Dawn Editorial 28th October 2023

Barbaric mentality

SOME quarters are relentless when it comes to shaming women for simply existing. Blood-curdling misogyny moves heaven and earth to keep women on the periphery of society. Recently, a senior zoology teacher of a degree college was coerced by clerics in Bannu to “denounce Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and mixed gender gatherings, and declare that women are inferior to men”. The matter took an uglier turn when the academic was forced to provide an extensive undertaking whereby he yielded to the mediaeval notion of “women’s inferiority to men in terms of wisdom”, and even absolved the celebrants of Domel in Bannu district of all responsibility if any harm was to happen to him. Thisincident not only testifies to a base commitment towards the apartheid of women, it also highlights a dangerous mindset that abhors all civilised norms.

The fact that primitive recesses that employ religion as a weapon of absolute control over females still exist in a country that elected a young woman prime minister twice, is exasperating. What more will it take to secure a woman’s place in the public sphere? Our society should know better than any other that this version of misogyny is more than just relegating women to the status of lesser mortals. It is an outright rejection of their presence. In such a trenchant patriarchal matrix, the idea of consent is a far cry. In truth, exercising authority is a hazard. Their survival lies in surrendering to misinterpreted ideologies that make them unequal, voiceless underlings. It does not help thatPakistan’s feminist movement is as polarised as society: one side upholds women’s rights according to its own opinion of religious belief, while the other advocates a secular stance that stresses on detaching faith from sociopolitical discourse. Finally, for ‘imprisoned’ women to breathe easy, enlightened voices — including men, the clergy, activists and human rights groups — must break their vow of shocking silence.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2023

Holding centres

INTERIOR Minister Sarfraz Bugti has announced that all ‘illegal immigrants’ awaiting deportation from Pakistan to their respective countries will be put in ‘holding centres’. While briefing the media on Thursday, Mr Bugti ruled out an extension in the Oct 31 deadline for undocumented foreigners to leave, and shared the government’s ‘repatriation plan’ in the lead-up to the date. He gave assurances that the detainees will be provided medical facilities and food and that children, women and the elderly will be treated with “utmost respect”. He said the government will no longer ‘compromise’ on the issue, which the military has said is paramount for national security.

Mr Bugti’s briefing has raised several questions and concerns, not just about the logistics of implementing such a plan, but also about the unforeseen aspects of mass deportation. Firstly, let us address the logistics. According to international media reports, three such centres have been set up in KP, each capable of holding 5,000 people. As many holding facilities are being set up in Balochistan. This raises a fundamental question: how will such a massive number of individuals — of which Afghans alone number 1.7m according to Mr Bugti — be accommodated across the country? Are the facilities available adequate? Will the government provide clear and detailed plans for the practical execution of this policy or will we be left to imagine virtual concentration camps? State media is already referring to them as “detention centres”. Secondly, there is a pressing concern regarding the Oct 31 deadline for mass deportation. Such a swift and rigid timeline raises not just humanitarian concerns — as these pages have mentioned — but the sudden ejection of such a significant number of people might also have economic consequences. Many of these ‘illegal immigrants’ have likely, over the years, integrated into Pakistan’s workforce, contributing to various sectors. Their abrupt departure could create labour gaps and impact local businesses. Furthermore, the mass expulsion raises the likelihood of families being separated, inadequate access to legal processes, and the risk of leaving vulnerable individuals without support. It’s essential for the government to provide clarity on whether these individuals will have access to legal representation, especially if they contest their designation as ‘illegal’. A rushed and inhumane approach could have far-reaching consequences for the individuals involved and for Pakistan’s reputation on the global stage.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2023

Madressah reform

THOUGH religious schools have been part of the social fabric of the subcontinent — and indeed the larger Muslim world — for centuries, madressahs took on a geopolitical character in the 1980s in Pakistan, as many became recruiting centres for the Afghan ‘jihad’.

There has been no looking back since then where the mushrooming of seminaries is concerned, even if the state’s fervour for transnational ‘jihad’ has cooled.

Today, tens of thousands of religious schools exist in Pakistan — 35,000 as per official figures — in which around 3m pupils are enrolled. And while many such institutions do not promote militancy and extremism, a significant number do.

The Lal Masjid debacle of 2007, and the subsequent reign of terror unleashed by the banned TTP, are two major examples of the cleric-madressah nexus violently defying the state’s writ. Sectarian terrorism is another manifestation of the problem.

Madressahs flowered under the watchful eye of one military strongman, Ziaul Haq; then, another general, Pervez Musharraf, took up the gauntlet to ‘reform’ madressahs, partly at the prodding of the West to tackle the ‘war on terror’.

Many madressah reform initiatives have come and gone since the Musharraf era, with the state unable to address the problem in a progressive manner. In the latest development, over Rs1.2bn have been earmarked for the Directorate General of Religious Education, overseen by the federal education ministry, that will register and regulate seminaries.

Registration is a positive step, but curriculum reform is needed as well, not only to excise sectarian and hate material from madressah courses, but also to equip seminarians with the skills that will enable them to find gainful employment once they graduate.

With millions of students studying in seminaries, and thousands graduating every year, one must ask how these madressah alumni will be absorbed by society. After all, the country only needs a certain number of clerics; where will the rest go?

In the worst-case scenario, they may be attracted to militancy or remain jobless. That is why it is important to teach marketable vocational skills in madressahs, so that seminarians can join the labour market, and contribute to the economy.

Of course, many in the clergy have always opposed and will continue to resist madressah reform as they think the state is encroaching on their ‘turf’. Yet the state must press on with the reform project not only to address the threat of growing extremism, but also to add qualified individuals to the labour market.

Many low-income parents send their wards to madressahs so that they will be fed and have free lodging. This can be addressed by improving the public education system — a long-term project — and offering free school nutrition programmes. Ignoring the ever-expanding growth of madressahs is a recipe for continuing societal disorder.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2023

November 1, 2023

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