Attending the annual Stockholm Internet Forum for the second time last week, I felt very optimistic about Pakistan. There were six Pakistanis, four of them women, representing the country at the forum very well. Then, news came in from Lahore: a woman had been brutally beaten to death outside the Lahore High Court (LHC), while no one intervened. The contrast was amazing, even for the land of immense contradictions that our homeland truly is. Here we were putting our best foot forward at an international forum, while the news from back home belied our protestations of modernity and progressive outlook.
I returned to Pakistan with a heavy heart. After all, what indeed is the future of a country that has turned on itself? The killing of Dr Mehdi Ali is another case in point; a Pakistani-US cardiologist who came to serve humanity in his hometown was gunned down for his faith by ignorant fanatics. Nobody is safe. The price of loving Pakistan is a bullet in the head these days. Nawaz Sharif — meanwhile — speaking in Sahiwal, declared his ambition of turning Gwadar into a Singapore or a Hong Kong. How can that happen if the best and brightest that this country has to offer are gunned down with impunity? Mr Nawaz Sharif, your intentions notwithstanding, you will never achieve your stated ambitions unless you ensure that the people of Pakistan are brought into the modern world, even if kicking and screaming, by solid leadership. There can be no compromise with the forces of reaction, bigotry and backwardness if you hope to achieve even 10 percent of what you propose to.
As I reflected on the enormous disparity between Swedish and Pakistani societies, two things struck me. First and foremost is the equality that has been ensured, not just on a piece of paper, to women in Sweden. In some cases, gender roles and constructs have been reversed. Advertisements for diapers and children’s products often show men as primary caregivers. Second, the practical secularism of what was till 2000 an officially Lutheran Kingdom and which since has maintained the Church as a national institution. Till 1951, there was officially no religious freedom in the country but today it is home to refugees and oppressed religious minorities from the world over.
In comparison, Pakistan has ensured the continuation of patriarchy in its worst form alongside religious persecution, unprecedented for a commonwealth country, which had inherited the British tradition of law and justice. If that were not enough, we enacted through ordinance and popular acclaim laws in the 1980s onwards that defy common sense, degrade our religion, and destroy our humanity. Next, we have also failed to apply those laws fairly, stripping away the right of defence for those who have been accused under these laws. A person accused of blasphemy in Pakistan is as good as dead because no court of law is going to acquit him. Blasphemy itself extends, in the case of Ahmedis, to the simple act of saying ‘Assalamualaikum’ (Muslim greeting) or the act of reading the holy Quran. Those who commit honour killing get off the hook through a perverted interpretation of the law. Women are treated as property and, at best, symbols of honour for the family they belong to. If this symbol is ‘defiled’, she must be ‘bricked’ to death. Most of all though, a culture of fear is being perpetuated by certain groups, which seek to impose their narrow-mindedness on everyone else. Terrorist and sectarian groups are allowed to operate with impunity and kill people at will.
Pakistan needs now, more than ever, a strong anti-incitement law. Hate speech must be stamped out with an iron hand. Organisations that target specific groups on sectarian or religious basis must be outlawed without exception. Any religious scholar who promotes murder in the name of faith or encourages the mob to take the law into their own hands should be handed down the strictest sentence possible. Simultaneously, laws need to be formulated to protect our greatest asset, i.e. our women. The qisas and diyat law must be amended to create an exception for honour killings. That family members can first plot murder and then forgive the murderer can in no way be Islamic or in line with the spirit of Islamic law. Why bring our religion into disrepute for our own petty little egos dressed up conveniently in narratives of shame and honour?
Finally, there has to be an end to national suicide. Terrible as the ailment is, ours is not a unique case by any means, contrary to what our critics would have us believe. Those who engage in Schadenfreude at our expense have enough skeletons in their closet as well. The real question, however, before us is whether we are willing to let this state of affairs continue. The reason why nations fail, in a nutshell, is not because they do not have weapons but because they are unable to usher in a fair and just society. We need to build a society that respects law and order. A society that does not tolerate people with differing points of view is likely to implode. Pakistan’s finest are found on its margins, i.e. its women and its minorities. It is for this reason that fanatics target them. Let us band together to protect them because it is through them that we shall save ourselves.
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