Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

Armed to the teeth, yet insecure

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THERE was a time when wars were fought by standing armies on the battlefield. If a state had a sufficient number of well-trained soldiers with high morale who were well-armed with the best weapons available, its citizens felt secure. No power could undermine their strength or invade their territory as long as their men in uniform held firm. But this notion changed when the concept of total war entered the science of military strategy with the introduction of weapons of mass destruction. Populations became vulnerable. They could be invaded and occupied. But more importantly, their strength enhanced national power. An educated, healthy and productive population became an asset for a state fighting a war to defend itself. This also made governments gradually aware of the importance of unconventional means of security that did not depend on arms and ammunition.

In due course, it came to be recognised that human resources counted as much as, if not more than, military power in the defence of nations. It was then that strategic thinkers and economists began to link the security of states to the quality of life of their people, their intellectual and moral calibre, and the sense of personal safety that comes from economic and social welfare. In fact Dr Mahbub ul Haq, Pakistan’s finance, planning and commerce minister under Ziaul Haq and the architect of UNDP’s human development reports, was one of the early protagonists of this concept of human security. Distinguishing territorial security from human security, he gave the latter a comprehensive definition: “security of income, employment, food, health, education and environment”.

It is therefore a befitting tribute to him that this is the central theme of the Mahbub ul Haq Centre’s report titled Human Development in South Asia 2005. Set up by the late Mahbub ul Haq himself in 1995, the centre has been publishing a report on different aspects of development in South Asia since 1997. These reports are important, inter alia, from the regional perspective.

In the latest report, the regional aspect assumes greater significance because territorial security — which falls essentially in the purview of governments — presumes the presence of an enemy. But on the contrary, in South Asia the majority of the people now yearn to live in peace and harmony within their societies and with their neighbours. If anything, their desire is obstructed by politics, ideologies of a minority and the greed of captains of industry — and, of course, those in the corridors of power.

The failure to resolve international tensions has affected human security in South Asia. It has robbed the region of the peace dividend that would have allowed the use of the resources saved by reducing military expenditure for social development. Ironically, the insecurity of people rises not so much from their fear of foreign enemies as their concern at violence within the household and societal injustice. Human development is closely linked to security because it equips people to defend themselves in adverse situations.

The report makes seven key observations about the state of human security in South Asia:

· economic policies have promoted unequal growth with the majority living in deprivation and extremely vulnerable to shocks;
· most conflicts that beset South Asia today rise from a sense of injustice among the affected people;
· economic insecurity is usually at the heart of these conflicts;
· a weak health infrastructure adds to human insecurity;
· environmental degradation has reached extremely high levels, affecting people’s lives and security;
· the ill-treatment of women and children adds to the insecurity of a large section of the population; and
· institutions of governance have failed to serve the people and provide them security.

It may be difficult to identify any single factor as the key element promoting insecurity. In many cases, different issues form a vicious circle with one reinforcing the other. But there are two which, if addressed independently, can help break this cycle. One is the high level of militarisation which leaves little resources for the social development of people. Some data revealed here is quite shocking. For instance, the number of personnel in the armed forces of some countries have escalated phenomenally between 1991 and 2002. In Pakistan, this number has gone up by 39 per cent while Sri Lanka has shown a growth of 36 per cent. Pakistan’s defence budget as a percentage of GDP is the highest in South Asia — 4.1 per cent.

This has an adverse impact on the social sectors and is reflected in the low spending on health and education. According to the statistics available, Pakistan spends six dollars per capita on health, ten dollars on education and $21 on defence. India’s figures are seven dollars, $21 and $12 per capita respectively. Sri Lanka, which a few years ago was held up as a role model for planning for the social development of its people, now spends $17 per capita on health and education each and $35 on defence.

If the institutions of governance had developed as independent, honest and dynamic bodies representing the will of the people, they could have served as a corrective mechanism to check the overemphasis on territorial security. In Pakistan’s case, there have been long periods when it has not even had an elected parliament.

What is, however, most surprising in this report is that there is no emphasis on education, the key tool for social development. True, an earlier report (Human Development in South Asia 1998) had focused on the education challenge in South Asia. But to study the issue of education in the context of human security is most essential as it would lead to interesting findings on the basis of which constructive recommendations could be made.

This report should be compulsory reading for the military leaders in the five countries of South Asia where armies constitute a significant force in national life — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It is time they understood that security means something more than just building up arsenals to guard borders. As the survey at the end of the report unambiguously states, most people perceive security as the “ability to live free” (India), and life and self security (Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Human Development in South Asia 2005: Human Security in South Asia
Mahbub ul Haq Human
Development Centre in collaboration with Oxford
University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi
Tel: 111-693-673
ISBN 0-19-547363-9
218pp. Rs450

Story of treachery, betrayals and …

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE Taliban are back in the news. After their rout by the Americans in the wake of 9/11, it was widely believed that they would eventually be totally crushed. But that has not happened, the vehemence of the war on terror notwithstanding. Many find this intriguing. To understand the phenomenon of the resurgence of the Taliban one must read Kathy Gannon’s book, I is for Infidel. Hardly a heavy academic book, it can be deceptively light reading like the numerous travel accounts of journalists who visit troubled lands and then write about them.
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