Pained by the Hobbesian state of affairs in Pakistan, I thought of writing you a letter — to communicate my anxieties about the direction this country has taken in recent years.
In a society fractured along religious, parochial and ideological lines, it is hard to discuss an issue without offending someone. Instead of encouraging dissenting views, different groups simply attempt to bludgeon the other conflicting viewpoint. They don’t realise that conformity of opinion can shrink space for meaningful intellectual discourse.
To be honest, the process of steamrolling of views varies from one group to another; some only stifle divergent views while others make recourse to brutal means like kidnapping dissenters, torturing them and dumping their mutilated bodies in gunny bags.
In this context, a person venturing to offer an opinion often suffers from self-assurance or opacity of vision. Both can be severely debilitating for construction of honest discourse.
Since I want to be forthright in this letter, I will make a few personal observations, detailing how I handle uncertainties and doubts when my opinions diverge from the mainstream narrative. In most cases, I try to ascertain the veracity of my opinions by looking at the world from my kids’ eyes.
When my daughter was two, I took her to a zoo. She was wonderstruck by what she saw around her: deer, monkeys, and lions. Seeing a duck swimming in a pond, she clapped her hands happily.
“Why is she fascinated by a small brown duck?” I pondered.
Then, a thought hit me instantly. I have lost the ability to find joy and pleasure in simple zoo animals but to her they opened the door to some enchanted land. After that, I began looking at the animals from her eyes, transformed as they were into objects of wonderment, and managed to experience pleasure at a deeper level and in a fresher way.
This experience taught me a lesson: entering the magical world of a child can illuminate the limited vision of an adult.
Nagged by a number of issues in these difficult times, I again turn to my children for clarity. For instance, the hostile response of the Pakistani society to the transformation of Malala — from a small-town girl fighting for education to a world-class activist — petrifies me. Believe me, dear parliamentarians, it is not only televangelists who demonise her and term her a CIA agent and Ahmadi sympathiser; unfortunately, the disdain for Malala runs deep into the society.
While soliciting opinions about Malala from my kids, I was jolted to this reality:
“Mothers of my friends don’t like Malala at all,” says my ten-year old son.
“She is overrated, and it’s not only me, my friends also share the same opinion,” answered my daughter who is 13.
These observations sadden me as both my kids go to, supposedly, liberal schools. Mothers with antipathy for Malala, and teen girls who consider her overrated, are breathing in a society which generally accepts elevation of an average male to dizzying heights if he goes by the norms of society, but resents the rise to fame of an extraordinary girl who happens to challenge the mainstream narrative on religion, modernity and education.
Apart from pervasive intolerance, decades of dictatorial rule, when inclusive, progressive ideas were ruthlessly muzzled, have blinded our people to the fact that human beings are spurred on to do great things by believing in and advocating powerful ideas.
The rise of Malala, powered as it is by her father’s conviction that an ordinary citizen can climb up socially and bring societal change by acquiring education, befuddles Pakistanis. It’s a pity how on seeing the images of Malala meeting President Obama and sharing a podium with the World Bank president, they shake their heads in disbelief and say:
“Tut, tut, her father has pawned her innocence for fame and money.”
Dear parliamentarians, the way I see it, the skewed official narrative on the rights of women, and terrorism feeds this societal skepticism. It’s a narrative uncannily akin to that of the Taliban. For instance, the official response to Hakimullah Mehsud death focused more on the timing of strike and not on his murderous behaviour and, in a twisted way, did elevate him to the status of a ‘martyr’.
That’s how the state’s duplicitous narrative on terrorism and rights of women turns a heroine into a villain and a murderer into a martyr.
Dear parliamentarians, all I want to do is to make a humble request: honour the faith of millions of Pakistanis who voted you into power, for taking them out of rut that they have stuck in. You can do that by unspooling the state-sponsored narrative on militancy and weaving a discourse that honours plurality and tolerance, and shuns violence and bigotry.
Perhaps, a walk in the park with your child or grandchild and her uninhibited joy at seeing a dove may bring a change in your perspective, reminding you that attainment of peace and freedom entails honest and, at times, brutal self-evaluation.