Interview with Pakistani writer Bina Shah on “Asian Threads”
Today Sampsonia Way presents an unedited transcript of Reenita Malhotra Hora’s interview with Fearless Ink’s columnist Bina Shah. The interview was conducted for Hong Kong’s Asian Threads radio program and was broadcast on December 2nd.
In this interview Bina Shah talks about the problems with media representations of Pakistan, the impact that Malala Yousafzai has had on the country, and the future of women in Pakistan. She also reads from her short story “The Far Cry of Doves.”
Listen to the audio here.
Perhaps the biggest story in Pakistan this year was that of Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year-old girl from Swat who was gunned down for blogging about life under Taliban rule. Swat was a stronghold for the Taliban from 2006 to 2008, a time during which the organization bombed schools in an attempt to destroy access to education. Against this backdrop, Malala talked about her right to be educated and how much she wanted to go to school. The local community saw her as a role model but the Taliban saw her as the enemy and attempted to murder her.
What then is the future for the woman in Pakistan?
“Very bright,” says Bina Shah, a Karachi based journalist of women’s issues. “She’s going to have a lot of courage but it’s all right there within her grasp.”
Last week on Asian Threads, Reenita talked to Bina Shah about Malala Yousafzai and her stories about the challenge for women in Pakistan.
Reenita: Pakistan continuously comes up as one of the most dangerous places for journalists. There’s a lot of violence against journalists, especially those who work on the political side to show up the wrongdoings of their military and intelligence agencies. Journalists also come under a lot of social pressure here because there’s so much jockeying for political prominence; the media plays an important role in upping the reputation of local politicians or in bringing them down. Bina Shah is an op-ed columnist for Dawn and the Express Tribune newspapers in Pakistan. She says that she avoids all of this because she doesn’t write about politics.
Bina: My interests tend to run to women’s issues, issues of gender equality, education, technology and society, religion, those sorts of things.
But those are also loaded topics in Pakistan.
They are all very loaded topics, especially the issue of women’s rights and, you know, I’ve done a lot of work on very contentious subjects such as acid attack victims, victims of honor killings, abuse against women, the issue of veiling and covering, and women’s place in Islam and women’s place in Pakistani society.
So Bina Shah focuses on women’s issues, and today on Asian Threads we look at the kinds of stories she writes about. Now I couldn’t help wondering how it is that she actually gathers these stories.
They come to me, they just come to you. I mean Pakistan is such a … the word I keep using, people say it’s dangerous, but for me it’s a difficult country, it’s a challenging country. And there are just so many conflicts, so much tension. You don’t have to go anywhere, it’s right in front of you. I mean I woke up one morning last year at 7:30 because an Al-Qaeda bomb had gone off two streets from my house. They bombed a Navy bus. So, where do I have to go? It’s all right there.
“We do have the problems of terrorism and religious extremism. But the entire country is engaged in a fierce battle to defeat those forces…”
All over the world people have misconceptions about Pakistan. When they hear the word they automatically think Al-Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism. This is a problem because there are thousands of liberal Pakistanis in the country and all over the world who know that this is not what Pakistan is all about.
Pakistan has always had conflict, but the terrorism angle has only come about in the last ten or eleven years since 9/11, since George Bush enacted the War on Terror in Afghanistan, which had spillover effects into Pakistan. And so Al-Qaeda kind of took advantage of the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to go back and forth, to do training. But again, we are talking about such a small minority, a minority of a minority, and unfortunately the Western media focuses on only these conflicts and this issue—to the annoyance and the frustration of us in Pakistan, because of course our country has existed for decades before any of this ever happened.
It’s a “sexy” news story, right? And editors and correspondents, they’re always looking for the sexy story. I don’t mean in terms of sexuality, but just what’s exciting, what’s trendy, what’s current, what makes good headlines. And “Karachi Hosts a Literature Festival” is not as sexy a headline as “Karachi Sees Two Bombs set by Al-Qaeda at the US Consulate.” So we do have the problem of terrorism and we do have the problem of religious extremism. But the entire country is engaged in a fierce battle to defeat those forces I would say, and I don’t think it’s portrayed fairly; it doesn’t get enough credit. For example, you get so many people saying, “Well why don’t Muslims protest whenever there’s this happening or that happening?” But the point is, we do protest. We’re out on the streets, we’re protesting, we write op-eds in the paper—it doesn’t get any coverage.
These contentious feelings, or the upset that Pakistani Muslims face in their own country, does it help to actually give it a voice or is it detrimental?
No, it’s important to air all voices. It’s important to have everything out in the open. There’s a very wonderful phrase and I’m missing who said it, but “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When you open the doors to problems, when you air them, when you allow them to be examined from all angles and discussed, that is the very basis of a free and open society, which we’re always trying to move towards.
Probably the biggest news story that broke this year was that of Malala Yousafzai, a girl who was victimized for wanting to go to school. It’s a story close to Bina’s heart and one that took Pakistan and, frankly, the rest of the world by storm. Bina conducted a media salon at Hong Kong Baptist University earlier this month. It was called, “Dreams, Writing, and Social Impact” and it was the perfect opportunity to talk about Malala.
Malala is the young fourteen year-old girl living in Swat, in the northern area of Pakistan, which the Taliban overran in 2006 and took over, and tried to establish—well they did establish—a Sharia, a very harsh, strict, distorted interpretation of Sharia law. And the army threw them out in 2008, but not before they had committed some really terrible excesses, especially in the area of women’s rights. They bombed girls’ schools, they bombed little boys’ schools, they shut down schools, they made girls stop going to school. Now in the backdrop of all that, Malala Yousafzai was only 11 at the time. Her father runs a chain of private schools and she was going to school, then she couldn’t go to school, she had to stop. She started to write a blog under a pseudonym “Gul Makai” in which she described life under Taliban rule in Swat.
- Class Dismissed: A Profile of Malala Yousafzai
- A 2009 documentary by Adam B. Ellick profiles Malala Yousafzai and the impact that the Taliban is having on girls’ education in Pakistan.
It was for the BBC Urdu website but they were translated into English. They’re available, anyone can look them up. She talked about what it was like not to be able to go to school, going to school but not wearing uniforms, hiding books under their shawls so people wouldn’t see that this is what they were doing. She kept talking and writing and talking about her desire was to go to school, how it was her right to be educated, how nobody could take that away from her.
When the Taliban were defeated in 2008, then it all came to light that it was this young girl, Malala Yousafzai. She became celebrated, was given Pakistan’s first national peace award, which was then called the Malala award, basically in her honor. So she became celebrated, and she became known as an activist—such a young girl, but an activist for peace for women’s rights, for girls’ education—and we thought that that was the happy ending to the story. But then one and a half months ago, on October 9th , Malala and her two friends were coming home from school in a van, which was stopped by gunmen who said, “Which one is Malala?” and when a girl said, “It’s her,” they opened fire on her. Amazingly, her two friends sitting next to her dove over her, to protect her from bullets, and all three were wounded. She was shot in the head and neck and the two [other] girls were wounded not as seriously.
This story just caught the attention of the world because here is a girl, just a little girl, a fourteen year-old child, and the Taliban consider her fair game. They consider her the enemy. And the head of the Pakistani Taliban released a statement saying that we targeted her because she was opposing Sharia and she was speaking out against Sharia and mujahideen, the freedom fighters as they call themselves, and so she’s fair game.
So this happened and then she was airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar and then a military hospital in Rawalpindi. The military rescued her and then she was sent to Birmingham, where she’s currently recovering. Her two friends recovered, and one of them is actually back at school, amazingly. And there have been arrests in the case. Six men have been arrested. One of the men who was arrested, a few days ago, his sister gave a public statement disowning her brother and apologizing to Malala for what happened. At that point, we’ve had a lot of moments that have shocked us, but this was the biggest shock and this was something that nobody could defend, nobody could say that this was okay. And religious clerics, fifty of them, gave statements in support, saying that this was wrong. People were out on the street holding candlelight vigils, there were umpteen things written about it in the newspaper, essays, a lot of foreign coverage.
But what began to happen, which is very unfortunate, was a backlash against the attention given to this case. Pakistanis are in a very strange state of mind at the moment because of the ten years of the War on Terror and the blame Pakistanis have gotten: Sheltering Osama bin Laden, supporting terrorism, doing this, doing that. So people are very defensive and they’re not in a receptive mood. When too much attention, they felt, was focused on Malala, they started to feel uncomfortable, then they started to question, “Was this as straightforward as it seemed, was there some sort of conspiracy, was the whole episode staged to make the Taliban look bad? Was the whole episode staged so that there could be a military operation in North Waziristan, where the military has been very reluctant to go?” So there’s a lot of confusion.
So who’s bringing up these questions? Is it the lay Pakistanis?
Yes, unfortunately it is the lay Pakistani, egged on by certain aspects of the media, which is very right-wing and have sympathies with the Taliban, sympathy with the militants, primarily because they imagine the militants are doing a very good thing by fighting Western occupation in Afghanistan. It’s very hard to unravel. We don’t have enough time to get into the ins and outs of the whole thing, but it’s a very complicated situation on the ground.
And, correct me if I’m wrong, but there are many situations that are complicated, and the complication comes from this enforcement, or this intentioned enforcement of Sharia law. Is that right? What is Sharia law? Can you explain that for our listeners? And why is it a problem?
Sharia law is simple. Sharia is basically the rules and regulations which have been gleaned from scholars, from thousands of years of studying of the Qaran and the sayings of the Prophet. This isn’t something that’s come out of nowhere. Islamic law and Islamic jurisprudence is a very legitimate and solid aspect of the study of Islam and the practice of Islam. So Sharia is basically the code of law that has been taken from everything that has been taught to us in the Quaran and by the Prophet and so on and so forth.
Islamic scholars are brilliant, they’ve done so much scholarly work and academic work. There’s so much legal and … I don’t know the word for it, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a very weighty and worthy aspect of Islam and legal studies. You can actually get degrees in Islamic Law in many universities around the world. So Sharia law is basically the legal system of Islam and it deals with many, many things such as inheritance, taxation, employment issues, issues of divorce, finance, child custody cases, so on and so forth. It’s just a code of law.
“Sharia law can be applied in a humane and in a very spiritual and enlightened way, or it can be applied in a very draconian and distorted way…”
Now the way that Sharia can be applied is in a humane and in a very spiritual and a very enlightened way, or it can be applied in a draconian way and a very distorted way and a way that supports ideas of chauvinism, patriarchy, and oppression of human rights. It’s open to interpretation—that’s the beauty of it, but that’s where people can take advantage of it. And you have countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where the Sharia is applied very strictly. You have countries like Iran where the Sharia is applied strictly and yet there is very solid scholarly work. Iranian Shiite scholars are brilliant, I have to say, brilliant in their intelligence and their foresight and in being able to extract form the Qur’an these beautiful interpretations. Then you have a place like Afghanistan, where you have illiterate, uneducated people taking what they think is Sharia, but it’s actually marrying their very superficial and inaccurate understanding of Islam with their own tribal, patriarchal, misogynistic culture. And then you get this very distorted kind of system where women are not supposed to be out without male guardians, and if they are out wearing white socks with black shoes they should be whipped. I mean, theses are complete distortions, they’re horrific, and they go completely against the spirit of Islam
So Bina, on the topic of honor killings, which is something that you cover…
Does this come out of the draconian interpretation of Sharia law?
No. Honor killings are actually a cultural practice and they have existed in tribal systems in many countries, not just Pakistan, but throughout the Middle East, and in India. They can be called crimes of passion in places like South America. And for many years even Western legal systems had loopholes in which, for example, if you came home and found your wife in bed with another man, and you killed her right then and there it was called a crime of passion and you could get away with it in court, it would be a legal defense for you.
I wrote a short story, based on something a woman who was a very important judge in the Pakistani legal system told us. I went to a talk on women’s rights and she related this story to us. In Sindh, which is where I’m from—it’s the southern province of Pakistan—there was a village in which a young girl, eleven years old, was married off according to the village customs. And the parents, the family, went off to a neighboring village, got her married, left her with the husband’s family and came back home. Within about three hours the news came back to them that she had been killed and the reason was because somebody told her husband’s family that when she was little she used to play with boys.
She used to play with boys as a child and therefore they decided to kill her for honor. It was such a chilling story and I thought, this girl is dead and nobody will know her story unless I put it down. So I was compelled to write it. It’s called “The Wedding of Sundri” and it was published in the Dawn newspaper and then I published it in a collection of my own short stories a year later.
Who can argue with this? Who can argue with such an egregious crime? And yet there are people who defend these practices as cultural and “this is our culture and who are other people?” And there’s a hatred of NGO culture, which is the non-governmental organizations that are basically groups designed to help people in rural areas who are disenfranchised, who are on the poverty line, to understand and help gain their legal rights, their human rights, their social rights. There’s a lot of suspicion that these groups are Western-backed and Western-funded. So it’s like, “These NGOs and these women wearing tight jeans come into our village and tell our women to disobey, to rebel against our society and our culture, which has been there for five thousand years and who are they?” Even Imran Khan, who’s running for election and trying to become the leader of Pakistan, said “I don’t agree with these women. They can’t go in tight jeans to the northern areas, what are they expecting?” So we have some terrible attitudes.
“My mother always used to love the sound of birdsong in the morning, but her favorite was the far cry of doves.”
Here’s another story by Bina Shah. This one’s called “The Far Cry of Doves,” and although it’s quite different, it identifies with Malala’s story:
My mother was always my best friend. We were so much alike, my mother and I: We had the same eyes, hazel like the color of warm nuts; the same hands, small and strong; the same laughter, the kind that makes anyone standing next to you start to laugh because it’s so infectious. My father used to say that if he heard one of us laughing in another room, he couldn’t tell which one of us it was. He said that we could have been twins, except that we had been born twenty years apart.
My mother always used to love the sound of birdsong in the morning, but her favorite was the far cry of doves. She would stop whatever she was doing, or if we were walking in a field, she would stand still and take me by the arm, tilting her head so that her ear was cocked in the direction of the gentle coos carried to us in the soughing wind. “Listen, Shahbano! Can you hear it? The doves, can you hear them? Aren’t they beautiful?”
I laughed at her, a grown woman, becoming rapturous at the sound of a few birds singing. There were birds with much more melodious voices: The koel, which sang in the summer, or the nightingale, whose song brought tears to many people’s eyes. But once the war started, the birds fell silent and the guns took their place.
At first we tried to carry on as normal. Mother insisted that I go to school anyway, because the days were too important to miss. “You need your education, Shahbano. This way you can become anything you want to be. A very great man, a scholar, once said: Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
“If I go to school, will there be peace again, Mother?” I said, feeling very frightened, because the guns had been loud that night, waking us up from our sleep. We had to run downstairs and huddle under the staircase while the planes passed overhead, the gunfire crackling like thunder.
“My sweet, that is not in our hands. But if every child in our country goes to school, we may never have another war again. Do you know what is the greatest treasure anyone can ever possess in their lifetime?”
“It is your education, Shahbano. No matter what happens to you in life, your education is the one thing they can’t take away from you. You may lose your house, your possessions, even your friends, but you will always have what you learnt, Now go on to school, my darling, and I will help you with your homework when you come back.”
And she kept her promise; we studied together under the light of a candle when they cut the electricity during the air-raids, every night for months.
But then things became worse, and we were not allowed to go out of our houses because it was too dangerous. The troops had moved closer to the city and there was fighting on the streets; every day we received the terrible news that another friend had been killed in the war. I had to give up my schooling and Mother taught me the whole day in the house. She always managed to make our lessons fun, full of laughter and songs, so that the hours passed quickly, and Father said that he was proud of all that I was learning, how hard I worked.
But then things got even worse than that: Mother became ill. She stayed up and coughed all night, and became thinner and thinner. Because of the war, there were no medicines to make her better, you see, so even if we had taken her to a hospital, it would have been of no use. I was so frightened for her; I slept in the same bed as she did at night with my head on her shoulder and my hand on her heart, to make sure that it was still beating in the morning when I woke up. I fed her spoons of broth and wiped her brow when she had fever. I kept praying to God that a miracle would make my mother better.
One morning, my mother woke in the very early hours, just after dawn. “Listen, Shahbano! Can you hear?”
“What, Mother?” I said, alarmed, because I could hear nothing.
“The doves, Shahbano, the doves! The doves… they are singing so beautifully…” And my mother smiled, listening to the doves singing to her as she breathed slow, long breaths, until no more breath came from her body.
The days were very long and bleak after my mother died. I wept for many days and felt as though my world had come to an end, because I had lost my best friend. My father tried to console me, but I felt that there was no point in anything. Still, I remembered my promise to my mother that I would value my education. I picked up my schoolbooks and continued to read and study, and every time I did so, I felt as though my mother was near me, looking over my shoulder.
And then, slowly, spring began to return to my country. The guns fell silent. The war was over. Things began to go slowly back to normal. We were allowed out of the house, and soon we could go back to school. I was able to meet other girls of my age, some of whom had lost their mothers, others their fathers, or brothers. I made new friends. We were like a new family that had to reform after the loss of our old ones. But I found that I was able to smile and laugh and play like everyone else, and that felt like a miracle.
One day when I was in school I read about a famous artist from Spain, called Pablo Picasso, who painted a beautiful painting of a dove, which was used as the symbol for a great peace conference in Paris in 1949. It was only then that I understood why my mother loved doves so much, and I wept tears of sorrow and joy when I looked at his painting of the dove, white as ice, against a dark blue sky. I felt as though my heart had been replaced by a dove whose wings were beating hard inside my chest, trying to reach the sky, to freedom and peace. I realized that my mother had reached the sky when she died, and at last I was able to put her ghost behind me.
Clearly Bina does not hold back opinion in any of her writing, non-fiction or fiction. You wonder whether it’s difficult for someone like her to establish a career as a woman in Pakistan. Even if it isn’t difficult for her to reach an audience, it could be difficult for her family…
My family is my biggest support, and while they may be concerned for what I’m saying or what I’m doing, they believe enough in me and in the messages that I’m trying to pass. They know that as long as I stay within the bounds of what’s morally right—and I think that Islam really helps me, Islam really guides me in feeling my way through what is morally correct. I mean, standing up for minorities, standing up for women, standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves: That is totally within the line and spirit of Islam. So with that and my family’s support as guiding forces, it helps me to overcome any fear or reluctance I might have to put myself out there.
“Standing up for minorities, standing up for women, standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves: That is totally within the line and spirit of Islam.”
Again, I’m not really “out there” in the way that a woman politician is out there. There are women politicians in Pakistan and women judges—women who are just out there are so brave, because there is a lot of opposition to just their presence, to just their insisting on being counted and insisting on being seen. There’s such a backlash against that and there’s the thought that women should not be seen in public, women should not be heard. Luckily Pakistan is a lot more progressive than many countries in the Middle East. That is our Indian influence because Indian women overall have been involved in the independence movement, they have been involved in politics. So Pakistani women do take that inheritance and they have come out on their own very well. In Pakistani universities the women are excelling, and we have women doctors, women engineers, women fighter pilots. There’s no profession in which women don’t work.
What then is the future for the woman of Pakistan?
Very bright, but she’s going to have to fight for it. She’s going to have to fight hard and have a lot of courage, which she already does. She’s going to have to face a lot of intimidation and a lot of resistance, but it’s right there. It’s right within her grasp.