WMC News & Features

Pakistan—The Last Destination of the Stars

Anila20 Khan

The author, fresh from a family visit, reflects on how Pakistan arrived at this moment, and what the United States can do to support women and democracy there.

Arriving in Pakistan, you wonder: will the mobile phones be working?  The Interior Ministry turns off mobile phone systems as a counter-terrorism measure on days of religious, ethnic, or political tension. The “haves” have land-lines; the “have-nots” do without communication.

As the plane begins its descent; Karachi awakens to another stressful day.  I am here for a quintessential Pakistani family function: a wedding. These days the bridegroom’s motor car procession arrives with security escorts. As we head home well after midnight, my cousin’s wife warns me to hide my necklace and handbag. There’s tension at the stop lights, particularly when we see two riders on a motorcycle—often the setting for a hold-up.  But we make it home without incident. 

So what happened to the Pakistan where we biked the streets and drove back unescorted from parties on the beach?      

We know the endless analyses. The country started with an impossible geographical division, West and East divided by 1,000 miles of India; immediate war with India over Kashmir (water source for the entire region); the military’s rise, as our defender, protector, and eventual ruler, and  the military’s alliance with the United States and Saudi Arabia—all of this pitted against the Soviet Union, then at war in Afghanistan. Then Pakistan’s decline into an unholy mix of Wahhabi religious extremism, terrorism, and misogyny, with drug trafficking from poppies grown in Afghanistan.           

Countering this descent into Hades, the normal, decent citizens of Pakistan continually assert themselves. They elected the first woman prime minister in the Muslim world in 1988 and were  poised to re-elect Benazir Bhutto in 2008, when she was assassinated, allegedly by the Taliban in  December of 2007.  When, in 2007, the fourth military dictator dismissed the chief justice, a nonviolent, multiparty coalition of lawyers led a relentless campaign until he was restored  in 2009. An occupation of the tourist valley of Swat by Taliban militants was uprooted by an army operation in 2009, ordered by parliament at the behest of activists outraged by the Taliban’s public flogging of a young girl. Senior politicians denounced the abuse of minorities under the blasphemy laws, despite mortal danger to themselves:  Governor Punjab Salman Taseer was murdered by his Islamist bodyguard; Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was killed as he left his mother’s home. “[But] the pathetic liberals have not supported the liberal politicians,” fumes talk show host Tammy Haq.

People ask which Pakistan is the real one, and which is winning? The answer is: Both are real. And  there are no winners.    

As with the rise of European fascism, there must be an enemy within. In Pakistan the list of enemies within is expanding; now to an increasingly oppressed majority. First the Ahmaddiyas, a sect declared non-Muslim in the 1970s, then the Christians, now the Shia. But the Shia are approximately 20 percent of Pakistan’s population.  Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims, have been targeted; pilgrims dragged off buses on their way to Iran and summarily executed, bombs at Shia mosques, Shia doctors killed. “The Shia don’t understand why they are being killed… and why Iran is not helping them,” says attorney Hasnain Naqvee.

Nevertheless, civic groups and women legislators are moving on with a rights-based development agenda. The assembly led by a woman speaker, has pushed through an impressive legislative record on women’s rights including the 2010 Protection Against Harassment Act  and the 2012 Domestic Violence Bill. “For litigators on women’s rights and family law this has been most helpful,” says Rayhab Khan, a young lawyer in Islamabad’s family courts. “[Implementing such] laws . . .  will encourage women to come forward.”

Yet the infrastructure of the state itself is stagnating, if not in outright decay.  In a country of 176 million,  “According to the Federal Bureau of Revenue, there are only 1.8 million registered tax IDs and only 0.8 million tax payers,” complains tax accountant Imran Afzal. State institutions live  off development aid, the underground  or illegal economy, and rapacious rents and kickbacks.  The media are shining a spotlight on investigations and resulting court cases, but accountability has become a new weapon manipulated to settle scores.      

More worrisome,  state-owned air transport, rail, post, emergency services, electricity, and energy, are all in dangerous decline.  Flying with the national carrier, PIA, is a game of chance, even for the Minister of Defense under whose charge the airline operates. 

On March 16, 2013, this parliament and administration became Pakistan’s first elected government to complete its tenure without ending in an army coup. Nevertheless, with base data on employment not available beyond 2008/2009, the government cannot show voters the impact of its policies on employment.  

Education and jobs remain the ladders out of poverty, yet both are major challenges for girls and women, due to lack of affordable, secure transport.  The most visible example is Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban who boarded her undefended school bus.  But thousands of Malalas do go to school and to work everyday, struggling with unlicensed private transport arrangements.  “We have lots of flyways and highways built by local and provincial governments for motorists; [but] no national investment in a public transport system,” says Kaiser Bengali, an economist.  The victim is urban air quality.  Lahore, once famous for its restorative climate, is now enveloped in smog. Despite a pre-electoral hurried completion of the first public bus route for Lahore, many of the recommendations of the Clean Air Commission set up by the Lahore High Court in 2003 still await implementation.  

Pakistanis live their lives in this cauldron. Yet people still hustle to work, bustle the children to school on whatever transport is available, use the diminishing gas during the time it’s on to cook the family meal.  Private institutions, including religious groups, only partially bridge the infrastructure gaps. 

The microfinance sector currently serves 2.5 million households annually, according to Khushhali Bank. The most successful development model has been the Rural Support Program Network with an established outreach to 4.7 million households. An additional 5.5 million families are supported by a new federal social welfare program, the Benazir Income Support Program, modeled on Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, providing stipends to the woman of the household who must register for a national ID card.  Its main benefit has been a registration of women voters; women now being over 40 percent of the electorate.

It is in this grassroots social development that enterprising  young women are forging their way.  Maryam Farooq is a social mobilizer with Bunyad Foundation, a literacy and rural development organization in Punjab.  She received the chief minister’s prize for her Anti-Dengue campaign, but her ambitions are larger: “The youth of Pakistan is distributed in different parties,” she says, “ we need a youth party with people from diverse social groups, different religions, and culture, all on the basis of equality.”  

Anila Khan, a Pashtun educator working with Concern for Children in one of Karachi’s largest slum colonies, is putting herself through an MBA while working full time; facing the same social dilemma of girls everywhere. “Till I complete my MBA I am not thinking of marriage; but the boys of my generation have not changed their attitudes about the kind of partner they are seeking; only us girls have become more ambitious.”     

Are these hard-working, educated, young women to be left to the Taliban’s mercies as the United States and NATO proceed with the  2014 planned withdrawal? How to leave without surrender to fascists?  

“The Taliban are not defeated," notes Professor Vali Nasr, dean of SAIS at John Hopkins and expert on the region. "They will take over swaths of Afghanistan…[and] regroup northwards.” The goal for U.S. regional policy is to encourage an alternative ideology within mainstream Sunni Islam.  The key is Pakistan, “it can create some push-back against this Wahhabi mentality; with the more moderate Barelvi base” says Nasr. Hence the importance of the next national and provincial governments’ ability to balance the religious mix. This time Islamists, including Wahhabi sympathizers, are running for office.  

Crucial cards in the upcoming national elections May 11, 2013, have been played, the interim caretakers are retired judges and journalists underscoring the need for transparency. Expectations are that neither the outgoing governing party, the secular leftist PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) nor the front-runner center-right PML [N] (Pakistan Muslim League) can govern without coalitions.  They have developed these coalition-building skills these past five years. Despite the turbulence, in the midst of a brutal war on terror, the worst floods in history, earthquakes, and dengue epidemics,  the politicians have managed to pull through the full term of an elected parliament—in Pakistan, a first, and no mean feat. 

Italy is still struggling post election to form its 62nd coalition government. Despite battling fascism, organized crime, war and occupation, corrupt politics, and an omnipresent religion, Italy is Europe’s third largest economy. One key factor for this is that after defeating and prosecuting the fascists, the United States showed leadership in establishing European regional structures for lasting peace and prosperity. 

With the right kind of engagement from the United States and Nato allies—the fostering of regional economic integration in South-West Asia—Pakistan could be Italy; celebrities, spoilers and indictees included.

The title is from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistan’s late poet laureate.

More articles by Category: Economy, Education, Girls, International, Politics, Race/Ethnicity, Religion, Violence against women
More articles by Tag:
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.