Each year, approximately 3000 unidentified corpses are found on the streets of Karachi, an ever-expanding mega-city in southern Pakistan. Sometimes they are drug addicts or migrant workers who came to the big city in search of a better life; sometimes they are the victims of the sectarian clashes or gang violence that give Karachi its reputation for violence. In this tightly packed city of over 21 million people, some get lost amongst the heaving mass of brick and bodies, ending up destitute and alone. They are lawaris: without an owner.
My first documentary project focuses on the people who care for these unidentified dead bodies, trying their best to find their families and restore dignity in death. I co-produced the film, along with my friend and frequent collaborator Haya Fatima Iqbal, and it was directed by my partner Owen Kean. The film was made possible by a grant from ScreenCraft and BondIt Media, and it was subsequently acquired by Vice.
The film aired on Vice back in August 2019, and astonishingly, it has since been watched almost half a million times on YouTube. It’s shortlisted for a One World Media Award.
I was absolutely delighted to be selected as a media fellow for a programme run by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The programme, titledReligion and the Global Reframing of Gender Violence, aims to question dominant narratives about gender based violence, with a particular focus on the Middle East and South Asia. Along with two other media fellows, I attended an academic conference in Jordan (a book containing all the papers should be out at some point this year), and then went on to do several weeks of reporting in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. My focus was on gender-specific issues in the refugee crisis; I’ve had a few pieces already out based on the reporting I did, with some longer articles in the works.
ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidi community were an international sensation – but despite this attention, many in northern Iraq do not feel they are getting the support they desperately need. I interviewed Yazidis who are taking action to help their community.
Telskof is a Christian village in Iraq’s Niniveh plain. It was occupied by ISIS – but now the militant group has been cleared out, and residents are moving back. I interviewed people there about the struggles of starting over.
Syrian refugee women are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to their precarious economic position and uncertain immigration status. In Lebanon, I met one particularly brave woman, who has escaped forced prostitution and is now working to help others in the same situation.
Women’s empowerment has long been a development buzzword, but a narrow focus on getting women into low-paid work may be marginalising them further. I drew on material from Jordan and Iraq to examine the occasional failings of empowerment programmes.
In January, David Cameron announced extra funding for English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes, to be targeted at Muslim women in order to counter extremism. It was quite a semantic leap to link women’s language skills with the wider problem of extremism, and was particularly odd given swingeing cuts to ESOL budgets in recent years. To get a fuller picture of the story, I went to an ESOL class in east London, mainly populated by, yes, Muslim women, and found that extremism is less of an issue than slashed budgets that make it harder for colleges to access vulnerable students. You can read the article over atVice magazine.
In this classroom in Tower Hamlets College, the majority of the 14 students are Muslim women, and all are originally from Bangladesh: the demographic Cameron claims his new initiative will be aimed at. The threat of deportation, says Rebecca Durand, another teacher at the college, has really shaken students here. “We don’t want language-learning to be linked to any sort of threat,” she says. “That’s really frightened the people I’ve talked to in my class. People are motivated because they want to learn English.”
The following week, Ofsted announced that schools could be downgraded if students wore the face veil and it was found to be affecting learning. (Are you sensing a theme here?). In another article for Vice, I spoke to teachers about their views on this potential ban of face veils in schools.
On 9 January, one of Karachi’s top policemen was killed by the Taliban. Chaudhry Aslam, who headed the city’s counter-terrorism operations, was a controversial figure who had faced at least 10 previous assassination attempts.
I wrote a piece for Vice magazine about Aslam, looking at his life, his death, and his legacy. You can read the full piece over at the Vice website, and here’s an excerpt:
In a country where many politicians and public figures are afraid to speak out against the Taliban and other extremist groups, Aslam’s belligerent attitude earned him a folk hero status. When I met him in December of 2012, he was dressed, as usual, in a white salwar kameez (Pakistan’s national dress) and a flashy watch. He chain-smoked and carried a Glock pistol. “My religion tells me that everyone must die in the end,” he told me. “So I fear nothing. I have seen too much to be afraid.”
I wrote a feature for Vice Magazine about Altaf Hussain, the leader of Pakistan’s MQM party, who runs his party by “remote control” from Edgware in north London. He is currently being investigated by the UK police after allegations of money laundering and inciting violence.
You can read the piece (which also features a couple of my photographs) over at the Vice website, and here’s the opening:
One day in December 2012, tens of thousands of people gathered in Karachi, Pakistan’s mega-city. The speaker was not on stage, instead addressing his rapt audience over the phone. The disembodied voice rang out through loud-speakers. “If your father won’t give us freedom – and just listen to this sentence carefully – then we will tear open your father’s abdomen. To get our freedom, we will not only tear it out of your father’s abdomen but yours as well.”
The crowd were supporters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a political party representing Mohajirs – the people who migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. The speaker was Altaf Hussain, the party’s founder, incongruously addressing the crowd from his house in the North London suburb of Edgware. Hussain commands fanatical support from around 4 million Mohajirs, all of whom desire increased rights for their ethnic group, and the MQM operates mainly on the force of his personality. As such, Hussain retains a tight grip, and has run his party remotely from London for more than 20 years.