New project sheds light on Pakistan’s lesser known feminist history

The New York Times/Women in the World: July 14, 2015

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It had been there for decades  — a red, blue and white flag unfurling in the wind, an unwanted blot in the sky for many who walked under it. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, removed by a woman who heard the calls for the flag’s removal and decided to do it herself.

This is not the story of Bree Newsome, but instead, of Fatima Sughra. In 1947, Fatima, then a 14-year-old girl living in Lahore (in undivided India) pulled down the Union Jack from the Punjab Civil Secretariat Building and replaced it with the emblem of the Muslim League, the political party fighting for the creation of Pakistan and freedom from British rulers in the Indian subcontinent at the time.

But while Bree Newsome’s name may be familiar to many young women in Pakistan, Fatima Sughra’s is known to a handful, relegated to a time when hashtags did not commemorate heroes. Sana Saleem and Ghausia Rashid Salam, two Karachi-based women, are hoping to change that. HERstory, an online record of Pakistan’s feminist legacy, is a collection of oral histories the two women have been collecting for eight months, since an intern they worked with elsewhere mentioned she had no clue about Pakistan’s feminist movement.

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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?

Full story here

More photos from Peshawar on my Instagram

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

Have the Lahore Church Bombings and the Lynchings that Followed Revealed Rifts Within Pakistan’s Christian Community?

The Caravan Magazine: March 27, 20156

It was a little after 11 am on Sunday, 15 March 2015. Asher Naveed, a member of the parish council and a voluntary security guard at Lahore’s Christ Church in Youhanabad, was sitting at the back of the church with seven other members of the security team. Glancing at his watch, Naveed realized that the sermon had gone on for longer than usual; by now, congregants who did not want to join in the Communion would ordinarily be leaving the church. One man, his wife and daughter, snuck out from the pews, headed towards Naveed, and asked him to open the church doors so they could leave.

Less than a minute after the family walked out, Naveed heard the man’s motorbike rev up, followed by the sound of gunshots.

“I heard five or six shots, in quick succession,” Naveed recalled when he spoke to me. In the few seconds of silence that followed, one of guards headed to a small door near the entrance. “We thought it was some miscreants causing a commotion outside, or at worst, a shooting between people from the neighbourhood (Youhanabad),” Naveed said. The guard cracked the door open and peered outside; seconds later, he was swept off his feet and thrown backwards into the church by the force of an explosion.

“Everything was grey,” Naveed recalled. “I remember thinking, as I looked outside the door that had been blasted open, that our congregants had come to church dressed in such beautiful, colourful clothes. But I could see none of that colour, everything had turned grey.”

Through the smoke and debris, Naveed told me that he spotted what he thought was the suicide bomber’s leg. “The minute I saw body parts, we closed the door so people would not rush out and see that,” he said. “All I could think of was how the sermon had gone on longer than usual that day. If it hadn’t, imagine how many families would have been outside the church when the bombings took place.”

The attacks on 15 March were the worst on Pakistan’s Christian community since a double suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar in September 2013 that left nearly one hundred people dead. The community—which makes up roughly 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of more than 180 million people—lost nineteen people in the bombings at Christ Church and Roman Catholic Church, located half a kilometer apart in Lahore’s Youhanabad neighbourhood, home to an estimated 100,000 Christians. Two Christians were killed the following day as a panicked driver tried to make her way through a crowd of protestors, running over fourteen people.

Full story here

More photos here

(First photo by me; photo below by Umar Ali)

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Finding Fatima: In conversation with the latest Bhutto to bring ‘Democracy’ to Pakistan

The Express Tribune: March 1, 2015

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I first met Fatima Bhutto the day a small heart-shaped icon blinked on my phone’s screen, informing me that ‘fbhutto’ had liked one of my photographs on Instagram. And then on February 13th, a few hours before her latest work, a short story called Democracy, was released online, Fatima invited me to her home.

It felt impossible that we would not to talk about politics. On the way to 70 Clifton, I drove past graffiti that pleaded, “Fatima, you are our only hope”, and as I walked into the house, I expected to see the faces of generations of Bhuttos looking down at me. Yes, they were all there, but so were some unexpected visitors: dozens of children from nearby Neelum Colony, who come to the house to seek refuge from the streets, do their homework, or join art classes with Fatima’s mother Ghinwa.

I decided then that I wouldn’t interview Fatima the Bhutto but Fatima the writer: the woman who spent a night in the kitchens of London’s storied Delaunay restaurant so she could learn to make croissants, who seemed to have a weak spot for beautiful shoes and who gives all her books away as a rule. It seemed fitting to take the conversation out of 70 Clifton and back online, where we first met. And so, for one week, Fatima and I emailed each other.

4- Fatima and mother

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Karachi railway station: On the right track

The Express Tribune: February 1, 2015
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If you are a 29-year-old architect and you’ve lost your sense of direction, it seems entirely fitting that your dream job would land you at Karachi’s Cantonment Railway Station. “I had left my job at the Heritage Foundation. I had no jobs lined up and I didn’t even know how I would pay my bills,” recalls Marvi Mazhar. “Then I got a call from architect Aqeel Bilgrami and he asked me to come see the station, as a group of artists and architects was hoping to revitalise this beautiful 19th century building.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
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