the autonomy of decision-making on issues of local concern. The criteria to determine each province’s share of flood relief funds should be the extent of damage caused and the number of people affected.

In other words this means that the precise extent of the damage should be posted on the website even before aid disbursement begins. What form should this take? The idea of doling out money is simply repugnant. It is not good for the self-esteem of people to make beggars out of them. The complaints against the Watan cards demonstrate that a strategy of distributing funds for reconstruction is inherently flawed in a country where corruption is rife.

As an emergency response it is understandable to initially help people by providing them cash. But thereafter it is important to provide them the means to help themselves. From Nadra’s account it seems a million cards will be processed. Even if we assume that they will go to deserving cases it works out to one card for 20 people — will Rs1,000 per head suffice?

If we do not want starvation to be the next crisis it is time the government thought about the food shortage that is inevitable. The tillers of land should be encouraged to grow vegetables on small plots. Some have received seeds from NGOs. Others should also be provided seeds.

Since most small farmers do not own the land they cultivate, it is important that they be allowed to grow their food on the fringes of the land where the cultivation of wheat, sugarcane, rice or other cash crops takes place.

It is time the big landowners allow this facility to their haris — it is their moral duty to do so. No landowner is known to have assumed total responsibility for the relief and rehabilitation of his farmers. It is time the landlords were asked to do so.

Most important of all, the reconstruction of the infrastructure that is undertaken should be guided by some basic principles. First, no contractor should be hired. Second, all labour should be indigenous. Third, jobs should be created and the flood-affected people hired on a cash-for-work basis.

The floods have opened a window of opportunity for change. The tent cities set up by well-established organisations that collected data have come out with some horrifying information. Literacy rates and school enrollment ratios are much lower than what the government claims. The fertility rate in these areas is very high. The status of women is shockingly dismal.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that accessibility to schools and health facilities is virtually non-existent in many areas. Either these institutions are non-existent or if they do exist they are dysfunctional for various reasons.

A number of flood-affected children have tasted the joys of schooling and adults have experienced the comforts of healthcare in the tent cities where they were housed. It will not be easy to push them back into the Stone Ages and expect them to submit to the indignities of a subhuman existence again. Discontent will rise and its target will be the oppressors of the suffering haris.

If good sense prevails, it is time the cataclysmic flood prompted our rulers to do some long-term thinking on the unfair tenancy laws, the inequitable land ownership pattern and the unequal taxation principles that hurt the poor and benefit the rich. Will those who have suffered put up with this injustice indefinitely?