My Pakistani Person of the Year 2018: Asma Jahangir

Source: United Nations/RFE-RL

A lot of people may not feel this way but perhaps there was not a Pakistani that was more important and critical to the country than Asma Jehangir. And this realization has become even greater with her death earlier this year. Asma Jehangir was easily the leading activist for secular democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. The realization of this void has only made the secular liberals and progressives in Pakistan realize about the grave challenges ahead of them.

Asma Jahangir was the brains behind the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and has also served as the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights for the United Nations. It is most remarkable how women tend to stand out in Pakistan for human rights efforts. While there is a long list of women who have broken through the shackles of an authoritarian, patriarchal state, the courage and initiative of Asma Jahangir were exceptional. She was also post-humously awarded the UN Human Rights Prize. Her work has inspired a generation in terms of the awareness of democracy and fundamental human rights, especially that of the oppressed women of the country.

One of the factors behind her position of moral authority was her non-partisan status. Not only was Asma Jehangir the leading crusader for human rights but she was also the biggest critic of the military establishment and their interventions in the political landscape of the country. However, it is only left to our imagination how she could have influenced the political landscape of a country in a partisan political position with a more authoritative role in the government.

The pro-democracy activists and political workers who have been left no choice but to clash with the military establishment is her legacy and that of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The organic support that Benazir Bhutto. Asma Jehangir was keeping the spirit of Benazir Bhutto and that of the scattered Pakistan left progressives alive in our times. This is why you will only find center-left groups mostly celebrating her and mourning her loss in Pakistan.

Source: Dawn/AFP

Another figure who has been instrumental in resisting and pushing democracy in the legacy of Asma Jehangir and the great Benazir Bhutto is Maryam Nawaz Sharif. The daughter of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been influential in changing the face of PML-N from a traditionalist center-right party to perhaps the only popular establishment political force in Punjab. Maryam Nawaz Sharif has currently taken the role in a struggle that Benazir Bhutto was going through in 1996 and throughout the rest of her life in exile. Nevertheless, confident in her father’s ability to make a political come back, she is standing her ground against the military establishment for civilian supremacy.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif has remained defiant in the face of incarceration for controversial accountability court verdicts, which are nothing new in Pakistan’s political history, along with her father who was dismissed from the position of Prime Minister in July 2018. This was the 3rd interrupted term of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been elected to the office more than any other person in the history of Pakistan. Like 1997, his election in 2013 also occurred with a landslide majority offering them legislative freedom that was only limited by the control of the upper house by the PPP.

Source: Dawn

Maryam Nawaz is perhaps going to be the most important political figure in the years to come. However, her commitment to democracy and civilian supremacy will remain to be tested in the years to come, especially with regressive leaders such as her own husband Captain Safdar contaminating an otherwise reasonable party.

Of course, the winners this year were the First Couple, and the year of the triumph of Imran Khan finally came in 2018. His influence on Pakistan and especially that of his First Lady and the Army Chief in shaping the first six months of his administration and will remain to be pivotal in the years to come.

Happy New Year and here’s to another year in Pakistan.

Read about my Pakistani of the year 2017 here.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2017: The Missing Blogger

Source: Beena Sarwar

Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Salman Haider and the original Bhensa, with all of them largely unrelated but contributing in their own right to the cause of free speech, other than many more bloggers that have been abducted by the Pakistani deep state have made an impact on the society never seen before in the country.

This is the effect of the age of social media.

The year 2017 revealed the ugly, draconian face of the government and the state of Pakistan to its relatively insulated urban population like never before. I came to know first about the urgency of the issue when American scholar Christine Fair tweeted about the safety of Bhensa, a satirical antithetical blogger known for his scathing criticism of Islam in particular, and who obviously got harassed by patriotic bloggers in return.

Pakistan has always been an undemocratic and authoritarian country in its true essence. Meet its figures in the government, even including many in elected office, and their view on state affairs and the people of Pakistan are bound to disappoint the democrat.However, the abduction of the dissident bloggers finally truly revealed the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Pakistan to the entire world, with the most prominent news media around the globe covering the news from the New York Times to the Daily Telegraph.

The civil protest against the abduction of the bloggers still was not quite near as strong as it should have been but it did attract attention around the world. One nightmare that the Pakistani military establishment is not used to is the urban civilian educated population protesting against it.

The way the Pakistani deep state entities have approached the dissenting bloggers really reveal the thought process behind repressing political dissidents in the country. Things were going all smooth with the detention and extrajudicial killings of the Baloch resistance at home but considering the local backlash and the critical coverage in the international media about the blogger issue, perhaps this is the reason why all three of the most prominent bloggers were returned home unlike people finding their roadside corpse as previously found in the case of journalists like Saleem Shahzad.

The page Bhensa reappeared as well. However, there are still question marks behind the true identity of Bhensa thought to be Ahmed Raza Naseer of Nankana Sahib, another one of detained and acquitted bloggers, but one way or the other, the page has arguably never been restored to its original expression since the abduction. On facebook, the Bhensa ID is used to actually run an anti-liberal page.

All the returned bloggers said that they were tortured in their own way. Some like Netherlands based Goraya, perhaps the most defiant of them all, were more vocal and more explicit about what happened to them. He also directly accused the Pakistani military while speaking in the a side event of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Others like Salman Haider were far subtler, being a gentle, poetic soul caught up in the storm.

A national campaign of disinformation was launched by the trolls and journalists on the dark side to accuse the detained bloggers of blasphemy. Prominent news anchors and social conservative anchors, some of which are often the usual suspects for any cause backed by the deep state, were in the forefront to build up public anger and hate against the liberal bloggers.

Something which the state apparatus strongly backs to this day as new ways of legitimizing the hunt to crack down on free speech are being put into effect. Blogger Taimur Raza became the first to be sentenced to death for blasphemy on social media by a “counter-terrorism court.” What a joke! Another Ayaz Nizami is under detention for the same accusations. Back in August, even Punhal Sario, a Sindhi activist campaigning for the return of missing activists is thought to go missing himself. Most recently, peace activist Raza Khan has gone missing with no resolution to his case to this last day of 2017.

But it was not revealed who the great souls of justice were who were dispensing justice to the blaspheming bloggers. Only recently have the bloggers been acquitted by the courts of any such allegations due to the complete lack of evidence. Which begs the question why the dangerous tradition of blasphemy hunting goes unpunished and without reprimand in Pakistan. And like always, you could count on the disgusting goons of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah to harass and pelt stones at the activists supporting the bloggers.

However, I do not consider this verdict as a moment to celebrate as such since the legitimacy of these courts has already been tarnished for standing behind the draconian blasphemy law and announcing death sentences to freethinking citizens who committed no offense to humanity.

Despite the efforts of cover up by mainstream media in Pakistan, which is in the complete clutches of the military establishment, and despite other distractions on the political front, the impact the missing blogger has made on the civil society has proved to be the most moving. This issue has raised questions about the conscience of the society claiming to protect free speech and democracy.

They have been currently haunting M. Jibran Nasir, arguably the most progressive voice in mainstream politics, and an honorable mention is due for my Pakistani of the year 2014. The notorious TV Channel Bol Network has been in the forefront of targeting Jibran Nasir for raising his voice for the rights of Ahmedi citizens, which in his opinion is due to his opposition to the acquittal of the murder of a Karachi youth named Shahzeb at the hands of the son of a feudal from the Jatoi tribe. Whatever may be Jibran Nasir’s reasons, I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about changing the Second Amendment, and same goes for Minister Zaid Hamid et al.

In 2017, an elected Prime Minister was disqualified and ejected by the Supreme Court and when a group of Barelvi clerics brought the state down to its knees. But none of that matters and have had an impact on the consciousness of a nation like the missing blogger, perhaps only second to the brutal murder of Mishaal Khan, which arguably was largely ignored anyway.

But these missing bloggers still came from some layers of privilege in the Pakistani society, but as many of them have been pointing out like Sabeen, who is going to care about the struggle of the missing persons in Baluchistan?

Read about my Pakistani person of the year 2017 here.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

Well, it feels like as if I were writing a single post for the free speech hero and this one. But believe it or not, this has been the impact of Qandeel Baloch on the Pakistani society, in my opinion. She offered Pakistanis the necessary shockwave that was needed to break their convenient slumber of socially conservative morality. It was a much needed first shock needed to a population that is a bit too uptight about its sexuality while tolerating all sorts of perversions under the cover.

To her credit, model and liberal social media icon Qandeel Baloch single-handedly cleared up that suffocation a little. With a little help from earlier stars such as Mathira. A heroic model who appeared in a much-needed ad for a much-needed commodity in Pakistan. Condoms. Of course, the ad was banned. But condoms are not. More power to her.

Qandeel Baloch, alias Fauzia Azeem, started as an apparently cheap social media sensation, and slowly started gaining the sort of following that no one could ever anticipate. Her fame was further catapulted by the local media because, let’s face it, her unusually bold glamor sold like anything in a market thirsting for it. But little did her clueless audience realize that she was making statements that went beyond just fun and games.

Now, I wish I knew more about her. I wish I had followed her more and had not dismissed her in the way most ordinary Pakistanis had. I hardly ever followed her videos. I wish I had paid more attention to the buzz about her in the local media, but I knew what was largely going on about her person. At least I cannot accuse myself of ever condemning and rejecting her. At least morally and politically, I always found a supporter of her in myself.

When writing this post, I simply cannot put into words what Qandeel Baloch has really accomplished. She has been dubbed the Pakistani Kim Kardashian, a reality icon widely mocked for her superficially extravagant lifestyle and social media selfies. Imagine how big a reality star she would have become had she appeared in Bigg Boss on Indian TV.

Qandeel’s own lifestyle had become something similar from her humble beginnings, though nowhere near extravagant as that of the Hollywood superstar who never had to face any such odds in her life. Qandeel Baloch came from a much more difficult background and never ever really enjoyed the “privilege” you could accuse her of enjoying. Well, being a woman in Pakistan is enough to explain it, for that matter.

Now I hear that double Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has made a film on her life. Even though I was considering her to be the nominee for this title of mine this year, but even if she were to win three straight Oscars in a row, she would never have been able to pull off what Qandeel Baloch did. Perhaps no one could, short of a Pakistani Larry Flynt. Hell, not even such a character. And yes, a part of it is being a woman.

Qandeel Baloch’s sense of self-righteousness and of being morally upright came from a mix of the modern urban Pakistani liberalism, as well as the social conservative background of her roots in South Punjab. In an interview with Sohail Warraich recorded just before her death, you would hear her being a snob toward the “vulgar” mujra dancers. Being pro-mujra, that slightly offended me.

No, these women are not prostitutes. And yes, prostitutes are honorable women too. But I leave aversion to mujra as a personal aesthetic preference, as opposed to being a matter of making cultural judgments.

Unfortunately, she was accused herself of vulgarity by people from her ranks and from the less liberal sections of the more progressive Pakistani urban classes. You know, for twerking and not dressing up according to the standards ordained by the Sharia. Don’t believe me? Google for any of her videos and observe the titles from the socially conservative uploaders.

As I have often said, it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of what amounts to vulgar and what does not in Pakistan. I am not even sure what the word really means anymore.

And another thing that I like repeating is that it is easy to talk about feminist ideals. It is very hard to live them up in a society and industry dominated by men, who are going to attack you like a vicious pack of wolves from all directions and every chance they get. So it was obligatory for someone like me to defend her every chance I get. I have respect for what she did.

As I said, it is hard to articulate the impact of Qandeel Baloch. Through her bold antics, she proved how confined and captivated the Pakistani women really are. Through her outspokenness, she proved how tolerant our society really is. She basically demonstrated how free women are in our society and how hypocritical we are about our sexuality in public. She also proved how easily our men are willing to put our women to death for “honor.”

She was a resounding slap in the face of every woman-hating man rejecting the notion that Pakistan is not a society dominated by men.

She helped expose how disgusting religious clerics can be when it comes to women and in ways nobody could even imagine before.

She tested and questioned our moral compass in a complicated world in which we take it for granted, and exposed our hypocrisy harmlessly.

She showed how easy it was to kill in Pakistan, and for what reasons.

She made us feel immensely proud of being a Pakistani and made us feel immensely ashamed at the same time.

In that sense, she has been an iconoclast of the revolutionary proportions in her individual capacity. Nobody even comes close.

I learned about the news of her murder while I was on a shoot in Karachi this year’s July, right when I was in the middle of people in front of who I had to defend Qandeel Baloch. On that day, it seemed I really had no other substantial purpose to my existence. Not that there would be any otherwise. But when her brother and former husband are found involved in her murder, it is hard not to feel disappointed.

And the government also did not take her requests for security seriously.

I know a lot of people believe that a lot more people were so much more important to Pakistan this terrible year. But honestly, I don’t have time to think about those self-proclaimed saviors of this country. Because seriously nobody did this much for the Pakistani society for decades. Nobody in the history of this country ever promised a striptease for a Pakistani cricket star.

Qandeel Baloch is the star of the age of social media. I know she came into prominence from a Pakistan Idol audition, but it was social media that really took her voice to the people. So in many ways, in the transformation of the Pakistani society to more liberal and open ideas, social media is as much a star as are the people whose voices it is empowering.

And don’t let me forget. She is not my Pakistani Person of the Year because she was killed. Far from it. You know a lot of people died in 2016, including Edhi. It was not the death of Qandeel Baloch that made her special, but her life. It is her impact on the society that has outlived her, and it is our responsibility as citizens to carry it forward and fight ignorance, illiberalism, and obscurantism.

All I can say is that as a Pakistani citizen, I salute Qandeel Baloch and applaud her for her courage to express her sexuality. She is and must be an inspiration to all of us. Shame on us for not valuing her enough.

Farewell, and rest in peace, you brave, beautiful soul.

Read about my Pakistani person of the last year here.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2015: Malala Yousafzai

Source: REUTERS/Cornelius Poppe/NTB

Source: REUTERS/Cornelius Poppe/NTB

Much to the chagrin of our nationalist critics, Malala Yousafzai keeps on achieving great things. And she is destined for even greater things.

If she is a foreign paid agent, then God knows we need thousands more like her, and would thank the generous foreign power for allocating such funds to a Pakistani girl. But if only the world were such a magical place.

2015 was the year in which Malala transcended the Pakistani nationality, and became what every human individual ought to be. A Citizen of the World. In the true sense of the expression.

Focusing on just one country does not even matter anymore, neither does justice to her vision for humanity.

On the turn of this year, Malala Yousafzai became the first ever Pakistani and Pashtun woman and the youngest ever person to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Malala Yousafzai is my Pakistani person of the year for showing Pakistan what the right to education really means and for teaching adults how to raise their children, especially girls. In many ways, she always will be because we would hardly see an individual as brave and as bright in any time to come.

Malala has earlier worked for the education for Nigerian girls, particularly those affected by Boko Haraam. She is now working for the education of Syrian refugee children, which are probably the most troubled individuals in this world. She is leading by example for not waiting for others to take action by founding the Malala Fund.

It is only ironical that Malala comes from a country where the lawmakers have declared education as a right of all citizens, without providing any plan for it, or even understanding what that means. Malala’s critics are not aware that she is only echoing the ideals of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Don’t worry too much if Malala Yousafzai is not working for Pakistan in your opinion.

She has beaten death to fight for her cause. Shrugging off these taunts and allegations are not going to bother her, though these words could be sharper than bullets and blades. But then again, demanding education for girls is a serious crime in a society that constantly laments about the lack of it rhetorically.

Your opinion judging her nationalistic loyalty does not even matter anymore.

She has moved on to do greater things.

Happy New Year.

Donate to the Malala Fund here.

Read about my Pakistani person of the last year here.