Posts Tagged ‘Violence’

Some of My Best Friends are Extremists

October 12, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced.

Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding.

Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if it required traveling to China.

It is possible, of course, that extremism could lead to poor judgement with negative consequences. Mr. Jinnah’s position in Dhaka that Urdu would be the sole national language of Pakistan was arguably extremist and one that contributed to subsequent problems. However, no one would accuse Mr. Jinnah of evil intentions. Mitigating errors of judgement calls for inclusive decision-making not surveillance by intelligence agencies.

The example above should remind us that extremism is often not an individual attribute but is contextually determined – the position regarding Urdu could have been mainstream opinion in one part of the country but a fringe one in the other. Consider another example, the position on Creation where the mainstream view in Pakistan accords with the story of Adam and Eve. If a mainstream Pakistani migrated to Europe he would become there the holder of a relatively extreme position. Would it be warranted for European intelligence agencies to interrogate his “extremism” when nothing else changed in his personality?

Increasing globalization has exacerbated this problem of contextual extremism. In the West beards and turbans have become symbols of extremism while bikinis and bars are considered likewise in other parts of the world. The clash of civilizations reflects in part the harmless divergence among different mainstream opinions.

In the face of these arguments many discussants concede the point that private views, however extreme, are not problematic per se. In their view the problem emerges when some individuals try to impose their extreme views on others. This suggests that the problem is not extremism of one’s views but intolerance of those of others.

This is a serious concern if true because the entire ethos of the educational system in Pakistan is built around bolstering the conviction that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. Every unsanctioned opinion is liable to severe punishment. The State also propagates the extremist sentiment that every citizen should be prepared to die for the nation and destroy its enemy. An apocryphal story of a teenager apprehended crossing the border in 1965 to annihilate infidels is telling in this regard. Asked to identify the source of his extreme views he ascribed them all to watching PTV. Hannah Arendt had warned that such “commitment can easily carry you to a point where you no longer think.” Only a heavy dose of self-reflection of the type exemplified by Bulleh Shah and Kabir can reverse the trend towards mindlessness.

This lethal problem of intolerance cannot be solved by surveillance of students but by a renewed examination of State commitments and the realization that many agents of the State are themselves extremely intolerant. It is ironic for a set of agents fostering intolerance to start combing campuses for the victims of their efforts.

A different perspective on extremism holds that it is worrisome only when it engenders violence. This prompts two reflections. First, that those holding extreme views rarely resort to mass violence in their individual capacity. Individuals act in politically motivated ways more when they are part of groups espousing violent aims — no surprise that violent actions are immediately claimed by groups like ISIS or TTP. Putting an end to such violence requires proscribing the groups and not pursuing individual extremists which is an impossible task with a huge margin for error. When a State leaves such groups alone allowing them to morph under various guises while claiming to ferret out individuals, it loses the claim to credibility.    

Second, one must confront another conundrum obscured by the blanket castigation of violent extremism. Recall the phrase that characterized the 1964 US presidential campaign of Senator Goldwater: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Clearly, Goldwater did not consider extremism to be an unambiguously negative phenomenon nor was he averse to violence if warranted by the situation. Many others would recall that both Begin and Mandela started as individuals with “extremist” views, joined groups with “violent” aims, and propagated “terrorism.” Yet, both went on to lead their countries and were honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

One can reconcile with such extremism only if the focus on groups with violent aims includes States that use violence to oppress their own or foreign citizens. It is hard to justify passivity against the depredations of such states — “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was the second half of Goldwater’s pronouncement. The glaring case at present is the ethnic cleansing in Burma. Unless there are global mechanisms to prevent such state-sanctioned atrocities, non-state groups will cite the precedence of Begin and Mandela to resist and the world will be in no moral position to criticise their violent extremism.

The bottom line of this reflection is that intolerance not extremism is the major threat to  society; that intolerance is the inevitable outcome of State-sponsored indoctrination in education; that this indoctrination can only be countered by a tradition of self-reflection that includes within its ambit one’s most cherished beliefs; that effectively restoring social harmony requires proscribing groups that espouse violent aims and these can include States themselves. The surveillance of individuals by the State, here or elsewhere, is the wrong prescription.

The writer is the former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion was published in Dawn on September 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?

June 20, 2017

By Sara Fatima

This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system.

In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the origin and history of major ideas and is equipped with the conceptual tools to perceive and understand the dynamics of the real world. The social sciences are a part of the educational curriculum even at a preliminary level. Such is not the case in Pakistan where a school graduate is not equipped with a strong foundation in the uninhibited exploration of ideas. The canvas of education is limited and insular, a weakness that is exacerbated by textbooks that are not rich enough to familiarize students with a rapidly evolving world. Nor do they convey sufficient knowledge of ancient civilizations or even of the contemporary world. The result is a myopic worldview.

This observation is quite plausible but we may question whether it is just the content of the textbooks that is source of our problems. If we replace these books with those used in the developed world, would be induce the required change in the thinking of our people? It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.

In Pakistan, students are discouraged from asking questions in class. They cannot even think of disagreeing with their teachers who are considered as being in positions of supreme authority, a relationship that discourages critical thinking. Teachers in turn are risk-averse and prefer not to stray from the conservative norms of religion, race and gender. They are either incapable of, or deliberately stay away from, conveying a more universal humanism depriving the students from developing a tolerance of differences in attitudes and values.

Another important factor contributing to the narrow-mindedness of the educated elite is the elimination of the social sciences from professional training at advanced levels of education. This is particularly the case in engineering, medical and military training. The curriculum is confined to technical subjects leaving out the more open-ended subjects that need to be a part of  intellectual growth. This one-dimensional education is resulting in the growing fundamentalism and increasing intolerance of our educated youth.

Recent research suggests that a disproportionate percentage of students involved in violent activities have a background in science, engineering or medicine. A study conducted in the sociology department of the University of Oxford (‘Engineers of Jihad,’ 2007) confirms this hypothesis that students of the above-mentioned subjects are over-represented in violent Islamist movements. The plausible explanation given for this phenomenon is that the mindset of people with this educational background inclines them to take extreme positions on matters that may have multiple answers or causes. The study reinforces the importance of the social sciences to mould individuals who can see things in grey instead of in black and white.

Despite the above, there are some other questions that need to be raised in order to address the issues raised by Professor Waseem. We need to be sure that our elite is truly ignorant of the crucial issues as presumed by him. Could it be possible that the  ignorance is a mere pretence? Is our political elite really interested in building an open intellectual environment in our society or does the status quo better serve its parochial interests? These questions direct us to a larger debate that is probably more significant in unravelling the sociopolitical dynamic of our society.

Sara Fatima graduated from LUMS with a major in Politics and Economics. For a related article, see Education: Humanities and Science

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Beyond Grief

January 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden.

Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering?

I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how.

Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle. It is too easy in that it asks nothing meaningful of us.

Grief will not undo anything but something beyond grief might break the chain of tragedies that have come to dominate our lives. Grief is not the end of reckoning; it can only be the beginning of a quest to bring honor to the lives that have been lost.

Our collective outrage needs to be transformative, leading first and foremost to reflection and a dialogue with ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the nature of violence, its place in our lives, and in our society.

I worry when I see cries for vengeful action. They suggest we are not really opposed to violence, just to violence by people we don’t like. Given a chance to inflict it ourselves, we would have no qualms if we felt it was needed for the success of our cause. Every cause has its adherents and believers and therein lie the seeds of strife without end.

It seems that violence is deeply embedded in our psyches. Otherwise reasonable people have little hesitation in wanting to make examples of those they disapprove of – stringing people upside down or lining them against a wall to be shot are commonplace off-the-cuff recommendations.

This easy relationship with violence stems from our lack of regard for civil rights, a notion that seems remarkably foreign to us. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that every individual, even one accused of a crime, has, or ought to have, a modicum of civil rights. Persons accused and convicted of wrongs can only be assigned penalties commensurate with their transgressions. They cannot be made ‘horrible’ examples to deter others from committing crimes and we cannot cheer or rejoice in such spectacles.

But it seems we believe very strongly in the redemptive power of punishment and in the locus of human body as the most appropriate site for that punishment. This is quite obvious in the way we deal with women who defy patriarchal norms, in the fashion we discipline children who displease parents, in the manner we reprimand administrative staff in offices, and in how we berate servants in the home. Verbal or physical abuse is considered necessary to keep ‘them’ in their place – ‘them’ being anyone who deigns to defy our desires.

We will not be able to limit violence till we internalize the norm of individual civil rights and accept the sanctity of the human body. The other’s body is off-limits, at all times, and under all circumstances except with consent or when the law sanctions the contrary in self-defense. The temptation to punish all those we don’t like needs to be purged. That we can oppose but not eliminate is a profound lesson that remains to be learnt in our social and political lives.

We will also not be able to limit violence till we come to terms with the fact that there are no ‘others,’ that every human life is equally valuable and equally inviolate. I am saddened to recall that December 16 marks another tragedy in which the lives of students were also extinguished in just as evil a manner in a university in another part of our country. On our side, there was very little grief, not enough condemnation, and no reflection whatsoever.

Why? If our reflection can force us to honestly answer that question today, we will have taken a small step towards a less violent society.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on January 24, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Requiescat

July 12, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

Individuals picked off, gone – strangers, friends of friends, friends, relatives – some for who they were, others for straying in the way.

Names etched in memories – Ali Haider, Faisal Manzoor, Mehdi Ali, Rashed Rehman, Irfan Ali, Farzana Parveen, Perveen Rehman…

The public, incapacitated – benumbed, indifferent, does it matter?

Instead, shrill voices of love and hate troll predictably, pressing stale arguments into uncomplaining service.

The telephone rings. A voice from afar:

— Time to give up now?

We have gone to bed often with this question only to wake up irresolute, buying time, cursing broken promises, comforting fading hopes.

Is love denial? Is hate the absence of understanding?

Is there truth beyond love and hate?

Can we look at ourselves, own what stares back at us, and find reasons to hope?

On one side, history – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the journey from darkness into light.

On the other, reality – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the ones that perished in the dark.

Who perishes in the dark? Who survives into the light?

Jews fled to survive. Blacks escaped north to fight.

There is no North here.

What do we say to them we have failed? We will emerge in the light fueled by your embers?

What do we say to ourselves when we begin to go mad, seeds of hatred lodged in every breast sprouting tangled, thorny vines?

What do we do when we foresee our names in the registers, we who did not hate enough?

What do we do when the ship begins to list? Set it right, keep it afloat.

And when it begins to sink? Lower the rafts.

And be the last to leave.

This then is the answer – at once unconvincing and overwhelming – to the voice over the telephone.

— For them, over whom the black clouds have descended – flight, to fight another day.

— The rest, they stay – to make this land whole again as they see it whole.

One day, they too shall leave, but not yet, not just yet.

An epigraph from Yeats has been added to the print version by EPW.

Thanks to Hasan Altaf for valuable suggestions.

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 ‘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.

Rajapaksa

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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The Politics of Urbanization

May 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics.

It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out.

It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. (more…)

Feminism and Violence: The Short and the Long

March 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

March 8 was International Women’s Day about which I have two stories to narrate. They are from the heart of affluent Pakistan by virtue of the accident that I live on a university campus situated in an upscale urban residential district of Lahore.

The first story, the short one, is situated in what is generally acknowledged as the premier private university in the country. A group of students organized the ‘I Need Feminism…’ campaign in which individuals complete the sentence on a placard before uploading a photograph on social media. ‘I Need Feminism because I want to wear shorts in public’ was one of the placards that went up briefly before it was taken down because of threats to the bearer and the organizers from inside and outside the university.

The second story, the longer one, involves a woman who works in the complex of campus apartments and lives in a low-income pocket in the high-income district (this being how some cities adapt to the lack of public transport). On March 8 she arrived much later than usual because her mother had been beaten in the morning. The perpetrators of the violence were a group of women of a neighboring community from which a woman had eloped with a young man related to the victim. The runaway’s relatives had identified a girl from the man’s family in exchange as settlement which the family of the latter and their neighbors felt was a just demand; only the victim asked why the girl had to pay the price, whence the violence. (The husband was unable to defend the wife as it was against the norm to touch unrelated women.) After the violence, the transaction was accepted. On being asked if this outcome was right or wrong, the narrator indicated she was unable to say but ventured that this was a common occurrence.

What can these two stories tell us about feminism and violence and our attitudes to them?  Let us first place the concepts in context.

In every society at any given point in time there exists a social order selected aspects of which are considered normal, right, and proper by the majority. Any deviation from normalcy is feared as a potential source of disorder and violence can be employed to prevent such deviations. One example of this is the attitude of men towards women and the attempt to regulate what the latter can or cannot do. Gendering is the social process through which the proper behavior of men and women is reproduced by the enforcement of norms and rules whose legitimacy is considered beyond question.

Inherent in every social order is a distribution of power – power is concentrated in the center while the peripheries are inhabited by the powerless. One can easily note the distribution of power by gender in our social order. Power, however, stems from other sources as well, one of which is class. Thus, for example, a woman within her class would often have less power than younger males but across class a younger women would have more power than older servants, male or female. In general, however, women in South Asia have relatively less power than men and have many more constraints on their choices.

How do social orders evolve and change? In every social order, there are the powerless at the margin; the majority may have internalized the normalcy and propriety of their positions but some do strive for change. At the same time, there are privileged individuals at the center of power who can imagine themselves in the shoes of the powerless and join them in the struggle. A feminist is a person who can exercise this imagination with respect to the gender dimensions of the social order. To adopt feminism as a political stance, for a man or a woman, is to take a stand against the gender privileges that stem from the unequal distribution of power in society. To be a feminist is also to believe that change is possible and that it is necessary to work for that change through all means that are available and possible.

We can now go back to the two stories. In the first, a student expressed an opinion about what she would like. This was immediately met with a threat to desist. Even the expression of an opinion, let alone the act itself, was considered a threat to social order – the term floating around was fitnah, the source of disorder in society. Keep in mind that the expression of an opinion is not a violation of the law but the issuing of a threat is. The proper recourse in such a situation is to charge those issuing the threat with a breach of conduct and to adjuticate under the existing rules. However, the internalization of the social norms is such that the officials in charge might themselves believe that the expression of such an opinion was not judicious in our society.

The male prerogative is marked by ironies. It is quite possible that individuals issuing the threat might have felt at one time that co-education itself was not proper. Yet, the attraction of an education at one of the best institutions in the country could have overcome the qualms. It is equally likely that the same individuals would be seeking scholarships in countries where wearing shorts is the norm for females. There, existence in the midst of fitnah would be deemed acceptable under some plausible rationalization.

In the second story, one can observe the power of internalization of norms at the periphery. There was a sole voice protesting the injustice of offering for settlement a girl who had nothing to do with the incident. This resistance was crushed with violence perpetrated by women themselves and the settlement was considered fair by the community.

The two stories highlight the nature of the struggle ahead. In the most upscale urban district, the affluent promoting International Women’s Day on social media act quite contrary to its spirit as soon as their sense of propriety is challenged. And within the affluent district itself live people quite unaware of International Women’s Day reproducing a social order that is oppressive to them and their weaker members.

Feminism and violence stare at each other around the specificities of our social order and leave us with many questions to ponder. Where do we go from here? The first step is to recognize that holding contrary opinions is protected under the law and that violence or the threat of violence is a violation of the law. The second is to draw strength from the fact that social orders do change – one just has to reflect on the norms that were prescribed for women a hundred years ago to realize that nothing stays constant. That is why the struggle must go on.

For the conceptual elaborations in this post I am indebted to Professor Nivedita Menon whose excellent book ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ was published in 2012 by Zubaan-Penguin Books, New Delhi.

***

I have two favorite texts on change which illustrate how strongly we believe that what exists at the moment is what is right and proper for all times and how we are proven wrong again and again. Yet we do not learn from history.

The first, Taleem-e-NiswaaN, is an essay on the education of women written around a hundred years ago reflecting the liberal progressive perspective of the time. The author, Muhammad Sajjad Mirza Baig Dehalvi (1876-1927), was a professor in the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. The premises and assumptions taken for granted then are now only a source of amazement which should be a cause for humility – what we believe to be the ultimate truth at this time could well be considered amazing a hundred years from now. The essay is included in Sarmaya-e-Urdu by Hafiz Mahmood Shirani. The book was reissued by Sang-e-Meel in 2004 and is available in the market for Rs. 300.

The second is an excerpt (from Intizar Hussain’s classic novel Basti) which describes the arrival of electricity in a village. The following English translation is by Frances Pritchett:

Bi Amma had undoubtedly lived a long time. She always told how in her childhood only one torch, in the Small Bazaar, was lighted at night. Everywhere else, in the streets, in the lanes, was darkness. Before her very eyes the torch vanished, and lanterns appeared in the streets and lanes; and now in their places poles were standing, and here and there on the streets electric light could be seen.
Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'”
On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.
The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. Though for many days he did go, morning and evening, to Bi Amma’s grave, and recited verses from the Quran there.
How hard Abba Jan tried to halt the spreading ‘innovations’ in Rupnagar! During Muharram, when big drums began to sound, he seized them and ripped out the drumheads. “Playing drums is forbidden by the Shariat. I won’t permit them to be played in any majlis or procession!”
“But in Lucknow, they play drums in every procession!”
“Let them play. The Lucknow people have no power to change the Shariat!”
That year drums were in fact not played in any majlis or procession, but by the next year, Abba Jan’s power had been broken. Every procession was accompanied by drums except the one that left from the Khirkivala Imambarah, for that was Abba Jan’s family imambarah and he had power over it. And also because that procession, which was in honor of Hazrat Hur, was recognized as the quietest of Rupnagar’s Muharram processions. No small drums, no big drums, no singing of elegies — for Abba Jan declared elegy-singing too to be contrary to religious law. Abba Jan had taken a firm stand against elegy-singing, but the results were the same as in the case of his other firm stands.
Abba Jan’s grip on Rupnagar was loosening. Bi Amma had been called home by God, and electricity had come to the town. Abba Jan couldn’t prevent electricity from being installed in the mosque, just as he couldn’t prevent drums from finding a place in the Muharram processions. His firm stand against electricity was the last of his firm stands against the ‘innovations’ of the time. After that, he retired to his room.

 

If I Were a Christian

March 16, 2013

What would I be thinking if I were a Christian in Pakistan today after yet another incident that has victimized the members of my community? What would I be asking of those who are my fellow citizens?

I use the term ‘fellow citizens,’ knowingly because I am asking for a reciprocal recognition of my rights as a full citizen of this country. These include my civil rights, the protection of my life and property, which are guaranteed under the law.

I would urge my fellow citizens to understand the nature of the incident in which the houses of an entire community have been burned for the alleged transgression of one member of that community. (more…)

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon.

The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. (more…)