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July 22, 2016

You asked for it


July 22, 2016

No, this is not a reference to Art Baker’s human interest TV show from the 50s, the 70s iteration of which aired on PTV. I mean instead that if you’re at all like the well-known Qandeel Baloch or the lesser known Zafar Lund then, as this piece will go on to show, you asked for it! And you’ll be pushing daisies like them, from six feet under, pretty soon.

Qandeel became a media sensation some six odd months ago. Her claim to fame: provocative online videos in which she appeared scantily clad, throwing jibes laced with lewd sexual innuendos at Pakistani celebrities, politicians and the clergy. Some amateur acting ability, a hunger for fame, coupled with a lack of inhibitions and a lot of guts drove this smalltimer, hailing from parts unknown in Multan, into the spotlight.

She was all over the nation’s smartphones and TV sets when she shamed a well-known cleric on national television, enticing him into dropping his guard and letting his libido get the better of his piety. The prayer mats, it appeared, had been pulled from under the feet of an unsuspecting clergy.

The nation was shocked – and amused. People didn’t know whether to love her or hate her. In other corridors, eyebrows were raised, many a bearded chin scratched, the collective indignation of the religious right simmering palpably, as frenetic fatwas were contemplated in response to Qandeel’s near blasphemy. Sex and religion, after all, make for an explosive mix in the Islamic Republic, and hell hath no fury like the mullahs scorned.

Qandeel appeared next, dishevelled, in a press conference, pleading for security in the wake of threats to her life. The state reacted with trademark indifference and she was strangled to death shortly thereafter in her own home, allegedly by her own brother.

Attacks on her person, even after her murder made headline news, have been unrelenting across social media and television as everyone, from the conservative right to the educated urban elite, have joined hands to gleefully tear off their pound of flesh from Qandeel Baloch. After all, we know more about her than we did a week ago even if we suspected much of it: she was the child-abandoning mother, the cheating wife, the sinning harlot, the money hungry provocateur, and when you add all that together her fundamental right to live, it appears, was unjustfied.

She asked for it! That’s the judgement pronounced on Qandeel, the nation’s final autopsy of her character, there being apparently no coin cheap enough to measure her worth as a human being.

Zafar Lund was an intellectual, a writer, a rights activist, a theater artist and a dedicated conservationist. Among the pioneer’s of the Seraiki resistance, Lund obtained a Master’s degree from Karachi University in the field of international relations. He was the founder of the Sindhu Bachao Tarla, a civil society forum aimed at protecting water rights and championing the cause of oppressed and dispossessed riverine communities of the Indus in Kot Addu.

As the chief executive of the Hirrak Development Centre, an NGO concerned with providing a voice to the marginalised communities affected by nuclear, hydel, and coal power projects being set up in Muzaffargarh, Lund struggled passionately and untiringly for the landless, showcasing his message of human rights through programmes on Seraiki jhumar, folk songs, street theatre and storytelling.

But he was also a member of the Ahmadiyya community and last week the controversy of his religious beliefs prevailed over his remarkable humanist contributions – Lund was shot dead at point blank range on the gate of his residence in Kot Addu. Relatively unknown nationally, in comparison to Qandeel, but sufficiently in the spotlight to irk the ire of the agents of hate, Zafar Lund too, unfortunately, had asked for it!

The tragic murders of Qandeel Baloch and Zafar Lund, like the many innocent men and women murdered, maimed or wrongfully accused in the recent past, beg analysis of the evolution of our national character in the last 70 years.

First, the secular spaces that existed on, and managed to survive after, the creation of Pakistan, till perhaps the late 1970s, have progressively diminished to near irrelevance today. Secular humanists, if there are any left, are confined to a handful of drawing rooms across the country, their voices muted, their opinions summarily rejected and circumscribed to the margins of national debate. The rest have either emigrated to avoid the oppression of the right or – where they have dared to raise their voice or assert their independence against the status quo – have been killed.

Conversely, a morbid obsession with religion has mushroomed to form a near stranglehold on social, cultural, intellectual and political thought. Through state sponsorship this reductive religiosity has been institutionalised, and in the process, our tolerance, love for peace and respect for human choice and life have emerged as the main casualties. As a result, today we appear mainly as a nation of angry, violent, bigoted and superstitious misogynists.

Second, the negative role of our electronic media cannot be overemphasised enough for its damaging impact. It has served to polarise society through its tabloid approach of peddling narratives and images that represent extremes, and which create the illusion that life can only exist in black and white; that morality is a binary phenomenon, completely present here and totally absent there. As a result, the atmosphere of social dissonance that the electronic media promotes has divided our society into two neat halves of the apparently faithful and the faithless, placing each in confrontation with the other.

And this is all done with impunity for ratings and advertising money. Qandeel Baloch and Salmaan Taseer may have lived on had our electronic media chosen balanced, mature reporting over sensationalism.

Finally, owing to a dwindling and static economy coupled with poor standards of education, an unchecked increase in population and increasing urbanisation, we have a literate, semi-skilled and economically challenged youth bulge that is jobless and finds itself unable to meet the standards set by globalisation, in a highly competitive national and global economic environment.

The frustrations wrought by these conditions have left these young men and women, together with their families, with no choice but to embrace prayer and star-gazing in the hope of being delivered from their economic peril. It also makes them susceptible to embracing a radical and intolerant worldview.

Qandeel Baloch and Zafar Lund both came from different backgrounds and led lives that were diametrically opposed. But they had a few things in common: in their private spheres they loved life and were magnanimous, Zafar through his human rights work and Qandeel for supporting her poverty-stricken family. Both also dared to defy the status quo and were punished for it. Today, we are all the poorer for having lost them.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir

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