Fine-tuning and fine arts: Realism and escape at central jail

By Maheen Ghani

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The sound of music wafted through the grounds, as I walked underneath the shade of Neem trees. There, on the walls, were soothing murals of the night sky and of pelicans bathing themselves in the river. I was outside the Central Jail School of Fine Arts and Music.

The school is located in the back of the Central Jail, Karachi. As you pass through the security checks, past the heavy gate chained by a padlock and manned by a constable, past the superintendent’s office, in the outdoor grounds led by the long corridor.

I walked inside to find a small group of prisoners playing instruments like the keyboard and harmonium. As I walked into the adjoining room, I found more prisoners scattered around the room. There were students sitting on stools painting canvases placed on easels and others sat cross-legged on the floor, sketching.

There were paintings and sculptures hanging on the walls, placed on the floor next to the walls, and set atop shelves and tables all around the room.

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Samar Abbas, a senior student of the fine arts programme, stood at the front of the class. In a green polo shirt and khaki pants, as he assisted the others, Abbas resembled a teacher more than a prisoner. He showed me a detailed charcoal sketch of a bird sitting on top of a lantern that he had just finished. Having been part of the programme right from the start — when it first began six years ago — he had sold over a hundred paintings.

I turned to another prisoner who stood chatting with other classmates. Abdul Aziz Bugti had been in the programme since his sentencing four years ago. Convicted for his involvement in a bomb blast and sentenced to four life terms which roughly adds up to 210 years, Bugti was in Central Jail to stay. He wanted to spend the rest of his years widening the gap between his previous life and his current one. Bugti has made friends in the art class.

Clad in an expensive-looking kurta and shalwar, his hair a neat mop of salt and pepper curls, there was a man lounging in the seat behind the teacher’s desk. I asked him, “You’re not making anything?” He responded in an accent that sounded faintly American. “I’m merely a patron of the arts. I come here simply to show support.”

The school was launched through the efforts of the then superintendent Nusrat Hussain Mangan, who had hoped that his own love for the arts would also inspire his prisoners to achieve a positive outlook on life. Fine Arts School teacher Sikander Jogi was approached by Mangan and together, they came up with the school that now runs classes six days a week from 9am to 1pm.

Senior superintendent of prisons, Kazi Nazir Ahmed said, “Yeh chotta sa poda tha jo ab darakht ban gaya hai [It was a small plant that has now grown into a tree].” Jogi and Ahmed are now trying to get the programme affiliated though the Sindh Technical Board.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on May 3, 2014.

 

Painting with a purpose: Prisoners use art to escape

By Maheen Ghani

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Wild brush strokes in crimson and black hues covered the length of canvas, and in the far right hand corner there stood the silhouettes of a father and daughter holding hands and standing together.

The portrait was by Kazim Shah, who has been an inmate at Central Prison Karachi for the past six years. He was arrested for carrying out illegal intimidation and other notorious activities for a local political party. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.But Shah is just one of the many prisoners to have recently taken to expressing their pain and anguish by using art as a medium.  Alliance Française de Karachi on Friday hosted a ‘Karachi Inmates’ exhibition displaying over 50 works by inmates who are part of the Fine Art School’s inmates programme.

IG prisons Nusrat Hussain said, “Art is one of the mediums by which we can make a difference.” The money from the sale of the paintings goes straight back to the prisoners themselves which enables them to send money to their family or helps motivate them to keep working and save up for the day when they can leave. This was the seventh exhibition organised by the programme. The proceeds from the last exhibition were over Rs200,000.

While for prisoners like Shah the programme serves as a form of escape where they can fantasise about a better life, other prisoners chose their past as their muse. Samar Abbas who was sentenced for smuggling narcotics painted a hand grabbing onto a flag and rejecting drugs. The painting could perhaps be interpreted as his way of attempting to rewrite his past or maybe even expressing that if he was given a second chance he would choose life and freedom over drugs.

While some of the art was more on the nose, other artists chose an entirely different inspiration altogether. Abdul Aziz, who is one of the most senior citizens of the programme and has been training since it first kicked off displayed a portrait of a Baloch man.

Ashfaq, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in a bomb blast that killed a prominent member of a minority group, displayed a series of calligraphic paintings.

Consul General of France Francois Dall’Orso who was also present on the occasion said, “Art can provide one with peace of mind and respite.” The inmates programme began in 2008 at Karachi’s central jail and has since helped improve the lives of several prisoners by enabling them to channel their energy into something productive. After witnessing the success of the programme there, it has now kicked off in other prisons of Karachi and is currently training female prisoners as well.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on April 13, 2014.

Constructive deconstruction: Artists display works inspired by their life in the city

By Maheen Ghani

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It seemed that there was one underlying theme that appeared to be on the minds of several of the artists — the daily struggles for survival in this city.

Several young artists displayed their works at the Full Circle Gallery’s exhibit ‘Deconstruct’ on Saturday. A graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Marium Kamal’s works included a gargantuan canvas in shades of ochre with messages, such as ‘Karachi, my beauty you are just misunderstood’ and ‘Deep down inside it’s just another city’. Another curious piece by Kamal titled ‘It’s just an explosion’ comprised a large plain canvas — stained with the help of coffee — with huge patches of it burnt off. Behind those burnt patches, were other similar messages.

Another artist, Syed Kashif Ali Mohsin created his own graphic novel and for the exhibition he took some of the extracts from the novel to create four different water colours. The first one is a plain water colour painting of a man. The next three are water colours of the same man except these paintings have messages of bomb explosions and killings written in charcoal and pastel.

The paintings are created as a series that aim to tell the story of his novel; each painting develops the tale of the man in the first painting. “These are the kind of messages of sectarian violence and other killings that you receive from your friends,” he said. “The paintings describe the day of anyone who lives in this city.”

The last painting of the story is a particularly grotesque yet intriguing image of just the protagonist’s head on the body of an insect. According to Mohsin, the painting is a hallucination that he has in the story where he sees himself as nothing more than an insect.

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Sikander Butt displayed a series of digitally painted photographic manipulations. His picture, ‘Islam mein darri hai, darri mein Islam nahi’ displays men prostrating on the floor in a mosque. “The message behind this picture is freedom of thought. We are fed what to think and how to act by our elders,” said Butt. “We need to be reminded that we do not necessarily always know what is true but in fact we are taught what to believe or consider right and true.”

Another image by him at first glance appears to be just another ordinary image of the national flag, however, upon a closer examination one can see bar codes printed along the star and the moon as well as the white section of the flag. “Pakistan has been sold,” states Butt simply.

On the lighter side were the pieces by Mahmil Masood, who is also a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. For her collection, Masood used materials such as newspapers and plastic, and stitched it together. Her works include abstract art pieces that portray themes such as materialism in today’s world.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on May 18, 2014.

Qandeel Baloch And The Dangers Of The ‘Honour Killing’ Rhetoric

By Maheen Ghani

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A young girl from a modest background plummets to social media stardom on the simple yet effective formula of controversy and consistency to climb up the fame ladder. Qandeel Baloch, whose real name is Fauzia Azeem, first made news when she auditioned for singing talent show Pakistan Idol. The audition video went viral on Facebook due to her reaction at being rejected by the panel of judges. Social media users began mocking her but in the digital age, this only helped her gain publicity. Qandeel Baloch leveraged the incident and became a social media sensation who posted risque images and videos of herself.

Although the scandalous nature and the shock value that Baloch brought to social media in Pakistan earned her a huge following, she also attracted a lot of criticism, was called names, ridiculed, managed to offend a lot of people and was considered blasphemous due to openly displaying her sexuality.

Last week, she was killed by her brother in an incident that would be termed anywhere else in the world as an incident of ‘domestic violence’. However, since the incident, Pakistani media – and now the media across the globe – have been debating honour killings as well as reporting other such incidents of murder.

Qandeel, who was a frequent favourite on the Pakistani social media sphere for a few years now, had recently sparked a new controversy by posting pictures with clergyman Mufti Abdul Qavi. Baloch claimed she had received several death threats, including threats from Qavi himself.

Her brother Waseem Baloch, who has been arrested for her murder, admits to not feeling any guilt for having killed her as it was in an attempt to save the family’s honour. In a statement to the press, Waseem claimed that Qandeel had been causing a lot of controversy recently especially in regards to the incident with Qavi.

Qavi, whose membership was suspended from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee as well as Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf after the scandalous pictures were posted online, had also chimed in after her death and while he says he has forgiven her, he also stated that this incident should serve as an example to anyone who attempts to bring shame to the name of the clergy.

Qandeel’s murder has divided opinion in conservative Pakistan. Not just the Pakistan media, but media around the world has been following the development with her name and images published across the news. Her controversial image has ensured the news of her murder is gaining the attention of people worldwide, with Qandeel gaining more prominence in death as compared to what she sought in life.

In her mind, she was taking a stand for women by being the way she was.

The recent controversy involving Qandeel and her estranged husband was another scandal that could have possibly led to her murder. She claimed she was forcefully married off at the age of 17 to a much older man with whom she had a son. However, she had to walk out of the marriage as a result of the torture and abuse she faced at the hands of her former husband.

Other incidents honour killings have also been reported in Pakistan so much so to have inspired the ever-so-elusive Prime Minister earlier this year to make a statement emphasising that there is after all “‘no honour’ in honour killings”. The incident however poses the danger of sparking off a harmful and right-wing rhetoric that may reinforce the belief that such murders are justified.

Earlier this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology in an attempt to override a women’s protection law, produced a Bill that recommend among other things the rendering of law for men to ‘lightly beat women’. The recommendations faced severe backlash, including a press release from Human Rights Commission of Pakistan which Chairperson Zohra Yusuf refered to it as  “payback for the women protection Bill” and stated that it “exposes the mindset of the zealots occupying the CII, who should be removed from their posts immediately”.

While Waseem has been arrested and Qavi himself is also under investigation for the murder, the bigger question remains of the harmful consequences of ‘honour killing’ of such nature. Right-wing statements claiming that it was “only a matter of time” before Qandeel was murdered may exacerbate the debate on honour killings and may inadvertently spark off a dangerous trend with irrevocable and permanent damage, similar to the nuclear-like blasphemy law matter.

The article was first published in Narada News on July 20, 2016. 

Interview: Sana Bucha

By Maheen Ghani

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She faces off against some of the most influential people in Pakistan – if not the world – on live television and explores some of Pakistan’s most controversial issues every Friday through Sunday on her show, LekinNewsline sits with Sana Bucha for this exclusive interview to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on women in the electronic media and much more.

Q: Does the electronic media offer women a level playing field?

A: ‘Do we play fair?’ is the real question. Men will brighten up their boring suit with a colourful tie but we doll ourselves up. So I believe we do not offer men a level playing field.

Q: Talk shows have generally been regarded as a male domain. How did you manage to break through?

A: Women are everywhere. When I first joined Geo Television, I noticed there were lots of women working there – all kinds of women. There were women in hijab, women in jeans, gorgeous women and plain-looking women.

Back then, talk shows were mostly hosted by men, but I never really believed it was a ‘men only’ domain. I don’t think the media in general is male-dominated. But more importantly, I have never really thought ‘I’m not a man, therefore, I can’t do something.’ Actually, in our society, there are many fields more dominated by women than men. There is a perception, for example, that modelling is a women’s profession, not a man’s.

Q: When you are out in the field rather than the confines of a studio, how do people respond to you? Are they forthcoming?

A: I think the basic difference is that when you go out in the field, people want to talk to you. When you’re doing a show in an air-conditioned studio you need to call people in and beg them to talk to you.

I have done a lot of outdoor work and I think one of my best work was the outdoors shows I did, especially during the Swat operation. It was quite scary but it was exciting, and people wanted to tell you their story. When you are outdoors, there is a story everywhere. There is a story from the place where someone was killed and hung naked from a tree, to the place where there once used to be a little store that sold CDs and does not exist anymore. But when you’re in the studio, you have to create the story. You have to create the storm.

The Swat operation was my launch-pad. It was the first time I came on screen and it was actually by default. I never wanted to be an anchor – I hate criticism and I had no desire to pursue this career for too long a time. But things change.

Lekin is my baby, and that is certainly not by default. It is something I have created and it stands for who I am. It is the counter-narrative of the channel and society.

Q: Recently someone created a Facebook event accusing you of being a PML-N agent? Have you ever been accused of being partisan as an anchor?

A: Yes, all the time. These accusations come from the PTI and the party takes responsibility for them. Members of the PTI have often said things like “aapka tilt nazar aata hai” to my face.

I got Shahbaz Sharif on the show and I take full credit for that interview. He’s got 19 ministries under him and I am the one who exposed this on prime time. I asked Shahbaz Sharif if he thinks he is God and why he’s in charge of so many ministries and why he hasn’t established a health ministry. Subsequently, the fake medicine scandal broke. You will find all of these videos on YouTube. My critics should look at all my Lekin videos before they accuse me of partisanship.

Q: To what extent do Television Rating Points (TRS) determine the content and direction of Lekin?

A: At the end of the day I make the final decision. But my producer is very, very good and everybody on my team has an input. I have about seven people in my team and everyone from the non-linear editor to my senior producer has a say in what we do. This works because we are all on the same side and we all look at things the same way more or less. But sometimes we have differing opinions about specific issues and that also helps because then we have different perspectives and cover each side of the story, not just my side of the story. So while I decide the content, I don’t want to take credit for everything because there are some ideas that come entirely from my team. However, nothing is decided on the basis of ratings – although thankfully we have good ratings even with those stories I thought were not going to be popular.

I know what sells and what doesn’t but I don’t decide my content on the basis of what will sell.

Q: You have covered some extremely emotional stories like the one on the Sialkot lynching. Being a woman anchor, was it difficult for you to hold your emotions in check or did you manage to keep your cool?

A: I am a very emotional person. I try to be professional most of the time, but to be very honest, I am too emotional to be entirely professional. But, I think, the only reason I have created some sort of an impression is because of the way I am.

During my programme on the Sialkot lynchings, I was crying throughout. Regardless of who those boys were and what they had done, they did not deserve to be treated that way. We cannot be an intolerant society and we are not the moral police here.

I went to their house at the time their soyem was taking place, so it was not the most professional environment to begin with. The mother of those boys was far more in control of her emotions than I was. There was an uncle of the boys present who revealed gruesome details of how their bones were so badly broken that they had difficulty giving them the last ghusal. Hence, there were quite a few overwhelmingly emotional moments. I remember, I cried the whole way back on the drive from Sialkot to Lahore and on the flight from Lahore to Karachi. And I could not sleep for two nights.

I cannot take a certain Sana to work and bring home another Sana. I carry everything with me and I have a lot of emotional excess baggage. I bring home the stories from work all the time and I take to work most of the stories that are happening at home. I don’t know how to separate the two. However that did not stop me from doing my job. I was there to get the story out and I wanted my programme to be able to make people understand why it was wrong to kill those two boys. When people are going through such emotionally traumatic experiences they are not going to be sitting there looking pretty for your television channel. You have to be able to strike a chord with them for them to be able to communicate with you otherwise, you are going to walk away with the same kind of interview that most people did. There were four different programmes carrying the Sialkot story simultaneously over the next 48 hours, but I know that my show had an impact.

Q: Do you feel that it helps to connect with people in order to get a better story?

A: The only thing that will help you connect with people is feelings. When you step off the car and get on to the field you drop the whole facade of brandedness; you forget about wearing designer shades and carrying designer bags. I always go in my chaddar whenever I do outdoor shows. Also, I find it very pretentious for women to be totally made up particularly for such shows. For example, I saw that while reporting on the floods last year, some of my competitors wore too much make up and some were even wearing heels in the water. While I am sure that I have also made my share of mistakes in this respect, I feel that the more you look like the people you are featuring, the closer you get to them. It may not always work but it certainly makes it easier.

However, sometimes nothing works. I went to a village in the outskirts of South Punjab by boat which had become separated from its main town as its roads were now streams and had been completely eroded. When I reached there, people started to stone my cameraman and myself because they did not want to be photographed: they wanted to be fed and given shelter.

Q: You have interviewed several national and international figures. Has anyone been particularly intimidating or particularly patronising because of your gender?

A: Patronising, no. Intimidating, yes, although not because of my gender. I do not like Hillary Clinton at all. I have interviewed her twice but I feel she is too diplomatic. I know it is her job to be that way, but you cannot get a straight answer out of her and she is not comfortable with a one-on-one interview. So, whenever I have interviewed her, it has been as part of a group interview. I know that she does not want to say too much or give away too much, but I don’t like that arrangement. So the third time she was here and I was asked to go interview her, I declined.

I interviewed Harbiyar Marri in London and he was very difficult to interview. Firstly, he was so hard to get hold of and even harder to convince. And when I finally got to him in London, with my camera in tow, he just turned around and told me he did not want to give this interview. He hates anyone who will tell him that he’s wrong in sponsoring a separatist movement in Balochistan; he thinks all of us have sold our souls to the establishment. He is very difficult to talk to and with each question that I had asked, I was scared that he might get up and leave. In the end, however, it went well and I ended up asking him everything I wanted to.

Q: There is a general perception that in order to be taken seriously or considered as ‘one of the boys,’ women anchors have only gone for political stories and have refrained from tackling issues related to women. Is that true?

A: When I look at a story, I think, ‘how am I going to do this story without getting myself killed.’ For example, I want to do a story on how we treat are minorities, specifically, the Ahmadis, but I find that the perception exists that if you do a story on a minority, you are part of that community. For example, people ask me if I am Balochi and if that is why I do so many stories on Balochistan.

The only thing that I consider – and I can only speak for myself and not for other women because I do not how they gauge themselves – is that I want to do a story that is going to be of some service to society. The only time I do not do them is when I feel there will be some serious danger to my own life.

There are certain debates I cannot have, not because I am a woman, but because our society cannot take it.

Q: You have reported on some controversial and extremely sensitive subjects. Has that ever proved to be dangerous for you?

A: Yes, I have had serious death threats but I cannot tell you who they are from. The only reason I have not gone public yet is because I live in Karachi and anybody could kill me and then subsequently blame them.

Q: Who among the male and female anchors in Pakistan would you rate highly?

A: I would say Najam Sethi as I have great respect for him and he is somebody I aspire to be like. As for women, I do not even think most of them are worthy enough to talk about as they have no clue as to what they are doing and they are not really talk show hosts. It is very important for any anchor person – regardless of whether they are male or female – to know what they stand for. However if I had to choose, I would pick Munizae Jahangir as she has the knowledge, she has the content and she has the guts.

Published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline Magazine

Interview: Munizae Jahangir

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Documentary filmmaker, journalist and now a host of her own show on Express Television, the multi-faceted media personality, Munizae Jahangir, has certainly managed to make a name for herself. She has reported on Pakistan’s political affairs and has often risked her life to tell the story. Co-founder of South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), Jahangir shares the struggles faced by her as a woman working in the male-dominated world of the electronic media.

Q: Does the electronic media offer women a level playing field?

A: I think that the electronic media does not exist in isolation. It is part of Pakistan and Pakistan certainly does not allow women a level playing field.

Q: Talk shows have generally been regarded as a male domain. How did you manage to achieve a breakthrough?

A: Women before me had achieved breakthroughs, but yes, I was part of the first crop that made that breakthrough. There’s a general perception that women tackle social issues, while men do the hardcore political stuff. Therefore, there was that initial reluctance to allow women to enter prime time television. Additionally, there is less confidence in women.

Moreover, the guests we call on our shows are male chauvinists – and I’m sorry to point out that among them are several politicians – and they speak to you much more rudely than they would to a man. They are curt with you, they look down on you and if they feel that you don’t understand issues, they become cheeky on television and I find that difficult, especially if the programme is being aired live. On prime time television, you have to handle all kinds of people.

I distinctly remember my first encounter with Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman. He would not look me in the eye. I was working as a correspondent for New Delhi Television (NDTV) at the time. I would ask him a question and he would look at some other reporter while answering it. At first I found it a bit comical, but then it became irritating as I could not get him to face my camera – which was essential.

Years later, I interviewed him again and I made sure it was a very tough interview. I think with time, as things evolve, people also realise that they have to change their attitudes, which is exactly what happened with Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman. So I believe, along with us women, they are also learning.

Q: How did your stint as correspondent for NDTV come about?

A: I was living in New York at the time and all of my friends in New School University – which is where I was studying as well – were working for NDTV. It was essentially a young person’s channel and 80 percent of the workforce comprised women; the managing editors were women as well. It is an internationally recognised channel, therefore I was very glad that I got accepted. They sent me to areas that a Pakistani television network would never have. I went to conflict areas such as FATA and Balochistan, and reported from the Pak-Afghan border. In fact, NDTV gave me the opportunity to go to Balochistan when Nawab Akbar Bugti was hiding in the mountains. It was dangerous and we were even fired upon.

Q: You were one of the last people to interview Nawab Akbar Bugti. Any recollections of that last meeting?

A: I have very vivid memories of that meeting. We went to his house, and that was the time that the Frontier Corps (FC) and the Bugti tribesman were eyeball-to-eyeball with each other. There was this ceasefire just for us as we went in. We were shown the Russian ammunition, for example a kind of missile, which had been aimed at his house. Then we were taken into a car that was completely camouflaged with mud. We drove at 100km per hour – not on the road but on the mountain – and the Frontier Corps was watching all the time. There was the possibility of the FC following us and we could end up leading them to Bugti. Also, there was a really high chance of them mistaking the vehicle for a Bugti tribesman’s car and shooting us down – we could have ended up as collateral damage.

These were all very real concerns but we continued with our journey to see Bugti and walked another hour in the mountains to reach his abode. I remember him sitting there, quite calm and collected and, in the interview I did with him, he predicted his own death. He said, “they are going to kill me and they are going to kill Balach Marri as well.” He knew he was going to be hunted down. He knew he had very little time to live and he had made up his mind about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be remembered in Balochistan. He was very clear on that score.

I asked him, whether the accusation that he was being assisted by foreign powers was true, and he said, “We are not being helped by foreign powers. Formerly Ghaffar Khan and many others, who defied the state, were also accused of that.” But he also said, “I will even accept help from the devil because of the way that we have been treated.” I felt that there was a lot of resentment in him and that feeling still resonates with the young people in Balochistan today. I think the ghost of Bugti continues to haunt us. In a lot of ways, he is much larger in death than he was in life.

Q: It seems that in a lot of ways your job can be quite dangerous. Has that ever discouraged you?

A: I think there is a rush that journalists look for, I’m not saying that they look for danger, but I think it comes with the territory.

I had a very near miss when Benazir returned to Karachi from Dubai on October 18. I was actually climbing that truck to do an interview with her when the first bomb went off and I was very lucky because my cameraman pulled me away in time. We had blood and pieces of flesh in our hair and, as disgusting as that was, we still continued reporting throughout the night.

I think that the story becomes much more important than what is happening to you. And, I think, that in both the Bugti and BB cases, the story was bigger than us. I feel that is always the case with journalists who are operating in conflict areas. When a story is important, the stakes are higher, so you end up forgetting that your own life is in danger.

Q: Has being a woman helped or hindered you when reporting in sensitive or restricted areas?

A: It’s a double-edged sword, because you stand out like a sore thumb over there. They have probably never seen another woman. I remember, when I went to Balochistan, I barely saw another woman – maybe one or two old women who came out to tell their stories, but that was about it. Wherever I went, I felt that people would come out and talk to me because, more than anything else, they were simply curious about seeing a woman.

However, like I said, my gender is a double-edged sword. I remember, in FATA, there was a Taliban commander from Swat, Muslim Khan, who would give interviews to everybody except me. He would not mind speaking to me over the phone for half an hour; but he would refuse to give me a face-to-face interview because he would say, ‘you are a Muslim woman and I will not let you interview me.’ He would let female foreign correspondents interview him but he would not speak to me. So, in that respect, there is discrimination and it prevents me from accessing information.

There was a time when I used to cover some extremely sensitive areas. Now, if you are a woman reporter, and are seen in those places without a burqa, you are basically going out there to get kidnapped.

Q: Are you taken seriously by your male colleagues? How supportive are they?

A: Most men don’t accept authority unless they are younger than you, and that always poses a problem. They will always take a man more seriously, no matter what you do. Hence, all you can do is work harder. Also, I feel that you cannot afford to slip up while a man’s mistakes will be forgotten. Your mistakes will be remembered and you will be reminded of them over and over again.

You also have to look a certain way. Sometimes, I have observed that if you are too dressed up and you have too much make-up on, people tend to take you lightly.

Q: You have interviewed several national and international figures. Has anyone been particularly intimidating or particularly patronising because of your gender?

A: It is not just the men but women, too, who treat you differently because of your gender. You might have seen how our information minister (Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan) behaves with other women on television – I have had a brush with her as well. Women in our country can also be very chauvinistic towards other women. This is something you generally expect of men, but when a woman does it, it throws you off completely.

Q: There is a general perception that women anchors, in order to be taken seriously or considered as ‘one of the boys,’ have only gone for political stories and have refrained from tackling issues related to women. Is that true?

A: Certainly. We try not to but there have been times when I wanted to do a show on something but as a woman, and especially as an unmarried woman, I would have been called vulgar or behaiya so I did not touch those subjects. However, that does not mean that I do not think they are important and that they should not be looked at. I just approach it in a different way.

For example, recently I did a show on Valentine’s Day. The topic was ‘Mohabbat Ki Ijazzat Hai?’ and I know that if I was a man, I would have been much more aggressive on this issue, but because I am a woman I was not and I kept sitting on the fence.

In this culture, when you say things and you say them boldly, there are repercussions – not just for you but for the for the programme and perhaps, even the channel. Hence, you have to be a little careful.

However, having said that, I still feel that you should push the envelope and go as far as you can, and I think that we have managed to achieve that with my show. We have slowly started approaching issues that we would not have touched a few months ago.

For example, we did a show on incest and we drew a lot of flak and were told that that we should not even have brought up the issue. However, my argument is, if you don’t even talk about it, how are you going to solve it?

Another issue that takes us into uncomfortable territory is a debate on sex outside of marriage. Therefore, you cannot talk about it.

Abortion is another issue that is taboo. It is a complete no-no on an Urdu channel. But I think there should be a debate in this country about abortion, because a lot of women are frequenting quack doctors to get abortions. However, the problem is that once the religious aspect enters the debate and a maulvi comes and airs his views, and is very inflexible about it, you lose the argument and then people back off.

Q: There are complaints of sexism and sexual harassment in the electronic media. How does one circumvent such problems?

A: We have an organisation called South Asian Women in Media (SAWM). It was created because a lot of women felt sexually harassed by their bosses, by politicians and, most of all, by their seniors.

Personally, I have been very lucky to work with organisations that have been very supportive. Also, I think people are scared of me, so they probably don’t want to take that chance, but I have also learned that there is a very thin line between being friendly and being aggressive or flirtatious. You have to be able to distinguish whether a person is being friendly or flirtatious. Sometimes they are not necessarily being flirtatious. In our society, we are made to believe that every time a guy smiles at you, you should not smile back but, instead, slap him. I have always gone everywhere along with my producer and my team, but the problem arises when you go alone out on the streets because then you are seen as somebody just out there to be grabbed, which happens a lot – especially during elections and at rallies. There have been umpteen times when I have gone to a rally and been pushed and shoved by people.

Once during Pervez Musharraf’s rally, I felt as if half the rally was staring at me and was not even listening to Musharraf. This problem exists because unlike male reporters, people do not see women reporters often enough on the field. They see them mostly in the studios.

I remember this one time in Peshawar when some men started to surround my cameraman and I had to actually physically run all the way back to our car as they were chasing us.

However, such incidents have actually made me bolder and more determined.

Q: Who among the male and female anchors in Pakistan would you rate highly?

A: Among the men I would say Hamid Mir, and among the women I feel that Sana Bucha is really good and so is Asma Shirazi.

Q: TV talk shows have received a lot of flak for the manner in which they are conducted. Do you feel all this criticism is justified?

A: Absolutely. I think we’ve become a prisoner of the talk show. We are doing shows that are almost repetitive. There is no creativity – there is nothing new or innovative. There is a lot of talk but very little reportage unlike the rest of the world. Look how Mehreen Anwar Raja has been featured on ten different talk shows in one night – I don’t know how far we can go with that.

The FATA areas are practically no-go areas for us. The whole world is watching us because of FATA, but the news that we get [from out there] is from foreign newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Why are our local reporters not reporting enough on this?

Also, the problem with conflict reporting is that though people say they are sick of talk shows, it’s talk shows that, at the end of the day, get the ratings. So if you want to be in mainstream television, you also have to be mainstream.

Q: Have you ever been accused of playing partisan politics as an anchor?

A: We are accused of being partisan all the time, but you know you are doing something right when all parties accuse you of being partisan.

Published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline Magazine

Up in the Air: Red Bull X-Fighters Jams Tour

Your adrenaline is pumping and you’re amped up on Red Bull; there’s a biker going full speed, aiming for a frightening-looking ramp. He hits the ramp and is propelled into the air. For a few brief seconds his body slides off the bike, he’s not even holding on to the handles and you think he’s going to fall. The crowd goes wild and your heart skips a beat. But lo-and-behold, he lands back on the seat and skillfully maneuvers his bike onto a second ramp, from which he descends on to the ground all in one piece. You’re still reeling from what you just witnessed, but the audience breaks into applause.

This gravity-defying stunt is known as a ‘no hander’ in motocross-speak. Another neat trick is the ‘superman’ in which the rider grips the handle, raises his feet off the foot pegs, and extends them outwards, parallel to the bike. On April 7 riders showed off several such aerial acrobatic tricks for an enthusiastic Pakistani audience at the jam-packed Moin Khan Stadium as part of the Red Bull X-Fighters Jams tour that has previously taken place in several countries across the globe.

The motocross show included the world’s top riders from New Zealand, USA and South Africa. The daring and exciting stunts were followed by an edgy rock and roll concert by none other than Pakistan’s leading rock icon, Ali Azmat.

The event also comprised a cultural performance which included musicians who played traditional instruments such as the dhol while experts juggled fire-lit props.

Published in the May 2012 issue of Newsline Magazine

Style Conscience

As the international fashion world goes increasingly ‘ethical,’ it was only a matter of time before the concept filtered to Pakistan. While there have been numerous ongoing initiatives of this nature, with groups like APWA, Behbood and Shirkat Gah to name a few, employing women from depressed areas to create fabric and clothing for sale at exhibitions and assorted outlets, with the proceeds going back to their communities, the new age fashion ethic has taken this many steps further.

We saw not-for-profit brand Polly and Me employing artisans in Chitral, helping them earn a living by marketing the bags they created both at home and abroad, simulataneously showcasing their talent to the world. Zainab Ulmulk and Nadia Malik create Krizmah bags to lend a hand to the women in Chitral, while at the same time displaying the traditional culture of the region through the life stories the women weave into the bags. And more recently, Bags for Bliss and Inaaya have come to life, purporting a similar motivation.

Last month I met with Ayesha Mustafa, founder of ethical fashion house, Fashion ComPassion (FC) to learn more about ethical fashion. A business-savvy, socially conscious, fashion-lover, Mustafa turned her dream to make fashion more responsible and simultaneously help change lives into reality with the launch of her retail company, Fashion ComPassion in 2010. The luxury brand retail house, selling a variety of labels manufactured by assorted ethical fashion groups, received a positive response at inception, and soon became a favourite among fashionistas with a conscience. Currently the fashion house is a part of Vogue’s green carpet initiative and several of the items available through its online retail store can be seen worn by the British activist and ethically-minded designer, Livia Firth.

Mustafa explains that the most important aspect of this venture was to ensure that while the workers would benefit from the sales proceeds the company would not be a not-for-profit initiative, where quality is often the last consideration and sales are dependent on “pity-buying.” She wanted to help provide a platform for high quality luxury brands, which also happen to be ‘ethically’ produced and worn by stylish women everywhere simply because they love them.

Mustafa is in a lot of ways far more than just a retailer for these brands. She has contributed towards several of the design elements for brands such as Palestyle. “I know the market and I know what trends people are following. Hence, as a retailer I guide the brand and help them in choosing colours and designs that I know will sell,” she says.

Palestyle has become one of the highest-selling brands of FC. The brand infuses Palestinian embroidery and Arabic calligraphy in its creations. All the products by the brand are created by Palestinian refugee women in need of employment, and a percentage of the sales goes directly back to these women. Among the brand’s most coveted items are their patent leather clutches in bold colours with eye-catching gold-plated calligraphy plaques that display various messages such as ‘charming as the moon’ or ‘magic are your eyes.’

Another growing favourite among fashionistas are clothes, bags and accessories sold under the name of Bhalo – an eco-friendly label that creates its pieces using natural dyes and all of the brand’s items are hand-woven. The brand employs women in rural Bangladesh and is dedicated to providing them with better working conditions.

The latest brand to have become a part of the socially responsible fashion house is Sougha, which was established with the help of the UAE-based Khalifa Foundation. The brand helps provide employment for Emirati artisans. Initially, when the brand did not have a designer, Mustafa helped come up with several ideas that later became the key pieces of their collection.

One of the most popular pieces on their online retail site, Mustafa tells me, is the ‘Burqa dress’ by Beshtar. Beshtar is exclusively hand-crafted by artisans in Afghanistan and means ‘more’ in Afghan Persian. Ironically, the burqa, which happens to be the mandatory dress code for the women of Afghanistan, is a source of inspiration for these daring dresses and makes for a curious juxtaposition. An amused Mustafa reveals, “I like the fact that the women creating these dresses actually wear burqas themselves, but to them it is just a way of life. They find it completely hilarious that they are being made into short dresses, and western women are wearing them and loving them.”

Fashion ComPassion is highly stringent in its selection of the ethical brands sold by it. Currently the fashion house stocks seven different ethically created fashion brands, but Mustafa informs me that not every brand interested in stocking with them makes the cut: “I need to be very vigilant in terms of ensuring how these brands are socially conscious; what kind of an effort they have made to help their employees and what kind of an effort have they made to give back. The selection is made on the basis of whether they are paying them justly and in what other ways beyond that are they helping improve the quality of their lives – i.e do they provide them with training as well as health and childcare benefits? Several brands approach me but I can’t have every single one latching on.”

A percentage of the profits made by FC have so far been donated to various charitable causes it supports. These include the British charity Oxfam and the Pakistani NGO The Citizen’s Foundation. Recently, Mustafa has formed a potentially auspicious partnership with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Mustafa, with the help of the WFP, will help empower women in areas such as rural Pakistan by enabling them to start their own businesses.

As of this month, thanks to Mustafa, brands such as Palestyle and Sougha will be available at Ensemble in Karachi. Soon after, she tells me, she plans on expanding further and making them available to consumers in Lahore as well as Islamabad. She explains, “there’s a gap in the Pakistani market for good quality accessories. Also, when people look at the wares knowing that they are created in socially responsible conditions and are beautiful to boot, then I think it might bring about a change in mindsets as well.”

Mustafa believes that as a Pakistani it is imperative that she helps local artisans. “I am Pakistani after all and if I’m working with brands from Palestine, India and, even Lebanon and Cambodia, then why not Pakistan? I think there is definitely an awareness about this over here. There should be a platform for artisans here in Pakistan and I want Fashion Compassion to be that platform,” she says.

Published in Newsline Magazine, October, 2012.

Helping hand: Several Szabist students pledge to donate organs

KARACHI: Several students of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology pledged to become organ donors after attending a seminar on Wednesday.

Soon after they heard Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) present dismal statistics on organ donation in the country, several students rushed to the booth set up outside the hall and enrolled in the SIUT donor programme. He was speaking to students and the media at a seminar on ‘Deceased Organ Donation’ at the institute.

Dr Rizvi revealed that Pakistan needs on an average 25,000 kidneys, 8,000 hearts and 12,000 livers every year and over 50,000 Pakistanis die of organ failure every year. Deceased organ donation may strike to many as a noble cause but few actually step up and sign up to be donors, he regretted.

Organised by Szabist Social Sciences Department and SIUT, the event sought to remove any preconceived notions that students may have about transplantation and urged them to learn more through the organ donation booth set up at the seminar. Dr Rizvi took questions from the students to give them a clearer picture about transplantation and urged them to continue creating awareness about the procedure. “We have passed the baton on to you,” he said.

“The purpose of organising events such as these is to create awareness and get people to trust in organ donation again,” pointed out Dr SA Anwar Naqvi, a professor of the department of urology and transplantation at SIUT. For two decades, Pakistan was notorious for being the world’s leading ‘transplant tourism’ destination where serpentine organ brokers and private hospitals made a fortune selling kidneys to international buyers, he told The Express Tribune.

The introduction of the 2007 transplantation of human organs and tissue ordinance prohibited commercial organ donation, legalised deceased organ donation and disallowed donations to foreigners in an effort to stop this illegal practice, he added.

The ordinance, passed in 2010, has given organisations, such as the SIUT, a chance to change people’s perception about organ transplantation and encourage them to become organ donors. “Organ transplantation should be about sharing not selling,” said Dr Naqvi.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2014.

Afghanistan 2014: Consequences for Pakistan

KARACHI: 2014 is going to be a telling year for the future of the security and stability in Afghanistan as the United States sets to withdraw its forces from the country and the presidential elections, scheduled in April, loom closer with each day.

As President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign the bilateral security agreement, and the Obama administration threatens to pull all of its forces out of Afghanistan in the absence of the agreement, the future for the country, it seems, remains unclear.

Last year’s panel discussion on Aghanistan in 2014 and its resulting consequences for Pakistan, panelist and Pakistani diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan had stated rather ambiguously that “the crystal ball is opaque.” Well, the crystal ball is foggier now than ever.

Will Afghanistan be able to stand on its own feet or will it inadvertently revert back to the state before the foreign occupation? With the presidential election so close and the US as yet to be in agreement with the Afghan government on maintaining its forces post-2014, will they be able to reach an agreement before the elections? And most importantly, what will the resulting consequences be for Pakistan?

Former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom and former two-time ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, quoted Allama Iqbal to emphasise the importance of stability in Afghanistan for Pakistan. The national poet once referred to Afghanistan as the ‘heart of Asia’.  She paraphrased the poet who was of the view that “conflict in Afghanistan means turmoil in the entire neighbourhood and peace in Afghanistan means prosperity for all of Asia.” She summarised, “challenges are enormous and the uncertainty is great.”

Former Pakistani diplomat Najmuddin Shaikh rendered a gloomy picture for Afghanistan and as a result of Pakistan. The presence of the US was generating a great deal of economic activity for the people of Afghanistan. For example, the high paying jobs at NGOs that were previously available for the locals are going to disappear and the people in search of employment prospects  will begin to think of ways out of the country. “In the best of circumstances, we will be faced with the influx of another 2 million refugees.” Shaikh also says if there is no US aid the deterioration will be even greater.

Shaikh paints a grim future for the Afghan National Security Forces (AFNS). The US have currently pledged to contribute $4.1 billion for the AFNS which currently stands at 350,000 soldiers. The funds provided will be able to maintain just about 230,000 soldiers, which would mean that unless the US puts up an additional $ 2 billion – which remains highly unlikely – or that the remaining 120,000 soldiers will be dismissed and on the street with their only remaining skill to offer being knowledge on how to wield a gun.

The consensus remained that the refugee problem will be an inevitable outcome of the withdrawal and Pakistan will need to be prepared.