Ringing the alarm bells

By Zubeida Mustafa

AT long last some in the government have belatedly woken up to, what they term, the education emergency in Pakistan. The emergency is not new. What is new is the realisation(?) in official quarters that we face a crisis. The co-chairperson of the Pakistan Education Task Force (PETF) Shahnaz Wazir Ali has therefore launched a campaign exhorting people to march for education and sign a petition “to force Pakistan’s leaders to finally get serious about providing every child with a decent school and a committed teacher”.

In a dramatic presentation we are informed that 25 million children are out of school in Pakistan. One may add that few of those who are enrolled receive quality education. The physical infrastructure is appalling and the state of pedagogy is dismally shocking.

Click here to read the full article on Dawn.com.

The war of elephants

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE Raymond Davis episode has proved, if nothing else, how impossible it is to fit people into neat categories. Although we love to brand people as leftist and rightist, liberal and conservative, Islamist and secular, radical and traditional, we now know how off the mark we are when we do that. Those who used Davis as a flogging horse to vent their anti-American sentiments were a disparate lot. There were people from both ends of the spectrum and only Davis was their meeting point.

Dr Farhat Moazzam, head of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture at SIUT, was absolutely right when she made a plea to the audience at the seminar on “Muslim women” to stop labeling people. Of course she was speaking in another context but whatever the occasion this practice polarises society.

As a result of this war of ideas the middle ground is shrinking and we are talking “at” each other and not “with” each other. At the CBEC seminar, Asma Jahangir, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, emphasised the importance of people being given the right to speak. What should also be emphasised is that the right to speak implies the corresponding duty to listen.

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So grave and terrifying

By Zubeida Mustafa

DR Tipu Sultan, president of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), has described the health situation in the country as ”grave, embarrassing and terrifying”. He is not exaggerating. A report titled Health of the Nation that the PMA has prepared is a scathing indictment of the state of the health sector. There has been a tremendous slide and the progress made in the last decade has been literally wiped out.

It is strange that in the chaos that engulfs Pakistan today, the crumbling state of the health care system — on which our destiny hinges — has been totally ignored. With public attention focused on our unsavoury politics, many health concerns have gone unnoticed.

Surprisingly our rulers should fail to see the connection between politics and health – a fundamental right of the citizens. The state of their health determines their span of life, sense of well being – both physical and mental — stamina to work and so on. These factors are basic to a nation’s productivity and therefore its national economy. As for our politics, it is influenced by our human capital, that is in turn shaped by the state of health and quality of life of the people.

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One woman who changes lives

By Zubeida Mustafa

Saira Zaidi does not fit into the gender image of Pakistan as it emerges from the recently-released UNDP’s Human Development Report 2010. This ranks the country as 112th out of the 119 states given a ranking. The UNDP describes gender inequality as a barrier to development. Statistics also confirm the existence of this barrier in Pakistan.

But Zaidi is an exception. Hers has been a valiant struggle to help women overcome adversity. Following the Chinese dictum of teaching a person fishing rather than giving him fish to eat, Zaidi has adopted the strategy of helping women to help themselves.

I first met Saira Zaidi when I was visiting the Korangi Academy, a school for underprivileged children. On the outskirts of Karachi, Korangi technically qualifies as an urban centre but it contains islands of underdevelopment that lack all the utilities that one takes for granted in a modern society. The Academy is designed to serve the children of the adjoining eight Goths (villages) with a population of 200,000.

The school has the Infaq Education and Training Centre attached to it and Zaidi is heading IETC. But she has not restricted herself to teaching pedagogy to young women who then go on to teach children in schools all over the city. In the last eight years 487 young women have benefited from Zaidi’s programmes. Her mission is to help the women of the Goths to lift themselves out of the morass of poverty and oppression they are mired in.

Her efforts have started paying off. Her community development project enables Zaidi to reach out to the women in the Goths where literacy is low (estimated to be ranging between 18 to 25 per cent with a very small ratio being women).

A visit to the Goths is an eye-opener. Just a few kilometres away from the hub of civilisation lives humanity that is untouched by the march of progress. Lacking potable water and sanitation, the Goths have unpaved and narrow streets, some with sewers overflowing and garbage littered around. I saw some children playing around who should have been in school.

The homes I visited were small and dingy, but they were neat. One could see that living conditions were crowded as families are traditionally large, seven/eight children being the norm. This is one of the challenges Zaidi and her seven counsellors face in their community work. Family planning is a sensitive issue. Yet she talks about it but subtly. She now feels she is making an impact. The marriage age of girls has gone up by several years. An additional factor could also be the new phenomenon of girls going to school and taking up jobs.

Another change that Zaidi feels is taking place is the willingness of women to take control of their lives to empower themselves when they can. They are trying to move out of the shadows of their men folk many of whom are drug addicts and do not work for a living. With Zaidi’s help and encouragement young teacher trainees from the Goths have opened home schools for young children. Fourteen of them are now operating and 2250 children have been their beneficiaries since 2003. Of these 1601 went on to join regular schools.

Another success story Zaidi is proud of is the budget resource group. Set up by three teachers and six students of the IETC this was launched as a pilot project to teach basic mathematics and budgeting skills to women who do not even recognise the various denominations of currency bills. After three weeks of training the group moved to the home of one of the members. It has now become a nucleus for women’s collective activities.

‘Immediate results have been heartening,’ Zaidi says. The housewives of the community who participated in the initial course found their lives transformed. ‘They have become money wise and can now manage their monthly household budgets independently and also deal with shopkeepers, who previously exploited their ignorance by over-charging them,’ Zaidi remarks.

She feels that this project has become a catalyst for change. It shows that women from the community – the most oppressed lot at the bottom of the heap – can improve their lives thanks to one woman who showed them the way. But Zaidi would be happier when she finds that she has created the critical mass necessary for the women of the Goths to continue the work that has been started without outside intervention.

Pictures Courtesy IETC.

An acre for every woman

By Zubeida Mustafa

According to Amartya Sen, people starve not because there is not enough food to feed them but because food is unaffordable. It is also important to note that starvation is not the extreme condition of going without food. It also implies insufficient food intake as to cause malnourishment. If women are given the title to a little land they will grow enough food to feed their family and sell the surplus they produce. Thus they will meet their other needs. The idea is not far-fetched because at present eighty per cent of the work on farms is performed by women in the form of unpaid female labour. It receives no formal recognition. To provide an acre to every woman would call for some kind of land reforms which amounts to asking for the moon in Pakistan today. Hence Green Economics Initiative’s slogan “an acre for every woman” also offers an alternative, “or at least sixteen square feet”. What use will sixteen square feet be for agriculture, one may ask.

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Fahmida Riaz Ki Farhang-e-Nau

by Zubeida Mustafa

Fahmida Riaz is an eminent Urdu poet, author, translator and activist. Currently, she is the Managing Director of the Urdu Dictionary Board, Pakistan. Her first poem was published in Funoon when she was only fifteen.

Fahmida Riaz has written several short stories and novels, the most well known being Pathar ki Zubaan, Khatt-e-Marmuz, Godavari, Zindabahar Lane; and Reflections in a Cracked Mirror. Some of these have been translated into English.

As a poet she has been very popular. She subtly weaves her activism into her poems thus conveying a powerful message.

In her poem on the Urdu dictionary, which she wrote on the occasion of the launch of the 22-volume lexicon, Fahmida Riaz in effect analyses the factors that have led to the decline in the fortunes of the Muslims of South Asia.

I had quoted a few lines from this poem in my column, “Will Pakistan follow Egypt?” (23 Feb 2011). Here is the complete poem for Fahmida Riaz’s fans. And she certainly has many of them.

Come let us create a new lexicon
Wherein is inserted before each word
Its meaning that we do not like
And let us swallow like bitter potion
The truth of a reality that is not ours.
The water of life bursting forth from this stone
Takes a course not determined by us alone
We who are the dying light of a derelict garden
We who are filled with the wounded pride of self delusion
We who have crossed the limits of self praise
We who lick each of our wounds incessantly
We who spread the poisoned chalice all around
Carrying only hate for the other
On our dry lips only words of disdain for the other
We do not fill the abyss within ourselves
We do not see that which is true before our own eyes.
We have not redeemed ourselves yesterday or today
For the sickness is so dear that we do not seek to be cured
But why should the many hued new horizon
Remain to us distant and unattainable
So why not make a new lexicon
If we emerge from this bleak abyss
Only the first few footsteps are hard
The limitless expanses beckon us
To the dawning of a new day
We will breathe in the fresh air
Of the abundant valley that surrounds us
We will cleanse the grime of self loathing from our faces.
To rise and fall is the game time plays
But the image reflected in the mirror of time
Includes our glory and our accomplishments
So let us raise our sight to friendship.
And thus glimpse the beauty in every face
Of every visitor to this flower filled garden
We will encounter “potentials”
A word in which you and me are equal
Before which we and they are the same
So come let us create a new lexicon.

نئی ڈکشنری
بناتے ہیں ہم ایک فرہنگِ نو
جس میں ہر لفظ کے سامنے دَرج ہیں
وہ معانی جوہم کو نہیں ہیں پسند
جرعہٴ تلخ کی مثل پی جائیں گے
اَصل کی اَصل جو بس ہماری نہیں
سنگ سے پھوٹتا آبِ حیواں ہے یہ
جوہمارے اشارے پہ جاری نہیں
ہم فسردہ چراغ، اِک خزاں دیدہ باغ
زخم خوردہ اناؤں کے مارے ہوئے
اپنی توصیف حد سے گزارے ہوئے
اپنے ہر زخم کو ہر گھڑی چاٹتے
دبلیاں زہر کی چار سُو بانٹتے
دوسروں کے لیے صرف نفرت لیے
خشک ہونٹوں پہ حرفِ حقارت لیے
جو خلا ہے جہاں اس کو بھرتے نہیں
چار آنکھیں حقیقت سے کرتے نہیں
کامراں ہوسکے ہیں نہ کل اور نہ آج
مرض پیارا ہو گر کیا کریں گے علاج
کیوں گریزاں رہے، ہم سے روٹھی رہے
آنے والے زمانوں کی صد رنگ ضو
کیوں بنا لیں نہ ہم ایک فرہنگ نو
اس اندھیرے کنویں سے نکل آئیں گر
چند قدموں کا ہے اِک کٹھن راستہ
بے کراں وسعتیں ڈھونڈتی ہیں ہمیں
روشنی ہے جہاں، پو پھٹے کاسماں
سانس تازہ ہواؤں میں لیں گے وہاں
ایک شاداب وادی ہے چاروں طرف
ٓٓآ رہے ہیں ہر اک سمت سے کارواں
اپنے چہرے سے دھو دیں گے گردِ ملال
وقت کا کھیل ہیں سب عروج و زوال
وقت کے آیئنے میں جو تصویر ہے
اِس میں شامل ہیں ہم خوش وضع باکمال
دوستانہ نگاہیں اٹھائیں گے ہم
دلربا خال و خد دیکھ پائیں گے ہم
اس گلستاں کے ہر ایک مہمان کے
روبرو ہوں گے ہم اصل اِمکان کے
جس کے آگے برابر ہیں میں اور تو
جس کی نظروں میں یکساں ہیں ہم اور وہ
بناتے ہیں ہم ایک فرہنگِ نو

The poem has been translated into English by Aquila Ismail
who holds a degree in Electrical Engineering and is editor and writer of several books on development issues. She has translated Urdu fiction into English, (including Zindabahar Lane and Godavari by Fahmida Riaz). She has been published in Dawn and Newsline. Her debut novel based on the Bihari experience in East Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971-72 will be published at the end of 2011.

After Davis, what?

By Zubeida Mustafa

One TV anchor asked rhetorically, “If our diplomat had killed two men in cold blood in Washington, would the Americans have allowed him to go home under cover of diplomatic immunity?” Obviously not, because the United States is a superpower and Pakistan is not. In short, we have an unequal relationship, notwithstanding the hype about state sovereignty. We have trapped ourselves in an unsavoury situation by tying ourselves too closely to the American apron strings with the incumbent indignity.

The time has come for serious rethinking of our foreign policy and this cannot be done in the glare of publicity. We need to realise that ‘the burden of US aid’ that our leading intellectual, Hamza Alavi, had written about in 1962 is growing heavier by the day. It has implications for our politics, economy, and foreign policy. It is also demeaning.

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