Down and Out in Islamabad

March 19, 2011

19th March, 2011

It’s raining buckets and the sun is peeping out every now and then. It’s going to be a quiet weekend after last weekend’s jaunt outside Islamabad to see what’s left of the Mogul buildings about 3-4 hours drive into the Punjab country side.

Islamabad isn’t a rocking city by any standards, but after visiting Lahore and Karachi, sister cities that get better press from locals and foreigners, I am growing to like it. I can see the Margella Hills, the foothills of the Himalayas, in the distance from my bedroom window. The city is lush, green and the air is crisp, fresh, and inviting.

This weekend is the first weekend since Raymond Davis, the alleged CIA contractor arrested for killing two Pakistanis, has been released and handed back to the US authorities. Nation-wide protests and demonstrations are taking place. Most of these demonstrations are taking place near Parliament buildings and the Diplomatic Enclave, the red zone in the city. Ever since I have arrived in Islamabad the Raymond Davis case has coloured politics, making it difficult to work on other areas.

Anyway this isn’t a political rant, it’s about my weekend. I haven’t updated this blog much, in fact there’s been quite a gap since I left Nepal; and you wouldn’t know I spent 2 years in China. I didn’t write much on China because well, I was always paranoid about the Chinese authorities picking something up and it landing me in trouble. I am not a coward as such, but you’d have to be a fool to live in China as a foreigner and constantly rant about human rights. Now might be a good time to start – with distance as comfort.

Back to Islamabad. I went to a party last night. Beforehand we went to dinner at a restaurant in town called Rok my café – a new restaurant set up a business man who owns a fleet of Harley Davidson motorbikes, including some rare motorcycle model from 1912, one of only 3 in the world. The evening drove home to me the different parts to Pakistan that escape the world when we report and talk about Pakistan. While it’s only a partial and unrepresentative insight into Pakistan, it still is Pakistan. I was introduced to a novelist who had just written a book called Invitation, about a Pakistani who returns back to Karachi after a long exile in the 1970s and finds himself in the middle of a dispute. The backdrop with Bangladeshis of then East Pakistan is prevalent in the novel, though not by any means a central story, and it’s this, which sparked my interest.

The one prevailing thought I keep having about Pakistan, though, is how much Islamabad thinks of Pakistan as if it was just the Punjab. Punjab is one of several provinces in Pakistan – but by no means the poorest (this is Baluchistan in the north where donors and NGOs fear to go, but some do). I suspect this is a big problem for Pakistan – until the government starts thinking about Pakistan, as more than the Punjabi population, quite a lot of the country’s problems will remain unsolved. Punjabis dominate decision-making in the country, but Punjab isn’t where the country’s intractable problems lie – these are elsewhere, so any solution to these big problems have got to come from working with the other provinces and beyond federal/national politics. The political tide seems to be going this way, with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the National Constitution, which directed power and responsibility to the four provinces directly in April 2010, but it’s still a long way to go.


Dal Bat till Death

March 11, 2009

I wanted to write a piece on women in Nepal. It’s been taking some time. I wanted to believe that some progress was being made in the country a year after the historic elections bringing the Maoists to power in April 2008. Much has been expected from the new Maoist-led leadership. The international community has stood side-by-side – willing the new government to take bold reforms and seize a historic opportunity for reform.

If you speak to people in the local streets, they do not carry much optimism. My neighborhood is in Patan, near Kathmandu. I, on the other hand, have a lot of the innocence or the mistaken thoughts that comes with being foreign. Last week my optimism crumbled within  a few seconds and with it came a realisation that the person on the street has infinately more at stake in the new Nepal. For this reason  she might only feel a quiet hope.

Recently I was reminded by a friend that I don’t seem as outspoken against cultural norms that prohibit women from living their lives as equals in my society – whatever my society is. I always thought I did, but then didn’t want to join the cheerleading that goes on with misunderstanding developing country societies. I’m often the one arguing for understanding arguments from both sides, and wanting to work with men and communities to reduce the risk of vulnerability girls and women face in combating sexism, discrimination and violence. Sometimes, though, some issues are just that: black and white – and bringing ‘culture’ into the discussion simply excuses inexcusable human behavior.

‘Sanu’ (name changed), a young women living just outside Kathmandu had died from being beaten to death by her husband two weeks ago. ‘Sanu’ is my friend Pralad’s sister, and when Pralad told me the news of his tragedy I wasn’t sure if I heard it right. He told me in broken English and Hindi, both of which were second languages to him. Judging by the sounds of his voice, intermittently broken by cries, I knew death had occurred. It’s not often you see grown men crying in pain – and this is how I saw Pralad for the next few days. ‘Sanu’ had married a close relative who was comparatively better-off  than her own family. She was severely beaten at night; in the previous day she had hot oil poured onto her body’; and was then made to drink a toxic liquid. The cause of death was officially recorded as poisoning.

Sadly this is not an isolated tragedy but one that is repeated again and again in different parts of the county – in villages, across towns, in the hills and the plains. Nepal’s 10 year-long conflict has ended, but still tens of thousands of women in the country still suffer from domestic violence. In about 80% of cases, the perpetrator is not a stranger to the woman but a member of her own family.

Despite rising political awareness of rights, most women in Nepal are still subject to deeply entrenched discrimination, resulting in a common place situation where violence against them is commonplace. A lack of rights for women and children is exacerbated by the enduring poverty in the country. Nepal is the least developed  country in South Asia according to  the United Nation ( source: 2006 UN Human Development Index). It also has one of the worst records of gender-based violence in Asia.

Human rights activists say domestic violence is rife in Nepal because there is a lack of effective laws or penalties to punish the guilty. The men can get away with such crimes with as little as a slap on the wrist.

Currently a 2002 bill to combat domestic violence is on hold with no prospects of being passed.

The bill is an important piece of legislation that could support Nepalese women who suffer in silence. Without such a law, men abusing their wives can get off without punishment or sanction since in many cases social attitudes make it acceptable for men and other senior members of the family to control the women in the house.

Domestic violence continues because people think it is acceptable and will turn a blind eye. Again, many people see domestic abuse as acceptable – the odd slap here and there for burning food or refusing to have sex with a husband or simply going out. The law is one step in promoting change.  Human rights NGOs in Nepal say that many crimes like marital rap, sexual abuse by relatives, trafficking and torture of girls and women, will all have some origin in domestic violence. Changing people’s attitudes to domestic violence is also needed.  This is the  common theme in campaigns on violence against women in such places as Nepal, Nairobi, and Northern Ireland.

The biggest challenge  in Nepal is that domestic violence is seen as a private family affair, and outside intervention is seen as just that – interference.

If there is one law I’d like to see passed in the next year and one that shows the commitment of the new government to a better future for Nepalese women – it’s the Domestic Violence Bill. I write this on 8th March on International Women’s Day with thoughts of ‘Sanu’ and thousands like her on my mind.

“Let’s talk about class baby, let’s talk about you and me.”

October 19, 2008

(Written sometime in early 2005)

My time spent in Dhaka in 2004 was revealing for what I learned about Britain. Dhaka is a different and distance place from the experience of Britain’s Bangladeshis in London. This is not just because they mostly come from Sylhet, a region with a distinct identity of its own. Neither is it explained by the fact that they come from rural parts and find Dhaka to be the big metropolis. British Bangladeshis aren’t afraid of big cities, if you can survive and cope in London, one of the few global premier cities in the world, well, you can safely say, that the country bumpkin rule doesn’t apply. Or does it? My parents generations did survive the vagaries of London in the late 60s, early 70s and Enoch, too, with barely a penny to rub between your hands, sleeping in bunk beds with single men, without the company of wives and security of family – and English language. Yet somewhere along the way these men, their wives, daughters and sons, became frightened of Dhaka, the capital city of their ancestral homelands. Sylhet, on the other hand, is a different story. Sylhet these days is testimony to the strength of the remittance taka – it is a million taka baby. The confidence this has given to British Bangladeshis is phenomenal. It’s like the Brits in Spain. There’s plenty of new money, flash cars, and new build monster new houses. The rest of the country is miffed at the newfound wealth because it’s unsettled age-old traditions that cut along class/caste lines. But Dhaka remains the big smoke in the minds of British Bangladeshis who are also too old now to go beyond their comfort zones. In 2002 I travelled to Bangladesh with my whole family – this includes the extended family, how we could afford to go to Bangladesh in one go, is a minor miracle, but go we did. It turned out to be a difficult and challenging trip. I thought I hated Bangladesh. But it turns out travelling abroad with any large group might be unpleasant. I wasn’t open minded enough to see that perhaps my feelings about the country were really bound up with my feelings about seeing Bangladesh in a different way to my parents. I desperately needed to get to terms with Bangladesh and not through the eyes of my parents.

The Dhaka I arrived at in the end of 2004 was different. I had no family with me and barely knew anyone in the city or the country. I had no inclination to meet up with anyone I knew and came in September with feelings of nervousness. It’s not like I hadn’t travelled before or lived away from home. But there was something special about going back to Bangladesh. I was born in Bangladesh, in the villages but through a dint of colonial accident, disaster or genius (long history lesson) grew up in East London in the UK.

The aid world in Dhaka is another kettle of fish all together, though. It’s like the Islington equivalent of NGO headquarters where engagement with poverty is, like the people in Islington, intellectual. The contact with poverty and understanding of poverty has come through work. When I visited my village home again, I was struck by rural poverty, but through work I also saw the urban slums. Through my interactions with middle class Bangladeshis who had migrated to Dhaka I learned about the sacrifices their parents had made to educate them. I came to know the usefulness of English and technology in finding a job – far more meaningful than simply having a degree, and worse, yet, the value of a degree from Bangladesh being less than one from the elusive ‘west’. In the end, though, there wasn’t a huge amount different in the struggles in Dhaka to the struggles I see in London. The scale of poverty is vastly different, for sure, and the kind of transparency we take for granted in the UK, is nowhere to be found in the corridors of power in Bangladesh. However, the desires and the motivation of ordinary people remain the same. I am always struck when foreigners come to developing countries and watch the country through a prism that is always foreign, so whenever they try and understand something, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just the culture.’ While some things might be explained by culture (itself a foreign word to me, and according to the literary theorist, Eagleton, one of the most complicated words in the English dictionary to define, despite the best efforts of anthropologists), most things are explained by paying attention to detail.

I only made few Bengali friends but not enough as I had hoped which didn’t leave me feeling proud. But connecting with local friends is tricky, it’s like when you travel, never really connecting but spending vast amounts of time, watching the world go by and connecting pieces of knowledge you pick up from the street conversation and the back-packers eager to show off what they know about a new city. In my case I’ve substituted back packers with aid workers, though they don’t show off as much as they try and extrapolate ‘culture.’ I don’t drink myself but spent 80% of my social time visiting bars with friends. This was in a dry country. It’s the age-old colonial ritual: foreigners drinking away to forget the hardships of colonial lands. I read Burmese Days and couldn’t really get over the accuracy of the man so many years ago or is it more impressive that things rarely change? Bangladesh has the reputation of being a hard country to work in. But neither would these aid folks be happy to settle in their small houses in Europe. So…. Nuff said.

This isn’t an article that’s ignorant of the poverty and inequality in Bangladesh. It’s supposed to show a different way of looking at Bangladesh. When I say I spent time in Dhaka it was mostly in Gulshan area, which is where the posh people live, a tiny privileged section of the country, it must be said, it was nice to see that Bangladesh wasn’t the basket case that we all expect it to be – but the rich sit firm and tact wherever you go in the world. If we didn’t have these elites we can kiss goodbye any hopes to see economic development in Bangladesh.

But the time I spent in Dhaka made me reflect more on my life in inner London. I positively loved being a Londoner, and exuded London from my lungs, but never completely belonged in Britain, or anywhere else. I was happy with this uncertainty. I didn’t want to fit in to the professionally networked world of work in London anymore than fit into the Dhaka development happy d-mob. I was content at not passing any cricket tests – I would’ve failed instantly having not the faintest idea about cricket rules or the rules of the game that govern Britain or Bangladesh. It was fun to bat for whichever side your principles fell on, I hated boundaries, hated being boxed. So I guess I turned up in Dhaka, starry and wonder eyed with expectations – for exactly what I wasn’t sure. Perhaps I needed longer to understand a new city and get to now it’s pulse – and carve out a bit of the city for myself. My expectations might’ve been high of coarse, and my constant flight through life without fitting in anywhere might go a long way in explaining things. But mostly, my time away re-affirmed what I knew: that people mix and mingle and work with similar people like themselves the same everywhere else in the globe – and rarely go outside their social networks. Human beings are driven by a desire to belong, fit in, and try and mould themselves into images they already know. There’s an occasional flirtation with difference when we’re young, and those that don’t conform have a hard time and get heart attacks early – but the old ties stay the same. In the end – 19th century conservatives like Edmund Burke had it right perhaps – better the devil you know…

A very ordinary British Muslim voice

July 7, 2008

“There is no such thing as the single monolithic ‘British Muslim community’ that our politicians and media discuss. Britain’s one and a half million or so Muslims belong to a remarkably diverse set of communities; in all, it is estimated, there are over 50 ethnicities speaking almost 100 languages between them.

The voices of ordinary British Muslims are rarely, if ever, heard [amid the torrent of 9/11 and 7/7 inspired rage] – and, let it be clearly said, the representation of Islam and their lives by the media in their own country.”

– Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit)

I can’t tell you how pleased I was to read this on the Open Democracy site by Stuart Weir, whom I last read when I was a student, aged 18, naïve about the world I was about to go into. For a long time since 9/11 and 7/7, I was troubled by the extent to which discussion about British Muslims was becoming an open season for attack. And I don’t mean BNP-style attacks on the streets, but the polite dinner conversations about Muslim issues with liberal non-Muslim friends, including a large section of Asians who’d grown tired of being whitewashed as Muslims, which always ended up with the unspoken words – ‘You’re alright, you’re moderate, you’re not like the rest’. Lots of British Asians growing up in Britain in the 1980s would be familiar with those words at school. Then, being Muslim wasn’t the issue; just being different was enough. But I don’t think anyone took them as a compliment.

My voice is the voice of Mr Weir’s ordinary Muslim. It isn’t extremist and irrational – but neither is it the white-washed sanitised one, where keeping your head down is the premium. I work as part of the campaign to end global poverty by 2015. When I was younger, I fought a different battle in Brick Lane on Sunday, making tea for the anti-racist demos against the National Front. Today, sometimes I still fight the battle at home with my family and loosely labeled ‘community’ about women’s equality as I would do to promote gender equality in the British workforce. Times change, tactics change – but the old fight is always the same – it’s about keeping the space open for civic liberty. The fight just gets blurred when political temperatures are high – and fear grips us when we think about indiscriminate bombs on our home soil. But toleration isn’t judged in peacetime, someone once reminded me, but during times of crisis and war – and this is the true mark for a freedom-loving country.

This isn’t a nostalgic reflection on how Muslims are treated in the UK on the eve of the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. Others will have a better empirical handle of this. It’s about how we hold on to some very British home truths. The real tragedy of 7/7 has been the cracks in the British Left, which was already in demise since the 1980s, over how to align multiculturalism, class and gender. After 7/7 multiculturalism apparently drew its last breath, and toleration of difference is now on its last legs. Civic liberties have been eroded as politicians from all sides try and win votes.

What needs to be remembered as we reflect on the past few years tonight, before charging more ammunition that it was the Muslims that did it, and they should stop pleading victim-hood, is that there are bigger political stakes. If British Muslims lose their sense of belonging in this country, the greater ‘we’ lose something far more precious: a sense of liberty for all.

Go Republic

May 28, 2008

It’s the eve of the republic – the end of 240 years of dynastic rule in Nepal. It is a momentous day for the Nepalese – the culmination of political forces that begun with the Maoist-led insurgency ten years ago, the people’s revolution in the streets of Kathmandu in 2006 and the historic election for the Constituent Assembley where the Maoists won a shock victory on 10th April 2008. Tomorrow Nepal will be declared a republic. It’s interesting times to be living in Nepal .

Still I Rise

May 24, 2008

A friend sent me this the other day and it made me smile. It made me think of all my girlfriends – and their ways and styles and I imagined them ‘walking’ this poem as the words ran through their minds.  I am rediscovering writings that I came across when I was a lot younger – poems and pieces that I stopped reading because there was always something new to read in the internet or some mystery that needed resolving in my head about why the world is as it is.  And I loved coming back to this.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

A Tale of Two Cities – First Bites, First Impressions

September 17, 2007

Written in July 2007 , Photo by Kois Miah

I hear one of the best things about living in Kathmandu is that in October you can drive to onto one of the local roads in Pulchowk and see the city surrounded by the mighty Himalayan. The country’s natural beauty is cruelly deceiving and not unsurprisingly I find that Nepal is not the happy clappy tourist destination it could be. Okay, we knew that a decade long insurgency has just ended but actually living through the transition has its moments. The papers are full of coverage of political violence sweeping across the Terai region (a third of Nepal’s geographical mass). Kathmandu regularly comes to a halt from strikes and protests. I don’t have a low threshold to stress or risk but whoa – I am not used to this. I’m not a conflict adrenaline junkie just yet . I guess for people working in the aid business this is all part of the scene – but for a home girl like me it is all very alien The ex-patsy lifestyle doesn’t take away the stress of a divided country, which not infrequently bursts into flames of political violence. I am waiting for that moment, that tipping point, when I understand what is bubbling below the surface. Life is infinitely more difficult for the Nepalese especially during the curfews. It is early days and I may be overly sensitive.

Going back to the streets. The ordinary people are on the streets burning tires. The streets were a major party in the toppling of the regime following the 10-year insurgency – the insurgency wasn’t targetted against humanity but it was an insurgency for humanity – for basic freedoms and rights, giving Nepal’s recent civil war an unusual twist compared to other internal conflicts . Anyways, a risk expert told me not to worry too much, and pointing to a map of Nepal, he told me that the Terai was a long way away from Kathmandu – and the blob (Maoist heartland) where the insurgency started, was also far, far, away. He was surprised I took this seriously and was less outraged by the pollution, the electricity black outs and the fuel shortages for instance. What bothered me were the pending elections in November – which if delayed will cut away at the fragile peace. There is no charismatic leader here to forge any political breakthrough and so old fashioned structures like political systems are the fledging kingdom’s only hope for restoration.

Still, the lovely thing about living in Kathmandu is that on weekends you can hide away into the mountains and the valley encircling the city. We had been planning to trip outside the valley for a few days but the national strikes (Nepal ‘Band’ which translates as “Nepal Stopping”) kept being called and the roads were blocked and too many disturbances. But finally today we got away, up into the valley, high and high, all the way up to 2100 meters above sea level to Nagorkot, where everyone goes at some point in Kathmandu, and it’s the perfect hill side resort, giving a panoramic view of the Himal (mountains) in Nepal. Coming up to Nagorkot was a charming journey – save the bumps we got from the car. Monsoon for me is simply the most beautiful time of the year in Nepal. The rain kept falling down the terraced rice patches on the hills. These gleamed in a brilliant lush green, occasionally broken by the image of a red or yellow umbrella. People were working in the fields in the rain and they were using the umbrella as shelter as they worked away. It made for a pretty sight – though working hours in the fields under the rain was probably not that enjoyable. The view from Nagorkot is stunning. Even though the monsoon clouds dominate the skyline we got lucky and as we sipped a lemon soda we looked across in wonder as slowly the clouds started clearing to reveal perfectly formed snow-capped mountains – all above 7000 meters, so pretty and beautiful, they looked unreal and dream like. It wasn’t the best view (you have to come back when less rainy in September or October) but really and truly – who cares, it was still majestic. We’d have to come back and see the world’s best sunset and sunrise another day.

This was a start to my first week in Nepal. Not bad for a girl who grew up in the city but is more enamoured by the mountains than the sea or skyskrapers. It was a perfect moment. Shaira and I broke into wide smiles, forgetting instantly the sibling spars from the previous few nights. She was annoyed that neither of us had a camera with us – but I didn’t need a picture to help me remember the mighty Himalayan peaks – these are firmly etched in my memories – it was almost 10 years ago when I first came to Nepal as a happy clappy tourist chick, and now still felt stirred and madly excited about the adventure awaiting me. Watching the peaks I found myself thinking – this must be what it feels like to be on top of the world – literally feeling like you could be riding on air and nothing else matters in the world.