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Why it is not time for gay rights in Pakistan

June 26, 2011

In the wake of the same-sex marriage bill passed by the New York Senate some people are supporting similar kind of rights for the (still closeted) gay community in Pakistan. In my view, it is disastrous to even think of it at this moment.

First, the gay community in the United States achieved their current rights after decades of continuous social, political and legal struggle. Yet even today, several states including the US federal government do not recognize civil union/partnership. Some states permit civil unions but they don’t equalize those to marriage. According to public wishes, like federal government, states also have their version of Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to preserve the sanctity of marriage – that is a marital union between a man and a woman. This means that a civil union/partnership entered into one state is not recognized either on the federal level or in states which prohibit such unions. So if a same-sex couple enters into a civil partnership in Washington, D.C. – that union will not be recognized in Ohio. In Pakistan, on the other hand, there is no gay organization to document the discrimination they face and to convince the society for their rights.

Second, keeping the US case in view, we must remember that although there is no official religion in the US, still based on the cultural and social sensitivities majority of people do not favor the gay rights. Gay phobia is still prevalent in the US society. Moreover, the conservative groups are actively engaged in lobbying against the gay rights. Imagine about Pakistan where religious minorities are persecuted; people have no access to justice while the situation of women’s rights is dismal; will it be appropriate to raise a voice for the gay rights at this time.

Third, until recently, sodomy was a punishable crime in the several US states. In 2003 the US Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas decriminalized consensual sex between adults of the same sex. There is no Supreme Court ruling yet in terms of giving them equal rights such as a right to marry and having kids. In Pakistan sodomy is a punishable crime. This means the first step should be to repeal that law.

Fourth, the gay rights activists claim rights under the ‘equal protection’ clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution which says: “…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In contrast, Pakistan’s Constitution is Islamic in nature. Given the unanimous consensus in the Muslim world against homosexuality it is nearly unimaginable in our life time to see any acceptance or tolerance for homosexuality in Pakistan.

On June 17, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed first resolution condemning the discrimination faced by the gay people. Such support at an international level will bolster the legal and political struggle by the gay community for equal rights. However, it is important to note that resolutions passed by United Nations General Assembly and its other organs such as Human Rights Council, are not legally binding on the member states as this author claimed. Under Chapter IV of the UN Charter which deals with General Assembly, such resolutions are called recommendations. Recommendations or resolutions only reflect the view of the majority of the world nations.

There is no denying that Pakistan has its own share of bi and homosexual community and they will have to come forward for their rights. It hardly makes an impact when others  speak on behalf  of a closeted community. Moreover, it will be challenging to demand such rights  when the longstanding issues like procedural changes to blasphemy or Hudood Laws are not addressed or when the state decides who is a Muslim and who is not. In a situation like this, it is better to prioritize issues.

Note:

Several people thought that this blog denounced gay rights. That is not true. The main idea was to compare the case of two countries and prove that any movement takes practical effort of decades to attain the rights. It is good to talk about attaining rights for a minority group in a society but at the same time it makes more impact when the people from the persecuted community step forward and document the discrimination or hardships faced by them. The same happened in the US. The gay people formed organizations, went to courts and their local representatives to prevent the work place discrimination (they didn’t exactly demand the right to marriage from the go) and from there they gradually begin pushing for the equal rights on the social, political and legal platforms. (The Times of Harvey Milk is a good documentary to take inspiration from).

In a conservative society like Pakistan it is hard to demand such rights primarily because our laws/constitution are deeply Islamic. I mentioned prioritizing them because certain issues (such as blasphemy, zina laws in Hudood Ord.) in our society are well debated for over two decades and yet people are hostile to reforming them. Suppose if those laws are reformed people can ask for other rights with confidence. 

One thing should be remembered that international resolutions are inspiring but they hardly change the course of a country’s domestic law. For that the people within will have to struggle to reform the laws.

If the gay community feels it is time to take on the society they can do so by getting organized for a long battle. The gay community itself should write in the mainstream media about the issues they face so that the society know what they go through emotionally. The positive testimonies of the families of the out people will also help. Moreover, they should ask the opinion of moderate-liberal Pakistani religious scholars too so that they could argue their case convincingly. Social research in Pakistan on the adverse effects of not letting gays adopt their lifestyle can be helpful too.

Generally, many will agree that the gay rights issue is very complex especially in the context of Pakistan and one should be careful in paving a way for it. Also the supporters and gay community should be ready for the backlash. Social movement is successful only if sacrifices are made and the struggle is persistent.

That was the main idea behind this blog which it seems didn’t come across correctly.

In the end, I would like to mention this case happened in 2007. The gay community in Pakistan had an opportunity to come out and speak for their rights but they missed it by choosing to remain silent. (Check photo of the couple here).


New York same-sex marriage law

June 26, 2011

Photograph: Guardian

In recent months there has been considerable progress in terms of gay rights in the United States. First, the Congress repealed the military policy of ‘don’t ask don’t tell‘. Then President Obama directed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) in the court. This federal Act prohibits recognition of the same-sex marriage. And recently, the state of New York signed the bill of same-sex marriage into law.

While on June 17, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed first resolution condemning the discrimination faced by the gay people. Such support at an international level will bolster the legal and political struggle for equal rights by the gay community domestically.

For a brief description of status of the same-sex marriage in the United States, I came across this blog. I am quoting it here:

Five states grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Rhode Island and New York, along with Maryland, recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey allow civil unions.

Other states provide some or all of the state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples: California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maine and Wisconsin.

California, of course, is the complicated one: In 2008, voters approved Prop 8, which says that only marriages between a man and a woman are valid there. That was challenged by lawsuits, but the state Supreme Court rejected them. Then a federal judge overturned Prop 8 in a separate case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is considering that ruling. Same-sex couples that were married before Proposition 8 passed are still recognized as such, though new same-sex marriages aren’t permitted.

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: Documentary and Beyond

June 21, 2011

Photograph: Channel 4

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan Army launched a major offensive to root out Tamil Tigers in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The violent, military secessionist movement of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was launched in northern Sri Lanka in 1976 that gradually turned into a civil conflict and gripped the country in a wave of terror and unrest.

During the course of their armed struggle against the Sri Lankan government, Tamil Tigers had been involved in high profile assassinations including the killing of an Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. They have also been involved in the gross violation of human rights by indiscriminately attacking civilians of Sinhalese ethnicity, Buddhist monks and Muslims. Tamil Tigers received severe criticism for their policy of recruiting children to fight the Sri Lankan forces; there were said to be over 5,000 child troops in their ranks. Tamil Tigers were also believed to be the pioneers of the modern day suicide bombing. The use of concealed explosive belts and vests is attributed to them.

The Cost of Victory

On 17 May 2009, during the last phase of Sri Lankan offensive, the Tamil forces conceded defeat and agreed on negotiation with the Sri Lankan government. The government, clearly tired of twenty-six year of civil war, preferred to seal the separatist movement and eliminated the top leadership of Tamil Tigers.

It is a tragedy of war that victory is always achieved at the expense of civilians. The situation gets even trickier when the armed conflict is between the national military and the insurgent group. The use of civilians as human shields by insurgent groups not only raises confusion about the identity of an armed combatant but it also maximized the civilian casualties.

The recent UN investigative report by the panel of UN Secretary General’s experts and the Channel 4 documentary, backed with ample evidence and eyewitness accounts, allege that both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan forces were involved in war crimes, crimes against humanity and violation of human rights. The Tamil Tigers allegedly used civilians as human buffers and killed those who tried to leave the conflict zone. They were also accused of forced recruitment of child soldiers and forced labor for building fortifications etc.

During an offensive, the Sri Lankan forces set up the “No Fire Zones”, where the displaced civilian population was encouraged to take refuge. The forces violated the norms of international rules of conflict that ensures the civilian immunity and bombed those “No Fire Zones” which resulted in heavy casualties. In addition, the Sri Lankan forces systematically shelled the hospitals denied humanitarian aid such as food and medicine supplies to people in the conflict zone. The UN report states, “[The Government] shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the United Nations, the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.” (The UN report tentatively calculated around 40,000 civilian causalities as a result of bombing during the conflict).

In the lights of compelling and authenticated proof of atrocities committed against the unarmed Tamil civilians including women, children and elderly, the Sri Lankan government is facing severe criticism for violating the norms of international humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan government, as expected, denied those allegations and challenged the status of the above mentioned UN report by calling it a personal report. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon on the other hand, clarified that a formal investigation can proceed only if the Sri Lankan government agrees to such an inquiry or the member states call for it.

Individual liability

Under international law ( based on Geneva Conventions, the  Rome Statute and statutes of the criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), individual liability can be imposed on the armed forces personnel and the members of the Sri Lankan government and cadres of Tamil Tigers for their alleged involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The war crimes include, violence to life and person (as given in Common Article 3 of Geneva Convention), cruel treatment and torture, rape, and failure to collect and care for the wounded and sick (Source – UN Report).

The concept of individual liability means that individuals and not states should be prosecuted for war crimes. It was first introduced during the Nuremburg trial of Nazi government and military officials for their involvement in the crimes against humanity during the World War II. The Allied forces (Britain, United States, France and Russia) produced staggering documentary evidence that corroborated the Nazi policy of systematic extermination of Jews in Europe.

Prosecution by International Criminal Court

International Criminal Court (established in 2002) can prosecute those involved in the war crimes if they belong to member states. Sri Lanka is not a party to the ICC. However, the ICC may prosecute if Sri Lanka accepts the jurisdiction or the Security Council refers the matter to the ICC. Recently, the Security Council referred the matter of war crimes committed in Libya for investigation to the ICC.

It is understandable that Sri Lanka will not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC as long as the allegations of war crimes are hovering around. Moreover, the Security Council has not expressed any intention of referring the matter either. In a situation like this it seems that the no one will be prosecuted for the alleged violations of human rights.

The French philosopher and author Sartre said, “When the rich make the war, it is the poor who die”. In the recent history we have witnessed glaring examples of war crimes committed in Bosnia, Rwanda, Israel, Darfur and Sri Lanka. While recently, further reports of human rights violations emerged from Libya and Bahrain. Between the clashes of powerful, the poor and helpless suffer. The formation of an International Criminal Court is commendable but at the same time, justice should not be dispensed selectively.

There is a need to address the challenges that bar from an effective and frequent prosecution of the individuals involved in war crimes. The lesson learnt during Sri Lankan offensive was that a vulnerable community should not be left alone and the atrocities should immediately be reported to world so that steps could be taken to prevent huge losses of human lives. Sri Lanka launched its offensive against the Tamil Tigers with confidence as it was declared a terrorist organization by 32 states; however, the world certainly did not mandate the indiscriminate use of force against the unarmed civilians and for that those responsible must be held accountable.

Also available on Chowk

A Pushtun man with a unique talent

June 16, 2011

Muhammad Riaz, a resident of Shaikhan – Peshawar, is a retired WAPDA employee. According to him, since the age of 11 he can break rocks with his hand. In the video he can be seen breaking the rocks with a single blow of his hand. Muhammad Riaz wishes his talent to be acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Here is the video:

Banning the Bible

June 15, 2011

A couple of weeks back, a few clerics of the Islamic political party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Samiul Haq Group), demanded Supreme Court of Pakistan to take suo moto action against the blasphemous material inserted in the Bible. They argued that the said insertions distorted the character of several prophets and it was their right to raise a voice against it since Muslims regard all prophets highly. This matter did not gather much of media’s or Chief Justice’s attention. However, the members of JUI(S) threatened to move the court in case of Supreme Court’s failure to take notice.

It has been observed that the religious parties usually make an issue out of a non-issue for achieving petty aims and many a times their approach and rigid stance only invites more disharmony and violence in the society. In their statement the JUI(S) did not specify whether they wanted a ban on the selected parts or the entire Bible. In any event, their demand to ban Bible was not only against the inherent right of one’s freedom of choice but it also goes against the fundamental right to religion enumerated in the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 20 of the Constitution clearly guarantees the freedom to practice and profess religion moreover; it also preserves the right to maintain religious institutions according to one’s faith.

Unfortunately, there is no dearth of social and religious myopia in our society. Emotions run high when it comes to religion and people ignore to understand the implications of measures that may seem justified but can actually bounce back and hit hard. In most parts of the world including the Christian majority countries, Muslims have been given fair liberty to preach their faith. The religious organizations are free to invite non-Muslims to Islam or to revive faith of the born Muslims. They are also free to disseminate the religious literature. When in the foreign countries Muslims have freedom to practice their religion openly then why don’t the clerics of JUI(S) ready to give Christians in Pakistan the liberty to read their holy scripture? Similarly, one must ask them how they would react if the courts in western Christian states move to ban the Quran. It won’t be logical to play the ‘Muslims are always a victim’ card.

In general the non-Muslims in west are more open to reading Quran as compared to Muslims reading the Old and New Testament. There are various reasons that draw people to a study of Quran. It may either be due to curiosity or for a comparative and scholarly objective. Recently, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told in an interview that he reads Bible and Quran daily to be “faith literate” in today’s world. He also added that he wanted to understand some of the things happening in the world. There is one thing for which Quran is often quoted or misquoted and that is jihad or the holy war and it seems he wanted to inquire himself as to what were Quran’s actual teachings regarding it.

The third US president and one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was also said to have studied Quran. Some scholars believe he kept a copy of Quran due to his interest in the study of natural law. He would often invoke the teaching of Quran to criticize William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England. Others claim that Jefferson studied Quran in order to understand the religion of an enemy and to deal with the Barbary pirates, who would attack American merchants and sailors off the Barbary Coast.

In 1786, while negotiating a treaty on behalf of the US government with the envoy of Tripoli, Abdrahman, Thomas Jefferson received a shocking reply. The ambassador claimed that the Quran sanctioned to enslave or kill all those “who should not have acknowledged their authority”. Despite that bitter reply, Jefferson didn’t try to ban Quran, instead he delved deeper into its study and identified the danger of not reading the Quran in context or without consulting the supplementary texts.

It makes an interesting thesis as to what factors drove the non-Muslim politicians to study Quran in different times. In today’s time, one lesson the religious parties in Pakistan can learn is to engage in an effective and scholarly argument and that is possible only if they indulge in a comparative study of religions instead of mobilizing for banning the Bible.

Also available on: Newsline

Kill Hate, Not Each Other

June 9, 2011

According to a recent news report an organization called, All-Pakistan Students Khatam-e-Nabuwwat is disseminating pamphlets declaring Ahmadis wajibul qatl (liable to be murdered) for their religious believes. The local police authorities in their usual style are sweeping that issue under the carpet. Pakistan is a boiling pot of sectarian strife. The sectarian discord escalated in 1980s and Pakistan became a proxy battle ground for the Sunni and Shia organizations, heavily funded by the Saudi Arabia and Iran for the dominance of their respective faiths. However, the history of sectarian violence in Pakistan goes back to the days of its inception.

In 1953, when Pakistan was still trying to establish itself as a stable state, the anti-Ahmadi riots, led by Jamat-i-Islami and Majlis-e-Khatame Nabuwwat, broke out in Punjab. The agitators burned down two post offices, a police station and gunned down a deputy superintendent of police. The situation went so out of control that government had to impose martial law in Punjab.  The demands presented by the leaders of anti-Ahmadi agitations were, to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslism, the removal of an Ahmadi foreign minister Zafrullah Khan and the ban on employment of Ahmadis in government service.

Maulana Mauddudi, head of Jamat-i-Islami, was one of the leaders of the anti-Ahmadi agitation. He received a death sentence in military court trial. However, under international pressure from the Muslim countries, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It is widely claimed that the Punjab government of Mumtaz Daultana supported the riots to divert attention from its failed economic policies.

In 1974, following another violent spell of riots, a constitutional amendment was unanimously passed by the national assembly, which expelled Ahmadis from the folds of Islam against their wishes. In 1984, then President General Zia further curbed the liberties of the Ahmadi community by promulgating Ordinance XX. According to this Ordinance, the Ahmadis lost the right to call themselves Muslim or to perform Islamic rituals.

Once the Ahmadi issue was dealt with, the focus of sectarian violence shifted in mid-late 1980s. The first incident of sectarian aggression targeting mainstream Muslims occurred on March 23, 1987 when Ahl-i-Hadith leader Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer along with others got killed in a bomb planted under the stage during a meeting. In 1988, Arif Hussain, the leader of Tehrik-i-Nifaze Fiqha-i-Jafaria was assassinated. In 1990, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of Sunni organization Sipah-i-Sahabah, was murdered. The extremist Sunni organizations have been persistent with their demand of declaring Shias as a non-Muslim minority. Even today, these organizations distribute pamphlets which call for ousting of Shias from Islam.

People with extremist mind-set are blinded by hate and insecurity. They call themselves Muslim but fail to comprehend that Islam urges to protect the rights of minorities. Those who argue that Ahmadis are not just ordinary ‘minority’, they are hypocrites, should remember that nurturing this kind of argument would annihilate us one day. After persecuting Ahmadis and killing Shias the extremists would fight among themselves on petty issues such as not showing their ankles during prayers because one sect considers it part of the faith while the other considers it an inconsequential act. In fact, a man was killed for that very reason by the Taliban in Swat a couple of years ago.

The sectarian skirmishes are making our society shallow and devoid of humanity, which is the core of every religion and ethics in the world. Sixty-four years later, the sectarian divisions run so deep in our society that one can’t help question the fact that if Pakistan was not created in the name religion would things have been different today.

Here is a very amateurish video I made but is relevant to the current issue.

Edited version of this post is available on: The Express Tribune

Charles Dickens: His Life and Work

June 7, 2011

Charles Dickens is one of my favorite Victorian authors. His stories and writings reflect the prevalent injustices and the divide between rich and poor of that times. I had written this essay a few years back. Today I found it just by chance in one of the folders and thought to post it on my blog.   

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born to John and Elizabeth Dickens on February the 17th 1812 in Landport, Hampshire. Charles Dickens is considered the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He gained a worldwide popularity for writing novels and short stories on the social evils, injustice and hypocrisy.

Charles Dickens spent his early years mostly in Catham, Kent. Unlike the other boys of his age Charles was a frail and sick boy. While his friends would be busy playing he would voraciously read books. Charles Dickens always believed that his sickness inclined him to reading. He received his basic education from his mother who taught him the rudiments of English and Latin. In his own words his first desire for knowledge was awakened by his mother. He received some education at the William Giles’s private school in Catham. Charles Dickens was blessed with a fabulous memory, vividly remembering the events that took place when he was only two. Because of his love for reading he took to writing and wrote his first story at the age of seven called “Misnar, the Sultan of India”. This unpublished story became so popular in his friends’ circle.

Charles’ blissful life at Catham came to an abrupt end when his father, John Dickens ran into financial trouble. His father was a clerk in the Navy pay office. He was well paid but his excessive spending on keeping his social position gave birth to the never ending financial woes and he landed in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. In 1824, at the age of twelve, Charles moved to London where he took up a job in the factory. He would be paid six shillings a week for pasting labels on the jars of black polish. With that amount he paid for his lodgings and supported his family.

The tough times of his boyhood at the factory left indelible marks on his psyche and it became one of his most painful memories. He worked for a few months at the factory until his father paid off the debt of 40 pounds that he had inherited from his deceased mother. Once released from the family obligations Charles joined Wellington House Academy, London and resumed his studies.

In 1827 Charles became a law office clerk. After gaining the detailed knowledge of law he came to know about the sufferings of poor and the flawed legal system. At the age of seventeen he became the court stenographer. Charles took a step further in his life and became the political journalist. From 1832 to 1836 he wrote for “True Sun”, “Mirror of Parliament” and “Morning Chronicle”. He also wrote under the pseudonym “Boz”. His affection for journalism was everlasting as he remained in that profession all his life.

In 1836 he got married to Catherine Thompson Hogarth, who was the daughter of his editor. They had ten children. In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife but he continued to maintain her for life.

His career as a fiction writer started in 1833. “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” was his first published sketch. According to that time’s trend most of Dickens’s novels were published in the installments in journals and readers would eagerly wait for the next part. The Pickwick Papers his first full novel was about the group of odd individuals. That was followed by Oliver Twist a story about an orphan, the London underworld and slums. That became a huge success and established him as a fiction writer. Dickens started writing vigorously. At times he would work on the two or more novels simultaneously. His rapid writing never eclipsed the quality of his work and he kept producing gem after gem of literature.

A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of his most loved works. David Copperfield (1850) is said to be an autobiographical novel of Charles Dickens where he mentioned his own experiences at the factory. In 1859 came The Tale of Two Cities that was based on the French revolution. Great Expectations (1860) is yet another renowned novel of Dickens. It was one of Tolstoy’s favorite novels.

Most of the characters created by Charles Dickens became larger than life such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs. Gamp, Oliver Twist, Pip, Miss Havisham and Samuel Pickwick to name a few.

Charles Dickens remained socially active all his life. He raised his voice for the abolition of slavery during his visit to America. He despised poverty and the stratification of society and wrote extensively about these issues.

By 1869 Charles Dickens had became quite weak. He died on 8 June, 1870. His death was mourned by all the classes of people alike. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Notes taken from: The life of Charles Dickens by John Forster