A space of one’s own

“Your walks are such a contrast to the events in Gujranwala in response to the women’s marathon,” wrote Saneeya Hussain in response to my Personal Political column published in The News on Sunday on 3 April 2005. “I keep thinking Pakistan shd change its name to Absurdistan or some such thing”. (Remember the women’s marathon?)

Since the article is not available on the web anymore I thought I’d post it here. The photo is more recent but since I wrote this piece in 2005, what has changed and what remains the same? 

Seaview beach, early morning. Photo: Beena Sarwar, 2016

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Ongoing worldwide protests against “missing” bloggers

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Lahore protest. Photo: Khalid Mahmood

January 15, 2017 marks just over two weeks since the professor, poet and activist Salman Haider was abducted from Islamabad, followed soon after by more such “disappearances”. Human rights activists around the world are demanding that Pakistan produce the missing bloggers and end the climate of fear being created. Disappearing activists is not a new tactic, as Pervez Hoodbhoy reminds us – been happening with alarming regularity in Balochistan. But these abductions happened in Punjab. Meanwhile, the propaganda machinery of the dirty tricks brigade (#DTBPk) is out in full force painting as ‘blasphemers’ and ‘traitors’ the missing bloggers and those supporting them – which in the context of Pakistan is a clear incitement to violence and vigilante action. Below: photographs from some of the protests – Peshawar, Toba Tek Singh, Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Dallas TX and London, England.  Continue reading

Another assassination in Pakistan; just have to ‘keep on keepin’ on’

My article in PRI’s The World, June 25, 2016

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Thousands of people attend the funeral procession of Amjad Sabri. Photo: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

“They’ve shot dead Amjad Sabri” — the first words I heard on Wednesday morning marked news of yet another assassination in my beloved Karachi, still “home” despite living in the Boston area since 2011.

Sabri was one of the world’s most famous exponents of the devotional music known as Qawwali. On Wednesday, two gunmen intercepted his car and shot him dead at close range in the crowded locality near his house. 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:

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Remembering Anita Ghulam Ali

A trailblazer, Anita Ghulam Ali’s courage and biting wit will remain an inspiration. Photo: Courtesy Newsline magazine

Here’s the article I wrote on Anita Ghulam Ali for The News on Sunday: A legend passes on (Aug 17, 2014); also see Zubeida Dossal’s article about her, shared by Zubeida Mustafa. Here’s the link to her interview in Dawn, 2012.

She leaves a void that will be hard to fill, but her legacy will live on through the institutions she was associated with, and the people she mentored over the decades, particularly in the field of education. Although Anita Ghulam Ali had no children of her own, many of these individuals were as dear to her as if they were her own. She took a keen interest in their work and personal wellbeing, in the most non-interfering way, encouraging, questioning, supporting, and motivating. She would ask affectionately, with genuine concern, after their children and grandchildren, whom she’d seen grow from babies to “young ladies” or gentlemen, as she would put it.

It didn’t matter if you were a chaprasi or a CEO. With Anita Ghulam Ali, you could be assured of the same treatment, rooted in egalitarianism and respect for human dignity.

I can’t remember a time when she was not part of our lives. Heading the West Pakistan Teachers College Association (WPTCA), she had led the massive teachers’ strike in the late 1960s that my mother Zakia Sarwar participated in as a young lecturer at Sir Syed Girls College in Nazimabad, Karachi. They were demanding that private colleges, which had proliferated during the military regime of Ayub Khan, pay due wages to their teachers.

As many as 72 private colleges ungoverned by rules or regulations had cropped up in Karachi alone, compared to ten government colleges. The exploitative owners would make teachers sign for salaries listed as double of their actual pay, or make them perform menial tasks at their homes. Insults and harassment were common. The last straw was when anti-Ayub agitations closed down educational institutes for nearly five months, and private college owners stopped paying their teachers salaries. Some teachers resorted to operating pushcarts on the streets, vending clothes and other items to feed their families.

I visualise Anita Ghulam Ali as she must have been then, a short, stocky figure, hair pulled back severely from her broad forehead, intensely bright,

Distributing prizes at a debate competition at Islamia College
.Distributing prizes at a debate competition at Islamia College. File photo.

dark, slightly slanted eyes over wide, high cheekbones – the Slavic beauty inherited from her equally formidable and regal Georgian mother Shirin, a respected social worker.

The authorities, wanting the teachers to end their agitation, tried to get Anita’s father Justice Feroz Nana Ghulam Ali, to step in. A police officer went to tell him that his daughter was creating trouble and could be arrested.

“If she is breaking the law, by all means arrest her,” Justice Nana is reported to have replied calmly.

Anita Ghulam Ali remained true to her parents’ legacy, uncompromisingly honest and committed to humanitarian values all her life. A prominent leader in the field of education, she served as Sindh’s Education Minister in October 1996 and as a caretaker minister in November 1999. Some criticised her for having accepted a position under the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

“I don’t care who appoints me, a dictator or a democrat. I just want to get the job done,” she told me.

A trailblazer in the field of education, leadership, and social activism, her courage, biting wit and will of steel, will remain an inspiration – not to mention her refusal to suffer fools. For over two decades she headed the pioneering Sindh Education Foundation, fending off corrupt ministers and bureaucrats who felt entitled to a share of the funds she raised. She would share stories of how she got the better of them, although there were setbacks too.

One minister had even eyed her paintings and ingratiatingly, but blatantly, asked her for them. She recalled the incident sardonically, relating how she had refused the man, telling him off in her own unique way – low-key, direct, firm, yet with a touch of irony and wry humour. She had nothing but contempt for such parasites, but she knew how to work with them, earning their respect, and getting what she needed.

Her pioneering adopt-a-school programme is now replicated in all provinces. A vocal opponent of child labour, she also initiated community-supported schools for underprivileged, working children in Karachi. These are places where working children can come in, be mentored, given education, get cleaned up, and receive medical care including vaccinations. As always, she had a pragmatic approach to the issue, recognising that these children work because they must, either as sole breadwinners for their families or to supplement the family income significantly.

A recklessly driven car crashed into her as she stood by the roadside many years ago, leaving her with long-term injuries that eventually confined her to a wheelchair. Additionally, she also suffered from debilitating arthritis. But Anita Ghulam Ali refused to let anything get in the way of her work. She obtained permission from her apartment authorities to get a small lift installed for her top-floor apartment. Later she courageously stood firm against the land developers who wanted to raze the building and build a multi-storey (illegal) structure there. Had it not been for her, the builders would have had their way long ago.

Anita Ghulam Ali received several awards, from the government – including the President’s Pride of Performance medal and the Sitara-e-Imtiaz – as well as from various private organisations. But the down-to-earth, unpretentious, totally unmaterialistic person that she was, for her, the real recognition came from the genuine love and respect she received from those whose lives she touched.

When urban planning meets disaster management and mental health

Harvard SAI Karachi confMy article published in The News on Sunday today, about the Contemporary South Asian City Conference in Karachi last month co-sponsored by Harvard South Asia Institute and Aman Foundation, with Pakistan Urban Forum – by all accounts a most dynamic and exciting event. I spoke to two Harvard professors in Cambridge MA after their return from Karachi.

By Beena Sarwar

Rahul Mehrotra is no stranger to Karachi. From his base in Mumbai, he built Amin Hashwani’s house in Karachi some years ago, a project for which he visited the city several times. “By the time we did the interiors though, we couldn’t get visas,” he added, when we spoke in Cambridge recently. Continue reading

Perween Rehman. Keep the Torch Alight

Parveen: A 'selfie' she took in Stockholm, 2008. Photo: courtesy Arif Pervaiz.

Parveen Rehman: A ‘selfie’ in Stockholm, 2008. Photo: courtesy Arif Pervaiz.

The cold-blooded murder of Perween Rehman on March 13 this year came as no great surprise —  in the lawless concrete jungle that is Karachi, one always expects the worst. That doesn’t mitigate the shock and  immense grief at the gunning down of the gentlest of human beings, someone who had devoted her life to helping the poor, empowering the under-privileged. Below, my article on Perween in Economic and Political Weekly, India, written on March 19, 2013. Also see the these beatuiful tributes by K. B. Abro (with audio), Zameen Kha Gayi Asmaan Kaise Kaise; Zubeida Mustafa, Rest in peace little sister; and Masuma Hasan, Perween Rahman: the legend lives on Continue reading

“Karachi Battles” – Haris Gazdar in EPW, 2011

Karachi. Photo: Muhammad Arshad/IPS

Karachi. Photo: Muhammad Arshad/IPS


As Karachi once again reels under uncertainty, fear and economic shut-down, it may be worthwhile to re-visit this 2011 article by Haris Gazdar in EPW, “Karachi Battles”… Excerpt:
“The big picture still favours an accord between the PPP (and ANP) and the MQM. The PPP cannot allow the military to use Karachi to undermine its rule not just in Sindh but nationally. The MQM should know that a “neutral” army operation means a crackdown on the MQM, sooner rather than later. The ANP might also be aware that its hard-won position in its home region would collapse if the jihadists regain initiative with the break-up of the secular coalition. All three should know that the most powerful militant wing belongs to the military itself, which must not be tempted into seeing an opportunity where none exists.” Read the full article here: Karachi battles – Haris Gazdar in EPW Sept 2011

Commemorating Jan 8, 1953: 2013 events, Jan 6 and 8, by DSF and NSF

2012 Jan 8-NSF Demands Day

Re-blogged from Dr M. Sarwar:

As we remember Jan 8, 1953 Demands Day and those who gave their lives for the cause of students’ rights, it is good to see that progressive young people in Pakistan are organising and work for students’ rights, with the revival of Democratic Students Federation and the National Students Federation. In keeping with the rallying cry of the original movement – ‘Student Unity’ – activists of DSF and NSF must put up a united front, and attend and support each others’ events even if they don’t merge into one organisation. Demands should include lifting the ongoing ban on student unions. Below, information about several events being organised this year, some on Jan 6in different cities of Sindh and Punjab by DSF, and NSF event on Jan 8:

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Petition for Peace and De-weaponisation of Karachi sent to CJP

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Just received this via email today – the text of a petition for Peace and  De-weaponisation of Karachi that has been sent to the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Naeem Sadiq who sent the email says that anyone who agrees with its contents and wants to be a co-petitioner, is welcome to copy/amend the petition text (minus the petitioners) and add their own name and signature (there can be more than one signatory), designation or profession, postal address and phone number (NIC optional), and  mail the petition directly to the SC at the address provided. Interestingly, the MQM last year introduced a bill seeking this aim as well. See Dilawar Asghar’s article critiquing the move at this link, pointing out that the long term solution lies in ensuring the “supremacy of the law. If the law is implemented, without any distinction and applicable to everyone, regardless of their status or affiliation that would be the first step.” Here’s the citizen’s petition: Continue reading

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