PARANOIA followed by overreaction — that best describes how the Pakistani state views and responds to any form of independent thought. The latest instance veers into the realm of the farcical. On Friday, hundreds of youth in various cities took part in the ‘Student Solidarity March’ to voice their demands for free education, committees against sexual harassment on campus, provision of internet facilities and the restoration of student unions. The rallies were peaceful: the speakers did not incite violence and participants were ‘armed’ with little more than placards and flags. In Lahore, a few of them even stayed back to clean up the venue after the rally dispersed. And yet, the Lahore deputy commissioner issued arrest orders for Prof Ammar Ali Jan, one of the rally organisers and president of the Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. According to the order, Prof Jan “if not checked will give rise to a situation prejudicial to public safety and maintenance of public order”. The document further describes him as being “in the habit … to harass the general public and symbol of frightens [sic]”.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate turn of phrase, the attempt to paint Mr Jan as some notorious thug wishing to provoke an insurrection is ridiculous and makes the authorities look rather foolish. At the rally, the young professor assailed university administrations for promoting a fascist culture where critical thinking was stifled and teachers who encouraged their students to voice independent views were shown the door. According to him, students, farmers, labourers and civil society would have to work for a socialist revolution to take back the rights that capitalism had snatched from them. This scarcely catapults him into the ranks of those wishing to dismantle the state through violent means like a latter-day Guy Fawkes. Prof Jan and the rally participants were simply exercising their right to peaceful protest in what increasingly appears to be a nominal democracy, judging by the orders to arrest him. The fact is, there is in Pakistan today little tolerance for progressive ideas, because they make for a ‘troublesome’ populace that refuses to sacrifice its rights and freedoms at the altar of narratives that serve only a select few. Many decades ago, a student movement changed the course of history in Pakistan. Are the authorities afraid this is a nascent march on the same path? Such heavy-handed tactics are the shortest route to that end.
EVEN as the Islamic world’s top diplomats met recently in Niamey, Niger, under the umbrella of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers, to present a united face to the world, it was obvious that narratives were changing within the Muslim bloc. The good news is that despite the omission of the Kashmir question in the OIC’s agenda, it appears that Pakistan has managed to score a major diplomatic victory.
On Saturday, the Foreign Office, issued a press release stating the OIC had unanimously adopted a resolution that condemned Indian tactics in the held region. Before the two-day event, the Foreign Office had rubbished the notion that the Kashmir issue would not be taken up, blaming it on “false Indian propaganda”.
Even then, there had been doubts; in August, Pakistan’s foreign minister had shown signs of impatience at the OIC’s delay in convening a foreign ministers’ meeting on Kashmir. In February, Prime Minister Imran Khan, during a visit to Malaysia, had himself spoken of divisions over the matter of Kashmir. Indeed, with India’s unlawful annexation of the disputed territory, and the worsening persecution of the Kashmiris, resolutions alone won’t do, and the OIC must take strong steps to draw the attention of world to the oppression and cruelty that reigns in the occupied land.
Meanwhile, divisions could be seen in other aspects; for instance, an official from Iran’s foreign ministry pointed to the growing bonhomie between Israel and some Arab nations on the verge of establishing formal relations with the Jewish state. Suspicious of Tel Aviv’s designs for decades now, the killing of yet another nuclear scientist near Tehran on Friday has led to Iranian allegations of an Israeli hand in the murder.
Many quarters have also linked the UAE’s recent decision to stop issuing new visas to citizens of a number of Muslim countries, including Pakistan, to the Emirates’ efforts to come closer to Israel. Not least among those concerned have been the Palestinians who see no hope for their future at a time when even their Arab brethren are leaving them at the mercy of an Israeli state that is expanding Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land besides resorting to brutal tactics against the Arab population. This is especially ironic when we consider that one of the OIC’s founding principles was to defend the Palestinian cause.
Muslim states talk of unity and rightly denounce Islamophobia which is gaining ground as right-wing forces leave no stone unturned to persecute Muslims and denigrate their religious and cultural beliefs. Ideally, the 57-member Islamic bloc should be a bulwark against the obscurantism that is now taking hold of the Western world. But its strength can only come from internal unity. While each member country has its own aspirations, it is the collective goal of a peaceful Islamic world that should set the tone for the OIC’s actions.
Moving from the margins
THE recently reported story of Nisha Rao, Pakistan’s first transgender lawyer, is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Like so many from the trans community, Nisha ran away from home and was forced to beg on the streets to make ends meet. For some time, she stood at traffic lights and begged in order to survive, but was determined to forge a new path for herself. As she earned enough to pay for law classes, she enrolled at school, earned a degree and licence, and this year joined the Karachi Bar Association. She now works with an NGO to fight for transgender rights, and is expanding her client base to include persons outside her community.
Nisha’s happy ending is no doubt uplifting. Yet for all her success and ambition, the early years of her independence were fraught with hardship. Social stigmas and systemic discrimination have pushed the trans community in Pakistan into begging and the sex trade for decades — options that trans people like Nisha are compelled to consider if they come out to their families and get shunned as a result. The abuse, harassment and judgement that trans people are subjected to are harrowing; not only are these people the victims of terrible violence, they are even denied space in morgues. In these circumstances, the fact that Pakistan became one of a few countries in the world to pass legislation protecting the rights of transgender people in 2018 is a ray of hope — and a testament to how hard the community has fought to be heard and recognised. In enshrining an individual’s right to determine their gender, the state made a historic decision to safeguard the rights of the community. But the road ahead is a long one. Trans people still face serious discrimination and violence, and are far from being represented in all walks of life. The government must continue to support the trans community and work on a public-awareness campaign that sensitises people about gender identity. Like Nisha, trans people should be represented across professions and given respect in keeping with their constitutional rights.