So sorry Zainab

By Zubeida Mustafa

DEAR Zainab,

I am writing this letter to you a whit too late. Your sparkling pretty eyes have been shut for ever. And you are not there to read my words which are an outpouring of my grief, my anguish, my shame, my anger and, above all, the deep remorse that I feel for having let you down. True, I did not harm you directly. I wasn’t the one to hurt you. Yet I plead guilty because I failed to  create the environment that every child needs. If I had given attention to this aspect of life, you wouldn’t have had to pay the price for my failure. You would have been saved.

So I will not indulge in the blame game I see that is being playedout  around me by politicians and opinion leaders alike who derive some kind of perverse pleasure from accusing their rivals for whatever goes wrong.

All little girls like you and also boys, who we bring into this world, are entitled to feel secure and protected. That is the first right any child should have. Parents try to provide that to their children out of love. But the state must provide that as its primary duty. Any government that fails to protect the citizens of this state has no right to remain at the pinnacle of power.

Isn’t it our society that has made Pakistan such a child-unfriendly place? The state has taken it a step further by not providing the needed facilities such as schools, hospitals, playgrounds, libraries, nutrition and entertainment centres. And we who like to describe ourselves as the civil society have never empathised with children — especially when they are not our own. How many of us have raised a voice when playgrounds are swallowed by land grabbers? When children have no school to go to? When a child in our neighbourhood dies of malnourishment or disease? And then we are surprised when children become aggressive. We just don’t understand that the little ones have no open spaces  to run around to give vent to their youthful energy.

Since we have failed to create a healthy environment, many of the cute little boys grow up to be monsters like the one who took you away and hurt you so much that death must have come as a relief from pain.

Dear Zainab, times are bad now and over the years people have been desensitised and numbed into an apathy that is unbelievable. Your family says that you lived in a busy neighbourhood which was never lonely or quiet. Yet no one found it strange when you were taken away in this manner with such ulterior motives? We do not know if you were lured away or you had resisted. In either case it reflects on the torrid aspect of our society. If you had tried to resist, it is shocking that not one of the scores of people around you came to your rescue. If you were lured, what kind of prudes are we that we cannot talk about sexuality and warn little girls like you not to respond to people’s advances.

It was exactly forty years ago that another young and innocent girl like you called Tarranum Aziz met a similar fate as yours.  This incident took place in Karachi in February 1978. But times were different then. People had a social conscience. I had written about the incident many years later: “The day Tarannum’s body was found, there was an outburst of public anger. The next day the city closed down on a call for a strike. The day after that General Ziaul Haq flew into the city in the quiet of the night for “an on-the-spot briefing on the law and order situation in Karachi, particularly the investigation into the kidnapping and murder of an eight-year-old child”.

All this seems unbelievable. How could the public protest – quite peacefully  by and large – have produced such a powerful impact? Wasn’t the country under martial law in 1978? Wasn’t political activity banned? Wasn’t the press tightly shackled? Weren’t the student unions banned? Besides there was no MQM to mobilize Karachi’s population and enforce a strike by driving terror in the hearts of people.

There was no Women’s Action Forum either to make people aware of the hateful trend of violence against women. There was no HRCP to demand the fundamental rights of life, liberty and security for the people, including children like Tarannum Aziz.

Yet the people’s voices were heard. What has happened? With democracy have we regressed beyond redemption?