women

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Badge of honour

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s incisive documentary helps reignite the debate on honour killings in Pakistan.

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won the second Oscar for a short documentary that brings international attention to an endemic evil in Pakistan (and India for that matter) known as honour killings. Officially, there are a thousand victims of honour killings every year but the actual number may be much higher. Aside from Sharmeen’s recognition by Hollywood, which by itself is a big win, the Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a victory for Pakistan’s long list of activists who have been advocating to end this heinous practice. Days before the Oscars ceremony, a special screening of the movie was held at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house. The Pakistan PM issued a statement saying he would bring changes to the legislation to end the curse of honour killings. Sharif’s recent overtures to causes such as minority rights and talking about a liberal Pakistan have come as a surprise, given his conservative politics, and his party’s attempts to prevent progressive legislation during the 1990s. Or it is a sign of Pakistan’s drift into extremism that even centrist politicians like Sharif are worried about the future of the country.

A Girl in the River narrates the heart-wrenching story of Saba Qaiser who survived an attempt to kill her and lived to tell her tale. Saba was lucky to survive. Most victims are not. The issue of honour killings is cultural as a woman’s conduct is seen as an instrument of honour of the family. That such tribal and feudal customs continue in the 21st century is a shame indeed. As if the customs were not enough, General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors worked on a law that compounds murder and also enables the murderer to seek forgiveness under an interpretation of Islamic law. In short, honour killings rarely, or never, get punished.

Worse, the parliamentarians, who in any democratic society are required to enact legislation that ends brutal customs, have been divided and complicit. In 1999, a young woman, Samia Sarwar, was killed outside the offices of Pakistan’s renowned human rights lawyers, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani. A resolution moved by a liberal senator in Parliament could not be carried through as a Pakhtun member of the Awami National Party objected to the attempt to interfere with the ‘honour’ culture. In the Musharraf era, a weak law was enacted but when a woman member of parliament presented a resolution, it was shot down. Sherry Rehman’s earlier efforts to table a reform bill were also rejected by the then ruling party closely allied to Gen Musharraf. The Islamists who were in the opposition supported the government on that front.

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Pakistani Artist Animates the Times Square

Shazia1

This October, the electronic billboards at the maddening Times Square in New York City will display the creative prowess of Shahzia Sikander, an artist of Pakistani descent who lives and works in NYC. Public art involves space, memory and an aesthetic that travels beyond studios and carefully curated museum ethers. It is also a vehicle whereby an artist speaks to, absorbs the milieu, and even reinvents it.

For any artist, this is a moment of fruition and splendor. Every night, from October 1-31, at 11:57 p.m. sharp, Sikander’s animation entitled Gopi-Contagion will add another powerful layer to the skyline of New York City. Not unlike the briskly unfolding stories of the city, the Gopi-Contagion takes the viewer through a fantastic motion of hundreds of digitally animated drawings that swarm and turn into a metaphor for collective performance. There could not be a more befitting tribute to NYC nor a more apt symbol of the energy and undecipherable movement of the urban space.

Midnight Moment: Shahzia Sikander, Gopi-Contagion October 1, 2015 - October 31, 2015 every night from 11:57pm-midnight Photograph by Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts. Midnight Moment is a presentation of the Times Square Advertising Coalition (TSAC) and Times Square Arts. Midnight Moment: A Digital Gallery is the largest coordinated effort in history by the sign operators in Times Square to display synchronized, cutting-edge creative content at the same time every day. Gopi-Contagion consists of flocking particles made up of the silhouettes of hair from the Gopi, female worshipers of the Hindu god, Krishna. Hair from the female figures is then isolated to cultivate new associations. When in motion, the silhouettes looks like insects, birds, bats, or can translate as particles. The flocking reflects behavior of cellular forms that have reached self-organized criticality, resulting in a redistribution of both visual information and experiential memory.(Image credit: Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts)
Sikander was born and educated in Pakistan. She was trend setter as an undergraduate at Pakistan’s best known art school — the National College of Arts. In early 1990s, she arrived in the United States to pursue an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. Since 1997, New York is her adopted home like millions of other migrants who delineate the abundance and contradictions of American life. […]

Sabeen Mahmud, Martyr for Free Speech

My op-ed for The New York Times
The appalling murder in Karachi last week of Sabeen Mahmud is a stark reminder of challenges that human rights defenders face in Pakistan. Ms. Mahmud, 39, had devoted her life to creating an alternative to the religious nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state over recent decades, which has led to a proliferation of violent jihadist organizations. She was gunned down on Friday night as she left the arts center she had founded.

In the country’s largest city, troubled by violence and crumbling institutions, Ms. Mahmud created a hub to promote the arts, harness creative talent and foster democratic dialogue. Since 2007, The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, had evolved as a small but significant arena for pluralist and secular movements in the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan’s deeply conservative, repressive society, this was a kind of liberation theology.

Hours before she was shot, Ms. Mahmud, a tech entrepreneur as well as a social activist, hosted human rights advocates who were campaigning against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in insurgency-hit Balochistan Province. After the government ordered the cancellation of the event, which was called “Unsilencing Balochistan” and was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Ms. Mahmud offered T2F as a venue.

The government is deeply worried about the insurgency in Balochistan. The commonly held — and vigorously promoted — view is that Pakistan’s great rival, India, is supporting the insurgency. Thus advocating for the rights of the Baloch people is regarded as treasonous.

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‘About suffering they were never wrong’

Miniaturist Saira Waseem is the latest exponent in a long list of Pakistani artists resisting the country’s political, cultural and social erosion.

Saira waseem4Passion Cycle, 2005

Pakistani art going global is a remarkable story, for it typifies the ineffable contradictions of the country. In part it is a testament to the country’s creative expression, an explosion of sorts; and partly a mode of resistance to the anti-art ideology that is permeating the social fabric. It’s not just painting or the booming art galleries, there is a revival underway of the moribund television drama, the resuscitation of cinema and continuous experimentation with music.

Salima Hashmi, a leading arts academician and practitioner noted in a recent essay that the “proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art.” Our foremost historian, Ayesha Jalal in her latest book “The Struggle for Pakistan” views the creative expression as a resistance to Pakistan’s forced Islamisation. Jalal writes:

saira waseem5 Ethereal I, 2014

“The globalization of Pakistani music has been accompanied by a remarkable leap in the transnational reach of the creative arts…a younger generation of painters are making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to both access and influence a diverse and dynamic transnational artistic scene. The dazzling array of new directions in the contemporary art, literature, and music of Pakistan displays an ongoing tussle between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture.”

Jalal as a contemporary historian reminds us that the domestic battle of ideas and ideologies is not over and is assuming newer shapes. At the same time, the issue of a crumbling Pakistani state haunts the future trajectory. Is the arts and literature renaissance of sorts an antidote to a state unable to fulfill its basic functions such as securing the lives of its citizens? There are some immediate examples from the subcontinent that come to mind: The reigns of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar in nineteenth century India were also remarkable for their artistic endeavours before the final takeover of the British. Not entirely relevant, these are important phases of our recent history to be remembered.

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Through the looking glass

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

Promoting pluralist folk heritage is vital for Pakistan’s future

I talked to Dr Fouzia Saeed, the newly appointed Executive Director of Lok Virsa

fauzia saeedDr Fouzia Saeed with Zarina, a folk singer from Cholistan

Dr Fouzia Saeed, a scholar and civil society activist, was recently appointed as the head of Lok Virsa – the premier government institution to conserve and promote cultural heritage. After years of inaction and treating folklore as a commodity to be sold at melas and cafes, it is somewhat encouraging that a professional is in charge of an important institution. Fouzia is a renowned folklorist. Her well-researched book ‘Forgotten Faces: The daring women of Punjabi theatre’ traces the lives of women actors active in folk theatre during the 1960 and 70s. Another publication on the lacquered work of Dera Ismail Khan is a useful reference on an old craft that continues to be practiced.

Earlier, Fouzia led the movement for promotion of Manganhaar music encouraging younger people to participate and take pride in that activity. On PTV Fouzia interviewed many artists who had quit performing arts. As the founding member of Sanjh Theatre, she has been actively engaged with the folk arts. In 1988, she joined Lok Virsa as a Deputy Director, Research, and produced a record number of publications. In 1989 she set up a private organization – The Folklore Society – that she still chairs. Fouzia’s best known initiative remains Mehergarh – a Human Rights institute – that provides leadership training and helps build an alternative discourse on culture and society. Her PhD in Education and academic training in anthropology led to her award winning book ‘Taboo’ that explores the stigma on performing arts in Pakistan; and is now being used as a textbook in many countries.

We spoke to Fouzia as she was leaving for Islamabad to take charge of the institution.

Going back to Lok Virsa as its head must be a homecoming of sorts?

Yes, Nostalgic! When I joined it in 1988 I had just completed my education from the USA and was so full of enthusiasm. It was a thriving and creative place! There was a tea khokha on one side and we used to have samosas there and come up with  creative ideas for our programs. I really got groomed there. It is great to come back to it. All these past years I used to call it my ‘maika ghar’ (parental abode). I know almost all the people there, I also know its glorious as well as subdued past quite well. With all the affection for Lok Virsa, it is great to be back. Not just for the staff and colleagues but also the folk artists that I have maintained close contacts with.  They are thrilled and I am thrilled!

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Manto’s women

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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