“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.

Violence in Karachi

Tyres are set alight at a rally in Karachi, 12 January.
Tyres are set alight at a rally in Karachi, 12 January.

Karachi is well used to violence, but 2012 was one of it’s bloodiest years ever, with 2,000 people dying in political and ethnic violence in the city. My long feature for the Independent on a bloody year for Pakistan’s biggest city (and my home for much of last year), has just been published. You can read the full piece here.

On a hot Karachi day in October, Amina’s husband Khaled went to work and didn’t come back. Two days later, she was identifying his body in a morgue.

He had been shot in the head on his journey home from the factory where he worked. “He was killed because we are Pashtun-speaking people and they don’t want us here,” she says, sitting in the house where she lives with three children she must now support alone. Visibly uncomfortable, she will not name the “they” who she holds responsible.

Like many others, Khaled’s death has not been investigated and no-one has been arrested or charged with his murder. In a city where people die every day in targeted killings, his is simply another name on the list. The impoverished area where Amina lives is inhabited mainly by members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who have moved in large numbers to Karachi from northern Pakistan.

Recent writings

Boys collect water in a fishing village in Karachi. Photo: my own
Boys collect water in a fishing village in Karachi. Photo: my own

The picture on the left is one I took during a visit to a small village on the outskirts of Karachi, for a piece about water sanitation. Below is a link to that piece (written for Dawn), and to some of the other things I’ve been writing recently.


Bilawal is key to PPP regaining mass appeal in Pakistan (27th December)

Following the PPP co-chairman’s speech on the anniversary of his mother’s death, I wrote a piece for the Independent about the importance of dynastic politics.

Postcard from Karachi (13th December)

This short piece describes a trip to Lyari, one of Karachi’s most dangerous areas.

Express Tribune

Revisiting Malala (6th January)

Malala Yousafzai was released from hospital last week, but has anything really changed for women activists since she was shot? This piece asks why we wait for women to become victims of serious violence before taking action.

Celebrating Christmas in Pakistan (31st December)

The week after Christmas, I looked at the continued persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Polio attacks – Pakistan’s future under threat (23rd December)

In the aftermath of the shocking murder of five healthworkers in Pakistan in December, I wrote about the dangerous politicisation of medical aid.


“Everybody needs water, it’s not political” (28th December)

This long feature looks at efforts to provide clean drinking water in Sindh, Pakistan, and the problems faced, including lack of education and poor electricity supplies.


On 4th January I was on Monocle 24, talking about Malala Yousafzai’s release from hospital, and what has changed (or not) in the interim. You can listen to it here.

I was also on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 on the 3rd January, talking about blacking up. (A bit of a break from the Pakistan theme!)

Censoring the internet

A policeman clashes with a demonstrator during protests in Lahore against the “Innocent of Muslims” film.

YouTube has been banned in Pakistan since 17 September, after riots triggered by the “Innocence of Muslims”, an inflammatory clip on the video-sharing site. Last week, I wrote a short piece for the Independent about the ban. I’ve also covered the issue in more detail for Dawn. As the piece explains, the YouTube ban is just the tip of the iceberg, with the government using the unrest to usher in a system that would allow them to censor the internet on a wide scale.

Just 20 million people out of Pakistan’s 187 million strong population have access to the internet, making digital rights a niche concern. However, despite this limited audience, being online has brought innumerable benefits to Pakistan, enabling entrepreneurship and economic growth, facilitating education and academic research, and encouraging communication. Increased censorship and the associated impact it will have on the basic human rights of freedom of expression and access to information should be a concern for everyone. As Saleem says, “It’s just another step to becoming a police state and a more closed society than we already are.”

Recent dispatches from Karachi

Demonstrators in Islamabad.

Pakistan has been reeling from the shooting of 14 year old schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai. The day after she was shot by the Taliban, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman about the response:

It takes a lot to shock Pakistan, given the frequency of bomb attacks, targeted killings, and other violence. But the shooting of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban yesterday has left the nation reeling. Popular talk show host Hamid Mir summed up the mood last night when he said: “I can see the whole nation’s head bowed in shame today. I want to ask those who shot a girl, who only wanted to go to school: do you think you are Muslims?”

I was interviewed about the response to the attack on Monocle 24. The podcast is available here.

Separately, I wrote a piece for the Independent about a very different threat: brain-eating amoeba in Karachi’s water.

I also reported on the attempt to save a historic school facing demolition, for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper.