Posted by Mahim Maher
“In a city like Karachi with 20 million people are you telling me that there were no rapes today?” I stare at the crime reporter.
“Er… ma’am…,” his voice trails off.
This has been my pet peeve for as long as I’ve worked in a newsroom in Pakistan. In my mind, it is simply not possible that in one of the world’s five megacities, Karachi, there isn’t a rape committed at least every hour. But virtually none of them are reported.
The problem is that the police stations, nearly 100 in this city, are all staffed by men. The other problem is that nearly all crime reporters working at either newspapers or in television channels here are men. More and more women have become journalists and some of them are doing wonderful work, but the crime beat pretty much stays a male domain, simply because the cops are cigarette-smoking, paan-chewing male chauvinists who are not comfortable talking to a female reporter much less becoming buddy buddy with her. And then, when it comes to sex-related matters, they are the last ones to want to discuss them with women.
I don’t blame them, though. Pakistani society is not one that considers it polite to discuss biology. It doesn’t matter who you are talking to, the bright young men who’ve returned from American universities with MBAs or the sun-wizened rice farmers of Sanghar who have never ventured beyond their nearby town. With only a very few exceptions, men do not like talking about sex with women and don’t like women who talk about sex either. When it comes to rape at least.
Let me tell you a small story. Nearly a decade ago, when I returned to Karachi from college I started hanging out with a group of people introduced to me by my best friend. She was married to a young man and the group consisted of his gang. One day I got a mass email sent around to the group. It was one of those animated, moving line-drawing cartoon jokes in which a man was having sex with a woman in what was portrayed as a derogatory position. Essentially the cartoon man was impaling the woman. The email had been sent around to the whole group so several comments, laughter etc. were part of the email.
I, however, was not laughing. It was the most offensive thing I had seen in a long time. Now I can get a good joke, a ribald joke just as much as anyone else, but when something like this comes my way it makes my skin crawl. I hit reply-to-all and typed up a paragraph-long argument on why the cartoon was offensive. In it I used words for the female and male anatomy and the sexual experience, such as penis and orgasm, misogyny, feminism, Chthonian, Dionysian etc.
The next thing I knew, my best friend called me up. She said her husband did not want her to be in touch with me any more. When I asked why, she said that because I had used such language everyone in the group thought I was a slut and a whore and if she continued to be friends with me, she would be, by default, one and bring shame to her husband.
This is how the reasoning works: if a woman uses the word penis or orgasm, that means she is familiar with them and thus has had sex and thus is not a virgin and thus is a slut.
It’s been over 10 years since that happened, but that episode comes to mind every time someone tells me to watch what I say, to be more ladylike or stop behaving in a particular way because it will give the wrong impression. Two recent incidents this week reminded me of the email and my first lesson in the mind-boggling way society works here.
I was hanging out with a friend last week when he cracked a joke. I laughed out loud. Not the Amadeus laugh, but a deep guffaw that risks turning into a fit of snorting if I’m not careful. “You really shouldn’t laugh like that,” he said, timidly.
Oh, no, I said to myself. Here we go again. “And why is that?”
“Because, you know, people will think you’re like one of those women.”
“You know,” he widened his eyes. “Like THOSE women…”
“You mean fast women? Whores? Sluts?”
He held his palms up. “You said it.”
I was amazed. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense while living here in Karachi but this one was new. A deep-throated, uninhibited laugh means to some men (and women) that the woman isn’t controlled enough in public, opens herself up rather than restraining herself. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense in the deepest, most terrifyingly primordial way. Perhaps this laugh, I thought, indicated an insatiable, unafraid, sexual appetite? A long time ago, in my search for answers to oppression, I read the brilliant Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’, which remains to this day, my bible for feminism studies. Have you heard of the Vagina Dentata that eats up the penis so that it emerges smaller? Gobble, gobble. Men are actually terrified of women, says the theory. They just need to lie back, they don’t need to prove anything. Anxiety lies in male performance.
The second incident that took place this week that reminded me of the email was an actual rape case. Two woman, K and S, attended a party in a fairly desolate neighbourhood and after they exited, some men in a car rammed into theirs, pushing them into a ditch. The women were dragged from the car, K was taken somewhere and gang raped. While many of the details were not immediately clear, the rape kit was positive. The problem was, however, that the police initially mishandled the case.
My crime reporter came to the office and immediately told me that it was doubtful there was rape. “They weren’t decent women,” he said. “The story is not what it seems.”
The newseditor and I freaked out over his interpretation and I was forced to dispatch a female reporter. She went to the police station where a media circus had erupted. To top it off, a government official, basically an adviser to the chief minister, a young woman herself, took it upon herself to speak to the media. She not only named the woman K but also said on national television that her statements did not hold water. I was watching the live press briefing from the office and my face nearly fell off.
Needless to say, the crime reporter’s copy was shit. He did not seem to understand the point that you did not have to assume a woman was shady just because she was out late. Thankfully, however, the female reporter came back with a much more nuanced story.
The police had a lot to say about this case. Not every woman is a Mukhtaran Mai, quipped one, while referring to the woman whose gang rape hit headlines all over the world. She has since become a champion for women’s rights, opened a school in her hometown and a book has been written about her struggle.
In another case, that surfaced a week or so earlier, the police had said to a man whose wife had been gang raped that it wasn’t possible because she wasn’t pregnant. In another case, of a gang rape recently, the police had said to the woman that as she was married, it really wasn’t such a big deal for her to have had “sex” with four men, she should be used to having sex more than once a day. In fact, this officer then told the woman that he was single and would be up for some “comforting” if she could arrange for another woman.
The only good news in the K’s rape case is that the key police officer handling the case, a relatively more sensitive soul, has cracked it and because of media pressure and the stink it’s created, it seems likely that the men will be caught. I don’t know what kind of justice anyone can offer the rape survivor now but it will be a first if the case is properly prosecuted.
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December 24, 2010 | 3:21 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
I just had to share a small note on The Cheapmunks, two talented young Pakistani girls who have come up with a unique blend of East-meets-West music. Their song “Hum dum” is a particular favourite of mine. But you can catch their other stuff on YouTube and Facebook. Here is an article published in The Express Tribune about them:
The Cheapmunks go live (by Ali Syed)
KARACHI: The Cheapmunks are an excellent example of successful viral marketing on the internet. Mehak Taherani and Suhana Baloch were just a couple of girls who began to gain popularity for their mash up of covers of Urdu and English songs and went on to produce east-meets-west fusion songs. These songs were featured on sites such as YouTube and Facebook and this approach garnered the girls enough fans for them to hold a live event at the Base Rock Cafe in Karachi on Monday.
Both Taherani and Baloch have great vocals and possess the natural ability to be very innovative with their songs. Some of the songs that covered were Sajjad Ali’s “Babia”, Imran Khan’s “Bewafa” and EP’s “Hamesha” which were mixed with Usher’s “Oh My Gosh”, Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Way You Lie” and Akon’s “Nosy Neighbour” respectively. These are all songs that one wouldn’t expect to mesh together as well as the band managed to do. The vocalists were joined by guitarists Hamza and Daniyal and a tabla player, who provided the needed music support.
The popularity of the event could be gauged from the fact that it was completely sold out and many fans were not able to attend as they could not get tickets.
(The full article appears at this link: http://tribune.com.pk/story/49751/the-cheapmunks-go-live/)
They can be found on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cheapmunks/146739615347518
December 16, 2010 | 4:38 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
The first time I ever saw bodily flagellation was in the screen adaptation of French dramatist Jean Anouilh’s 1964 play ‘Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu’ (Becket or The Honor of God. Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) was being whipped by priests for supposedly ordering his four dagger-happy knights to “rid” him of the “meddlesome priest”, Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) who had grown too big for his ermine cape. My parents had forced me to watch this film in Karachi during the 1980s as part of an education. (Others on the list included the 11-part ‘Holocaust’ series with Meryl Streep on videocassette that scarred me for life, ‘The Deer Hunter’ with Robert DeNiro that introduced me to Russian Roulette, ‘Peter the Great’ that perhaps laid the seeds of my fascination with Russian. I soaked it all up but was more interested in sneaking in episodes of Dynasty with Linda Evans – now that was American life!).
Many, many years later, after I joined the Daily Times newspaper and began ‘slumming’ it with real journalists, men who lived in the heart of Karachi, I encountered another kind of flagellation, this time self-perpetrated. They were the Shias (or Shi’ites, a rather ugly Westernisation of the lexicon), a sect of Muslims, (vs Sunnis), who followed the tradition of Imam Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) grandson (and son of the fourth caliph Ali) who was butchered in a battle over fealty against the tyrant Yazid in the fields of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. (There are many, many excellent books and websites that provide details of this history and its context in the larger picture of Islam)
In Karachi, in the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, the mourning begins for Imam Hussain and his family. The first ten days are crucial, leading up to the 10th or Ashura day. The climax is reached on this day when a massive procession, made up of smaller ones converging from the city’s imambargahs, emerges from Nishtar Park in central Karachi. Over the last few years, however, the Shias have been attacked by militant Sunni terrorists. This year, as with the others, security is so tight that even the birds need security passes to fly overhead.
The entire city has been nervous in the lead up to Muharram because Karachi’s vulnerability has become prominent once again. The focus was mostly in the upper reaches of Pakistan with the US and Pakistani forces focusing on the Taliban cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan into the NWFP or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (South Waziristan, Swat, Mohmand Agency etc.) But suddenly militants renewed their interest in Karachi, that has long served as a base for funding and R&R for recuperating Taliban and al Qaeda men.
Last Muharram we had two terrorist attacks on Shias. So this year, when I called up friends to ask who was willing to accompany me to Khurasan no one was willing to go. Khurasan is a central spot in Karachi close to Nishtar Park where most of the activities take place. The entire neighbourhood around the imambargah is lit up, enormous fresh garlands of Queen of the Night flowers and roses adorn the replica standard bearers or flags from the battle of Karbala, sabeels are set up to provide free drinks in plastic or Styrofoam cups (a traditional concoction is milk and rose syrup) and steaming chai or tea to the thousands who converge there to pay their respects. A majlis is organised with a famous orator who recounts the history of that terrible day, reducing the crowd to tears as they relive the beheading of the Prophet’s grandson. Incense fills the air, mingling with the scent of the flowers. Charities set up stalls. You can buy books on religion, the Shia tradition, silver amulets or the names Ali and Hussain in beautifully wrought calligraphy. They even sometimes have stickers for your cars.
Every year, for a while I’ve been going to either the central procession or Khurasan just when it’s being organized. One year, when I was city editor at Daily Times, my six sub-editors at the desk told me that they needed the 9th and 10th of Muharram off. That’s when we realized that all of them were Shias. We laughed at the affirmative action. (Shias are a large religious minority in Pakistan). I replied that no one was getting time off because I had to go to the procession. They laughed at me because I’m Sunni. I replied that I was an “honorary Shia”.
Truth be told, I’ve felt an affinity for the city event for a long time. As a Sunni you are brought up to regard Shias and their tradition of self-flagellation with disgust. Indeed, the ritual is difficult to witness if you are not used to the culture. Men carry their own set of daggers, six of them hooked up at the end of a long chain. They whip themselves up into a frenzy during the procession by giving in to the orator’s voice and then gather in a circle to perform the rite. The men strip to the waist, tie their long shirts around them and lift one arm (the left usually) so it is not cut as the knives go around.
One year, I think it was my first, I walked the length of the procession as it snaked through the old city. I kept to the periphery but was close enough to the knots of men so that when they stopped at intervals, I was close enough to actually smell the blood misting the air. I have long felt curious about the ecstatic element of Shia Islam. How do people walk coals? How do they do Qama ka Maatam or the self-flagellation that involved cutting the top of their heads?
Aside from the personal curiosity and perhaps a search for a more ecstatic Islam (ekstasis, or out of body in the Greek), I often felt that as the city editor I should know about such a huge religious rite performed in the city I was meant to cover. Over the years I have attended midnight mass, holi celebrations, the Hindu Raksha Bandhan and the Zoroastrian or Parsi new year or Nauroz feasts. The only religious event I have been too busy to witness has been the Sikh celebrations of Guru Nanak’s birthday.
So, this year too I wanted to go to Khurasan to see for myself what the turnout was like, to hear the scouts ask the ladies to open their purses, to hear that recorded dirges or laments blaring from the loudspeakers with their standard chain-thumping beat of a thousand knives and a thousand hands beating breasts.
But no one was willing to come. They were all scared. And it irritated the hell out of me. All these grown men, most of them journo buddies, refusing to visit Khursan where the build-up to Muharram 9 continues well past 2am.
It brought up a conflict for me. As a journalist, or as a resident of this city, how could I ask people to accompany me to a place where a bomb was most likely to go off? As city editor, how could I ask my crime reporter to cover the procession, knowing that he was newly married and young and could get seriously hurt? Last year, a Shia reporter from another media house lost his children in the bomb blast. I always thought that when I had children I would take them to the procession to witness an important cultural side to the city they lived in. But how can you put children at risk?
All day on Thursday, from the morning I woke up, I was glued to the television screen where several channels showed the entire event live. I thought it was the most morbid thing I had ever done, sit in front of the TV waiting for a bomb blast. Now that these events are covered live with DSNG vans, everything can be recorded. In fact, gruesomely enough, we all remotely witnessed the bomb blast when Benazir Bhutto’s cavalcade was attacked at her homecoming rally in 2007. It went live too.
As Muslims, we believe that when you’re time has come, you’re time has come. I was recently wondering about people who got murdered, though, as an aside. Then I figured that the way you go, is perhaps not fixed. Given this belief, I honestly feel that going to a dangerous place doesn’t really hold much meaning for me. If you’re going to go, you’re going to go.
In the end, I found one friend who agreed to go with me, only because it happened to be my birthday. We went on the 7th of Muharram and took a walk around Khurasan. This friend, a Sunni, tried to mask his feelings but I could tell that he generally was disturbed by seeing the breast beating in the imambargah’s grounds as we passed by. It sounds awesome when hundreds of men do it in unison. If you are interested, plenty of videos will pop up on YouTube.
I have long refused to live in fear in Karachi. And I believe that this has to be the case. Otherwise we would be cowering inside our closets, afraid to go anywhere. A couple of months ago I went for coffee with some old school friends, successful young women with factory-owning banker-esque husbands, Cartier and Bulgari at their necks and wrists and 2.5 kids for whose birthday parties specially crafted made-to-order cupcakes are commissioned. And I realized there was one thing about them. They limited their lives to certain neighbourhoods and areas, thought to be safer. For a city of 20 million, Karachi keeps on going. It’s almost five cities in one megacity. Either you own it, discover it and live in it or you life in fear. That friend I took, told me in the end that he had never seen this side to Karachi even though he had lived in it for years. I took that as a confirmation my decision had been correct and always will be.