“The new suffragettes”

Mukhtar Mai.
Mukhtar Mai.

I co-wrote a profile of Mukhtar Mai, the gang rape victim who became an iconic advocate of women’s rights in Pakistan. The piece is part of the Independent’s “new suffragette” series and was co-written with Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. You can read it over at the Independent.

When Mukhtar Mai walked into a police station in rural Pakistan in 2002 to report a gang rape, she felt completely alone. Her family shunned her; village elders who ordered the rape expected her to commit suicide, and there were no female police officers to help her through her ordeal.

But Mai did not give up, and now, 11 years later, she no longer feels alone. A whole generation of Pakistan’s women stands with her – inspired by the bravery of an illiterate women, from a poor community in Punjab province, who defied tradition and prejudice to take a stand for victims of violence and injustice.

I’ve interviewed Mukhtar Mai before. A transcript of that conversation is available at my New Statesman blog.

A historic election

Two young PML-N supporters at Imran Khan's consituency in Rawalpindi. Photograph: Samira Shackle
Two young PML-N supporters at Imran Khan’s consituency in Rawalpindi. Photograph: Samira Shackle

On Saturday 11 May, Pakistan went to the polls. It was the country’s first ever democratic transtion from one government to another, and many thought it wasn’t going to happen at all. I spent the day visiting polling stations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, and the atmosphere was carnivalesque.

I wrote about the election – and the results – for the New Statesman:

On Saturday 11 May, Pakistan went to the polls, and the mood was jubilant. The international headlines may have described this as an election “marred by violence”, but in much of the country, it was like a giant street party. In Rawalpindi, young men with party colours tied around their head, Rambo-style, cruised around the streets, cheering, and jokingly exchanging insults with rival party supporters. People, from old to young, turned out in their droves to cast their votes, many for the first time, producing the highest voter turnout since the 1970s. In many areas, the queues at the women’s’ voting section were far longer than the men’s.

Imran Khan, the wildcard candidate, didn’t come close to winning, a disappointment many had predicted. A week before the election,  I went on the campaign trail with his team, and wrote about it for the NS:

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

Nawaz Sharif emerged victorious. I wrote a column for the June issue of Prospect magazine about his victory:

As the dust settles and the new government forms, the two key challenges are the flagging economy and, of course, the security situation. The election campaign saw more than 130 political workers killed in Taliban attacks. Secular, liberal parties were unable to campaign openly at all. Others, like Sharif’s PML-N, held huge rallies with sound systems and live tigers.

On election day (11 May), I provided commentary for both Sky News and BBC News Channel.


Minority report

Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle
Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle

In the run up to the general election, I wrote a series of reports for the New Statesman about different minority communities in Pakistan and how they were approaching the historic election. Some were standing as candidates for the first time; others were boycotting it altogether.

Politicians of the third gender: the “shemale” candidates of Pakistan

South Asia’s hijras occupy a strange space in sociey; accepted, but on the peripheraries. This year, for the first time ever, transgender women attempted to break out of their marginalised position by standing in the election. I interviewed the candidates. I’m particularly proud of this piece.

“I am a double target because I am a woman and I am Hazara”

The Hazara are a Shia minority who face constant persecution in Pakistan. I interviewed Ruquiya Hashmi – the first female Hazara candidate for the national assembly – who faces death threats daily.

The Pakistan general election is fast approaching – but one community will not be casting votes

For this piece I spoke to members of the Ahmadiyya, a minority numbering 4 million. The Ahmadis are branded as “non-Muslims”, suffer violent attacks on their mosques and boycotted the election.

An equal playing field?

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Ahead of the general election, I wrote a feature for the Guardian’s G2 about Pakistan’s female election candidates. While there is a long history of female representation in the subcontinent, these women generally hail from political dynasties. Is that starting to change? The piece looks at the challenges faced by female politicians, and the progress that has been made.

“It is difficult for women,” says Anis Haroon, a caretaker minister for human rights and women. “It’s non-traditional ground to tread, and women still bear the responsibility of home and children. Character assassination is easy in a patriarchal, conservative society. Women must work twice as hard to prove their worth.” Last month, an election official in Lahore told the husband of prospective candidate Sadia Sohail that if she were elected, “the arrangements at your home will be ruined and no one will be there to attend your children”.

You can read the full piece at the Guardian website.


Political violence in Pakistan’s election

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.
Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.

As the 11 May election date approaches, the campaign of violence in Pakistan has increased drastically. I’ve been speaking and writing about the subject. Here are a few links.

Pakistan’s deadly democracy (Guardian)

Upcoming elections have been called the bloodiest ever, as political killings on a dizzying scale fuel mistrust and insecurity. I’ve written about the issue for the Guardian.

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, chief prosecutor in Benazir Bhutto assassination, murdered in Pakistan (New Statesman)

On Friday 3 May, the lawyer leading the inquiry into Bhutto’s death was gunned down on his way to a court hearing. I blogged on it for the New Statesman.

BBC World Service

The same day, I appeared on the BBC’s World Service, both radio and television, to discuss the upsurge of political violence.  The podcast of the radio discussion is here and will be available until Friday 10th May.

How the Taliban is having a chilling effect on the Pakistani election (New Statesman)

In late April, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman which looks at how the secular, liberal parites have been intimidated into silence.

Press freedom in Pakistan

Journalists in Islamabad protest in 2009.
Journalists in Islamabad protest in 2009.

I contributed a short segment to Monocle 24’s special package on World Press Freedom Day. The podcast is available here. I’m on from about 19 minutes in. Here’s the text of what I said:

It’s sometimes a surprise to outsiders quite how free and vibrant the media in Pakistan actually is.

The outgoing government has many faults, but it’s done a lot to further freedom of expression. Newspapers have played a significant role in uncovering corruption and acting as a check on power over the last decade.

Reporters critical of the government face less official interference today than they did before the return to civilian rule in 2008, but it’s not an entirely positive picture.

Last year, a United Nations report ranked Pakistan as the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Since 2000, more than 90 journalists have been killed– mostly Pakistanis.

Last year, I did some work with the national newspaper Dawn, and entering their offices in Karachi involved multiple metal detectors, bomb detectors, and bag searches, because the Taliban had directly threatened media groups over negative coverage.

This high risk of death leads to a degree of self-censorship. This year’s Human Rights Watch report said that “a climate of fear impeded media coverage of the state security forces and militant groups”. So while government corruption is freely reported on, the powerful military establishment remains largely untouched. Journalists know which areas they can push and which they can’t.

Foreign reporters are safer – and therefore freer – than local journalists, partly because we can afford to take more security measures. But most still proceed with a degree of caution on certain topics, like the ISI. However, we can be safe in the knowledge that the worst that’s likely to happen to us is a swift exit from the country, while local journalists have nowhere to escape to.