Dawn Editorial 11th September 2023

Abaya ban

THE recent announcement by the French government to ban the abaya in state schools has sparked a contentious debate about secularism and religious freedom in a country that is often in the news for policing Muslim women’s attire. Many are recalling the ban on ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in 2004, which led to the banning of headscarves and large Christian crosses. The abaya ban follows a similar pattern. Where there may have been some logic to arguing that an abaya worn by a student would cover the school uniform, this is not the rationale the French government has used to outlaw abayas at schools. The roots of the abaya ban lie in the 2004 legislation. The idea stems from a strong belief in protecting children from “undue influence” of political or religious beliefs. The government’s announcement has been criticised by feminist activists and other rights groups, but defended by scores of others who say this law is to protect laïcité — secularism — a pillar of the French school system.

Muslim rights groups argue that there is no legal definition of an abaya in the law, therefore a ban is unlawful. But the apex French court does not agree, and has rejected an appeal by Muslim organisations who hoped to successfully challenge the ban. As a result, Muslim girls going to school in France are being sent home. Some of these young women were allowed to attend school after they removed their abaya — though it may be that this removal of the garment happened under pressure. Those who refuse to do so are denied entry. However, at the heart of the matter is the rationale underlying the abaya ban. The core issue that deserves our attention is not what these young girls wear but rather the policies implemented by the French state to control racial minorities. True secularism should protect the freedom of individuals to express their religious or cultural identities without discrimination.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2023

Vulnerable Chitral

THE Chitral region of KP has been in the headlines of late due to the Sept 6 deadly cross-border incursion in which a large band of TTP militants reportedly crossed over and attacked Pakistani positions before being pushed back into Afghanistan.

Though the authorities have not given any numbers, the raiders were reported to be in the ‘hundreds’. The interim foreign minister insists this was an “isolated incident” and that the Afghan Taliban rulers did not sanction the attack, while the Foreign Office has repeated the mantra that Pakistan’s concerns have been communicated to the relevant quarters in Kabul.

State functionaries may be giving the impression that all is well in the region, but more information is needed on the exact details of the attack, while the local people need to be reassured that their lives and properties will be protected by the state.

Chitral lies in a strategically sensitive area, bordering Afghanistan and with only the Wakhan Corridor separating it from Tajikistan. China’s Xinjiang region is also in the vicinity.

This makes it an attractive location for transnational jihadists looking to expand their operations, even though Chitral itself has largely been shielded from terrorist activity.

Moreover, the region is culturally, linguistically and ethnically distinct from the rest of KP. While Swat and erstwhile Fata suffered the most during earlier waves of terrorism, Chitral managed to weather the storm. The area where the incursion took place is close to the traditional lands of the Kalash people, and Chitral also has a significant Ismaili population.

Therefore, the state needs to beef up security in the area, as the banned TTP and sectarian militants thrive on targeting minority communities. While there have been reports of small-scale infiltration from Afghanistan, the last major incursion occurred in 2011 when reportedly a very large number of terrorists staged attacks, leading to several fatalities among security men.

Simply expecting the Afghan Taliban to ‘do more’ may not be enough, especially when there is speculation that some Taliban factions may actually be encouraging attacks within Pakistan.

The best option is for the military to provide iron-clad security to all vulnerable border regions, and ensure that no groups are again able to violate Pakistan’s territory.

A jirga in Chitral has asked the army chief to visit the area, and called upon the authorities to fence the border with Afghanistan.

Reports indicate that the Afghan Taliban had started relocating TTP fighters from the border area; the process must be sped up so that this ever-present threat on the country’s frontiers is neutralised.

The terrorist threat on the borders must be handled proactively. In the past, the country has suffered immensely by allowing malevolent actors to establish fiefdoms on Pakistani territory. This mistake must never be repeated.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2023

High gas rates

GAS prices are set to rise again, and consumers should brace themselves for bloated bills in the winter months. The government had increased gas tariffs by up to 113pc for different categories of consumers in February for six months in order to strike a bailout deal with the IMF. This time around, gas prices are projected to go up by 50pc across the board to meet one of the key conditions of the short-term IMF loan facility approved in July. The gas price increase is going to be quite painful for consumers who are still grappling with inflated electricity bills for August. But as the interim ministers told a presser on Friday, the increase in gas rates ahead of winter was inevitable to contain the gas-sector circular debt that is growing at the rate of Rs350bn per year. Going up briskly, the gas sector has already piled up a debt, including interest, of Rs2.7tr — more than the Rs2.4tr debt in the power sector chain. The situation is indeed very alarming; there is no way around raising the tariffs for slowing down the debt build-up and discouraging the use of gas for heating purposes during winters.

However, just as we have seen in the case of electricity, periodic price hikes are not an answer to the country’s gas woes. The government needs to move beyond intermittent revisions of prices of the fuel for longer-term sustainability of the gas sector, given that we are fast exhausting the domestic resource through its wasteful and inefficient use. Gas pricing should be linked to the global market. Even though it would be quite difficult for low-income residential and small industrial consumers, they will accept it, provided the two gas companies also take effective measures to reduce their large system losses and control widespread gas theft to mitigate the burden on consumers who pay their bills. Gas utilities have launched a crackdown against gas theft in Punjab and KP under the orders of the army chief, and have arrested several people for stealing the fuel. The scale of the theft shows that such action will not yield the desired result without the help of the staff of the utilities. The question is: will the gas authorities continue the drive against gas thieves once the pressure on them is lifted after a few weeks?

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2023

September 11, 2023

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