Verbal tantrums of a writer & an anxious spectator of life.

Month: September, 2010

Equal Opportunity? Yes, it’s our birthright.

Equal opportunity. Yes, a concept much foreign to majority of the population in Pakistan. Rights. Yes, another concept that exists as a stranger to most dwellers of our struggling nation. Truth is, rights to equal opportunity can change everything. In my heart and mind, equal access to education can change mindsets, perspectives and play a leading role in shaping public thought and policies of Pakistan.

There are three major denominations of Education systems that currently exist: Private, Public and Religious. Neither can relate with one another and are finding it increasingly difficult to coexist. The standard and quality of life each is exposed to differs so greatly that their visions vary on an extreme level and our nation finds it hard to identify itself with unity. What is missing is a link – a connection on equal grounds, recognition of one’s birthright not just to water, food and shelter, but also to education.

If Pakistan can take the enormous risk of eradicating the numerous educational systems and offer a singular academic curriculum, that could, with years and generous acceptance lead to evenly educated generations which can lead our nation out of misery and into light. Undoubtedly, this task is, for most, unacceptable and naïve. In order to defend the positive impacts of such a system of education, first and foremost we must find common ground between citizens who want a secular education for their children and those who deem religion as a requisite for any grooming of their child. This is a task not easy in any respect but attainable. By instituting religious studies course throughout school years, be it Islamic or Christian, if the majority of the population of Pakistan chooses to incorporate religion into school systems, it should be offered as a window of education, not of suppression and extremism. These classes should not be made compulsory but should be offered extensively to all interested students and families. The matter then rests in the hands of individual families as to whether they want their child to enroll in the religious studies course. The government of Pakistan’s job is to provide what a smoothly functioning system of academics where all have access to equal opportunity, but are in no way, obliged to attain a religious education.

For many, in fact, for most it is inconceivable to attend the same school with the children of the family that works in their house. This unjust reality needs to change and the only way we can do it is by bringing a revolutionary transformation of incurring a singular academic system in all schools for everyone. It does not have to be privately, publicly or religiously run. It does not have to adopt British or American models. We should take our very own India as an example who have their own board of examinations and compete internationally. The purpose of our view of education should be to be provide the very best so that those who have the opportunity, do not hastily exit the country in search for better standards of life. Pakistan should take the responsibility of providing an equal quality of life.

Second, textbook boards should consistently compete internationally in providing the most updated and neutral books to all students. Despite the various boards monitoring teachers skills, their professionalism should be regularly tested and no uncertified teacher should take up such a roll. Indeed, that may lead to a shortage of teachers but this will also encourage various students to recognize the equality, respect and honor given for taking up this career path. Eventually, all teachers will be of the same level and be able to offer students full academic and social support. Such monitoring boards should be regularly checked by Education department leaders of each province.

Since the birth of Pakistan, the national language has been Urdu. Taking pride in our national language should be inculcated. In the past we have seen great uprisings in our very own province of Sindh where the provincial language has remained close to their hearts. To respond to this request, the schools should offer provincial languages, as per their province, along with Urdu to students up to middle school as a requirement, after which they can choose to pursue the language in accordance with their interest. The reality of English being the lingua franca of the world should be acknowledged and benefited from. Our citizens should be able to speak Urdu and English fluently if they want to succeed and excel in this globally connected and fast advancing world. Not only will these students emerge as native Urdu and English speakers, but will be trilingual with their mastery over their respective provincial language.

If we can provide our upcoming generations with safe studying space, trained teachers, affordable books (by incorporating much of national and foreign budgets into this department), identical language offers and the opportunity to attend a school with same curriculum as their counterparts in the other end of the country, we can diminish the need of poor students to attend extremist madrassahs and ungoverned Public schools.

Most importantly, we need to realize that the majority of the population needs help, not just the few percentage of elite. We need to address their issues just as much as we need to address our own. This is only a glimpse into the focus that should be laid onto education. In fact, Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer stated that there should be no reason for our Pakistani students to want to leave and study abroad, we should provide them better-equipped facilities so they do not feel such a need. He also added that English should be incorporated in all schools in order for us to make any progress in contrast with the world. Emphasis on encouragement of female education plays a vital role in the positive transformation of Pakistan. If our men and women can speak their minds on the same footing, think what good we could do with ourselves and our nation!

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“Create, Don’t Seek” A piece on Muhammad Yunus

Published digitally in iWrite, Pakitan’s First English Academic Newsletter

Nobel Peace Prize Winner of 2006 and the Father of Micro credit financing, Muhammad Yunus visited my University in September. Not only did he leave each student in awe, but more importantly, left a taste of wonder in our minds. The question he steadily arose and addressed in his speech was about the creativity of man. Since we were hunters and gatherers, man has hunted and found a way to survive. Today, our survival is based on the job opportunities offered to us by the world. What happened to our imaginative and innovative skills? Muhammad Yunus offers us a brilliant example: Micro credit financing, which is providing non-interest loans to the extremely poor of a society. His world famous bank, the Grameen Bank runs on the loyalties and hard work of the poor. Majority of the customers are women. They take a loan, start a small-scale business of breeding hens and selling them, return the loan, take a larger one to take their income to a higher level and so on and so forth. While we are at the beck and call of multi national companies to offer us a shelter, these poverty stricken poor women are feeding themselves. Why? Because these women are not afraid to create and explore their own potential. In fact, Muhammad Yunus stated that poverty is not created by the poor, but by the system. It is crucial to recognize our persistent dependence upon the system to cater to the needs of the elite minority. But while we feed the system, we are actually increasing the extreme disparity in our populations. We are in turn, becoming reasons for the increasing numbers of the poor. Until and unless, we take matters into our hands by forming and initiating careers of our own, we only succumb to the society, which conveniently leaves the poor behind. Muhammad Yunus said: “16,000 beggars took loans from the Grameen Bank and today, 8,000 of them do not even beg any longer.” What these individuals are doing with the little amount they are allowed to borrow is unbelievable; as they return to take more and more. The entire bank system is based on them and their diligent mindsets to improve their lives. They do not only recognize the problem, but also want to participate in the solution. If we can give limited resources of money to the poor and achieve such results, it is an unfortunate reality that the rich continue in failing to generate various trades and occupations for themselves.

Today, the world stands in a very vulnerable position; we seem to be hindering our own progress by resorting to complete dependence upon companies accepting us. Instead of finding our own place, we are fitting into ready-made molds of the definition of careers and professionalism. Unique identity of individualism is at loss. The ‘fortunate’ ones continue to graduate from high-level universities but find themselves in the same state of boredom and dissatisfaction. Whereas, in areas where micro credit financing is active, the poor and hungry are developing their own facet of professionalism, one which not only feeds them, but exercises their minds to think at a higher level, improving their quality of life. His speech was one offering multiple lessons. Questioning our stagnant mindsets and repetitive visions of our future, first Mr. Yunus reminded us that it is never too late to find our place in the world. Second, our fate is not necessarily entwined with the size of our wallets, but our minds and innovation skills. Third, he provoked us to explore options we would otherwise render undoable. His personal story is one that encourages us to take the road less traveled. He was not a banker or a finance specialist, but developing micro credit financing which positively affects over 40 million people today is due to him taking a leap and doing something different. Fear must become our enemy and risks our best friend.

Another subject he tied into the notion of creativity was the greatness of advancing technology. Soon, he said, we will be able to use cellular phones to carry out ultra sounds on pregnant women who reside in far-off villages. They need not suffer because we have the potential to invent gadgets that can save lives around the world without even our physical presence. All we need is an open mind and a willingness to expand our horizons. As I enter year 2010, the Nobel Laureate’s words resonate in my head as I put pieces of life together; my education, my family, experiences and what I hope to achieve from life. Significantly, I have lost all hesitation when it comes to changing my path and this time, creating my own.

Questionable Peace in Pakistan

Written (May 30, 2010)

Last year, I began an internship at the University of Virginia’s Women Center, where it was my responsibility to develop a project that would enable greater understanding of my homeland, Pakistan within the University community. With the leadership and encouragement of my Politics professor, Mr. John Echeverri-Gent, we took the idea of a simple conference on Pakistan and turned it into a large scale two-day conference, attended by many sought-after individuals, including, Mr. Jonah Blank, the Chief Advisor on South Asian Affairs in the US Senate, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, former female ambassador of Pakistan to Washington D.C., accomplished gender rights scholar from Ireland, Ms. Siobhan Mullally, prestigious author Mr. Stephen Cohen, honorable professor such as Mr. Hassan Abbas from Columbia University and several of our very own exalted professors from the University of Virginia.

The purpose of the conference was to encourage understanding of Pakistan and its political culture, and to make the University community aware of the various gender and equality issues in the region. The current political dynamics of Pakistan have caused much misperception and misunderstanding of the nation’s culture and people. Constantly battling fears of bomb explosions and armed trucks guarding the streets, I sought a light at the end of the tunnel and my only hope came in the form of offering knowledge through the very best individuals and their experiences. By featuring renowned speakers, I thought it would be a most effective way of reaching the audience and shaping their minds. The world is currently seeing Pakistan through the restricted vision of the media. As a Pakistani citizen, representing many of the females that come to study abroad, I desired a conference that could provide a wholesome view of Pakistan and make the world recognize the vitality and the resilience of the people, despite the political chaos.

Eager to gain a better perspective on the ‘terrorized’ nation, neighbored by Afghanistan and India, students, faculty and friends came from across the University to gain productive insight. Through debates and discussions covering topics such as the History of Pakistan, US-Pak relations, Future of Women in Pakistan, Kerry-Lugar Bill, Education in Pakistan, Gender and Gender Rights in the nation, Political and social dilemma Pakistan is facing, the speakers and the audience were able to listen and voice any related questions. In this way, the conference was structured on an interdisciplinary foundation, incorporating various aspects of Pakistan, instead of merely focusing on the gloomy political atmosphere that tends to prevail.

A debate between diplomat Dr. Maleeha Lodhi and US Senate official Mr. Jonah Blank clarified the relationship shared between both nations, in particular reference with the hesitancy and doubt with which many Pakistani citizens accept US assistance. Mr. Blank highlighted, “we remember the role that Pakistan played in the Cold War”, referring to the friendly alliance that Pakistan and US had formed during an hour of need for the US. Mr. Blank added that the “US needs Pakistan to defeat terrorism and Pakistan needs the US to recover from issues.” Indeed, there is mutual need, however, the issue of mutual trust still remains. Dr. Lodhi pointed out that “the media tends to use incorrect headlines and then base their policies on that”, causing much distress between the nations and a lesser reason to engage in loyalty. Both prestigious individuals truly shed light upon a matter of great concern. In order to achieve success in the relationship between both countries, and progress towards stability, trust must be recognized as an absolutely necessary ingredient for a triumphant alliance.

The conference offered the audience with both sides of a story, and this healthy debate lead by the speakers left a taste of optimism in the onlooker’s mouths. Indeed, both countries have shared a goal of strengthening peace in South Asia, however, the difficulty lies in the mistrust, which causes for both to adopt divergent approaches of bringing stability. The hope with which the authors, professors, officials and the ambassador spoke lit a candle of hope in the minds of the Pakistani community that sat amidst the audience.

The conference was an opportunity to put Pakistan on a higher platform and study the nation from each angle. With militancy on the rise, such lectures and discussions can provide safe space for the average person to learn and use knowledge, instead of propaganda, to manage their understanding of a country. The speakers each offered strategies that would benefit Pakistan, including Ms. Siaobhan Mullally, who rightly claimed that as long as “gender security is sidelined, many compromises [will be] negotiated effecting gender issues” and women will continue to suffer at the hands of corruption and terrorism. The reality is, with Pakistan’s population comprising of more females than males, the leadership must take into account the compulsion of offering women independent employment opportunities if they want Pakistan to pass through the storm.

Therefore, to me, the conference emphasized upon two tremendously significant factors that can make or break Pakistan: mutual trust with the US, who can greatly enable Pakistan and the necessity of women’s rights and equality that greatly lacks in the country. With an analysis and focus on both, along with continued conferences, speeches and lecture series held across the world on Pakistan, the intellectual minds and dedicated activists could set Pakistan on a more stable political path.

It’s home, but it’s not the same

Published in the Cavalier Daily, daily newspaper at the University of Virginia (January 28, 2008)

The question that steadily arises amid Pakistan’s tortured political culture is whether the country will manage to retain all five of its provinces. With previous provincial differences and rising civil unrest, the recent events that shook Pakistan to its core only added to its desire to divide. This division has brought with it not only political turmoil, but emotional turmoil for citizens of Pakistan. My story is from the front lines of the tragedy.

I was born in Pakistan, brought up in the beautiful country where political unrest never ceased to exist. I was 19 years old when I witnessed a historical event that threw my country into chaos: Dec. 27, 2007, only two days after I arrived home from college for Winter Break, Pakistan’s twice-former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was fatally attacked.

Bhutto represented the country’s largest elected party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and the attack on her left thousands of her supporters in great distress. In a country where most are illiterate, it was inevitable that violence would break out as an expression of grief, scorn and rage toward those who committed this tragic act. I was unable to leave my house for three days; all my plans for attending weddings, parties and meetings with my friends were cancelled. There was simply no chance for me to step out of the house and onto the roads. The masses were burning down cars and banks, committing robberies and causing utter disorder; the country was consumed by violent bedlam.

As I sat at home, I thought about my country’s situation. It was obvious this assassination would further enhance animosity toward the president of the country, Pervez Musharraf, who was receiving less and less support from the population. I also knew fingers would be pointed to blame religious fundamentalist parties and the military as well, although it seemed unlikely that the true culprit would ever be identified.

As the upcoming elections grow near, Pakistani people fear another round of unjust and manipulated results. Furthermore, with the assassination and suicide bomb blast, which took place in Lahore, killing 22 people, some people fear there will be more blasts taking civilian lives. Many major roads have been blocked and many ceremonial affairs have been postponed. Day-to-day living has been enormously affected; driving on my own to Liberty Market to buy clothes has become an ordeal in itself; permission issues are on the rise; and staying out late at night has become prohibited.

I ask myself: What has become of my Pakistan? What happened to the days my mum often recalls, when she and her friends would cross over the walls of her college and sneak out to get a “thanda” (cold drink) and roam the streets of Lahore aimlessly, fearlessly. What happened to the secure city of Lahore where I spent hour after hour walking through the winding and narrow streets of Main Market as I waited for the tailor to finish stitching my clothes?

The power goes out every hour for 30 minutes or more, and my cook complains of power shortages that last for 48 hours. My gardener weeps over the high cost of purchasing food, and the sweeper complains of the incessant need for money. Recently her son had an accident, and she was compelled to forgo food for a day to pay his hospital expenses. More than 90 percent of the population faces hardships such as these.

Watching people nearby undergo such excruciating pain provokes one to feel, to think and to hope. Even though my country lies in the hands of a former military leader, elections have been postponed, another political leader has been lost and water, power and food are steadily decreasing, I cannot help but believe in better days, for I know the people of this nation are made of too much substance to watch their country drown before their eyes. When asked for my opinion as to who should lead the country, I am uneasy; at this point, there is no leader in sight who could lead the country steadily. What I am sure of is that Pakistan cannot fall into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists, it cannot be controlled by the military and another leading nation cannot turn our president into a puppet. I am sure democracy will surface as recent exposure and awareness among the people can only lead to a better solution. The ever-increasing number of strikes and protests — comprised of well-to-do lawyers screaming on the roads and teenagers giving conferences and speeches — can only pave a path to some level of certainty.

My prayers are with those who are taking part in the upcoming election and with the supporters of political parties, for when each of these attacks are made, lives are lost and with these lives, families are broken. It is time for the people of Pakistan to take a step forward and not accept just any solution, but the only solution: democracy.

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