Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Still learning as we go along … are we?

July 23, 2016

By Jacob Steiner

A review of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011. The book was republished in 2015 by Ilqa Books in Pakistan and is available there in book stores and online.

Some months back I visited a rural support program in a Central Asian country, executed by one of the world’s biggest development organizations with an excellent repute here and in similar areas in Pakistan. A European consultant, with ample experience in the area and his field – sustainable construction solutions – had recently visited the project. The outcome of this visit, a number of manuals as guidelines for the local execution, had just been printed and handed over to the local engineers. Among them seismic proof housing, and split latrines. These toilets are currently a very fancy topic in sanitary engineering for developing countries when discussed among experts in the West. They are very easy to construct, turn human excrements safely and without special treatment into fertilizer and are hence theoretically a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. But the link between smart and fancy ideas in the donors’ offices in Europe and sustainable solutions on the ground seem to be a hindrance that few want to deal with.

In default of pre-constructed toilet seats for this system in the respective country, the technical expert thought of a solution. Food bowls in two different sizes were acquired at cheap prices in the local market and assembled to a locally made split toilet. That sounds awfully convincing in a report, “using locally acquired material”, “supporting local merchants”, “easy to assemble”. The local program manager and a village engineer have already assembled the first sample. Sure, a smart idea from their friend the expert. They acknowledge his input and technical expertise, and are convinced that his intentions are the best. “But what will the people say when we propose to them to use food bowls to shit in?” They both laugh heartily. No, that won’t work, but they’ll do it anyway. Results need to be shown, reports are due and they are already behind schedule. It’s a comical situation, if it wouldn’t be frustrating to see so much effort, and money, brought to waste. A new book on similar encounters in Pakistan shows how this phenomenon may be an essential part of failures in international development initiatives.

Samia Waheed Altaf, former senior advisor of the Office of Health in the USAID Mission in Islamabad, has collected such comically frustrating episodes from her participation in the Social Action Plan (SAP) in the 90s in her So Much Aid, So Little Development – Stories from Pakistan (Wilson Woodrow Center Press, May 2011). The SAP was developed by the Pakistani Government and funded by the World Bank from 1993 to 2003 and targeted health supply services amongst others in Pakistan with a multi billion $ budget. It’s probably the most famous failure of aid and development in Pakistan. A number of papers have already been published on this issue, most notably from the CGDEV, which also Altaf refers to time and again. These papers are looking at why that could happen and how it could be avoided in future, providing mainly the dry figures of wasted inputs and unintended outcomes. They are essential reading to grasp how so much money could be invested in the country in recent decades with so little progress and conclude with definite policy recommendations. But they seldom go beyond the gross calculations of a development economist. Altaf portrays how these figures of failure are produced by the “human factor”…

Read the full review here.

Jacob Steiner’s addendum to the review:

There are other reviews out on the book.

In Dawn, by Sakuntala Narasimhan (you may go to the SouthAsianIdea to comment and discuss it with other critical minds) and in Regional Studies, Volume 45 by Claudia R. Williamson.

They are interesting to read together, since they are written from the two perspectives, the Western ‘Expert’ (in this case a researcher) and the Eastern Intellectual (in this case a journalist). Those two which Altaf manages to include in a single narrative. And they are more or less stuck in precast conceptions of the problem. Williamson wants to read more on where failure is to locate in the local institutions, Narasimhan criticises the Western Experts decadence and ignorance. They are both not wrong in their criticisms, their understanding of where failures may be located. But they are both looking for where they are convinced failure emanates from and seem not to be too receptive to an alternative explanation – a change in mindset and acknowledging responsibility. This is which I think both parties – the International (Western) Expert and the Local Expert – should take from the book. If everyone just understands it as a confirmation of ones own best intentions, brought to no avail because of the failure of the Other, we stay stuck in the dilemma. Question expertise – of others and your own – and be prepared to reassess opinions.

Manan Ahmed has been writing on the ‘Expert’ problem on a wider and more political/historical scale. I think his thesis in this aid example so well documented by Altaf is backed up on the local scale and just confirms how this is an issue that should be studied with more depth in future.

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Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India

October 16, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I am reading Christophe Jafferlot’s new (2015) book The Pakistan Paradox and in Chapter 2 (An Elite in Search of a State – and a Nation (1906-1947)) came across the following table on page 91.

Table 2.6: Main party scores within the Muslim electorate in the 1946 elections

Party Muslim League Congress Muslim nationalists Unionists Other
Total Muslims 74.7 4.6 6.4 4.6 9.7
Urban Muslims 78.7 2.3 5.0 14.0
Rural Muslims 74.3 4.8 6.6 6.1 9.2
Muslim Women 51.7 27.9 20.4

Jafferlot’s reference to the table is the following: “Despite the League’s relative setback in the NWFP, after the 1946 elections the party eventually managed to appear representative of Indian Muslims (see Table 2.6).”

The table has been adapted from The Sole Spokesman by Ayesha Jalal (page 172). I looked up the citation and the table is the same except that Jalal has also mentioned the total number of votes cast and their distribution across the various parties.

Jalal’s reference to the table is as follows: “More importantly, the League secured nearly seventy-five percent of the total Muslim vote cast in the elections to provincial assemblies throughout India – a remarkable improvement on the abysmal 4.4 percent it had registered in the 1936-37 elections.”

Contrary to Jalal and Jafferlot, what jumped out to me from the table and literally knocked me out was something completely different. Just look at the huge difference between the pattern of the votes cast by Muslim men and Muslim women. One can calculate from the absolute numbers provided by Jalal that while three-fourths of the men voted for the Muslim League only half the women did so. And while only one in sixteen of the men voted for Muslim nationalists, over one in four of the women did so.

This comes across as a very significant difference and I would have thought someone would have ventured to offer an explanation. There could be some very rich hypotheses for a sociologist to explore.

The data on the absolute number of votes provided by Jalal do alert us to the fact that the 1946 elections were contested on a limited suffrage – the total number of female Muslim votes cast were 15,501. It is historical fact that the suffrage was restricted to 3 percent of the voting age population in the 1934 elections which were the first in which Indian women were allowed to vote in any but local elections. By 1937 the franchise had expanded to 14 percent of the voting age population. (I have not been able to find a credible percentage for the 1946 elections and would appreciate readers filling in the missing number.)

Even so, the questions remain. Who were these Muslim women who voted and why were their votes so different from those of the men?

The one myth, persistent to the day, this data seems to put to rest is that women are subservient to men and do as they are told especially in something as critical as voting which involves issues outside the domestic sphere.

Further, the hypothesis suggests itself that Muslim women were much less enamored of the prospect of the creation of Pakistan compared to the men. The League by 1946 was clearly associated with the Two-Nation theory and the demand for partition. The Muslim nationalists, by contrast, were candidates who contested on the platform of keeping India united. The vote for the nationalists suggests that their platform appealed disproportionately to Muslim women.

Of course, it is tempting to associate the vote of Muslim women with the reluctance to leave home since for many partition would have implied a migration. This is a stereotypical premise that may or may not be true but the data warrants a more extended investigation which would also include looking at the pattern of votes by non-Muslim women.

One can also see from the table that the rural Muslim vote was less in favor of the Muslim League platform than the urban Muslim vote. This does support the contention of many, including Jafferlot, that the driving force behind separation were urban Muslims initially predominantly from the Muslim minority provinces of British India. It took the “Islam in danger” hyperbole that made sufficient number of people in the Muslim majority provinces to fall in line between 1937 and 1946 to make partition possible.

The partition narrative has many stories of women who continued to carry the keys of their old homes in India for years after 1947 to convey how traumatic it must have been for them to move. All the more if the move was contrary to their desires. And surely these feelings must have been reciprocated by the Hindu and Sikh women on the other side of the border who ultimately did not even have the luxury to make a choice.

One wonders what the outcome of the elections would have been if the franchise had been unlimited and all the eligible women had voted – in 1946 women cast only 0.25 percent of the total Muslim vote.

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BIPS, Games, and Puzzles

August 5, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

‘BIPS’ refers to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – the most populous countries in South Asia.

‘Games’ refers to the Commonwealth Games, the last of which concluded on the weekend in Glasgow.

‘Puzzles’ refers to the intriguing questions revealed by the Games about BIPS. The specific puzzle we explore in this post is why the performance of Indian women is so much better than that of the other countries when the human development indicators of India are fairly similar to Bangladesh and Pakistan and actually much worse than those of Sri Lanka.

For the sake of reference, the human development indicators as presented by Jean Dreze Amartya Sen are shown in the following table.

Sen Dreze HDI

At one level this post is a straightforward update of two earlier posts that had crafted a narrative from the results of the Commonwealth games up to 2010.

The first, Pakistan: Falling Off a Cliff, contrasted the steadily improving performance by India with the steady deterioration by Pakistan.

The second, The Rise of Indian Women?, highlighted the remarkable improvement by Indian women in comparison with Indian men.

The updated tables are presented below.

CWG Table 1

 

(For the purpose of this post, the total numbers of medals secured by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 2014 were one each, respectively.)

 

CWG Table 2

(The table above is for India. For the purpose of this post, women from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka did not win a single medal.)

The first table shows that while Pakistan’s performance continues to be stagnant, the Indian medal tally is also down sharply from 101 in 2010 to 64 in 2014. This needs to be explored further. My own guess is that this is an artifact of the specific games that are added and dropped in each version of the event. A true indicator of performance should focus only on those core games that remain constant across the years, for example, athletics and boxing.

The second table shows that the relative performance of Indian women continues to improve and by 2014 they have achieved virtual parity with the men. Starting from zero in 1990, Indian women secured close to half (45%) of the total medals won by the Indian contingent.

This is a remarkable achievement by any measure and needs an explanation. In the earlier post, I had ventured this was possibly related to the “transformation of the Indian economy starting in 1989, the rapid increase in the numbers of the middle class, the aspirations of this class for global recognition, the acceptance of global parameters of excellence and equality, the recognition of sports as one of these parameters, the resolve to be globally competitive, and the resulting reaching out for talent beyond the middle class itself.”

This continues to be relevant but the question still remains why women from the other three countries are so completely missing from the picture. Of course, one should normalize for the variation in population, but as the medals table for the Glasgow Games shows, population is not a completely determining variable  – Jamaica with a population less that 3 million has a total of 22 medals with women winning more of them (13) then the men (9).

This then is the puzzle: Why are Indian women forging ahead so much faster than women in the other South Asian countries?

Answers are welcome.

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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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.

 

Why is South Asia So Violent?

February 17, 2013

Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi

By Anjum Altaf

A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever.

The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape every 22 minutes in India and Delhi is becoming infamous as the rape capital of the world.

What we are talking of here is not ideological or political violence but structural violence built into the patterns of everyday life – the type of violence that people in positions of political, social and moral authority have to be pushed to react to. What accounts for this structural violence in South Asia?

My explanation turns on the selection of comparators. Is South Asia today more violent than the American South at the time of the slave economy or Europe in the age of serfdom? I would argue not, leaving to the reader the burden of looking up the extent and type of social violence that was the fate of slaves and serfs, men, women and children, in those times.

If South Asia is not any more socially violent than the comparator societies I have mentioned then it must share some societal attribute with them. And, indeed, it does. That attribute is the stark inequality in the distribution of power, the existence of a deeply hierarchical social formation in which whatever laws exist are designed by the powerful to maintain their power over the powerless. Recall, that in the American South it was a crime for a slave to learn to read or write.

I grant this may be hard to concede for some but bear with me. Walk with me into any upper or upper middle class South Asian home and watch the transformation in the bearing of the lord and lady of the house. The most polite couples amongst peers at the club would interact with the domestic servants in a completely different manner. It would be as if they had not contracted with but owned the latter. Yes, they would be most kind at times, taking care of the extended family if need be, but also violent and abusive and exploitative as a matter of course and entitlement. Little master, all of fifteen years old, home on vacation from school in England, would yell at a sixty-year old orderly to shut up and get out of the house with nary a contrary word from the parents.

All this is not confined within the borders of South Asia itself. Abuse of domestic staff, sexual, physical and financial, is not unheard of in homes of South Asian diplomats and bureaucrats in the most developed capitals of the world. This structural violence stems from the sense of privilege and entitlement that accompanies growing up powerful in deeply hierarchical societies.

There is a tremendous amount of accumulated, pent up violence in such societies that manifests itself in individual incidents so numerous that they become part of the pattern of everyday life – did anyone really care how many slave women were raped every day or slave men lynched or how many young girls the lord of the manor took to bed in France?

This level of violence remains a part of life in hierarchical societies till it is squeezed out by some cathartic readjustment of power – the Civil War in America or the social revolutions in Europe, for example. Once the vertical divisions of society have been leveled by the movements for social equality, and laws are much less an instrument of the powerful for the domination of the powerless, the prevalence of structural violence is drastically diminished. Not that it disappears altogether – the Dominique Strauss Kahn’s remain as a reminder of what life must have been like in those earlier times.

There has been no such cathartic squeezing out of structural violence in South Asia – the deep hierarchical divisions just wear the façade of representative systems. South Asia is perhaps the most socially divided region in the world today and within South Asia India has to contend with divisions not just of class but also of caste.

It is no surprise that representative political systems in South Asia do as little as possible to mitigate the cruelties and injustices of structural violence. The power of the vote, diminished by the power of money, provides only slow inroads into the bastions of privilege and generates its own frustrations both for those who sense a loss and those impatient for the gains. No doubt these frustrations and the ills of consumerism have added to the incidents of social violence – the frequency of rapes in India has been increasing over the years – but the additions have built upon a very high and unremarked base level.

The road to social justice for all in South Asia is going to be long and tortured. The power of the law has to be wrested from the powerful. And many of those unaffected by the violence have to break rank by reflecting on how they may be contributing to it without actually doing any wrong themselves. There are some hopeful, albeit very partial, signs of progress from India.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

 

Humsafar and Shakespeare

March 8, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Since last September, one TV serial has taken Pakistan by storm, becoming a major topic for conversation and forcing people to reschedule social occasions so that they don’t clash with the program’s time slot. Entitled Humsafar (Companion), the drama has made stars out of its leading couple, Fawad Afzal Khan and Mahira Khan.  The play is a typical melodrama, centering around the relationship between Ashar and Khirad and the intrigues that drive them apart, intrigues created by Ashar’s controlling mother, Farida. Yet somehow, this hackneyed plotline has had the entire nation hooked for six months. (more…)

After Veena Malik: Thoughts on Morality

December 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Veena Malik has provided Indians and Pakistanis something to talk about – to, at, and across each other. There is much that can be ignored but a few strands strike me as promising and worth pursuing.

Most of the outpouring, at least on the blogs, is a voicing of individual personal opinions for and against Ms. Malik’s act. That, to me at least, is the least interesting aspect of the fallout. Why should my personal opinion carry significance for anyone besides myself? If the objective were to run an opinion poll, people could vote yes or no anonymously and be done with it.

It would be different if the person offering the opinion were a public figure. Take Imran Khan, for example: his opinion on the incident could provide a clue where he might lead the nation if given the opportunity. (more…)

Violence Has No Borders

October 26, 2011

By Urvashi Butalia

Imagine a large hall in a major city in Punjab. It’s packed with people, mostly women, from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. On the stage are two men, one a long-haired bearded, hairy-chested sardar, the other a clean shaven smooth-chested younger man. They’re engaged in a languorous, erotic, sometimes passionate, sometimes tender, rendering of the story of Heer Ranjha. In the background Madan Gopal’s wonderfully resonant voice sings the story. Tragedy hangs in the air, for most of the people in the hall are familiar with this beautiful story of star- crossed lovers, and after the initial hesitation at seeing two men, they now ‘believe’ that the bearded Navtej Johar is actually Heer, and the supple Anil is Ranjha. Such is the power of their dance.

We’re in Islamabad, attending a dance performance that marks the end of a day of conferencing, and of an award ceremony in the memory of a young woman, Meeto Bhasin Malik, whose untimely death remains one of the great losses of the women’s movement in India. (more…)