New Bhutto fellowship at Harvard accepting applications

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Returns To Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto, arrival in Karachi, 2007. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

A new fellowship at Harvard University to honor the late Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto, member of the Harvard College class of 1973, is now accepting applications.  Continue reading

Titillate us, entertain us, even educate us, but please, don’t talk about rights

Women Protest Qandeel murder

Women and men in Peshawar protest Qandeel Baloch’s murder. Photo via Javed Aziz Khan

Pakistani model and social media icon Qandeel Baloch rocked the boat with outrageous antics like offering to strip if Shahid Afridi led the Pakistan cricket team to victory against India in the T20 match a few months ago. Yesterday, her brother in Multan strangled her to death in apparently because she was bringing a bad name to the family — a family she financially supported. Continue reading

Stifling dissent in Southasia

I earlier posted about resistance to the stifling of dissent in India, and why as a Pakistani it matters to me. The trend is visible in other parts of Southasia too, including of course Pakistan about which I’ve written a fair amount. Here’s an update from Bangladesh, where defamation, sedition cases and the attempts to silence the independent media are underway, as well as Chattisgarh, India.


Smiles and sedition. Photo: Andrew Biraj, Reuters

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For Insha Afsar… Ski is the limit

Ski is the limit

Insha Afsar: A champion skier from Muzaffarabad.

Thanks to the Association of Pakistani Physicians of New England (APPNE) for the opportunity to meet an inspiring young lady, 14-year old Insha Afsar of Muzaffarabad who lost a leg in the earthquake of 2005 but has risen to become a champion one-legged skier, enabled by her supportive host parents in the USA. My piece in The News on Sunday

Some weeks ago, I happened to sit at the same table as a bright-eyed, long-haired young girl with a wide smile. The only non-desis in the room were the white couple with her. I assumed they were doctors or medical representatives in that hall full of physicians and their families.

But a pair of crutches resting on the table indicated that the girl was Insha Afsar, the 14-year old from Muzaffarabad who lost a leg in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake but has become a skiing sensation as she dominates the slopes — on one leg. Continue reading

‘Not just India’s daughter’ – article for TNS Special Report

Jyoti Singh’s death has become a global symbol and the beginning of change. Here’s hoping she did not die in vain… ‘Not just India’s daughter‘: My article for The News on Sunday Special Report on the issue

Not just India’s daughter

India has been under the spotlight for the rape and gender violence since the horrific gang rape in Delhi on December 16, 2012. That night, a 23-year-old physiotherapist on her way home from the movies with a male friend was brutally gang-raped by six men in a moving bus in the national capital. She died of her injuries on December 29, 2012. Her friend who tried to save her was also brutally beaten but survived.

The BBC documentary, ‘India’s Daughter’ following up on a rape that shook not just India but the world, and the Indian government’s subsequent ban on the film has re-ignited hot debate on an issue that is relevant to far more than just India or India’s daughters. Continue reading

Three good causes: help save a life; contribute to free medical camps; donate-a-goat

17-yr old Allahdin from Mithi, Tharparkar in hospital in Karachi. Photo: Wahid Khairi

17-yr old Allahdin from Mithi, Tharparkar at hospital in Karachi. Photo: Wahid Khairi

Sharing three appeals for help here from people I trust,  for those who would like to get involved or contribute in some way to any of these worthwhile causes:

Continue reading

Pakistan/India: There is no honour in killing… End the culture of impunity

HK-Iqbal - Farzana pic

Iqbal holds up a picture of his wife, Farzana Parveen, killed outside the Lahore High Court. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

On the murder of Farzana Parveen in Pakistan and the two Dalit girls in India – something I wrote last week, published in The News and in The Times of India blog

There is no honour in killing

End the culture of impunity

Beena Sarwar

Last Tuesday, May 27, two crimes that shocked the world took place, one in the morning in Lahore, Pakistan and the other at night in Uttar Pradesh, India. Three young women – two of them just girls, really, were killed in these incidents. A fourth casualty was the unborn child of the five months pregnant woman in Pakistan. Continue reading

The need for a uniform civil code

60-year-old Shah Bano went to court seeking maintenance from her husband who had divorced her. The court ruled in her favour - maintenance from her ex-husband under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code with an upper limit of Rs. 500 a month. This was not the first such judgment granting a divorced Muslim woman maintenance under Section 125 like all Indian women. But the orthodox lobby termed the verdict an attack on Islam.

When a court in India ruled in favour of 60-year-old Shah Bano, granting her maintenance (under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code with an upper limit of Rs. 500 a month) from her ex-husband who had divorced her, it was not the first such judgment granting a divorced Muslim woman maintenance under Section 125 like all Indian women. But the orthodox lobby termed the verdict an attack on Islam.

Received the following note via email from Justice Katju in New Delhi, posted below. He has also posted it to his blog.

Uniform Civil Code

The refusal to modernise Muslim law or enact a common civil code has contributed to keeping Muslims backward in India, and has thus done great harm to Muslims

By Justice Markandey Katju

The issue of a uniform civil code has recently been raised. I am fully in support of a uniform civil code.

Article 44 of the Indian Constitution states : “The state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. Continue reading

‘The Orangi Pilot Project and Legacy of Architect Perween Rehman’ @ MIT

Arif Hasan: Architect with ethics
Arif Hasan speaking at the syposium: Architecture with ethics. Photo: Beena Sarwar.
Parveen Rehman, photo by Steve Inskeep, NPR
Perween Rehman, photo by Steve Inskeep, NPR

 An abbreviated version of my article on the symposium held at MIT to commemorate Perween Rehman and her legacy was published in The News on Sunday last weekend, titled Commitment personified. Below, the full text with additional links and photos:  

Audience members at the MIT symposium on OPP and Perween Rahman, included Miloon Kothari. Photo: Beena Sarwar.

Speakers at a symposium in the Boston area last week, on “The Orangi Pilot Project and Legacy of Architect Perween Rehmanpaid tribute to the late architect and OPP director, as “a woman, architect and social activist”. They also discussed parallels between the issues faced by the urban poor in and elsewhere. Hosted by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the symposium featured prominent academics from India, Pakistan and the United States.

The event, spearheaded by graduate students Fizzah Sajjad and Hala B. Malik from Lahore, had been in the planning soon after the murder of Perween Rehman in Karachi on March 13, 2013.Academics from India, Pakistan and the United States presented papers and participated in discussions. Prominent among them were Akbar Zaidi, Kamran Ali Asdar, Balakrishnan RajagopalJames Wescoat, Anita M. Weiss, Laura A. Ring, Anita Spirn (of the pioneering West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which has many parallels with OPP), and Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing who is currently at MIT.

Ironically, Perween herself had taken a deliberate decision to not attend such events, reflected the prominent architect Arif Hasan, Chairperson of the  Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and Urban Resource Centre (URC), whose keynote speech kicked off the day-and-a-half long event. Perween Rehman, who graduated in 1981 from the Dawood College of Engineering in Karachi, was among the first batch of students he had taught. The following year, fed up with doing projects for the rich, as she put it, she came to work with the legendary Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan at the Orangi Pilot Project that he had launched in 1980.

Orangi Pilot Project: Self help and advocacy
Orangi Pilot Project: Self help and advocacy. Photo: courtesy Arif Hasan.
Orangi Township, Karachi. Map: Courtesy OPP.

It was Agha Hasan Abidi of BCCI who had asked Dr Khan, a retired bureaucrat famous for his uplift work at Comilla (in former East Pakistan), to help the people settled in Orangi. Dr Khan said he would not work with any one ethnic group or to do any social work, but agreed to investigate the problems in Orangi. After “roaming around” as Arif Hasan puts it, and talking to the people for several months, Dr Khan became convinced that the area would never become developed unless the people organised themselves and raised the money needed. In 1981, he asked Arif Hasan to develop a sanitation model, and later a housing model. There were psychological, social and economic barriers to be crossed. And there was a need, Arif Hasan suggested to Dr Khan in a note, to hire a young person to head the project and grow with it. However, one after the other, the young men they hired barely lasted beyond a few hours to a week at the job. And one day, Perween serendipitously showed up at Arif Hasan’s office, fed up of doing meaningless projects. She wanted to do something that would actually help people. She had done her homework and asked her former teacher about the various options she had investigated. He suggested that she go meet Dr Khan. She did, and he hired her. Unlike the others before her, she stayed on, “very serious in those early days”.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan: the guru who showed the way
Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan: the guru who showed the way. File photo.

She learnt on the job, supervising the mapping and surveying of OPP, that students not much younger than herself carried out. This cost a fraction of the amount that an international agency had quoted, said Arif Hasan.

Rehman’s second major learning was to start a research institute. She “learnt by doing, observing and association”. In 1987, she was made director of the research and training institute, much to the resentment of the conservative lobby who considered her as a young “girl” – “but she stuck it out”. In time, she became close to various social organisations and activists, winning over many detractors who became her protectors and friends.

Her third major learning, said Arif Hasan, was through Khuda ki Basti, the housing project that the bureaucrat Tasneem Siddiqui started (see his interview in The News on Sunday on katchi abadis). To Perween Rehman’s credit goes the removal of the old complicated system of registering land and other legalities, and the establishment of a one-window operation open in the evenings that people could avail of.

She also initiated the OPP-RTI (Research and Training Institute), which manages projects like low-cost sanitation, secure housing support, education, water supply, and women’s savings, and training programmes. One of its greatest contributions has been mapping and documenting numerous settlements in Karachi.

Over 70 per cent of katchi abadis in Karachi are now regularised, thanks largely to the advocacy work of Perween Rehman and the OPP. Her greatest achievement, reflected Arif Hasan, was to make OPP “a people’s project”, and to “bring people closer together”. She refused to deal with the ‘big’ bureaucrats, preferring to focus on those working at that ground level. That in itself was a major shift in how advocacy was done. It led to changes in the laws, and changed perceptions towards informal settlements. “Laws are important”, as Arif Hasan put it, pointing out that it took 11 years to frame the Sindh Katchi Abadis Act, which in turn, became part of the Karachi Development Plan.

Rajagopalan Balakrishnan: universal parallels.
Panel discussion after Arif Hasan’s talk – Rajagopalan Balakrishnan: Universal parallels, anti-poor bias. Photo: Beena Sarwar

There is a strong anti-poor bias, not just in Karachi and Pakistan but all over South Asia, and indeed, the world, observed Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Law and Development and founding Director of the Program on Human Rights and Justice at MIT.

Around the world, the poor are being pushed into smaller settlements, he said in his thought-provoking talk on various kinds of violence, including those that are structural and institutional, weighed against the poor. Transport is geared towards the much-touted vision of the ‘world class city’, rather than connecting the poor. Indeed, slogans like “world class” or “slum-free city” are “dangerous ideologies that sanction violence on the vulnerable at the policy level”. Re-locating people to make room for ‘development projects’ causes an increase in poverty levels as incomes decrease. Children pay a heavy price as their schooling is interrupted. Meanwhile, as literacy levels are rising, people are becoming more aware of their political rights.

Ironically, the more assertive they become, the more conflict is generated — the police tend to be heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with protests by the poor. Another common phenomenon, from Mexico and Brazil to South Asia, is the personal risk taken by those who work with the poor. The violence against defenders of equities, rights and the poor needs to be explicitly recognised, suggested Balakrishnan.

Over-commercialisation and commodification are giving rise to a certain kind of consumerism, and the consolidation of a trans-nationalist capitalist class. Exploitation of natural resources pushes rural dwellers to the cities, where they are forced into slums, making them vulnerable to disease and other issues related to urban poverty. Arif Hasan has suggested that architects and town planners develop a code of ethics and take oath like doctors do, to refuse projects that displace the poor or are environmentally or ecologically unfriendly.

Given the neo-liberal agenda that is being pushed globally, the suggestion is unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing among his colleagues (“Arif Bhai, hum bazaar mein baiThey haiN,” as one of them put it). Still, it is certainly an idea worth pushing for.

Afridi’s googly and CII’s no ball

Afridi kitchenUpdated version of my PERSONAL POLITICAL column published in The News op-ed and TOI blogs on Friday

Beena Sarwar

Shahid Afridi’s googly lobbed at women’s cricket in Pakistan in an interview, dismissing women as just good cooks, went viral on social media over the past few days.

And recently, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) decreed that Pakistani laws that prohibit under-age marriage and place conditions on a married man’s attempts to take another wife are ‘un-Islamic’.

Ostensibly very different, both stem from the same patriarchal mind-set that sees women as inferior to men, justifying itself by invoking religion or cultural traditions. Continue reading

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