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Pakistan’s History of Resistance

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Asif Hassan—AFP

The country’s past, as detailed in a new book, is replete with people such as Dr. Mubarak Ali who resisted the national narrative

When you write about Pakistan, the uppermost feeling that guides you is a positive sensation: no matter what, Pakistan is right, give or take a few integral foibles that can be set right. But there are those among us who keep sketching Pakistan negatively, spreading what we think is despair. One is mostly inclined to ignore the “corrective” aspect of criticism and feels like punishing those who express these views.

Yet a fact proven by history is that it is only by looking at the warts as well that a society or state can be set right. This analytic view of the state is what we in Pakistan ignore—or resist with aggression—and the predominant reason is the “ideology” on which we pretend to base the existence of Pakistan as an easy utopia.

What the state rejects

In his book Resistance by Pen and Politics in Pakistan, Dr. Naazir Mehmood has undertaken a personal review of the “voices of resistance” against the follies of a malfunctioning Pakistani state. One is provided a much-delayed satisfaction and pride over the voices of resistance selected for comment by the author. Mahmood explains:

“Asking questions about established traditions, enquiring into the causes of injustices. Voicing concerns against the presumed authenticity of dominant narratives, questioning the official version of history, wondering about the failures of self-righteous political organs and state institutions; challenging discriminations on the basis of caste, color, community, congenital condition, or creed, is resistance. And then, writing all that in the in the form of articles, biographies, columns, fiction, interviews, personal histories and observations, poetry—and even travelogues—is resistance literature.”

Great women challengers

We have space here for highlighting some of the women of Pakistan who challenged the national narrative. He takes account of admirably articulate feminist Afiya Zia, whose critique of Pakistani masculinity is rated high but who will remain distant and unknown to the common man. She has spent over 25 years discussing and participating in women’s rights movements in Pakistan and now she is an acclaimed and accomplished author on the dimensions of gender and politics in the country. Currently she teaches at a university in Canada.

Starting from her “Sex crime in Islamic context: Rape, class and gender in Pakistan” (1994) she has come a long way. Her 2009 paper “Faith-based politics, enlightened moderation and the Pakistani women’s movement” is a masterpiece that debunked many of the myths prevalent about faith-based politics. She has critically discussed how women’s movements in Pakistan had drifted in their ideology and their changing positions had displayed a different strategic focus. She also clarified the religion-secularism debate that had affected women’s political participation. Her discussion of Islamic and secular identities removes the mist over many confusions in this topic.

Asma: fighting for rights under ideology

The book begins by highlighting the voice of “resistance” of women who signaled the passive identity dictated for women by the Islamic state. The “seven” that stood out are taken account of. Among them, Asma Jahangir created a lasting legacy that other women, and men, are ready to carry forward. Looking at the seven-decade history of Pakistan and thinking about the bravest and most conscientious personalities we have had—both men and women—one struggles to present a long list.

Asma’s courage was exemplary in challenging the establishment, including the holy cows of the Army and judiciary. From the Women’s Action Forum to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, her mark is indelible and her footprints are a guiding path for future generations. During General Zia’s bleak and brutal dictatorship, she fought against discriminatory laws that the general introduced in the time of Islamization. Asma defended the prone and the persecuted throughout her life; from the case of the blind victim of rape, Safia Bibi, to the sit-in calling for justice in the case of Naqeebullah Mehsud, Asma was never conspicuous by her absence.

Parveen Rahman and Malala

Parveen Rahman was perhaps the only woman in Pakistan who took up the standard of challenging the land mafia. After graduating from one of the most prestigious engineering colleges in Pakistan, Parveen could have become a prominent and prosperous architect had she decided to pursue her career in the corporate sector. Instead she chose to join the Orangi Pilot Project to work in slum areas of Karachi that were also simmering with ethnic conflicts in the 1980s. For almost three decades she led the struggle against land mafias in different parts of Karachi. She was assassinated in 2013 at the age of 56.

Malala Yousafzai, in her early teens, saw the ruthless occupation of Swat by Taliban. She became an active advocate of girls’ education against the decrees issued by religious bigots. She wrote letters, articles, and gave interviews to the international media. By the age of 15 she had become a voice of the voiceless women in Pakistan. Malala was shot at in 2012, survived and became the most prominent face of Pakistan in the world after becoming the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner in 2014, and the first Pakistani girl to be honored by the Nobel Committee.

If we divide the 70-year history of Pakistan into two equal parts, the first half (1947-1982) shows three women as the country’s leading lights, i.e. Fatima Jinnah, Asma Jahangir, and Nusrat Bhutto. In the second half, i.e from 1982-to date, we have—in addition to Asma Jahangir—Benazir Bhutto, Parveen Rahman, Sabeen Mahmud, and Malala. The author addresses Malala directly: “Dear Malala, you are great not because you were shot and survived, you are greater because you have become the new face of Pakistan; the face that is recognized from Afghanistan to Argentina, and from New Zealand to Zimbabwe. You are the hope of this country, of its children, men, and women. The path you have chosen is arduous and perilous; but the girls of this country look at you as a beacon of strength. The bright future of this country is in the hands of girls like you who refuse to male domination.”

Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz

When Fehmida Riaz died in Lahore on Nov. 21, 2018, at the age of 73, most TV channels portrayed her as an outstanding and prominent poet. Hardly any discussed her as an intellectual of high merit and a writer of short stories and novels as well. The author recalls: “I met Fehmida Riaz for the first time in Delhi in the mid-1980s. At that time she was working on her two books in English and Urdu. Her Urdu novelette, Godavari, was around 100 pages and was published in Pakistan in the spring issue of Aaj in 1992. Written in the backdrop of Hindu-Muslim riots in Bhivandi, where Muslim weavers of textile were targeted and massacred by the goons of Shiv Sena, Godavari presents a unique insight into the 1980s India through the eyes of a Pakistani woman. Later this was translated into English by Aquila Ismail and published by the OUP in 2008 with an introduction by Asif Farrukhi.”

Born in Buland Shehr, UP, in 1940, Kishwar Naheed migrated to Lahore with her family after Partition. With no claim to fame or property they lived with meager resources, but she insisted on going on to college and university. Reading is her passion, so nobody could dissuade her from immersing herself in books. Going much beyond the textbooks of economics which she studied at the University of Punjab, she devoured tomes of classical literature. She found her calling in poetry, and the Lahore of 1950s was abuzz with poetry recitals from schools and colleges to universities.

All along, her forthrightness was her best asset that also won her many friends who applauded her efforts at both fronts—domestic and intellectual. Sufi Tabassum was the one who guided and helped her at various times as if she was his own daughter. There were some others who appreciated her, and yet many others who deprecated the importance of her work. Thanks to her tireless efforts and timely production of good poetry, within a decade she emerged as a respected poet and role model for many women of Pakistan.

Dr. Mahmood’s book contains accounts of scores of men who also challenged the premise of the perfect state that brooked no correction, but the strong point of the book is that, while it sings the careers of the well-known greats of all provinces, it highlights also the ones who have not caught our attention.

Defiant genius of Dr. Mubarak Ali

Naazir talks about those who rebelled against the imposed narrative and made themselves unique. One who stands out among them is historian Mubarak Ali. His first rebellious writings were Tareekh Kiya Hay (what is history) priced Rs. 7, and Tareekh aur Shaoor (history and consciousness) priced Rs. 8. Mubarak Ali lives in the minds of many and his own story is worth retelling:

In his memoir, Dar Dar Thokar Khaey, Dr. Ali reveals what most of us who revere him need to know. Born Mubarak Ali Khan Tareen in 1941 in Tonk, Rajasthan (India) to a family of Pathans who had moved as professional/mercenary soldiers from Pishin during the Mughal period, his family was employed by the Nawab of Tonk, an heir of Amir Khan who was himself a hired gun for anyone who would pay him till he made peace with the British and got Tonk in return. His father Masood Ali Khan was a tabeeb who didn’t practice and preferred a lowly job in the toshakhana of the Nawab.

In 1952, his family moved to Hyderabad, Sindh in Pakistan after crossing the border at Khokhrapar. The family was lodged in a mud house in Kali Mori without water and electricity. Mubarak gained entrance in class five in Khalid Memorial School with great difficulty because he had no prior formal education. He moved to Oriental College to do his adeeb to make up for seven lost years. He passed his Urdu adeeb in 1956, then passed his English to become a matriculate in 1957.

Genius without salary

Mubarak became a teacher at Islamia Modern School but was never given a salary. He left the job to become secretary to Jamaat-e-Islami chief Wasi Mazhar Nadvi, but here, too, he was not paid his promised salary and he had to quit the job. He was studying at City College, which was a night college while he did his job in the day. In 1957, he toured all over Pakistan as a member of the college debating team. In 1962, Mubarak completed his first year of M.A. and started teaching part-time in Jamia Arabiya College. In 1963, he stood first in M.A. (History) and was employed as lecturer at Sindh University by vice-chancellor Raziuddin Siddiqi on the pledge that he would stay away from politics.

Mubarak taught at the university for seven years, trying all the time for a Ph.D. admission abroad. When he finally got one, then vice chancellor Hassan Ali Abdur Rehman refused him leave to go. Subsequent vice-chancellor Ghulam Mustafa Shah started stuffing the university with Sindhis, regardless of their ability and Mubarak was refused a travel-grant for his Ph.D. In 1970, a destitute Mubarak landed in London for his studies, working in a factory to pay for his tuition, boarding and lodging. In 1972, he applied in Germany where education was free and was accepted at Ruhr University.

Genius without job

After nearly five years in Germany, Mubarak returned to Pakistan as a Ph.D. in History and rejoined the Sindh University. Head of the department, Dr. Hamida Khuro, who rarely visited the campus, mistakenly accepted his joining report and thus Mubarak got into an insecure and jealousy-ridden institution which didn’t want him. Researcher and writer Ahmad Salim (then translating Sheikh Ayaz into Punjabi) took him to vice chancellor Sheikh Ayaz, the famous Sindhi poet, to get his salary released but the poet dismissed him saying: “How could you do your Ph.D. on the Mughals without visiting the Taj Mahal?” In 1977, he got his salary through sifarish from a feudal landlord Sheikh Ayaz couldn’t refuse, but not before submitting a kind of apology to the vice-chancellor for no apparent reason.

His book Tareekh Kiya Hai came out in 1983. By the time Tareekh Aur Shaoor came out, Mubarak was doing his own kitabat. His book on Behishti Zevar and Akhr-e-Ehad-e-Mughliya ka Daur and the series Sindh ki Tareekh Kaisay Likhi Jaey (how should one write Sindh’s history?) were bestsellers in Sindh and parts of Punjab, but shopkeepers of Karachi were scared of selling them. The peak of his published work was in 1983; then in 1986 ethnic strife overtook all scholarly work and people became too uncivilized to read history. An ideological state cannot accept truth as its history, which it must rewrite for purposes of indoctrination.

In 1989 the University Grants Commission appointed him head of the Institute of South Asian Studies at Lahore, but when he went to report there he was turned down by the old incumbent who thought Mubarak’s views were dangerous and might create problems at the Punjab University. He then approached Sindh University for the pension to which he was entitled after 25 years of service, but the university refused it by not counting the years he had spent abroad for his Ph.D.

Germany to the rescue

Then Dr. Scherer of the Goethe Institut got him to head the center in Lahore on the basis of Mubarak’s ability to speak German. He was at the Institut for four-and-a-half years. In 1995, CID, the Special Branch cousins in India, refused him a visa to attend a seminar in New Delhi on Akbar. Then he got into trouble with the Institut chief Waelde after an incident with the Ajoka Theater, who used the Institut premises for its rehearsals. There was a misunderstanding that couldn’t be removed and Mubarak was once again without a job.

In the wilderness that followed, the Iqbal Chair at the University of Heidelberg fell vacant and Mubarak applied to the PPP government in Islamabad for nomination. He was interviewed by Iftikhar Arif and Ahmad Faraz who asked him: how would he spread Pakistani culture in Germany? This question, to the say the least, was bewildering. And Dr. Mubarak said so. The chair is supposed to be dedicated to scholarly work, not for spreading culture. Since the interviewers had not read Mubarak’s books they turned him down; the German government turned down the sifarishi candidate they chose instead because the man was not a scholar. Conclusion: Dr. Mubarak Ali remained rejected by an ideological state too busy dealing with faith and blasphemy.

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