Archive for the ‘Behavior’ Category

Short Cuts

August 29, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Position yourself at a traffic light or a roundabout in a Pakistani city today and you will witness every possible violation of the traffic code quite independent of the status of the violator and the presence of one or more policemen. The free-for-all encompasses the entire range from glitzy cars to rundown bicycles. Reflect a little on this seeming chaos and you might be able to infer that it all follows from one simple rule — the desire of every individual to find the shortest route from here to there unimpeded by any constraints in the way.    

Such a rule is called a shortcut and although I have reflected on this particular shortcut for some time and deem it important, I refrained from raising the issue out of a sense of its ranking in the list of catastrophes enveloping our country. It seemed akin to someone quibbling about the declining quality of wine in Abbasid Baghdad while the country was run over by the hordes of Halagu Khan and his general Guo Kan.

I have changed my mind after stumbling across an observation by that most elegant of writers, Nirad Chaudhury (1897-1999), one probably recorded well before the creation of Pakistan:

“One ineradicable habit all Indians have is to take a shortcut to their destination whatever the risk to themselves or others. One striking illustration of this habit was provided for me. There was a bus stop just outside Mori Gate, and not more than twenty yards from it was a public convenience. But the passengers never went so far. They urinated on a tree nearby, and the poor tree died at the end of six months. In northern India men are never able to resist a wall or a post.”   

I realized on reading this that some shortcuts are phenomena of enduring nature and can get hardwired into the DNA of a society, that they can extend over a range of activities, and that they can have life-and-death implications. What else could die like the unfortunate tree near Mori Gate as a consequence of some other shortcut? It was therefore of interest to explore the matter further and draw conclusions about the possible impacts on the health of Pakistani society.

It is important in this context to draw a distinction between the DNA of an individual and that of a society. To return to Nirad Chaudhuri’s observation, it should be obvious immediately that a northern Indian man would never do to a wall or a post in Dubai what he would do one in India. The solution to this malady rests entirely on a society doing what is routinely done in cities like Dubai, i.e., to enforce the codes of civic behaviour.

In the same vein, it is not that our society has remained unchanged over time. I recall from my bicycling days in Lahore being hauled up by a policeman for not having a reflector on the rear rim. That was the era of DIG Niblett, the legendary enforcer of traffic rules in the city. How far we have slid from those times to the anything-goes present — most bicyclists would fail to identify a reflector or believe that at one time bicycles required rearview mirrors and night lights as well.

So, the traffic shortcut is easy to fix. All it needs is enforcing rules which is not going to result from fancy gimmicks like E-Tickets that capture only the violation of red signals while most violations take place away from lights. Why, as a society, we feel increasingly disinclined to enforce rules is a matter of great significance. Why, with gross underemployment, we rely not on mobile wardens but fixed cameras is a puzzle. Why, with sophisticated design tools, we configure roads that invite traffic violations is hard to explain. But one thing is certain: societies that are unable to address small problems can never address big ones. To think otherwise is stupidity. 

This brings me to more problematic territory. On the economic front, I increasingly see people looking for shortcuts to getting rich. This is simply because lifelong employment that was the norm a generation ago is simply unable to provide desired standards of living. As a dean at LUMS, I reflected often on this paradox trying to calculate how many years typical graduates would have to work to afford on their earnings the kind of homes they grew up in. You can guess the answer. 

This has deep implications because the runaway get-rich-quick-by-any-means mentality overturns all social and moral norms that provide order and trust in society. These norms cannot be restored by draconian punitive measures and by treating every person as a thief. It requires thoughtful measures that enable people to live decent lives by holding regular jobs and discharging their duties honestly. 

The political shortcut is the most worrisome. By some bewildering path we have arrived at the point where we are willing to give a chance to whoever is seated on the crown no matter what their intelligence, competence, qualifications, or experience. How one arrives at the apex is not any matter of concern. All that seems to matter is that the person hasn’t been tried before and therefore ought to be given a chance like the predecessors. This is certainly a holdover from the Mughal era when leadership was determined in a very different fashion and whoever fought his way to power was deemed legitimate. But legitimacy is not derived the same way in electoral systems where sovereignty is supposed to rest with the people. And governance without legitimacy is the road to long-lasting and often irreversible problems. Democratic politics rests on persuading others of the merits of ones policies but that becomes impossible without the mantle of legitimacy. The only recourse is to annihilate the opposition, become more and more authoritarian, and to regress to the worst attributes of despotic rule.

In short, we should be wary of the shortcuts we have made a part of our lives.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on August 24, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi, 2019.  

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A Question of Pricing

December 5, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Here is a question of pricing for you to consider.

Imagine the following scenario:

You are getting ready to travel from Lahore to Islamabad when by chance X stops by at your house. X is also making the same journey driving his own car. X offers to give you a ride and you accept.

Consider X to be one of the following in different versions of this encounter:

1. Your student
2. Your good friend
3. Your brother-in-law with whom you are on speaking terms
4. A distant relative
5. A colleague at work
6. A neighbor whom you know but are not close to
7. A stranger who stopped at your house by mistake

If you had traveled on your own as planned, the trip would have cost you Rs. 2,000.

For every case of X (from 1 to 7) answer the following questions. You can combine the categories of X who, in your opinion would give or receive the same answer.

QUESTION 1: How many Rupees would X expect for giving you the ride?

QUESTION 2: How many Rupees would X ask for giving you the ride?

QUESTION 3: How many Rupees should you offer X for the ride?

QUESTION 4: How many Rupees would you offer X for the ride?

In each case consider two versions:

  1. You and X are Pakistanis in Lahore and the cost to you of the trip to Islamabad is Rs. 2,000.
  2. You and X are Americans in Washington, DC and the trip is from DC to New York City with a cost to you of $200.

For each case and each version, state what you consider would be the appropriate ask and offer prices from the following perspectives:

1. Social norms and conventions
2. Moral norms and conventions
3. Legal norms and conventions
4. Considerations of fairness and equity
5. Considerations of standard economic theory

Organize your answer in the following tabular form:

Consideration Identity of X (Pakistan) Identity of X (USA)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. Social
2. Moral
3. Legal
4. Fairness
5. Economic

For each cell enter your best answer as the four-tuple (K1, K2, L1, L2) where:

K1 represents what you think X should expect of you.
K2 represents what you think X would ask of you.
L1 represents what you think you should offer X.
L2 represents what you think you would offer X.

You can indicate Not Applicable wherever you think appropriate.

After considering all five dimensions (Social, Moral, etc.) state what you believe would be the actual or most likely transaction/exchange between you and X, i.e., how many Rupees would you give X for the trip (convert shared expenses into Rupee equivalent). This will be a set of 14 numbers – 7 for each identity of X in Pakistan and 7 for each identity of X in USA.

Write a paragraph explaining the perspective and reasoning that has influenced your answers.

Write a paragraph stating the conclusions you have reached after completing this exercise.

How to Submit Answers in the Comments Section

Submit your answers in the comments section of the blog.

The table is intended to help your thinking. You may choose not to enter it as part of your answer if you feel the other answers are sufficient to describe the logic of your thinking.

If you do wish to enter the table and are unable to post it in the comments section, use the following longer format in which you will be entering each row separately:

Social: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the first row of the above table.
Moral: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the second row of the above table.
Legal: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the third row of the above table.
Fairness: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the fourth row of the above table.
Economic: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the fifth row of the above table.

Enter what you believe would be the most likely Rupee or Rupee equivalent amount you would give X for the trip in the following format:

Pakistan: (R1… R7)
USA: (R1… R7)

Where R1 is the amount when X = 1, R2 is the amount when X = 2, etc. There will be seven numbers in each row, one for each identity of X.

Enter the two paragraphs indicating your perspective and reasoning in thinking through this exercise and the conclusions you drew from it.

Feel free to ask any questions of clarification on the blog before finalizing your answers.

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Patriarchy in the Culture and Language of the Subcontinent

June 3, 2015

By Rizwan Saeed

Patriarchy is an established informal system. It has clear hierarchy of power and authority that is transferred from one generation to other. As it is an informal system, its roots are embedded deep in cultural settings and social fabric of societies.

There are certain rituals and cultural practices that protect and strengthen this patriarchal system in the subcontinent. One key component of culture is language. Here I explore patriarchy in the culture of the subcontinent through the lens of language.

In Urdu, there are names for each relationship that falls under the line of authority. To understand authority lines we will have to understand some basic family structures prevailing in the subcontinent.

In the subcontinent, joint and extended family systems exist in which husband, wife, husband’s brothers and their families (spouses and children), parents of husband, and unmarried sisters of husband live together under one roof. In this arrangement, the grandfather is the ultimate authority as he owns all the property and wealth of the family. If we unpack this family structure further, we clearly find a hierarchy in the family. This hierarchy is translated into language and names are assigned to each relationship. Let’s take an example of a man (who is a son and unmarried). Brothers of his father are titled as Taya (elder brother of father) and chacha (young brother of father). The sister of father is called phupho irrespective of where she sits in the family hierarchy and there are no separate words for elder or younger sisters of father. Going further when this son gets married, his wife becomes part of his family and starts living with her in-laws. Now see the hierarchical system for the wife. The husband’s father is considered supreme head of family. Next to him power lies with elder brother of husband who is titled as Jaith. Then comes the husband. After the husband, his younger brother joins the power line, and he is titled Dewar. On the other hand, there is no segregation among elder or younger sisters of husband. They are simply called Nands. Similarly, if we see relationships from the husband’s perspective we find that there are no separate titles for brothers and sisters of the wife. The former are called Salas (singular is sala) and the latter are called Salis (without segregating elder or younger ones).

It is noteworthy that this entitlement is not simply giving specific names to one male relation. It actually indicates power and authority line both within the husband’s household which specifies the elder male who has more authority over both younger men and all sisters as well as how the wife experiences relations once she is married, where her own brothers and sisters are less important than the husbands. Taya (elder brother of father) can scold the father. Similarly, Jaith (elder brother of husband) can scold the husband. On the other hand, male member of wife’s family have no importance, no separate entitlement, and no hierarchy. All are dealt with the same stick.

Beside relationships, proverbs are another aspect of Urdu language that promotes certain patriarchal and hierarchical thoughts, and even make these thoughts the norms of society. Let’s explore how certain proverbs reflect patriarchal thoughts implicitly. For instance, Sali adhi ghar wali (sister of wife is half wife) is a renowned proverb in India and Pakistan. This proverb implicitly gives the message that husband has authority to seduce his wife’s sister. This is not an uncommon occurrence. This proverb is not simply a proverb. It actually reflects society’s thinking towards these relationships. In the subcontinent, there are numerous examples where Jeeja is married to his Sali.

On the other hand, terms denoting the wife’s relatives such as the brother (sala) and the maternal uncle (mamo) have derogatory sexual connotation and are often used between men to belittle or tease one another. The term sala (brother of wife) is used to hurt or challenge ‘masculinity’ of a man in the society. The abuser implicitly says that he has sexual relationship with the sister of abused, and the latter is not a man who could have protected his sister. The word mamo (wife’s maternal uncle) contains the message that a man was not smart enough to protect his interests, and was looted because of his naïveté.  If we interpret this in the language of masculinity and sexuality, it means the mamo was not man enough to protect his “property” (sister’s daughter). This might be the reason that Mamo of Munna Bhai MBBS got popularity while Amir Khan’s Chachu (3 Idiots) couldn’t. Young boys often challenge their peers’ masculinity and sexuality by commenting, “If you are not gonna ‘take’ her, then be ready to be called maternal uncle (mamo) of her children”. Here the connotation is that you become her brother, one that cannot have sexual relationship with her, in other words impotent.

Contrary to this, the husband’s younger brother is portrayed as friend of his brother’s wife. Culturally, wives cover their heads and/or faces with veil while facing elder brother of husband but they do not do so while interacting with younger brother of husband. In India and Pakistan, marriages between dewar (younger brother of husband) and (former) bhabi (wife of older brother) are very common. Rather, in case of death of husband, it is preferred that his wife should marry to her deceased husband’s brother (usually the younger one). Often hidden behind such marriages is a need to protect division of assets.

Another aspect of Urdu language that promotes patriarchal thinking unconsciously is its linguistic structure of feminine and masculine relations/things. Last two alphabets of Urdu are called “choti ye” (sounds like ee in English) and “bari ye” (sounds like yea in English). In Urdu most of feminine things/relations end with ee sound. It basically connotes their smallness/less value. For example, dadee (paternal grandmother), nanee (maternal grandmother), chachee (wife of uncle), tayee (wife of father’s elder brother), jaithanee (wife of husband’s elder brother).

Ironically, the word Aunt has been adopted and modified by Urdu speakers as Auntee. This “ee” phenomenon is not just limited to relationships, most of the things that are meant to be portrayed as smaller are titled with words ending with “ee” sound. For example, daigchee word is used for small pot, and daigcha word is used for bigger pot. More examples include chamacha (bigger spoon) and chamchee (smaller spoon), register (for a bigger notebook) and capee (for smaller notebook), maize (table) and kursee (chair) is used to connote smaller size of chair as compared to table.

Language is a strong vehicle that allows patriarchal norms and values to become part of our everyday life. Language discriminates and creates difference and is reflective of existing patriarchal norms in society and often we internalize this language without realizing how we have become blind to its inherent unfairness. Challenging patriarchy must involve a review of language and a search for more equal ways of relating to each gender. The fact that patriarchal values are embedded in the very ways we communicate with each other through language and through our most important kinship relations makes it all the more harder to ‘see’ the gender imbalance that exists around us and that we promote.

Rizwan Saeed is an anthropologist. He conducts trainings and writes on the issues of gender, patriarchy, and masculinity.

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Pakistan-Australia: Alack!

March 20, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

First, the result – A disciplined, professional team easily took care of a ragged, mercurial bunch of individuals. Lightning did not strike. No miracles occurred.

As we watched the pathetic procession in the first half, lines from Macbeth came flooding back:

… a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 

Then, as comments began to circulate, the dissension amongst the faithful was captured by the lines that immediately followed the above:

  • [Enter a Messenger]
    Macbeth. Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
  • Messenger. Gracious my lord,
    I should report that which I say I saw,
    But know not how to do it.
  • Macbeth. Well, say, sir.
  • Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
    I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
    The wood began to move.
  • Macbeth. Liar and slave!
  • Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so:
    Within this three mile may you see it coming;
    I say, a moving grove.
  • Macbeth. If thou speak’st false,
    Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
    Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
    I care not if thou dost for me as much.
    I pull in resolution, and begin
    To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
    That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
    Do come to Dunsinane:’ and now a wood
    Comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
    If this which he avouches does appear,
    There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
    I gin to be aweary of the sun,
    And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.
    Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!
    At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

We died. Amen.

The game epitomized the relationship of the audience to faith. As a signal, before the game began, pre-teen voices started taking turns on the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque with the refrain: “All my dreams will come true, I only have to take your name.” Viewers were in the same mood – hopeful the Almighty would bless the team, at the same time fearful the outcome might be otherwise. Having left it all to the Almighty, there was a strange sense of helplessness in the air – the sort when one trusts in God but fails to tie the camel.

That kind of sums up the fate of contemporary Pakistan – running on faith with nary a thought of the untied camels. The attitude does have a short-term upside, if one could call it so – once the verdict was in there was no postmortem of what led to such a sorry display, no inquiry into the myriad problems that beset all aspects of the game. So be it, Allah did not will it otherwise. Back to business.

Amongst the agnostics, talk naturally turned to India, now, deservedly so, the only South Asian representative in the tournament. There was acknowledgment that the Australia-India semi-final would probably be the first competitive match in the knock-out stage. People agreed the Indian team played with a lot more common sense in keeping with the situation of a match as it evolved. Someone observed the Indian players also sought blessings from goddesses – but only as insurance, after having tied their respective camels.

In the end it all boiled down to God, goddesses, and camels and their relationships to one another.

Good luck India.

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India-Bangladesh: Beyond Cricket

March 19, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The India-Bangladesh match ended predictably but in Pakistan its off-field resonance was of greater interest. All the ambivalent feelings about India and Bangladesh that are otherwise submerged bubbled to the surface. It was a rich occasion for some casual explorations in social attitudes.

My limited sample revealed two sets of observations – those on which there was relative agreement and those where opinions were more divided. The first set comprised the following:

First, a sense of pride that four South Asian teams had made it to the quarter finals of a major world championship. It was encouraging evidence of a South Asian consciousness amongst people many of whom had not seen more than one or two cities in their own country.

Second, a fairly objective assessment of the quality of the four teams based purely on their track record. Most people ranked India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in that order.

Third, a decidedly calculus-based preference for a Bangladesh victory which would be “better for Pakistan” by yielding an “easier” contest in the semi-finals. It was a commentary on Pakistani optimism that its team was already projected to be in the semi-finals despite the odds of negotiating Australia in Australia. A chorus of Inshallahs settled all doubts.

The following observations belonged to the set of divided opinions:

First, on whom to support in the India-Bangladesh match independent of the implications for Pakistan? A subset didn’t want India to win under any circumstances. At the other end was the opinion that it didn’t matter who won as long as it was good fight.

Second, if India were the only South Asian team left in the semi-finals, should Pakistanis root for it to win the World Cup? Opinion was sharply divided between those who could never support India under any circumstances and those for whom regional affinities held some attraction for one reason or another.

I noted with interest the correlation of education with opinion in my limited sample of fellow viewers. The more educated in the group were more anti-India wanting it to lose every match; the least educated were open to rallying behind India if Pakistan were out of the competition and to wanting the better team to come out ahead. Opinions about Bangladesh were independent of education.

I questioned once again the widespread belief that education is the attribute that leads to openness, tolerance, and objectivity. Its veracity was not borne out in the sample of viewers and confirmed my doubts based on other independent observations. The paradox may have something to do with the changing content of our education. I was reminded of the late Asghar Ali Engineer who posed a rhetorical question (Why is the educated middle-class more bigoted than the illiterate masses?) and pithily answered it himself – “Because it is educated.”

Perhaps it is a blessing that more than half of Pakistan is still illiterate. There is still time to fix our system of education so that a cricket match is just a match and not a psychic extension of war and a means to settle scores.

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Sri Lanka-South Africa: What a Mess!

March 18, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Sri Lanka took a strategic gamble against South Africa in the first quarter-final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and were blown away. What surprised me was how misplaced the gamble was and how unexpected from a team known for its ability to think.

The nature of the gamble was obvious from the first ball. It was clear that Kusal Perera was sent in to open under instructions to hit the South African attack bowlers off their lengths. The strategy might have paid off but even that would have required some sensible hitting. It was clear as daylight that Perera would not last more than a few balls, and he didn’t. More than throwing away a wicket, it put paid to the Sri Lankan strategy in a hurry and fired up the South Africans instead.

The fact that there was a slight chance the strategy may have paid off doesn’t take away from the fact that it still did not make any sense – it was simply not as good as any number of other possible gambles if the Sri Lankans were bent on gambling for some odd reason. Its biggest flaw was that it was conceived in complete disregard of the psychological burden under which the South Africans were laboring – their history as the team that had ‘choked’ repeatedly on the big occasion and one that had never progressed beyond the first round of the knockout stage of a World Cup.

Given that, a decidedly safer gamble would have been to put the South Africans in after winning the toss simply because psychic nervousness affects batting much more than bowling. More so, because one of the South African openers was in a prolonged slump and hanging on to his place only by virtue of being the first-choice wicket-keeper. There would have been a good chance of South Africa batting too cautiously or being consumed by doubt after losing an early wicket. That could have left Sri Lanka with a target it could chase and against which it could have paced its innings.

Even if it were the case that the pitch promised a huge advantage to batting first, it might have been a smarter strategy to start cautiously to see off the first spell of the much vaunted South African attack with minimal damage. Why substitute an opener who had been doing well in the tournament with one who was opening for the first time? A solid start might have aggravated doubts in the minds of the South Africans and affected the control of their bowling. Such an outcome would have allowed the Sri Lankans to go after at least one of the spinners later in the evening given that the spinners were considered the weaker part of the South African attack. Instead of that, the Sri Lankans generated so much pressure on themselves that it was actually the lowly-rated spinners who overwhelmed them.

How did it happen that in constructing their strategy the Sri Lankans ignored the big picture so completely and treated the South Africans no differently than say the Australians or the New Zealanders? How come the Sri Lankans opted for a gamble for which there was no plan B? Why did the Sri Lankans feel compelled to gamble at all? These are the questions that someone badly needs to answer. Winning and losing are part of the game but being decimated out of sheer stupidity was not expected from Sri Lanka.

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Reframing Charlie Hebdo

February 22, 2015

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

My professional life has involved study of the attitude of individuals towards risk and it is this perspective that I employ to reflect on some aspects of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

My interest in the subject emerged in graduate school when I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the idealized behavior described in Western textbooks of economics with actual behavior I had observed in South Asia. My conclusion was that context mattered much more than acknowledged, followed very quickly by the realization that context was not constant.

One implication was that attitude towards risk was not a genetic trait – people were not born risk averse or risk preferring – but a behavioral response to specific contexts. I became convinced of this when my thesis adviser mentioned all the radical things he would do once he was awarded tenure.

Not only that, there was no one attitude to risk. Behavior has a fascinating multi-dimensionality in which a person could be cautious along one dimension and reckless along another – think of a chain-smoking miser as an example.

Every context or situation poses certain risks – even the crossing of a street – and individuals decide how much risk they are willing to take in that particular situation to achieve whatever might be their objective at the time.

(This inference is subject to a qualification that is generally missing in Western textbooks: The choice of how much risk to take is not always voluntary – many people are forced to take involuntary risks simply in order to survive – think of workers who descend underground to clean sewerage pipes or ascend flimsy scaffolds to construct buildings.)

In this perspective the editors at Charlie Hebdo either misread the context in publishing the material they did or they knew the risk they were incurring and felt it was worth taking to achieve the kind of world they believed in. If the latter, they were seemingly no different from the many journalists who risk being tortured and killed by intelligence agencies or the students who protest knowing they could well join the Disappeared. Except that the latter act in local contexts while the former were doing so in one that was truly global.

Framing the Charlie Hebdo affair as one of freedom of speech ignores the real world in which we live in favor of a normative one that validates a particular set of values. This introduces a complication that we discount at our peril. For very long most of our actions were confined to local domains where people were aware of prevalent values and had been part of the shared experience in which they had evolved. Today the audience for many actions is global throwing together people who subscribe to very different sets of values. In such a world our objectives and the risks we take to promote them are both confounded and compounded to an extent that calls for careful reconsideration.

Let us assume we subscribe to freedom of speech as a desired end for all but exist in a world with two groups: The majority in one group holds the value of free speech sacrosanct while the majority in the other assigns that status to the value of respect. Both sides contain minorities prepared to exploit the clash of values for political ends. That’s the way it is – nothing much is gained by labeling one group enlightened and the other unenlightened.

Let us assume further that the self-proclaimed enlightened group wishes to engage the alleged unenlightened one to move it towards the objective of recognizing the supreme value of free speech. Would it make sense to initiate the engagement with a gesture of disrespect trammeling the very value that would provide an entry point for reasoned discourse? The fact that anti-clericalism is a venerated French tradition carries no weight, rightly or wrongly, for the audience that is not French. To demand an engagement according to one’s values comes across as a losing proposition from the outset.

It seems reasonable to suggest that an appreciation of the context, no matter how much one might dislike it, ought to govern the nature of cross-cultural engagement. It should also have a bearing on the extent of risks that need to be taken to move that engagement in the desired direction.

Of course, it is ultimately the free choice of individuals how much risk they are prepared to take at any particular time for what they believe in. What one cannot do is wish away the reality that we live in a world comprised of people with fundamental disagreements on how life is to be lived and by what rules. There must be a better way to move closer together than to enter into excessively risky confrontations with unpredictable outcomes.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on February 21, 2015 and is excerpted here with permission of the author.

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Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

June 19, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Feudalism never existed outside of Europe. Scholars of South Asia use the term ‘feudalism’ to refer to something that in its classical form in late medieval and early modern Europe was something quite different.

That in general is the tenor of the comments I have received in response to my assertion that women in South Asia suffer under the persistence of feudal values. This is a very old debate and I don’t really have a quarrel with the criticism. It has a place in scholarly exchanges but in popular parlance in South Asia the term feudal has acquired the status of a short-cut description for a particular set of values. This set of values is well recognized and understood by participants in a discussion.

I could very easily have cast the whole argument without any reference to feudalism at all but would then have had to spell out aspects that are grasped instinctively by reference to the term. We are talking, in effect, of the contrast between two sets of values that can, without any loss, be simply termed ‘old’ and ‘new’.

These contrasting values can be appreciated quite easily by reference to monarchy. While there can be a fierce debate as to whether anything like feudalism ever existed in South Asia, none can disagree with the assertion that monarchy did. It may not have been an exact replica of the monarchies of Europe but that is not material to the argument.

The claim is that pre- and post-monarchical social values are expected to be different. These differences stem from the major features that characterize the transition – divine right to electoral accountability, subjects to citizens, courtiers to civil servants, etc.

Of course, the break is never clean and values almost always and everywhere lag the change in institutions. But, in the case of South Asia, we are advancing a stronger claim to the effect that we are not really in a post-monarchical world entirely – we have quasi-monarchies wrapped up in democratic costumes.

This may be too strong a claim for some but it would be hard to deny that vestiges of the monarchical order are everywhere to be seen. How else would one account for the persistence of dynasties and the kind of groveling that was depicted in the photograph of a Sri Lanka minister paying homage to her President?

Following from this is the argument that these practices persist because an essential feature of the social structure of South Asia – the dependence of the many on the few for access to basic rights and services – has survived largely intact. The transition from pre- to post-monarchical regimes was not accompanied by any kind of social leveling similar to what transpired in Europe. The patron-client formation remained and adapted itself to the new institutional forms, representative politics and market economics, implanted from above by the departing colonial rulers.

Subservience is an obvious accompaniment of patron-client relationships as is dynastic rule. The others are those mentioned in the post under discussion – loyalty, honor, and a peculiar sense of property in people. We are quite aware that both men and women were considered property under slavery while neither is in preset-day capitalist economies. Between the two, there is an in-between stage where women are considered akin to property much more than men. Add the fact that the body of a woman is the repository of honor and we have the predicament we described in contemporary South Asia. It is not really essential whether these values originate in a feudalism that is akin to or different from the feudalism of Europe. What is relevant is that these are values that remain alive in our region.

Some readers have suggested that the arguments presented above are unnecessary and the phenomenon under discussion could be attributed much more simply to patriarchy, an arrangement in which power is disproportionately controlled by men. I would argue otherwise. Patriarchy is an almost universal phenomenon and reading Joyce’s stories in Dubliners one can readily grasp that relations within the household in the Ireland of the time were quite as patriarchal as in other parts of the world. But this patriarchy did not extend to the public treatment of women as property associated with the honor of a family.

This is also not to argue that women in the Ireland of that time, or for that matter of today, were not seen as objects of sexual attraction inviting unwanted attention and harassment. The plot of ‘Two Gallants’ from the same collection of stories makes that abundantly clear. But the scornful, vulgar view of ‘other’ women, much like that seen in contemporary South Asia, was not equivalent to the association of family honor with a woman’s body and thereby her treatment as property to be guarded zealously quite independent of any other interest in her person as an individual.

This potent combination, a vestige of old social values to which men want to hold on, continues to torment women in contemporary South Asia. These old values are in conflict with new ones in which women wish to be liberated and to exercise choice on equal terms with men in the ownership of their bodies. This conflict is at the root of the peculiar nature of violence against women in South Asia which is quite different from the violence that continues to exist in other parts of the world.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

June 18, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me:

He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.

This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows:

“He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.”

One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in South Asia.

Why might this be so, this stark difference of attitudes? The South Asian mind leaps straight to feudalism and, for once, it might not be wrong. Property and honor are the two of the principal attributes of feudalism and in nothing do they come together as potently or explosively as in the body of a woman. Property, no matter how unused, is to be protected, and honor, no matter how undeserved, is to be upheld. Even to steal a look at someone else’s woman could be asking for trouble.

One can explain the difference in attitudes if one believes that whatever feudalism emerged in Ireland following the Norman invasion of the twelfth century was gone by the first decade of the twentieth when Joyce was writing his early stories. In South Asia, on the contrary, it can be argued that the hangover of feudal values, if not feudalism itself, still shape attitudes and behaviors. The daily lives of women remain hostage to these values.

The persistence of feudalism in South Asia is, of course, a contentious claim. Many social scientists have argued that feudalism is dead and long gone, replaced by the values of a market economy. This, I believe, is an erroneous claim.

It can be convincingly argued that the ethos of monarchy continues to thrive in South Asia except that it is now everywhere cloaked in democratic garb. There is no other way of explaining the entrenched legacy of dynastic rule in almost all countries of the region. Nor can one explain the subservience of the ruled to the rulers without recourse to the continued survival of a monarchical culture.


The photograph above of the Sri Lankan Minister of Power and Energy, Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, paying homage to President Mahindra Rajapakse dramatically illustrates how subservience remains alive and well even within the ranks of the rulers. In the same vein, the following is to be noted from India as reported in the news: “Gestures perceived as sycophancy must be discontinued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the newly elected MPs of the BJP, asking them to desist from practices such as touching the feet of senior leaders and offering to carry their bags.” (One indication that India is more advanced than Pakistan is that no such instructions could be expected in the latter – people strive to rise to the rank of bag carriers.)

Very similarly, forms of feudalism continue to survive in a market economy. One just has to look for them to unearth the neo-feudalism. The reason that both monarchical and feudal practices and values survive in South Asia today should be obvious – the hierarchical structure of social relations and the dependence of the many on the few continues unchanged. As long as a person is dependent upon another for anything, be it access to services, basic rights, or even good standing, the imperatives of patronage and the accompaniment of subservience cannot be dismissed.

It is informative to visit villages to see how modern neo-feudalism operates. The classic relations of feudalism defined by ties of mutual obligations have indeed disappeared – small peasants and landless laborers are no longer tied to particular landlords because alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector and in nearby towns and cities have emerged with the spread of the market economy. But the small peasant or landless laborer still does not have independent access to rights and services. For these, the intervention of the local big man is still needed although now the patron does not provide these in return for obligations on the manor. Rather, the services are often compensated through transactions more compatible with a market economy.

For more evidence of the persistence of the feudal value system, look no further than the primacy of its third major attribute – loyalty. Appointments to key public offices throughout South Asia are a dead giveaway (Presidents of Pakistan being a good example). If monarchy and feudalism were indeed dead one would expect to see a lot more emphasis on merit as a criterion for selection.

Democracy and the market are modern institutions superimposed in South Asia on a sub-structure characterized by hierarchy and extremes of social inequality. The imperatives of the latter determine values and drive behavior warping and distorting the institutions by their ineluctable force. It is no surprise that democracy is unable to deliver basic civil rights and the market unable to deliver a living wage to many.

There is of course a tension between the old and the new and the dislocations caused by the transition from feudal to capital values, the widening gap between acceptance and aspiration, is one reason for the increasing violence in South Asia. Almost all the marginalized struggling to improve their lives are its victims; women are just the most targeted ones because of their dual burden – they being forms of property as well as repositories of honor. Violence inflicted on women serves many more purposes in a feudal than in a non-feudal society.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Kashmir and Sedition: Whose Side Are We On?

March 11, 2014

Kashmiri students in Meerut cheered when the Pakistan cricket team defeated India in the Asia Cup, were suspended, and charged with sedition. Since then madness has prevailed with people taking sides whether the students were right or wrong and whether the charges were justified or not. Pakistan, as usual, takes the cake for stupidity – its hearts and college gates have been thrown wide open for the heroes of the resistance.

I don’t know enough about the particular incident to wade into the controversy but there are things about it that seem quite obviously wrong and problematic. What, for starters, is the notion of an own side and why, for another, is one required or obliged to cheer only for it? Why should an accident of birth dictate my emotional attachment and why should I not have the choice to own the team I want?

The notion of an own side has never made sense to me even at the best of times. I always want the better team to win, feel happy when it does, and cheer its performance when it plays to its potential. But when the team that represents my country is plagued with all sorts of other problems – favoritism, selfishness, dishonesty, an abysmal lack of common sense – I feel even less inclined to line up behind it all else notwithstanding. I am not ready to concede that a motley bunch of individuals symbolizes the nation.

I suppose some will argue that the team that wins is by definition the better one. I disagree. It might be the case in a game over five days where the flukes get evened out but certainly not in the shorter forms where even one bad umpiring decision can tip the outcome let alone the fact that an otherwise ordinary player can get lucky on a particular day.

One can see the phenomenon much more clearly in a game like hockey or football where a team, as it is said, can lose against the run of play, sometimes just on penalties. By contrast, one rarely sees that in individual sports like tennis or badminton where, in general, the better player does end up on top.

At the same time, though, I do concede that in a less than perfect world such displays of team loyalty might have benefits. If the violence that led earlier to war between tribes can be sublimated into much less harmful passions focused on one’s team, the gains are well worth the grating residual jingoism. Ideally, one would get rid of the violence that lurks beneath the breast but, needless to say, we don’t live in an ideal world and should be grateful for small mercies.

All of the above notwithstanding, this is not an apologia for the Kashmiri students. It doesn’t come across to me that they were cheering for the better team. Rather, it seems much more likely that they were indeed cheering for the Pakistani team quite irrespective of whether it was the better one or not. And that should be worrisome for it prompts the question why so many were acting in that particular manner.

It would be easy to claim that they were acting such because they were disloyal but that only pushes back the question one degree. Why did they feel the need to be disloyal if that is how it is to be framed? There must be some grievance at bottom that manifested itself in a particular gesture of protest and defiance. In that sense was the gesture any different from the infamous black salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico?

Later, one of the protesters had this to say:  “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

There is a profound lesson in that statement. The Kashmiri students are Indians, whether they do something admirable or something despicable. It is possible but not really sensible to laud them for their Indianness when they are well-behaved and to damn them for their Kashmiryat when they are not. That kind of attitude nurtures grievances whatever their cause.

America has come a long way since 1968 now with a black man in the White House for the second term even though much still needs to be done to remove the lingering wounds of discrimination. As many have noticed and remarked, the composition of its prison population continues to signal that the country is not quite a racial democracy.

India too has to figure out how to deal with the people at its fringes who do not yet feel fully accepted for whatever reason. Accusing them of sedition for cheering for the wrong side is to misread a signal and embark on a problematic path. In this case Indians might well want to cheer for their own team, good or bad, if, that is, they believe it is their own team.

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