The Inimitable Edhi

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Newsweek Pakistan: July 18, 2016

Can anyone in Pakistan fully understand the country’s greatest humanitarian? 

The other night, my father’s friend had a terribly vivid dream about my sister. “I saw your youngest daughter badly hurt,” he told us. The next day, hoping to ward off any ill omens, my father prayed for my sister’s safety and deposited a small donation in her name at the Edhi Center near our home in Karachi. I never met Abdul Sattar Edhi, and with these offerings of sadqa [alms] to his organization, I hoped I would never have to. Like most people I know, I have been fortunate enough to never require the Edhi Foundation’s services.

Over the years, I have visited the local Edhi Center many times. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each visit taught me to count my blessings: my three nephews came into the world in perfect health, my father celebrated his 65th birthday, my brother-in-law escaped a factory fire unhurt, my sister pulled through a major surgery, I got married, and later, my husband was pulled out of the mangled remains of his car after an accident, wounded but alive.

When Edhi died late on July 8, I spent hours scrolling through hundreds of personal anecdotes about the humanitarian and his Edhi Foundation on social media and felt a twinge of envy. Why hadn’t I ever tried to meet him? The man was a cipher. How could anyone be that good? In his autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind, Edhi tells narrator Tehmina Durrani that he had received complaints about his foundation’s refusal to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulances?” he was asked. “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you,” he replied. That tart response is fast becoming the stuff of legend, as it encapsulates Edhi’s humanity in a country that appears to be rapidly losing its own. “We would call on Edhi sahib automatically whenever something happened,” a member of the minority Ahmadi community in Karachi told Newsweek when I recounted this story. “Other ambulance services would not help us if one of us was injured or targeted in a shooting. They would either make excuses and say that no ambulances were available, or they would promise us that they were dispatching someone and then just wouldn’t show up.”

This man, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of his own safety, says a recent example of the Edhi Foundation’s impartial benevolence was the targeted killing of Dr. Khaliq Bashir outside his clinic in Sikandar Goth last month. After several rescue services refused to transport Bashir’s body to hospital, the deceased doctor’s friends turned to Edhi. “There was a ticker running on the news that an Ahmadi doctor had been shot, and I suppose they figured out that’s why we were calling,” he explains, adding that many Ahmadi families in the urban metropolis are often refused funeral transport for themselves or the bodies of their loved ones. “But Edhi never refused us.” The more I learn of him, the less I understand how a place like Pakistan can simultaneously produce a man like Edhi and those who made his work necessary.

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Karachi’s Diwalis Are Getting Quieter By The Year, And Here’s Why

Buzzfeed: November 17, 2015

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It’s easy to forget that it’s Diwali here in Karachi. On Wednesday evening at the Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir, the temple’s caretaker Kailash Wishram has just returned from work.

“It was not a holiday for us today and nor will I get the day off tomorrow,” he explains. “I work with a lawyer and I asked him if I could leave early as I had to finish shopping for my kids.”

His two daughters, aged two and four, are dressed identically in lettered baseball jackets. They’re waiting for their father to take them out for ice-cream.

On the floor near the puja ghar, plates of coloured rice have been placed next to a deg of homemade halva. Kailash’s wife fixes the goddess Laxmi’s crown and adjusts golden tinsel draped on the idol.

“Out!” she says, snapping her fingers towards the door. “We aren’t ready yet.”

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Will the Judiciary in Pakistan Deliver Justice to the Country’s Death Row Prisoners?

The Caravan: August 25, 2015

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It took Iqbal Bano, a 60-year-old resident of Lahore, an hour to piece together the story of her son Khizar Hayat’s life for the past fifteen years. Hayat, a police officer from the village of Khangah Dogra outside Lahore, was arrested in the city in 2001 and charged with the murder of Ghulam Ghous, a fellow officer.

On 1 August, when I spoke to Bano about the case over the phone, she told me that she believed that Jehangir Jawed, a man who claimed to be a saint, was to blame for her son’s troubles. “The pir [saint] saw that we are khatay peetay log—well-to-do people. He wanted my son to leave his wife and children and marry his daughter.” Bano alleged that her son had been under Jawed’s “influence” since 1996. She added that Hayat had kicked his wife and children out, and sold the family land so that he could procure money to build a home for his spiritual guide.

Frustrated, Bano approached Ghous, Hayat’s friend, in 2001 and asked him to meet Jawed. “I wanted him to scare this man a bit, to shake him up,” she explained. A few days later, Ghous was shot dead and his body was dumped outside his neighbour’s house near Lahore’s Shad Bagh area. Bano was at home watering her garden when she received a phone call informing her that Hayat had been arrested and charged with the murder.

Before her son’s first appearance in court in July 2002, Bano had paid a lawyer Rs 150,000 to defend him. The lawyer never turned up at the hearing. The prosecution had lined up witnesses who said they saw Hayat shoot Ghous while the police officials claimed they had arrested Hayat as he was trying to flee from the city. “I stood alone before the judge and I swore on the Quran that my son would never kill his friend,” she said. She told me that the judge took pity on her and promised to review the case before the next hearing. The delay did not help. “At the next hearing, I appeared in court to find that the same judge would not be presiding over the case,” said Bano. That day, in April 2003, Hayat was sentenced to death, joining more than 8,000 prisoners who are on the death row in Pakistan.

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Photo: Abdul Basit, 43, was convicted of murder and given the death sentence in 2009. In 2010, he was diagnosed with meningitis that left him paralysed from the waist down (courtesy Justice Project Pakistan)

Nobody Home: The Indian government’s Karachi properties

The Caravan: June 2015

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On 13 April, I finally managed to get through to Tasnim Aslam, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs. I had called to inquire about three properties I had seen in Karachi, all surrounded by barbed wire-topped walls bearing the same warning painted in bright red: “This property is owned by Government of India. Trespassers will be prosecuted.” The moment I was done asking my question, the line was disconnected.

I called Aslam back. “There must have been some problem with the connection,” I said. No, she replied. “If you needed to ask me this, you should have SMS-ed me.” I explained that I had several questions, and asked if I could email her instead. “If you wanted to email me, you should have talked to my staff in the first place,” she said. She hung up again.

My next call was to Arif Belgaumi, an architect who works extensively on urban development in Karachi. “I’m really not old enough to remember how long these Indian properties have been around,” he told me. He pointed me to Arif Hasan, another architect and a known history buff. “Call him,” he said. “He’s older than the hills.”

I called Hasan, and asked about the properties for the third time that day. “There’s no such thing as the Indian government’s properties in Karachi,” he said. But there are—I’d seen three such places already, and the signs on their walls, I insisted. I asked Hasan if I could email him a photograph of one of the properties. “You can,” he said, “but I don’t plan to check my email today.” I sent the photograph over, but never heard back.

Subsequent searching revealed a total of six Indian government properties in Karachi: India House, at 3 Fatima Jinnah Road; India Lodge, at 63 Clifton; Hindustan Court, at 42-43 Kurrie Road; Panchsheel Court in Frere Town; Shivaji Court on McNeil Road, and Hut 61, Hawkes Bay.

These spots are, and for the foreseeable future should remain, small dominions of the Indian republic within Pakistan.

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Photo by Sitwat Rizvi

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Many in Pakistan not surprised men convicted in Malala case were secretly released

The New York Times/ Women in the World: June 9, 2015

The school uniform of Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2014. Malala was wearing the uniform on the day she was shot in the head by the Taliban while on the school bus in Swat, Pakistan, on 9 October 2012.   Photo: Lynsey Addario / Reportage by Getty for the Nobel Peace Center Honouring Malala Yousafzai’s own wish, the school uniform she wore when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in October 2012, becomes part of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate exhibition 2014 – Malala and Kailash at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway.

It had the makings of the perfect firestorm: on Friday, a British newspaper,The Daily Mirror, broke the news that of the 10 men reportedly found guilty by a Pakistani anti-terrorism court of the brutal attack on Malala Yousafzai in 2012, eight had been secretly set free.

The news emerged as the court order from the trial was made public a month after the hearing had concluded, and the Mirror alleged that the men were released as part of a deal, with the greatest efforts made to avoid local or international media picking up on the story.

On April 30, international and Pakistani media extensively covered the news of life sentences handed down to the 10 men, who were swept up in September 2014 by the Pakistani army during the ongoing military offensive Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Pakistan’s restive northern region. On Friday, the world learned that it was only two, not 10, of the alleged attackers who were convicted and imprisoned.

“The eight prisoners were released from jail because officials would have received a message from the courts regarding their acquittal,” DIG Malakand Azad Khan confirmed on Friday. Pakistani authorities have since stated that the eight men remain in custody, only fueling skepticism regarding the veracity of facts emerging in this case. “The eight who were acquitted are still being held in various jails and an internment center,” a police official told the AFP. Per the draconian Actions in Aid of Civil Power Regulation 2011, applicable in Swat, these men can be held indefinitely by the armed forces.

Even as this story brings together some of Pakistan’s best-loved trigger points – Malala (whom many still believe to be a ‘Western agent’), the illegitimacy of secret military courts, alleged covert deals and a doddering justice system – the response to the Mirror’s story was rather muted. Only one English-language newspaper, Dawn, carried the story on its front page. Dawn subsequently ran a blistering editorial against the legitimacy of the trial, while talk shows and news bulletins were dedicated to the imminent announcement of the federal budget and political leaders remained tightlipped. For many, the news did not merit an appearance on their social media feeds. And since the triumphant announcement of the attackers’ arrests last year, the army’s press information wing has remained silent about the case.

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Photo of Malala’s school uniform, worn on the day she was attacked: Lynsey Addario/Getty

Does the all-female police force in Pakistan work?

The New York Times/ Women in the World: April 29, 2015

Peshawar

While growing up, Ayesha*, now a 28-year-old police official in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, loved stories of cops and robbers. Not just any cops—the stars of a state-sponsored television show, Pas-e-Aaina (Behind the Mirror), about an all-female police station, which aired in Pakistan in the late 1990s. In the show, men—thieves, rapists, murderers—would be brought before the station head quavering and pleading, and she would mete out justice for the women these men had wronged.

“Inspector Shehla!” Ayesha crowed out the name of her role model. “When I was just 10 years old, I would watch her on the show and I’d think about the kind of job I wanted as an adult. I imagined a place where only men worked, a male profession,” she explained. “I saw myself as the brave, strong girl in their midst—a girl brave enough to work side-by-side with these men.” And, she added smiling, “That’s exactly what happened.”

Ayesha is one of 300 women who are part of the 67,000-strong police force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that made international headlines last December after a brutal attack on a school in Peshawar by members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban left reportedly left 150—including at least 134 children—dead. Ayesha heads one of seven “women’s complaint desks” set up in the summer of 2013 at police stations in Peshawar, just after former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party swept the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the May 2013 general elections in Pakistan.

Women, it was believed at the time, would feel more comfortable coming to a female police official to register a complaint, and the establishment of the desks was widely praised as a much-needed reformation of the police system in the province. In 2014 alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that 232 women in Pakistan suffered acid attacks or were burned, the majority by someone they knew; 859 committed suicide, often due to domestic abuse, and 461 were killed by their husbands. There are currently 65 such desks across the province hoping to cut down these grave statistics. But has the experiment worked?

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Photo: Entrance to the all-female police station in Police Lines, Peshawar