Slowly going forward?
IF I were to assert that this country presents a difficult — rapidly going on to awful — terrain to navigate, many readers would probably agree.
After all, every day news reports constitute a roll call of the dead. The headlines are about bombings and killings, suicide attacks and lynch mobs. When different, they’re about people who are proud of being murderers. Apart from that, reports concern a tanking economy, rising inflation and soaring food prices, poverty, inequality, illiteracy and unemployment.
There’s an ad running on the radio these days about an insecticide. In a firm, throbbing deep bass, the voice announces that the product will kill each and every mosquito: “Choray ga nahin, maray ga — chun chun ke” [It’ll pick them out one by one].
The idea has lately taken hold of my mind that Pakistan is like that: one way or the other, it’ll get you, even if it has to be via the brain-eating amoeba that’s killed some poor souls in Karachi.
Because if you’re fortunate enough to not directly have been affected by the violence, then certainly you’re going to fall prey to those that are running the country; their bankruptcy in terms of ideas and commitment, misgovernance, administrative incompetence … the charge-sheet is endless.
Demonstrably, you’ll agree, when the headlines aren’t about the awful things listed above, they’re about individuals and institutions taking schoolyard-brawl swipes at each other and jockeying for position amongst themselves. Commitment to the people, it would appear, goes only as far as ensuring the right box is ticked on the ballot.
So, Pakistan is difficult; it demands much from its citizens, but perhaps what it demands most is courage.
But if I were to assert that Pakistan is actually, in a certain light, a pretty progressive place? Any nods in assent there? Not as many as at the beginning of this article, I’m sure.
In many people’s minds, the good gets overshadowed by the bad. Further, such are the complexities of this country that for too many people, the fact that at the helm are politicians — who, as we all know, are corrupt, discredited and in the game only for personal, financial profit — is enough to produce scepticism, cynicism and leaden depression.
But recent years have produced results in a variety of sectors that as a result of the efforts of a variety of actors are progressive.
They may even prove game-changers if we manage to stick around long enough.
Consider entrenched prejudice first. Demonstrably, and not unusually for a patriarchal, effectively pre-industrial society, there is deep-rooted prejudice against women. They’re still viewed more or less as chattel, bought and sold and handed over as compensation, burned and mutilated as the man in their unfortunate lives sees fit, prevented from getting an education and harassed if they ever make it to the workplace.
But recent years have seen significant pieces of pro-women legislation, including the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 (applicable in the Islamabad Capital Territory only).
The acts that have been criminalised include ‘honour’ killings, ‘marriage’ to the Quran, denial of inheritance, acid-throwing and a plethora of other injustices meted out without thought but defended with the argument of ‘tradition’.
One could argue that legislation is ineffective without implementation, but the process of countering unfairness starts with defining it as such.
Outside parliament, the courts — which take a fair amount of flak for overstepping their mandate — have nevertheless achieved some praiseworthy prompting.
Two historically marginalised groups — people with unknown parentage and those that are transgender — can now apply for national identity cards, document-wise the starting point from which all other rights ensue. In the Sindh High Court a petition is under process that would allow the documentational — and thus legal — hurdles in the path of adoptive parents to be eased.
There had also been movement on the so-called ‘blasphemy laws’ until the act of one self-confessed murderer led the state and its representatives to cravenly and shamefully back down. And even the discourse about the military, in terms of intervention in the political process, has changed.
Events have taken place and words have been uttered that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, not just on the side of legislation but also on the structure of political process and the administration of the country.
The point is, amid the bad, there is good that could prove the springboard in later years. Barring certain memorably deleterious periods, different governmental set-ups achieve some good, some bad, to varying degrees, and are judged by history which proves more enduring.
The interesting thing about Pakistan, in these past few years, is that it’s managed to be increasingly awful and progressive at the same time.
The fear, then, is that the good that may be gained through the progressive steps may ultimately, even shortly, be rendered in vain by the factors that are making this country a difficult territory to navigate.
Extremism, terrorism, militancy — the factors that are rending the social fabric apart and holding citizens hostage to fear — are not being addressed in the manner that is required.
And at fault are all the stakeholders, the military, the government and the generally apologist, do-nothing citizenry. What good will be pro-women laws if the legal system is effectively in abeyance? Flick a thumb at the civil-military imbalance if neither sphere is the biggest player.
That’s what political parties, facing an election, need to think about.
The writer is a member of staff.