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March 5, 2016

An inconvenient truth


March 5, 2016

In today’s world, our lives revolve around the media, in terms of news as well as entertainment, or ‘infotainment’. Of course, the media is the major source of entertainment and news.

The media also frames issues, presents them in a particular perspective and broadly shapes public opinion and policy making. In recent days, the media coverage of issues like the Punjab Assembly’s bill to protect women against violence has attracted public attention.

The role of the media was poignantly highlighted by two recent episodes. On the morning of February 29, the 2016 Oscar awards ceremony was taking place in Los Angeles. Those who were watching in Pakistan were keen to know the winner of the category of Best Documentary (Short Subject) for a very special reason: the nomination of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’.

Sharmeen’s second Oscar win in four years is symbolic of her meteoric rise as a star and a boost for Pakistan’s reputation. While many Hollywood stars and artists wait a lifetime for this award, and some never get the honour, a young and talented Pakistani woman has won it for the second time.

She presented the story of a survivor of honour killing. Most such stories are not of survivors; they are stories that appear in the media, are read, discussed in a few circles and then forgotten. Thus, the fate of many such hapless girls is sealed, often under the ground. Interestingly, such violence does not evoke any reaction from the religious and the clergy, who ignore that religion allows for a woman’s choice in marriage.

In what could be seen as an ironic twist, on the same morning – while many were not aware of the Oscar win for Pakistan – people came to know of the execution of one Mumtaz Qadri, who had been on death row for a while for the murder of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. While the murder was premeditated, the accused managed to get an instant support base for his act, as he interpreted Taseer’s views as blasphemous. (The governor had spoken publicly in support of a woman accused of blasphemy and had asked for the law to be revised to prevent injustice).

What was major news was presented very briefly and mildly by the media that thrives on ‘breaking news’. Of course, this was skilfully managed by the government to prevent public outrage at the execution. While the government has often been reeling from the power of the media – the tirade of some channels against the Sindh government; the plight of Thar’s babies; the coverage of the PIA strike to name a few instances – this was a case of the media recognising the power of the state but for the right reason. For once, the media refrained from going crazy in the continuous coverage of an event with emotional overtones. This can be seen as a calculated and sanguine move on the part of the government, especially in today’s volatile and violence prone climate.

Since Qadri’s hanging was barely in the news, the Oscar glory of Sharmeen dominated the news and airwaves. Interestingly, the theme of the movie – honour killing, and violence against women – was aptly highlighted, touching upon another aspect of contemporary Pakistani society: growing intolerance. This aspect has no gender, religious or cultural barriers. Indeed, it seems to now be ingrained in our social fabric.

All Pakistanis have been noticing this growing intolerance that one experiences on the road, at the workplace and even at home. The case of Aasia Bibi and other criminal cases involving minorities, the beating and killing of family members in courts and the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, all bear testimony to this malaise.

Growing intolerance toward marriage of choice and violence against women has led to the passage of the women’s protection bill in Punjab. There is nothing ‘foreign’ about this bill, nor is there a link with NGOs (as clerics often point out); rather, this relates to basic and sacrosanct human rights that are a part of the Islamic legal framework (like choice in marriage). It is unfortunate that most of our ulema fail to understand this, and many among the educated are unable to question them.

Tragically, it is believed that 1,000 women are killed every year by their family members in the name of honour. This is not just a number, but an inconvenient truth that the country is living with. It is unfortunate that such acts and aberrations are tacitly condoned by both the scholars and laymen, who are willing to take the law in their own hands, to ‘enforce’ Islamic teachings. Mumtaz Qadri did just that.

As we rejoice over Sharmeen Obaid’s Oscar win; as Mumtaz Qadri’s followers mourn his execution; as the women’s protection bill is debated; as the prime minister commits to enforcing such laws, there is need to move beyond the rhetoric, to respect human life and dignity, and give each man and woman the life they deserve as Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Pakistanis.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]



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