The Struggle of Middle-Class Women’s Work in Pakistan

By Cecilie Mueenuddin

Towards the end of my year-long ethnographic field research in Lahore in 2017, I met a young woman over lunch in the canteen at her office. Eight months pregnant, she was determined to return to work as soon as her three months of maternity leave were finished. When I asked about her working hours, she told me that she was expected to be at the office from 9 AM to 6 PM every day. In the maddening stand-still traffic jams of rush-hour Lahore, travelling to and from the office took at least another hour. Once her maternity leave was over, she would leave her 3-month-old baby at home with a mother or mother-in-law for ten or more hours a day. When she arrived home exhausted from her office job, one would like to imagine her finally cooing over the baby that she had not seen since morning. More likely, however, she would be occupied with the unpaid domestic work of cooking, ironing, and serving her husband and in-laws, until she finally collapsed in bed around midnight — only to get up at dawn to cook for the family all over again.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk to her again to see how her plans worked out. Based on dozens of interviews and conversations with similarly-placed women, as well as my own experience combining motherhood and a career, I quietly wondered whether she would be able to maintain the double shift of her job and housework. I also wondered how she would feel about leaving her baby at home for so long]. Would she, like so many other women, ultimately resign from her job to focus on caring for her family — telling herself, as women often do, that it was just “until the children are older?”

This scenario, common not only in Pakistan but around the world, shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our lives and societies are organized today. Women around the world are encouraged to join the labor force, yet both the workplace and household work continue to be structured by patriarchal gender norms, making our attempts at “having it all” — a job and a family — complicated at best. 

In Pakistan, the World Bank has called women’s employment “an economic and social strategy,” arguing that the progress of the nation rests on educating women and getting them into the labor market. Better education and job opportunities for Pakistani women are undoubtedly a great thing. However, this distinctly neoliberal strategy for economic development — expanding the pool of exploitable labor through women — does not say anything about who will pick up the unpaid domestic work left behind by working women. Nor does it specify when all this work will be done. 

Scholars have therefore argued that the world is facing a ‘crisis of care’, in which workers are squeezed from all sides in the service of the neoliberal capitalist economy. Under such contradictory pressures of paid work and unpaid care work, something ultimately has to give. And for many middle-class women in Lahore, this often ends up being the job that they originally hoped to keep. 

The labor market participation of women in Pakistan is currently among the lowest in the world — just 25% of women are employed. In urban areas, where most of the middle class lives, the percentage of women in employment is as low as 10%. However, there seems to be a carefully growing acceptance of women taking paid employment in the Pakistani middle classes, particularly before they marry and have children. It has become quite commonplace for middle-class women to have a job before they get married — and many of these women are determined to continue in their jobs after they get married. After years of neoliberalist policies in Pakistan, with rising prices and widespread privatization of healthcare and education, more families look for an extra income to aid upward mobility. This means that some families are willing to circumvent social conventions that demand that men provide for the family, while women stay home to take care of the children, the housework, and their in-laws. But even women whose mothers-in-law and husbands support, or even encourage, them to take employment often end up quitting their jobs. 

Tahmina, a doctor I interviewed, had a grueling schedule. She worked for five years with the support of her mother-in-law,  who took care of her three children in the mornings while Tahmina worked at her clinic. In the evenings, however, it was more complicated. Tahmina described her husband as “happy about the work, but not very supporting, not at nights. He really wouldn’t sacrifice his sleep.” She was therefore forced to carry her sleeping babies with her to the maternity ward in order to do her job, leaving them with the nurses while she was managing deliveries. Because the housework was also seen as her responsibility, Tahmina had no choice but to sacrifice her sleep in order to do both. “I don’t remember sleeping for more than 2-3 hours at a time during those years,” she told me, “whether it was day or night. I remember cooking even in the middle of the nights.” She still seemed tired when I met her, as if exhaustion had been baked into her bones. 

In her book, The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild discusses the lives of women in similar situations as Tahmina, arguing that they are essentially working double shifts. The first shift is their paid job, and the second shift is the unpaid work they do at home, often continuing until midnight or beyond. For Tahmina, however, the first and second shifts seemed to blend into one interminable, non-stop shift. She ended up exhausted, reminding me of the women Hochschild describes, who spoke about sleep the way hungry people speak about food. Many times, Tahmina had wanted to quit her job, so that she could more easily manage the work at home. Her in-laws and husband wanted her to continue, however, because her income paid for the children’s schooling and they claimed her hard-earned education might otherwise “go to waste.” In the end, it was the arrival of her fourth child that convinced them to give her a break. As Hochschild points out, the main reason why women have to spend their evenings or mornings working a second shift is because their husbands presume this work does not fall under their domain. This is related to the low value placed on women’s unpaid care work and housework, which is considered emasculating for men. With this work therefore placed entirely on women’s shoulders, it is no wonder that the ILO has called unpaid care work the main barrier to women’s labor market participation. 

Pakistani men’s failure to lighten a women’s burden and assume a fair share of the housework is often blamed on their long work hours and role as the primary breadwinners. This argument falls apart, however, when wage-earning women are asked to take on all the housework regardless of their working hours. As one 12-year-old girl pointed out during a classroom discussion at a Lahore school, “When men come home from work, they have the excuse that ‘We are tired,’ but when a woman tries to say that, all she gets is a scolding.” The truth is that a full day of work with the currently expected number of hours is exhausting for anyone — whether male or female — and that exhaustion is only compounded when adding cooking, dishwashing, laundry, children’s homework, and listening to gossip from a mother-in-law. Even in dual-earner households with an equitable distribution of the domestic labor, it is likely that neither parent will have much time to relax in the evening. This is because paid work continues to be structured as if all workers are men with wives at home to take care of the domestic work. 

This unpaid work is essential to maintaining the labor force. Yet, in our current capitalist economy, reproductive and domestic work are not recognized as important. As Nancy Fraser puts it, this “indicates something rotten not only in capitalism’s current, financialized form, but in capitalist society per se.” That is, the capitalist economy rests on the “super-exploitation” of women’s labor and cannot be maintained without the reproductive and domestic work that goes unrecognized within it. 

In Pakistan, the lack of recognition for domestic and care work is further evident in the meager paid leave provided to parents, as well as the lack of safe, reliable, and affordable childcare. Although Pakistani women are legally entitled to three months of maternity leave, many are lucky if they get even one – because the structure of the labor market is not currently built for workers with care duties. On the other hand, fathers usually get no parental leave at all, underscoring their distance from domestic work and childrearing. Many women also struggle to find suitable childcare if they take employment, forced to rely on the free labor of their mothers or mothers-in-law, as hired help and day care centers are considered unsafe.

Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of care. Although the national lockdown in Pakistan only spanned a month, from April to May 2020, schools have been regularly closed or repeatedly interrupted during the pandemic. In addition, while workers in white-collar jobs were able to work remotely from home, others whose businesses were shut down have been sitting at home without employment. From the conversations I had with middle-class women in Lahore, it is clear that having both children and men at home all day has significantly increased the burden of unpaid work for women. This has translated into more cleaning and tidying, cooking several times a day, attending to the demands of husbands, while also homeschooling or finding other activities to occupy children. These experiences are concordant with findings from the rest of the world, which show that COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns have increased the burden of  domestic work for most women around the world, including in Pakistan.

Women who had jobs before the pandemic – many of them teachers – have had to shift to working from home, while also managing the rapidly increasing amount of housework. In India, research shows that women working from home during the pandemic have struggled to do their job more than men, as their work tends to been seen as less important than men’s work. Women have for instance been compelled to participate in housework or to home school their children during their work hours, while men have been able to work more undisturbed. Simultaneously, women in Lahore say that employers have not been particularly understanding of their increased workload and conflicting demands during the pandemic, adding significant stress to women’s lives. 

Of course, one could argue that since most middle-class families in Pakistan employ some domestic help for housework, middle-class women have significantly less housework to do than those who cannot afford such help. In fact, this tends to be the solution offered by middle-class men to the problem of who will take care of the housework if their wives are employed outside the home: “We can hire a maid for that.” However, this is not a solution to the problem of the unrecognized domestic work, nor necessarily to the workload women face. First of all, hiring maids to take care of the housework means that the problem of exploiting women’s labor through double shifts has merely been shifted to a lower class of women. Additionally, in most middle-class households in Lahore, maids only do part of the housework — the dishes, cleaning, and chopping vegetables. The women of the household therefore still do the majority of the cooking, childcare, and caring for in-laws, as well as anything else not trusted to the hired help. Like in India, many households in Lahore have also let their help go during the pandemic. While this undoubtedly increased the financial stress on lower-class women, it also compounded the pressure on middle-class women. Now, they had to do the maid’s work in addition to having their normal responsibilities increased. Particularly for women with jobs, this has underscored how incompatible the worlds of domestic and paid work appear to be – at least in their current iteration. 

The masculine nature of the workplace and labor market, combined with the unpaid and largely unrecognized domestic work at home, therefore means that many women choose to opt out of the labor market. As Pamela Stone has argued, however, this should not actually be understood as a free choice. Rather, women are pushed out of the labor market because of the inhospitable conditions they find there. As a result, they lose opportunities to become economically independent, instead becoming even more dependent on their husbands. It also means that women lose opportunities for self-realization, or a way to escape the confines of the home and the routine drudgery of household chores – important motives for middle-class women to pursue paid employment. Thus, while many choose to quit the labor market in order to save themselves from stress and exhaustion, they may in the process submit themselves to other sources of discontent at home. 

Navigating Pakistan’s Climate Crisis

Should Pakistan’s consumption-focused local environmentalism be seen as apolitical activism?


By Yasmeen R. Arif

A week after attending Lahore’s Climate March in September 2019, three students and I were sitting in an air-conditioned Gloria Jean’s Coffee shop in the city’s upmarket Defence neighborhood. The three eighteen-year-old girls all spoke passionately about the need to fight the climate crisis. One student, Mehwish, read aloud highlighted passages of This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, while another, Tahmina, jotted down points in her school notebook. A student named Ambaa showed us reusable glass straws she had bought from Instagram, and the three girls discussed the possibility of organizing a trash collection drive at their school. At the end of the meeting, the teenagers each departed in their family’s private car, while I called an Uber. In this way, a meeting about the environment ended with us leaving in four separate vehicles, all four of which were emitting pollution.

Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

The preceding paragraph is a fictionalized account of a real meeting, in which all names have been changed. It outlines some of the tensions within a particular kind of environmental activism in Pakistan, which is already considered the world’s fifth most-vulnerable country to climate crisis, despite only being responsible for 1% of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalism in Pakistan is not monolithic; it has taken many forms, including governmental directives on tree-plantingcitizen-led anti-pollution legal campaigns, and business commitments to environmentally-friendly production that are often assessed as ‘corporate greenwashing.’ During my research in Lahore, I frequently encountered consumption-based environmental activism. Its participants were mostly middle-class high school and university students, often young women. Unlike some groups, these young activists did not attempt to petition the government for structural change; rather, their environmental activism was enacted in small-scale and voluntary ways, such as collecting trash from busy roads or planting trees. These activists sought to mitigate their impact on the environment through altering their practices of consumption. They carried reusable metal straws and cotton tote bags to reduce their use of plastic, and shopped online for products marketed as “kind to the planet.” Many of these products – including cosmetics, period products and gaily-patterned tote bags – were clearly intended for feminized customers, echoing a perception of women being ‘natural’ custodians of the environment

It would be easy to dismiss these activists as uncritical consumers who have fallen victim to a false consciousness about the possibility of “solving” the climate crisis through individual action. Academics such as Michael Maniates argue that when we understand environmental harm as ‘the product of individual shortcomings… best countered by action that is staunchly individual and typically consumer-based,’ we achieve a sense of agency and accomplishment and a feeling that we are mitigating environmental damage by collecting trash or buying recyclable products. In reality, however, protecting the environment requires top-level action at the level of international governance – individualist action is simply not sufficient to deal with the scale of the climate crisis, Maniates says. In a recently-published book, Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor argues that effective climate activism puts pressure on governments and the largest polluters in the world to change, rather than trying to change individual behaviour: 

Buying, washing, collecting, and transporting one’s plastic bottles to a privately-contracted recycling bank are not citizenly acts. Instead, a citizenly act is demanding free, curbside recyclable waste collection for all, or pressing governments to pass laws against unnecessary and wasteful packaging thus reducing the need to recycle in the first place. 

Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor, The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory

Practices of ‘green consumerism,’ such as buying reusable glass straws, cotton bags and other ‘environmentally-friendly’ products, are also heavily criticized by scholars and activists arguing that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. The environmental scholar Catriona Sandilands notes that “the point of a ‘green’ politics should be to show how consumerism is itself part of the problem.” Green consumerism, however, is seen as depoliticizing, helping to maintain the status quo of capitalist consumerism. The ideology of neoliberalism — ‘an economic system in which the “free” market is extended to every part of our public and personal worlds’ — is considered a key force in shaping individualistic, consumption-focused environmentalism. Critics of neoliberalism argue that the extension of market principles into all areas of life makes political struggle against systems of inequality difficult, because neoliberalism encourages people to see themselves as individuals with responsibilities rather than as part of communities with collective rights. Rather than bringing about the transformation of polluting industries, MacGregor argues that neoliberal discourses place “emphasis on the role of individuals as consumers to tackle climate change by conserving energy, recycling waste, growing food and foregoing flights.”

Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

When I first began to meet environmental activists in Lahore, these critiques were fresh in my mind. For example, during one study circle, a student named Ambaa pragmatically reflected that “Capitalism is really at the root of the climate crisis.” I began to consider the social and political environments in which critiques of individualist environmentalism arose. Many seemed to assume an unproblematic ability to make one’s voice heard safely in political spheres. However, as studies of radical care enacted by marginalized communities have long acknowledged, this assumption does not account for circumstances where direct political action is either ineffective or even unsafe to carry out.

While some of the young people I met were enthusiastic about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government’s intention of “greening” Pakistan, others dismissed it as performative and tourism-focused.

Indeed, activists in Lahore were often deeply cynical about the possibility of productively engaging with systems of authority. While some of the young people I met were enthusiastic about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government’s intention of “greening” Pakistan, others dismissed it as performative and tourism-focused, while even the most ardent Khan supporters were skeptical about the transparency and accessibility of the government. Interactions with university and government bureaucracy were often negative, slow-moving and ponderous at best, and actively obstructive at worst. Students like Mehwish, Tahmina and Ambaa had all seen the banner carrying the image of the activist Baba Jan at the Climate March in 2019; they knew that, until his release in November, he was still a political prisoner of the Pakistani state for campaigns connected to climate change-induced disaster in Gilgit-Baltistan. On the other hand, activities such as tree planting comply with a key policy of the Pakistani government and imply a kind of acquiescent patriotism, generating a politics of respectability and legitimacy. 

Distrust in the ability of authority systems to address climate change prompted young people to take action into their own hands. I often heard statements like “It’s up to us to make the change we want to see,” and “We cannot wait for the government to save us; we have to take responsibility.” While these statements could be understood in terms of the ‘responsibilization’ of individuals under neoliberalism, this portrayal ignores the fact that expressions of responsibility and destiny are not solely derived from Western ideologies and economic principles.

In Pakistan, anthropologist Naveeda Khan argues that a desire to “strive” is an intrinsic part of the national discourse, expressed in the poetry and writings of Muhammad Iqbal and rooted in the unique circumstances around Pakistan’s inception, which was experienced by ordinary people as an opportunity to create a truly ideal society that had never existed before. Projects of self-making that draw on “green consumerism” and voluntary activism could be seen as part of this intellectual genealogy of ‘striving,’ as opposed to an uncritical acceptance of Western neoliberal thought.

“I have lived in Lahore my whole life and I have heard it called the ‘City of Gardens.’ But that means nothing to me. I have no memory of it as ‘a city of gardens.’ All I know is my eyes stinging and my throat being sore all through the winter.”

– A young climate activist interviewed in Lahore

Moreover, rather than dismissing events like trash collection and tree plantation as apolitical props to neoliberalism, we can also understand them as pragmatic responses to visceral experiences of pollution and environmental harm. Last year marked the fifth winter in which Lahore was assaulted by a toxic smog that turned the sky an unnatural gray. The smog irritated the eyes, caused harsh coughs and exacerbated respiratory difficulties, prompting the activists I met to talk about pollution in embodied ways. “We can feel it getting hotter every year,” said Jamal, a volunteer at a tree planting event in Lahore. “When we used to go for a walk we could see trees, but now those trees have been cut down.” Another young activist I will call Ayesha reflected: “I have lived in Lahore my whole life and I have heard it called the ‘City of Gardens.’ But that means nothing to me. I have no memory of it as ‘a city of gardens.’ All I know is my eyes stinging and my throat being sore all through the winter.” Lived experiences of pollution drove a desire to directly intervene in the landscape through what I termed a deeply “emplaced environmentalism,” a relationship of care to an inhabited landscape that is rooted in a specific history.

Thus, tree plantation drives were seen both as a way to reclaim Lahore’s heritage as a “City of Gardens,” and as a pragmatic way to mitigate particulate matter and lower the temperature of urban heat islands. Although activists recognized the validity of tree plantation critiques as addressing pollution’s symptom rather than its cause, they also felt that planting trees at least allowed them to do something rather than nothing, given their limited power to address the causes of air pollution. Indeed, the localized nature of direct interventions into the landscape might be understood through MacGregor’s concept of “interstitial politics” or struggles which are ‘interventionist and strategic’ in nature and draw upon a ‘politics of the mundane.’ Finally, what scholars in Western contexts may fail to recognize in Lahore’s young activist interstitial politics is the political nature of intervention in public space in an increasingly securitized and privatized society, with fewer places of sociality not predicated on consumption.

Young women’s access to public space has often been contested, and participating in activities like collecting trash or planting trees often required significant mental and physical labor to organize and enact. 

It is also important to acknowledge that, although many relished the experience of spending time with friends for a cause they cared about, young women’s experience of public space was not unequivocally celebratory or liberatory. Many of the young women that I spoke to found it tiresome to negotiate their participation in activities like tree-planting.

Young women’s experience of public space was not unequivocally celebratory or liberatory.

Ayesha, who attended a tree-planting event that I went to, had to bring her younger brother with her as a safeguard against harassment, and found it so frustrating dealing with his complaints that she rarely attended the events she wanted to. Some young women felt uncomfortable in public areas, conscious of being ogled and worried about the possibility of sexual harassment. Students Mehwish and Tahmina also told me about an alarming encounter they had had when volunteering in trash-collection drives:

“The last time we were collecting trash, a man came up to use and said, ‘You should clean your hearts first, attend to your namaz (prayers) in the home rather than walking on the streets. If you clean your hearts, then the streets will become clean,’” Mehwish told me. “We were scared that if we tried to explain what we were doing, he would accuse us of blasphemy.”

“Some boys from our school were with us and they came over and said, ‘Don’t talk to that man, these are dangerous men,’” Tahmina added. “We were very uncomfortable because we felt they were trying to dominate us, and they were speaking of that man like he was evil, just because he was poor. We didn’t want them to protect us.” 

Although Mehwish and Tahmina were passionate about the environment, the constant negotiations they underwent exhausted them. “To be honest, I prefer to do my activism from home. It is so uncomfortable to be outside,” Mehwish said. Since their visceral sense of the climate crisis meant that apathy was not an option, the practices of green consumption offered a way to enact their desire to live in minimally damaging ways to the environment, managing their own practices of consumption as much as they could, and spending money on products that supported their desire to be ‘green.’ 

Young activists like Mehwish and Tahmina know that the climate crisis is real, and that it is here. They also know that that any meaningful solution requires governmental action at an international level and the radical restructure of the global economic system. Nonetheless, they go on collecting trash, planting trees and trying to mitigate their individual impact on the planet. Their determination to make whatever change they can, even while they know their impact is small, shows how practices of environmental activism that might be termed apolitical and neoliberal can also be understood as contingent and pragmatic, emerging in situations where more overt, state-engaging forms of activism might fail. Student activists in Lahore are well aware of the environmental crisis – after all, they breathe in some of the most toxic air in the world. But they are also aware of the political and social climate surrounding them, and they carefully navigate these multiple challenges as they dream, cautiously, of a cleaner city. 


Yasmeen R. Arif is a doctoral student at Oxford University researching gender, environmentalism, and urban space in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @Arif_Yasmeen.

The Lost Boys of Pakistan: Greece’s Child Refugees

Unaccompanied minors from Pakistan are increasingly arriving on Greek shores to precarious and uncertain futures

BY DIVYA MISHRA 

During the height of Greece’s refugee crisis in 2016, sixteen-year-old Shehzad* was locked in the unaccompanied children’s section of Moria refugee camp on Greece’s Lesvos island. Unlike many of the Syrian and Afghan children who fled their homes in search of safety, Shehzad had not arrived in Greece to escape war and violence. Shehzad had dreams of playing cricket for England. 

The teenager had run away from home and traveled over 5,000 kilometers with a smuggler after hearing stories from his friends in the city of Mandi Bahauddin in eastern Punjab province. Like him, they had left Pakistan and had invited Shehzad to join them in Europe. “I got wrapped up in plans with my friends back home,” said Shehzad with a twinge of regret. “Some of them were already in France.” 

Originally, Shehzad assumed he could stay in France for a short period before traveling to England, but his father said no. “He said I was his only child and he couldn’t let me go.”

A Pakistani teenager seeking asylum in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra
A Pakistani teenager seeking asylum in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra

Shehzad was nevertheless determined to travel to Europe, so he ran away. In Greece, Pakistani adolescents like Shehzad are the second-largest group of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, behind only Afghans. The majority of these boys are between 14 and 17 years old. Many Pakistani boys do not come from areas affected by political turmoil or violence. Like Shehzad, most come from cities and villages of Punjab, nestled in dense migrant networks that have developed over multiple generations.

Pakistani adolescents are the second-largest group of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Greece, behind only Afghans.

“These boys see how their relatives or their neighbors’ relatives who live in Europe send so much money back home (to Pakistan),” said Muhammad, who looks at child protection at the Network for Children’s Rights in Athens. “But things were different when those men traveled. Yes, they traveled illegally, but it was possible for them to obtain legal status in some European countries or to open up businesses and eventually achieve some level of economic success. That is really not possible anymore.”

For decades, Greece has played a major role as a host and transit country for Pakistani migrants in Europe. After the September 11 attacks heightened global airport security, Pakistanis unable to acquire a visa saw a new opportunity through over-land transcontinental smuggling routes across Balochistan, Iran and Turkey. Smugglers typically took migrants as far as Greece, where they attempted to repay smugglers’ fees by working in the agricultural fields or the black market. Previously, migrant youth entering the country undocumented were afforded several protections and rights under Greece’s 2001 Law on Aliens, but today this path is no longer available.

Asylum applications filed by Pakistanis in Greece are only accepted at a 2% rate

Instead, since the spike in irregular migration to Greece’s Aegean islands in 2015-2016, underaged boys who land on Greek shores are often immediately taken to migrant reception centers. These young migrants can only maintain a presence in Europe by applying for asylum. However, the likelihood of asylum success is dismal—asylum applications filed by Pakistanis in Greece are only accepted at a rate of 2.4%. Still, the sluggish processing rate can buy most Pakistani boys a few years of time, allowing them to remain in the country, albeit in a painful legal limbo.  

A Pakistani teenager in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra.

“Danki Lagana”

“I believed what the agent (smuggler) said,” recalled Shehzad. “He said we would be traveling by car and that we might have to walk for two or three hours at a time. But we walked on foot for two or three days at a time, over mountains and across rivers, surviving only on biscuits and water. They even put us in the trunks of cars—once for a whole 24 hours.”

While Shehzad was surprised by how harrowing his journey to Greece was, many of his peers harbored a better idea of the road ahead of them. Among Pakistani teenagers, the journey to Europe is known as danki lagana, because “you walk along like a donkey. You walk for days and days,”  Shehzad explained.

The families of Pakistani child migrants are typically aware of the perils that lie along smugglers’ routes to Europe and are reluctant to let their children go. Yet, their families are unable to counter the lure of omnipresent smuggling agents and the stories of successful migrants with iPhones and new cars. Unlike adult asylum seekers, smugglers agree to take minors on the journey without advance payments, allowing boys to leave without their family’s support. Once they are in Iran or Turkey, however, the boys are held as hostages in musafirkhanas, or smugglers’ safehouses, at least until the families can raise enough money to pay the smuggler’s fees.

“My journey from Pakistan to Turkey was only eighteen days, but in Turkey, they held me for six months,” said Shehzad. Faced with a ransom, his father eventually relented and paid the sum of money demanded by smugglers.

“The smugglers know that the boys’ families have assets,” explained Muhammad. “At the very least, they own animals that they can sell.”

The cost of travelling undocumented from Pakistan to Greece can cost approximately 6,000 euros, portions of which leave Pakistan’s economy to pay smugglers in Iran and Turkey. It is not uncommon for families to go into debt  to cover smugglers’ fees, typically by borrowing money from friends and family and selling familial property or jewelry. 

“If you’re a parent and you find out your son is held hostage in another country, what else can you do?” said Muhammad. “Of course, you will sell everything.”

Even when their prospects in Europe seem bleak, most Pakistani boys refuse to return to their home country.

“Better to Go Home

Once unaccompanied Pakistani minors arrive in Greece, they quickly face pressure to earn an income to help pay back the costs of their journey, chase dreams of economic success, or simply to survive. However, child labor is a crime in Greece, so the only places for these adolescent boys to work are informal sectors, such as agriculture, or in black market economies selling illicit drugs.

“I had never done farm labor before,” said 17-year-old Imran*, also from Pakistan’s Punjab province. “But I had nothing to eat, nowhere to live. A Bangladeshi man in Athens offered me a job selling untaxed cigarettes (do number cigarette), but I don’t smoke, so I didn’t take that job. That’s why I came to the strawberry farm.”

Labor managers on Greek farms hire undocumented migrant labor at exploitative rates, deducting costs of food and housing from workers’ pay, or withholding weeks of paychecks altogether.

Yet, meager pay and backbreaking labor are not the only things unaccompanied children are exposed to on Greek farms.

“Of course there is sexual exploitation on the farms,” said Muhammad. His clients included Pakistani minors who had run away from agricultural jobs. “You have minors living in packed sheds with twenty, thirty adult men. Labor contractors sometimes keep a child for themselves, usually the youngest. The boys don’t dare to tell their families about it. And when the farm laborers are drinking and doing other drugs, the boys do it too. What else can they do? They have nowhere else to go.”

Although there are children’s shelters available for unaccompanied minors in Greece, they only have enough capacity for roughly half of the 4,000 or so unaccompanied minors who need assistance each month, leading to long wait lists. Many Pakistani boys run away from shelters to find work, and even those who stay remain segregated from Greek society.

“Social workers are overworked, and there is no one to teach these kids technical skills or the Greek language,” Muhammad said. “Even after they turn 18, they are not able to participate in the Greek economy.”

The only option available to these boys, even in early adulthood, is to work in immigrant-dominated agricultural fields or the drug or sex trade, where they face a grave risk of exploitation.

Even when their prospects in Europe seem bleak, most Pakistani boys refuse to return to their home country.

“What will I do if I go back?” said Imran. “I have not finished school, I won’t be able to get a job. Right now, work is difficult, but I am able to help pay for my sister’s wedding.”

Too ashamed to return home empty-handed and unsure of how to start a new life if they were to return, Pakistani youth continue to toil in Greece, facing homelessness, sexual and labor exploitation, and social isolation. The journeys also exert a heavy toll on their mental health. Depression and anxiety are prevalent among unaccompanied migrant boys, and self-harm behaviors are commonplace. Many boys self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which are easily available in Athens. 

The long-term consequences are dire, yielding poor outcomes in adulthood the longer they face social isolation and mental distress. The longer unaccompanied migrant children remain homeless, trapped in musafirkhanas, or otherwise cut off from mainstream society, the more they miss out on crucial developmental and learning experiences. This ultimately makes it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society in adulthood, and destines them to a future of suffering as part of Europe’s undocumented underclass.  

“For many of them, it would be better to return home,” said Muhammad. “But they stay on in the hope that something will change.”

*Note: All names of children have been changed to protect their identity.

Divya Mishra, PhD is a graduate from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and University of Pennsylvania. She examined the migration experiences of unaccompanied children in Greece for her doctoral dissertation and as a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellow. 

Call for Submissions

Special Issue on the Crisis of Care: Health, Feminism and Environment

Submission Deadline: 8 January 2021

Pakistan Left Review is seeking articles for our upcoming special issue on the crisis of care in today’s world. We are particularly seeking critique and analysis that can help expand Left perspectives and develop a shared progressive agenda that prioritizes health, feminism and environment.

This particular issue aims to deepen debates diagnosing the multiple and overlapping crises of care, which have come into starker relief in the context of COVID-19. From the level of individual rights to health, to the need for safety at the level of the household, workplace and community, to our collective rights for a livable world, there is a need for clarity about the roots of these crises and the relationships between them. How are the multiple sites of social reproduction designed to enhance or undermine the fundamental principles of care – care for ourselves, care for our communities and longevity across generations?  

Fundamental transformations of both material and social relations are undoubtedly called for at this moment in history. We therefore also endeavor to carry content regarding the kinds alternative futures we aspire to collectively construct. This special issue aims to publish writings engaging in the burning debates on political struggle for a different kind of world, as well as those that can help us envision a 21st century transition to systems of (re)production and circulation sustained by the principles of solidarity, equality, democracy and justice.  

Finally, as key transformations of the household, workplace, community and global relations can only be realised through political struggles to reshape social practices, this special issue of PLR welcomes works on questions of strategy for strengthening an alternative political vision that can adequately address the key challenges of our era.

                                                        

Submissions to PLR

Our platform amplifies voices that critically engage with history, politics and social movements of the region. In addition to articles ranging in length from 800 to 2500 words, we publish book reviews, interviews and artistic materials that support the objective of perspective-building for wider audiences.

To pitch an article idea or to send a piece you have already developed, please email us at pakleftreview@gmail.com.

Confronting Viral Uncertainty

Now what? Now that we have read the books and essays we so badly wanted to and fixed almost everything broken that had been screaming for our attention for months, if not years. Having cleaned the dirtiest devilish nooks of the house, played all possible games with the kids, used all tricks to keep them busy, browsed all the websites churning out scary statistics wrapped in apocalyptic narratives, staring into the uncertain potentialities of each coming day in self-quarantine, confronting the emptiness of longer days of approaching summer, we want to scream it out into the world: what next?

The first thing to note is that being able to ask this question is a privilege; being able to philosophize a mundane, material condition of the pandemic and the limitations it imposes on lives that we had so carefully curated for ourselves, or the possibilities of a world wiggling out through the cracks of the crumbling infrastructure of a previous one, is a privilege not available to all. There are millions around us for whom the mandatory social-distancing is much more threatening than the virus itself. Maybe the privilege to theorize is premised upon the non-privilege or existential imperative of making do and staying alive. Maybe the world that can shut down and the world that cannot are the two sides of the same capitalist coin which has enlivened the material, symbolic, and affective infrastructure of production, circulation, and distribution that skilfully crafted and maintained the difference between the two. A difference and distance that does not prohibit contact, but in fact regulates it. The pandemic opens up possibilities of its more strict regulation and intense surveillance. But it also reveals the essential connectedness of the apparent divisions.

Some of us are slowly re-syncing our ‘distanced’ lives with normal routines; setting up our work desks in living rooms, hoping to revive the trajectory of the life that flowed smoothly for us in the past, unwilling to be attuned to the possibilities and challenges of the new world that comes out of this crisis. Partly, because the old world suited us better, but partly because we are confident of human abilities to win this war against the ‘natural’ challenge posed by the virus and our ability to survive to see that day irrespective of the cost. The virus is not going to affect us if we are strictly following the only sane and sanitized practice – social distancing. It is both selfish and altruistic in the sense that it helps you stay safe while simultaneously securing the safety of the others (although it denies us the satisfaction of pinning down the blame on the ‘enemy’). The lock-downs and mandatory social distancing seem to be a mere interlude—albeit a unique one—in the onward march towards freedom and progress. 

And there are others who, in a similar vein, but inspired by a different zeitgeist, appropriate the current uncertainty to suit their narratives, to avow the truthfulness of their doctrines. No disease is scary enough to stop them from doing God’s work, no threat excuses them from shirking their religious responsibilities. While pandemics are God’s way of punishing the people who have strayed far from His message, how could shutting down mosques and abandoning the word of God be a potential defense against the disease? What could possibly save us pain and trouble is asking His forgiveness, invoking His mercy. He works in miraculous ways after all.

What all those, who had had their lives and worlds figured out, cannot really deal with is the sheer uncertainty of the present moment. Confronting a new and almost unprecedented situation, they rummage through their old bags of theories to find a piece of narrative that hides the gaping holes in their knowledge-systems that the virus opens up. What they need to do instead is to take this moment as a corrective to their theories and attend to the world that might emerge out of this crisis. For neither lock-downs nor meditations are going to bring back the order that their old theories promised. It has become difficult to neatly segregate the world into haves and have-nots, believers and non-believers, carriers and non-carriers, sane and insane, biological and ethical. The virus, for one, doesn’t care. And people dying of hunger will accompany the virus jumping the spatial boundaries of class, religion, politics, and property throughout the globe.

In between the precautionary social distancing and a devil-may-care approach to social gatherings, the severity of the situation demands that we think of the people who don’t have the resources to sustain the lock-downs and mandatory isolations. Before the threat of dying of hunger makes them challenge the virus and the spatial restrictions to have their last shots at life, those of us, who have set up our work desks in our living rooms, need to find out ways and make sure that sustenance reaches them. After all we are all in it together. This is both selfish and altruistic in an unprecedented time and it requires us to challenge the distinction between thinking and doing too. It is the time not to sit idle and wait till the virus is gone; it is the moment to attend to the imperatives of a world that is breathing through the crisis.

This is what the members of Haqooq-e-Khalaq Movement had realized quite early on in the pandemic. A few other groups have been doing the same. These efforts nourish the possibilities of a new better world that challenges the eschewed distribution of the natural bounties. That emphasise the need to build community instead of self-seeking individuals. These are the efforts that could also prove a bulwark against the state’s tendency to make this state-of-exception a new norm in the society.

Abdul Aijaz is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington.


Birth of a Movement: Transformation of Bramsh Solidarity Committees

Picture by: Zahid Ali Baluch @ instagram.com/zahid_ali_baluch/ 22 August, 2020 at Karachi Press Club

Baloch society has entered into a new phase of political mobilization since the Dan’nuk incident1. A growing number of students, youth, and ordinary citizens, previously withdrawn from political activities during the ‘reign of terror’, a decade of state atrocities that is epitomised in the popular but also gory phrase of “kill and dump” started reclaiming the popular political space from the conventional nationalists as well as the king’s party. This mobilization is happening in the streets as well as on the social media, with a leading role of students and an unprecedented presence and participation of women. This new political force, comprising of students, youth, and intellectuals has started organizing independent of both bourgeoisie parliamentary parties and the separatist militant groups. Organizing on its own, crafting its own slogans, and perhaps most importantly, refusing to be a part of reactionary nationalism divided on the lines of personal interests of the elite leadership. The new phase of Baloch political mobilization is taking a shape of its own – a decentralized solidarity movement.

Since Bramsh incident, the new phase of mobilization has entered into its third and most intense wave of protests which were sparked by the killing of Hayat Baloch who was murdered by the Frontier Constabulary with such brutality that it shook the society to its core. Unlike the solidarity campaign for Bramsh, and the protests against killing of Kulsoom Bibi2, the new wave has spread to more constituencies not just in the native land of Hayat Baloch but also in major cities such as Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore and Islamabad attracting crowds from progressive circles in the urban centres. Solidarities also poured in from the politically marginalized Pashtun areas such as Waziristan that has witnessed its own episode of atrocities in the hands of similar forces. The keynote protest event was held on 22 August3, nine days after the murder, despite the fact that all attempts were made by the law enforcement agencies to defuse the situation through symbolic actions. The Frontier Constabulary, known by its acronym FC, anticipating sensitivity of the matter, surrendered one of its soldiers into police custody. The police showed unprecedented proactiveness by proclaiming the arrest of the soldier, even before a FIR could be lodged. In the follow up, condemnations poured in from government officials which peaked on an unprecedented visit by the Inspector General of the paramilitary force to the victim family.

The masses mobilized in response to the killing of Hayat Baloch, refuse to give in to the manoeuvres by the government and PR exercises by the FC. The consecutive waves of protests have resulted as the realization of the vulnerability of the common people who live amidst an fractionated insurgency and an unchained paramilitary force. Another Bramsh incident, another murder of Kulsoom and Hayat appear written on the wall; thus, pushing a large number of politicly conscious youth into the field of action, and bursting the bubble of fear. The random and unsynchronized solidarity committees in the name of Bramsh on their turn are converging into committees beyond any particular incident. The material conditions for a broader Baloch solidarity movement are in the making. A civil rights movement with potentials to become the dominant political force of the society seems viable.

This article aims at highlighting key aspects of the Bramsh solidarity committee phenomenon, the possibilities of its turning into a Baloch solidarity movement and the historical responsibility of progressive forces in an imminent political movement.

Birth of A Movement

To state the obvious, the three main incidents responsible for this new phase of mobilization – the murder of Maliknaz and Kulsoom in the hands of patronized criminal groups or death squads, and the murder of Hayat in the hands of FC are closely linked with the ongoing Balochistan conflict. The hostilities that started in early 2000 soon gave way to a war like situation. It culminated into two decades that are known for missing persons, mutilated bodies, and military operations. The groups responsible for the first two incidents, of Maliknaz and Kulsoom, were created mainly to counter the militancy. After serving their purpose these groups were not disbanded; soon, they started to attack the ordinary population, often the weakest section.

The victims of such groups have been mainly the working class population and the petty bourgeoisie or the middle class, consisting of small land owners and traders who struggle to make ends meet. The Baloch indigenous economy is either subsistence agricultural, livestock, or fishing economy operating under-resourced to meet household needs or the informal economy which runs parallel to the capitalist state economy. Nevertheless, the contribution of state economy on mass level is limited to government jobs which serve as the only sustainable source of income. The larger ‘primary’ economic sector of natural resources, has never been a part of indigenous economy, instead, it has turned into a tool of exploitation; therefore, limiting the economic options for the local population while strengthening the tribal elite and the security establishment in the resource rich areas, while making the situation worse for the lower classes.

The working class and petty bourgeoisie, while struggling with such economic hardships have to face the death squads and the security forces in their daily lives, while they work on their farms, manage their small shops, trade in the market, and even in their leisure – for example on picnic spots. These daily encounters have the utmost possibility of turning deadly any moment. This is what happened with Hayat Baloch and his family. It is the fait accompli of every peasant that goes to see his crop, every farmer that goes to the farm, every fishermen that goes to the sea, every shop owner who has to go the Bazar daily to earn a living.

“Hayat could have survived if he had enough time to clear the civil service examination and join the bourgeoisie through the bureaucratic channel but he wasn’t there as yet, instead he was son of a farmer who had to keep working on his farm despite bomb blasts and armed clashes.”

The Baloch bourgeoisie – comprising of the dominant tribal elite, along with its non – tribal large business owners, the monied politicians and bureaucrats – has a rare privilege in this security situation. Extracting the surplus created by the working class, or the money they have collected on their name, they have raised armies of their own. They have enough armed men to guard them from violent attacks, unlike the working class which is a soft target – either attacked easily for being a spy or who happens to be in the line of fire between the militants and the security forces in his daily quest for economic survival. The Baloch bourgeoisie avoid being killed in the hands of militants as well the security forces and death squads using either his armed men or the privileges it has gained due to the membership of the upper class status. Hayat could have survived if he had enough time to clear the civil service examination and join the bourgeoisie through the bureaucratic channel but he wasn’t there as yet, instead he was son of a farmer who had to keep working on his farm despite bomb blasts and armed clashes.

The bourgeois class have been dominating the political superstructure of Baloch society since 1990’s by occupying the top leadership in nationalist parties of different names. In these three decades, they have turned from ordinary sons of Sardars or Nawabs or Mirs, the middle class business owner and bureaucrat into capitalist rent-seekers who own multi – billion businesses and real estate here and abroad and have established partnerships with various tycoons. The capital they have accumulated resides abroad and does not makes any appearance at home except in the the elitist lifestyle of their children who proudly and shamelessly flaunt their upper class status in a society living at the edge of economic desperation and social chaos. In Balochistan where the bourgeoisie have its political roots in the nationalist politics they never admit to their own economic and social privileges, instead their entire politics is based on the illusion that the exploitation of Baloch and Balochistan is national and thus constant across the boundaries of economic class and social status.

The politically conscious strata of lower classes have historically affiliated themselves with the bourgeoisie leadership since the emergence of popular nationalist politics in 1980s and its maturity in the proceeding decade. This affiliation has however changed over the years as the bourgeoisie class proved repeatedly their incapability to lead the society towards social justice leave alone national revolution. The failure of bourgeoisie leadership has contributed to the alienation of masses from political process in general resulting in a political gap and the rise of nationalist militancy followed by a ruthless counter insurgency regime. Various non-conventional and independent bodies in the form of either civil society, students’ unions, or localized solidarity groups in response of recent events are emerging out of this political gap.

The Solidarity Committees

Over the past decade of terror, a new generation has grown up that is now an active part of students and youth politics. This new generation, like Hayat Baloch, wants to think and act beyond conflict, they are politically conscious of their economic conditions, the rottenness of their social structures, and the corruption of national leadership. They are fed-up of unpleasant daily encounters they have with the security forces at check posts, in their campuses, on the farms, and on the streets. They refuse to live under the fear of death squads, they don’t want to be led by a corrupt leadership, they want to live with freedom and dignity. This is the new political force, the raw material for an ensuing social movement born out of a deadly conflict situation.

In Makkuran, where the above mentioned three prominent incidents happened the new wave of protests are led by the civil society which is dominated by the students. Civil society is a new phenomenon in Balochistan which emerged with increasing urbanization and the resulting civic sense among the educated youth and intellectuals. The corruption and overall lack of concern in the state institutions administering these urban centres has resulted into an acute lack of amenities. The condition of educational institutes and health felicities is worst even in rapidly growing towns like Turbat and Panjgur with no adequate infrastructure and utilities such as gas, electricity and water supply. The organization of educated youth and intellectuals into various kinds of social groups have been a response to this deficit in civic services. Amid a depoliticized atmosphere, the civil society has been a vibrant social force accommodating within its ranks active forces from across the society, including students organized within campuses.

The conflict situation and its belligerent forces, the state and militants have hardly been the subject of interest for the civil society before the recent protests. The Dan’nuk incident pushed the civil society out in the streets in solidarity with a victim of a situation that it has always avoided to consider into its agenda. The civil society although has all the necessary ingredients to initiate an event-based solidarity campaign, is far from leading a sustainable movement of political significance. The constraints of civil society became visible soon after the formation of Bramsh solidarity committees that could not translate the momentum into social and political structures to create a sustainable force. With the condemnation of a criminal act and its political patronage, and the expression of solidarity with the victim, the civil society has served its purpose – reaching the limits of its structural capacity.

Need for a Progressive Movement

The resolution of an armed conflict and an end to arbitrary rule by the state forces is a question of political authority over the society and cannot be resolved without the organization of masses under a revolutionary program that enables them to take the political authority in their own hands. The dominant political forces of Baloch society, hitherto, have failed to perform this historical task in a tribal society that is in the middle of a modern nation building project. In the absence of an organized progressive political force the civil society in its various forms is inclined to fall prey to the reactionary nationalists who have already started influencing the solidarity committees in different cities. The national bourgeoisie is struggling to reclaim the political authority over the society that it has lost a decade earlier. While on the other hand the more radical groups are also trying to reclaim their support base through tried and tested methods.

The killing of Hayat Baloch is transforming the Bramsh solidarity committees in their respective constituencies. A transformation that has the potential to emerge in the form of Baloch solidarity movement against the arbitrary rule of state on Baloch society and the impunity that it has given to abduction and killing of the youth. It is the historical responsibility of the progressive tendencies to fight against the attempts by the reactionary forces to manipulate this transformation for their political gain. The progressive students, intellectuals, and the working class parties need to unite, organize and strengthen their bonds with the masses that is the only way the reactionary forces can be defeated and a new progressive political force can be built from within the society.

Note: This article is a collective effort by Balochistan Marxist Review team.

Notes

[1] On 26th May, 2020 armed men stormed a house in Dan’nuk area in the outskirts of Turbat city in south-west Balochistan killing a woman Malik Naz and seriously injuring her four years old daughter Bramsh. One of the culprits was apprehend by vigilant neighbours was identified as a member of one of the many criminal gangs operating in Makkuran region. The incident became an epitome of anger among the masses against the criminal groups known as death squads. A viral video of little Bramsh on a hospital bed crying for her mother resulted into a wave of protests across Balochistan and the formation of Bramsh solidarity committees.

[2] On the night of 14th June, 2020 Kulsoom a working class women was murdered in front of her children during a robbery in Tump area of Kech district. The incident further inflamed the anger of the masses and resulted into a new wave of protests to follow the earlier campaign against Dan’nuk incident.

[3] On 22nd August 2020, a day of protests was marked in solidarity with Hayat Baloch who was killed by Frontier Constabulary on 13th of August in Absar area of Kech district. The protests originally called by Karachi University based Baloch Educational Students Organization, the students body Hayat was affiliated with, was later joined by Bramsh solidarity committees and other progressive organizations all across Pakistan. Protests demonstrations, candle light vigils and solidarity marches were held in at least 32 districts.

The article was first published in Balochistan Marxist Review


Power, Law and Brutality: The Link between Colonial and Post-Colonial India

Noor Ejaz Chaudhry

Say yes to freedom, peace, dignity and respect for all. Say no to terror and repression against all living beings. In the beginning was freedom.

Jolly Kanjappu, The Berlin Wall 1990

This quote sets the tone for K.G. Kannabiran’s acclaimed book, The Wages of Impunity, as he revisits human rights violations occurring as a result of the postcolonial Indian state’s struggles to retain power and suppress people’s resistance in realising their fundamental rights. He offers a personal account entwined with an analysis of how the legal system, in conjunction with the judiciary, executive and military, has validated atrocities committed with impunity. He insists that this link between power, law and brutality is a colonial framework perpetually embedded in India’s legal system. Essentially, India continues to utilise the same system even after its independence from British Raj, ensuring continuity between the colonial and postcolonial state through an internalisation of colonial politics of law and violence.

Defining the ‘state’ to be institutions forming it, i.e. the police, judiciary, legislature and executive, Kannabiran’s key argument is that the postcolonial nation has played a central role in enforcing brutality against its people. In this context, he considers the interrelation between state institutions and how each validates the other in justifying collective state power. Even the watershed achievement of the development of the Indian Constitution, 1950, promising transition of individuals from being subjects to citizens, could not help realise the dream of freedom.

This is precisely because the state machinery not only validated existing repressive colonial laws but has also enacted modern legislation leading to the suspension of individual liberty. The idea of suspension of rights, for instance, enumerated in Chapter III of the Indian Constitution through states of emergencies, has been used as an instrument to undertake citizens’ brutalisation. This, however, is a grave violation of the Constitution which is essentially a hard-earned document of people for their struggle for independence. Thus, it cannot take away fundamental rights on the pretext of maintaining public order. Kannabiran, however, also recognises that the Constitution itself validates the derogation of human rights via Articles 22, 352 and 353, enacted for maintenance of security and order, eventually creating a paradox.

Kannabiran uses preventive detention legislation, encounter killings, anti-terrorism legislation and emergency powers to exhibit how the Indian state has committed atrocities against its people, and how the judiciary has validated this through jurisprudence. He argues that courts have frequently necessitated this brutality on grounds of national security and public order, stating that these are broad and generic terms validating carnage by the state. However, he concludes in each of his chapters that this form of brutality has found it utility only only in repressing political opposition and political movements. In Chapters 1, 3 and 4, he links this phenomenon to the colonial exercise of state power, giving examples of the Rowlatt Acts, 1919 and the Meerut conspiracy case where emergency powers were used to suppress political dissent.

For anyone aspiring to become a human rights advocate in a South Asian legal system that has adopted repressive colonial laws, Kannabiran’s book serves as an account that one can empathise with and a code that one draws inspiration from. He asserts the need to break from colonialism’s shackles and expresses the desire for an aspirational Constitution, serving civilians’ individual liberties. Throughout the volume, while criticising the judiciary for validating actions that have curtailed human rights in India, he aptly discusses how this is, in fact, caused by the adoption of a colonial structure in the post-colonial state.

We, however, cannot ignore that Kannabiran wrote his bookin 2004, in the fresh aftermath of 9/11, when the leftist movement in South Asia faced the paradox of recognising the existing structurally biased system or perceiving it as an opportunity for a liberated human rights framework. The recognition of an oppressive legal system was omnipresent, but reliance on it was important for lawyers representing those aggrieved by legislation imposed in a state of emergency.

Although Kannabiran has not drawn from the concept, one can critique that his bookis both a rejection and acceptance of Fanon’s ideas of decolonisation and national culture. While he argues that India’s current culture is a creation of the people’s resistance against their colonisers, he also agrees with the need for armed resistance, against the state, seeking total decolonisation and the departure of Indian state from the colonial continuity haunting it. However, he digresses with Fanon’s idea of resistance by returning to ‘the barbaric culture’ pre-colonial nations ascribed to. In fact, Kannabiran tries to convince readers to imbibe democratic values as opposed to despotism for the achievement of people’s rights in India.

It is important to note that Kannabiran places the Indian Constitution at the epicentre of his book. Therefore, every argument made against the state hinges on the document, making it a summary of the will of the people. Yet, Kannabiran’s reliance on the Constitution for human rights implementation is almost too idealistic. He relies on it as the guiding frameworks for human rights and civilian freedoms in India but ignores provisos such as the circumstances constituting derogations from rights in exceptional circumstances. Therefore, the argument that these freedoms must be implemented fully in their matter is an idealistic expectation to be kept from an oppressive state. The shift from human rights in a time of crisis is a universally recognised phenomenon borrowed from colonial legacies. It is perhaps the fact that this expectation comes from a communist advocate, who simultaneously recognises the problematic structure of formal law, is what confuses the reader.

Furthermore, Kannabiran places too much emphasis on the concept of individual liberties and the will of the people. He states that the oppressive state can only be questioned through public opposition, and its accountability can only be undertaken by the people. He recognises the supremacy of civilian will and states that ‘modern’ India is constructed by the people’s desires. This argument, however, can be critiqued in terms of Michel Foucault’s governmentality. Governmentality supposes that the state in modern times imposes a form of governance that informs people’s behaviour, how they govern themselves and how they are meant to be governed. Kannabiran’s book seems to be an implied rejection of this idea, arguing that free will continues to exist, that people recognise that violence imposed through the law is a curtailment of their freedoms and that civilians have upheld resistance against all such forms of government.

The argument, however, may seem incomplete in light of governmentality as states, through the imposition of violent power, are still able to instil a sense of fear in the population against retributive justice, thus enabling self-governance. Simultaneously, the state is able to inculcate trust within the same population on the touchstone of state necessity. In idealising free will and individual liberty, Kannabiran ignores that advocates of state necessity continue to exist outside the formal structure and many validate executive brutality against dissidents for their protection. Therefore, while his argument for civil power and supremacy in light of resistance may be true, it is simply incomplete to assume this as the only realm of civilian governance.

In conclusion, despite its limitations Kannabiran’s book provides a much-needed perspective by a lawyer regarding the impact of colonial laws legitimising state power and human rights violations. His assessment of specific legislative provisions, used by the postcolonial nation to suppress civilian dissent, provides a nuanced analysis of how colonialism has left India in turmoil. This struggle lies between balancing sovereignty and breaking the colonial chain, but also using the same legacies to curtail dissent reared against the nation. Kannabiran not only poses as an advocate of the law but also as its critic, reminding readers that while law may be oppressive and colonial in some forms, the fundamental freedoms embedded in it allow civilians to find recourse for the brutality the state arbitrarily uses against them. As a lawyer who has used the same legislation which posits arbitrary punishment against clients for their very protection, I am able to understand Kannabiran’s position. It may be unfair to rely on a liberal human rights framework, but it is perhaps the only aspiration lawyers in a postcolonial era can trust for the implementation of the rights of individuals who are oppressed for dissenting against the state.

The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights

K.G. Kannabiran
Orient Longman, Limited, 2004
ISBN: 812502638X
372pp.

Noor Ejaz Chaudhry is a lawyer and a teacher of human rights. She has completed her LLM from SOAS, University of London, as a Chevening Scholar in 2018.


Inclusivity in Pakistan’s Urban Feminist Movement: A Call for Reflection

Gulrukhsar Mujahid

While inclusivity as a principle would translate into inclusion of all marginalised voices within the feminist movement, it must also mean recognition of the hierarchy that exists amongst various forms of oppression. We are not all oppressed the same way nor to the same extent, producing varying consequences and costs for each one of us. In other words, we live subjective lives while experiencing objective conditions. For instance, when performative resistance translates into marches and protests, analysing the consequences attached to groups/individuals involved can be revealing. For some, protesting might just mean giving up a day of one’s life for the said cause likely resulting in societal backlash or censorship. For others and their families, dissenting results in arrests, the threat of physical violence and disappearances.  All are expressions of resistance with varying consequences. There is a stark difference amongst them, as they exist along a spectrum.

However, this understanding must not translate into embracing the futile logic of competition amongst various forms of oppressions and therefore amongst the oppressed, but instead build an authentic understanding of people’s lived experiences in order to struggle and strategise accordingly. When political marginals of differing identities unite under the same banner, these distinctions matter. A lack of recognition leads to misplaced priorities, alienation and a lost opportunity at realising the revolutionary potential residing in the voices, agency and struggles of working class women, as well as women from oppressed nations and religious minorities.

Where do these countless possibilities for revolutionary solidarity reside? They reside in Farzana Majeed, Sammi Baloch and many other Baloch women who marched for 102 days for their missing male family members, forcefully disappeared by the known ‘unknowns’. We fail to speak enough or raise our voices enough for and with them. They’re our living, marching warriors left unheard—who don’t want medals but just want their family members back home, irrespective of their long political struggle—and perhaps unfortunately will be left unheard, if meaningful solidarity and an understanding of their lived reality is not realised. Censorship imposed on Baloch women activists by the ill-meaning state should not be left at the periphery in well-meaning rights movements. 

The opportunity for solidarity also resides in deepening our understanding of the life and death of Qandeel Baloch, who lost her life in the name of honour. We lost her, not only because of her scorned upon liberal lifestyle, but also due to her objective class position in society. Qandeel’s death and many other honour killings reflect a patriarchal code of ‘honour’, but should also be seen within the spectrum of class, as lack of exposure, resources and social capital impeded her and many others from navigating a heavily chained capitalist-patriarchal society as a ‘liberated’ individual. Can we all ever be truly liberated in a capitalist-patriarchy through everyday acts of liberation under conditions of disproportionate backlash and consequences for gendered and classed bodies? The brother who killed Qandeel is to be damned as a patriarchal product, but so too is the overarching systemic construct that forces men to look towards women for honour, who are considered devoid of an iota of respect that could be harnessed economically and socially. So let’s also unpack honour collectively and see what it denotes and why it means different things to different individuals falling in varying positions along the class spectrum.

Possibilities for meaningful, revolutionary solidarity also resided in Badrunnisa, a landless farmer from Okara, a member of the Thaapa collective. She raises a piece of wood used to wash clothes (a thaapa) alongside other women in the collective while protesting. She had nine registered cases in her name besides several attempts of arrest. Badrunnisa and many others are fighting against the contract system introduced by the military regime in 2003, which takes away rightful ownership by farmers to land and agriculture. But do we hear enough about her and her comrades at Anjuman-e-Mazareen Punjab in the mainstream rights discourse? Are there women championed as torch bearers of feminist resistance to the extent matching the threat of violence and coercion they have faced directly from the state? Is a movement inclusive enough when it fails to recognise these women and keep their struggle at the forefront of a feminist movement?

There are countless other examples of kill-and-dump cases of women in Waziristan, women in Badin hit worst by the climate crisis, and those living in the periphery of the cities; the Afghan migrants, Bihari and Bengali women without NICs in Karachi, caught beyond the formal law’s precincts, whose problems aren’t addressed with valour and seriousness. There is a dialectical relationship between the emancipation of women at the periphery and that of women at the centre— without the emancipation of one the emancipation of the other is unrealised and incomplete.

A feminist united front that struggles for the ethnic or religiously oppressed and working class women, while explicitly recognising the gross imbalance in women’s struggles due to their inherited and immobile socio-economic position in society, is the path toward the realisation of revolutionary potential. Only then can we be truly representative and address the crises in the lived experiences or people in the margins with the seriousness required.

Some voices need a larger base and support in struggle because their struggle and oppression, by default, puts them in far more precarious positions than what others could even imagine.

The burden of oppression and erasure of these voices mainly lies with the powers that be, the perpetrators of these forms of brutality and structures that perpetuate them. However, those championing feminist consciousness and praxis must explicitly recognise the limitations of their resistance in the service of political honesty and concern for consequential tokenism of those in the margins, if the immensely disproportionate effects of the oppression many face aren’t embraced for what they are.

To each meaningful criticism, one must not only present the manifesto or written agenda as a rebuttal, but perhaps a rigorous reflection of how it manifests itself in praxis. Therein lies the much called on revolutionary potential of a movement. All humans are not equal, therefore, all suffering and pain resulting from overlapping oppressions and exploitations are not equal; we live unequal lives each breathing day of our existence.

Gulrukhsar Mujahid is associated with Women Democratic Front and currently works as Editor, Higher Education and Academia at Oxford University Press (OUP). She tweets at @Gulrukhsar


Covid-19, Global Left and Politics in Pakistan

Tariq Ali

Ammar Ali Jan, Zahid Ali and Ziyad Faisal sat down with political activist, writer and public intellectual Tariq Ali for the Left-wing Youtube show The Muqaddimah. A number of topics came under discussion – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the new Left emerging in Pakistan, to the crisis of capitalism. PLR is reproducing an extract of this conversation.

Transcribed by: Zaighum Abbas and Raza Gillani

Edited by: Aima Khosa 

Muqaddimah Interviewer (MI): How can we analyse the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a global emergency in economic and political terms?

Tariq Ali (TA): The first question we must ask is: why has this particular epidemic received so much attention across the globe? There is only one reason for this: the fact that it has affected Europe. Had it remained in China, Asia, or Africa, then the hysteria around it would not have been more than that caused by the SARS pandemic. People forget that for a number of countries in Africa, the malaria pandemic is far deadlier than COVID-19. This hysteria exists because the virus has wounded Europe and the USA. Even the work that we have been doing is merely our attempt to copy them.

Such epidemics have broken out in the past and this will eventually die down, that much I am sure about. In Wuhan, where all of this started, the authorities have managed to take control. We have to see Wuhan as the arc of the future.

But, for us in Pakistan, doing the same is difficult because for the last 25 years, no attention has been given to building state infrastructure. Everything has been privatised and only those who can afford private healthcare are safe. Exceptional voluntary work is always carried out by doctors, but the state is doing absolutely nothing. I have been saying this since long, that we have had so many opportunities since Bhutto’s era. Something had to be done about the poor!

I used to say this whenever I met Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto that revolution might be difficult for you to bring, but you still must do something. “What should we do?” Benazir Bhutto once asked me. “Let me tell you what to do,” I said. “Establish a clinic in every village and five or six state-of-the-art hospitals in every city. The government should allocate money for them. Spend on education, specifically education for girls. No one will stop you from doing this and if anyone tries, you should come on television and tell people the truth.”

“Who will do this?” she asked.

“This is your government! You should be doing this,” I replied

“You should come and do this,” she said.

“How can I do this?” I answered. “I am just an individual. This is something for the state to do.”

But they could never do anything. There was never any will.

So, the political lessons from this pandemic are clear. Private enterprise, or private healthcare structures, cannot deal with such a pandemic. State intervention and national healthcare is of prime importance if we are to save people’s lives.

MI: How do you see the COVID-19 situation in Britain, especially after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken to intensive care? What is the situation of the NHS and the healthcare systems of the UK and the US?

TA: In Britain, the NHS has been continuously downgraded over the last 20-25 years. Hospital beds were reduced and spending was cute down. The main policy for Britain towards the NHS, which started under Blair’s Labour government and since carried on, is to introduce Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) for the NHS. Many had warned them that if PFIs were introduced, people would spend their lives paying their interests, which turned out to be true.

This is why the British healthcare system was not prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. The NHS hospitals did not even have protection kits or masks. Protective equipment was then imported from China and Cuba. As we speak, the first thing they should be doing is to nationalise all private hospitals. They could have given them some compensation if they wanted to, but they had to take control of all hospitals. On the contrary, thousands of pounds are being given to private hospitals every day. The government had initially thought that this virus would run its course and there was no need for mass testing. They just wanted to compete with Germany.

The reason why Germany saw a low infection and mortality rate is not because they are healthier than others. My comrades in Germany tell me that the reason behind a relatively safer situation is because they have a high number of nurses and because of that, they are able to keep people in homes and send nurses to test them there. Only in severe cases are people brought in hospitals and people with mild symptoms are being treated at their homes. This is something that France is beginning to do, but Italy and Britain have not been able to do this and, therefore, they are suffering.

In the USA, the situation mirrors hell. Medicines are expensive and if you are not insured, you are almost doomed to die at home. This is the reality for many immigrants. Trump, however, lives in his own imaginary world – one that is filled with complex speculations. You could not have a worse president to deal with such a crisis. Some people say that the USA is eventually getting what it deserved, but I think that it is important to recognise that such pandemics not only affect the state, but a lot of poor people in the USA as well. We have to care about them and support them. I get calls from friends in New York, who tell me that the situation is very bleak.

MI: How do you see the recent defeats of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders after having created hope of an alternative? Would it not have been better to have people like Sanders and Corbyn at the helm in such times?

TA: It is important to recognise how American politics works. There are only two parties which are not very different from each other, even under Trump. Their policies are directed towards supporting the Wall Street and its bankers, owners of hedge funds and basically supporting capital. They cannot look beyond it. There can be multiple reasons behind this, but one fundamental reason is that people do not see any alternative to this reality.

Cuba is a small island, but they have hundreds of thousands of doctors. Their doctors go to Africa for free and their arrival in Italy made a big impact. People wonder if a small island like Cuba can do such a thing, why can’t their country? The USA is the world’s largest imperialist country. They have military bases across the globe. Earlier their power was based on their military, but now they use economic sanctions to exercise it. They have sanctioned Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba just to keep their power. Their policies and politics are determined by their imperialism and their internal policy is also directed at protecting billionaires. This is why what Sanders says – controlling corporations, having a state-led single payer healthcare system – haunts them: if the USA has a single payer healthcare system today, the influence and power of insurance companies would go down. The USA’s health spending is higher than Europe, but it never goes to the people, it only goes to insurance companies.

We need a mass movement to challenge this power. There was a mass campaign against Bernie, who should have been the candidate. If Biden runs, he will lose to Trump, surely. But they even then chose Biden because for them, Trump’s victory is still better than having someone like Bernie in power. This is the politics of the Democratic Party.

MI: You talked about China and described Wuhan to be the arc of the future. Many western analysts are now wary of the authoritarianism that will eventually rise as a result of this pandemic, especially in China. How do you see this perspective?

TA: I regularly read their essays in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other American newspapers. I think they have panicked. They have panicked because they feel that China is apparently looking better than them. If China were the USA’s satellite state, then such propaganda wouldn’t have been carried out against them. It is true that China has a specific form of authoritarianism and there are a lot of contradictions in their structure and politics, but this is not about authoritarianism. This is about state institutions, about building a large hospital in two weeks in Wuhan. If China can do it, can we Pakistanis or Indians not do it? We can. But for that, we need a strong state which can take the initiative. We can, of course, talk about a lot of other harms that such a power generates, but in terms of medicine, it is extraordinary. This is why they’re being attacked.

If there were more accountability in their system, if it was more flexible and open to people’s concerns, they would have done better and taken care of the virus even earlier than that. It is not that they’ve done it because they’re authoritarian, but I see that, on the contrary, authoritarianism is their biggest hurdle. If there were people’s councils and democratic accountability, they could have stopped the virus before.

After 9/11, in the USA and in Europe, laws have been passed which allow agencies to pick up a person from the streets and keep them without trial. Obama signed the clause which allows the president to authorise the execution of a citizen deemed a threat to national security, within the USA or outside. You know how national security threats are formed.

MI: Many are writing that we cannot go back to the world before COVID-19 and that we will see a new world after this pandemic ends. How do you such a forecast? Also, what do you think about state intervention and its use to fight such pandemics?

TA: I think that both the conservative and social democratic parties of today have very short memories. One central characteristic of neoliberalism is that they have shortened the lifespan of historical memories.

They will use these conditions and anti-democratic laws. They might keep some of them out but these laws will surely be used in the future to repress mass mobilisations. Britain has a long history of controlling and managing crowds, masses and newspapers. News management, in this country, is an art form. We must never think that newspapers were free in this country, ever. They might have been freer than Pakistan, but there was always control. In propaganda, they have no match. Look at BBC – their propaganda is now extremely open. There was a time when you could see more news on a Pakistani news outlet here than in BBC because of its state control and propaganda.

So, anti-democratic measures and post 9/11 laws will be used for sure against people in the future and we have to struggle against that. It is a peculiar characteristic of capitalist countries that they never let go of these laws once they are passed. Even if they put them down for a time, they stop using them but they never completely wipe them out, because they want to keep them so that they can use them in the future. Like the use of Section 144 in Lahore, in Delhi. It is an out-dated colonial law, but it is still being used.

It is also important to mention here that their system rests on a very narrow social basis. What we called the industrial bourgeoisie, in Marx’s time and afterwards, have been almost completely wiped out. For neoliberalism to flourish, they allowed China to retain and continue to industrialise until it became a giant. They used China against Russia in order to break it up. Now, they have panicked from the large support they had given to China and they are trying to stop it. But their own system is resting on a very narrow base, socially. This is why they are always wary of any mishaps or eruptions. They see any form of alternative and they try to put it down as fast as they can. Even people like Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist social democratic, who was not even as big a force in terms of threatening their structures, brought out the worst in them. Large campaigns were carried out against him, at every level of government and even within the Labour Party.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour party leader, I remember watching breakfast news that day. For the first time ever, I saw the UK chief of army staff on TV. The BBC interviewer asked him extraordinarily, “What does the army think of Corbyn’s election?” Who even thinks of such a question? BBC.

The general responded that there was a lot of panic in the army about the effect Corbyn’s election could have on the country’s security. “I would not rule out mutinies in the army,” he said. This is the mother of democracy!

Such a thing is commonplace in Pakistan, but here in Britain, the military does not involve itself in politics. Corbyn even induced the military to come out.

MI: A new Left is emerging in Pakistan. People usually discredit them by using examples of places like Venezuela where they say the Left has failed the people. How do you see the experience of Latin America? What lessons should we should learn from it?

TA: In 1999, Hugo Chavez was elected for the first time as the president of Venezuela. Here, using the word ‘elected’ is extremely important, since all of Latin America’s new wave was centred on elections – every single one of them. It had its own strengths, in terms of legitimacy, but it also had a weakness.

I met Chavez quite a few times and talked to him about philosophy, politics and economics. He used to say, “We are seeing that nationalising every single thing leads us nowhere. We have to stop nationalising small scale industries.” He also used to say, “We cannot isolate ourselves, especially after witnessing what happened to Cuba during its isolation.” His plan was to have three or four countries in Latin America joining hands to resist the USA. And this was already beginning to happen, for example, in Bolivia. Magazines like The Economist or The Financial Times panicked after seeing this. They used to say that Latin America had two models; the Chavez model and the one led by Lula in Brazil, which was initially a very weak neoliberal sort of a government. 

Let me tell you an interesting event about Venezuela. From the start, the opposition parties in Venezuela were extremely vicious and even racist. I accompanied Perry Anderson, Susan, and Robin Blackman as part of a delegation of the New Left Review in Venezuela. We met a Left intellectual. He asked us why we had gone there, since he felt Chavez had nothing to do with the Left. He said that his mother had warned him to never trust the Zambos, which is a race with both indigenous and slave blood. Chavez was a Zambo. I lambasted him for saying that, and he had nothing to say in response. Even Chavez told me that most of the Venezuelan Left intelligentsia didn’t back them. We could go there to talk and support him, but in terms of economics, there were issues. But till the day he died, Chavez was firm in his support for the poor, regardless of the issues and consequences. Thousands of Venezuelans had gone to Cuba to become doctors and get trained in medicine. 

It was no wonder that Americans opposed him and continued to fight him till the end. They backed strikes of elite labourers of the oil industry who had been under the control of the previous regime. They opposed his constitution but used it to support a referendum against him when he was a sitting president. 

I once asked Chavez what was the toughest challenge he had faced. He said that the time when white colour unions went against him and doctors, oil workers and engineers refused to work. This was the toughest moment for him as he feared that the USA might be able to put his regime down by backing this opposition. 

He also recalled the time when he went out with one of his bodyguards and saw the enormous support he had on the streets. People came to greet him, shake his hands and hug him. Even gang leaders came up to him and told him that the supply of beer had been halted. “We will stop having beer but we will continue to fight them, no matter what!” they said to him. A woman held his hand and took him to her home. The house had two rooms; they slept in one and cooked in the other. The woman told him that they don’t have a sofa in their room because they had burnt its wood to cook food. She said to him, “Tomorrow we will burn the bed to cook because we have complete faith that you will not let them win.” Chavez said that these events gave him the resolve to keep on fighting despite the odds against him. 

Chavez also remembered that during the doctors’ strike, when he was extremely worried, Castro called him from Cuba. When Chavez expressed his concerns about people starting to die due to the doctors’ strike, Cuba sent as many as 10,000 doctors within a week, along with large tents, medical equipment and medicine. They established clinics and medical centres in the poorest towns, where there were no doctors present before. 

When the Americans saw this, they said that they weren’t doctors – they were terrorists! People responded by saying that if they were terrorists, they demanded more terrorists to be sent to them as their lives were being saved! Even poor supporters of right wing parties opposed terming them as terrorists.

I feared for Chavez’s life after the coup d’état in 2002. I feared that they would do with him what they did to Che Guevara. We were fortunate that it didn’t happen because even the army had an internal disagreement and soldiers refused to support the new president because they had no voice in electing him. They even warned their superiors that a mutiny will be on the cards if he becomes the president.

People from Caracas came down and surrounded the Miraflores Palace while chanting “Chavez is ours!” A general asked the band at the Miraflores to play the national anthem in honour of the new president. One of the members of band asked who this new president was and why hadn’t he been chosen through an election. The general responded by telling him to just obey orders. An 18-year-old farmer boy, who played the trumpet beautifully, said to the general that this answer was unsatisfactory. When the general shouted and ordered them to obey for the third time, the boy put down his trumpet and said, “You look quite passionate, perhaps you should play it for him.” 

It was this level of political consciousness that gave Chavez the courage to fight. It was basically through a combination of the poor and the soldiers that Chavez came back.

In terms of economics, I think they made a few mistakes and corruption had also gone too high. In Maduro’s time, they took the decision of paying the army more to maintain their loyalties. This wasn’t such a bad line of thought since it helped them keep the Americans away after generals refused to support the Americans because their own government had been giving them enough. But this policy allowed the army to carry out large scale corruption, which was a big price to pay. They stole money, made business and caused a lot of demoralisation. 

I don’t say now that Venezuela is a model. It would be wrong. But I think it is very important to take lessons from it. 

To all the people who say to me that socialism or communism has failed, I usually respond by saying that what you call socialism, or communism, has failed only once. But capitalism has failed some fifty times. So we will rise again and this system will bounce back. I don’t know when, but it will.

MI: A lot of literature is being produced now about the student movement in Pakistan in 1968, which acted as a catalyst in the larger movement against Ayub Khan. How do you remember the workers movement of that era and what do you think we can learn from the experiences from 1968?

TA: It was a unique era – the 1960s and 1970s. Not just in Europe but in Pakistan as well. I have written and talked about it a lot because people tend to forget the Pakistani movement when remembering the 1960s. Although, if we look at it, we only had one victory in bringing down a dictatorship and that was in Pakistan. It couldn’t happen in Mexico, they were close in France, but it didn’t happen. 

It was a very interesting time. On one hand celebrations of Ayub’s ten golden years were going on. We used to read Jalib’s poetry which used to criticise those celebrations. Jalib reflected the mood, especially after China lent support to Ayub for their own interests against India – with words like cheen apna yaar hai, us pe jaan-nisar hai, par vahan hai jo nizam, us taraf na jaiyo, us ko duur se salaam. So the mood of the movement was different. People wanted him [General Ayub Khan] to go, 10 years were more than enough for them.

It is also important to remember that in those years, even though the levels of oppression weren’t as high as Zia’s period, it was brutal nonetheless. You could also say that even though liberals don’t like it, but it is the truth: that he was a secular dictator. He had nothing to do with religion. He used to come down on Jamaat-e-Islami hard when they menaced. His Family Laws Ordinance was very progressive, even more than India’s, with women’s right to divorce, etcetera. Having said this, there was a lot of violence against the Left, trade unions and students. People died less, but there were a lot of repression and arrests. Since repression was continuous, the 10-year celebrations aroused hatred among people, especially students. In Dawn’s celebration edition, there were more than 40 photographs of Ayub which enraged the students.

It started off with a very small event. Some students from Rawalpindi went to Landi Kotal to buy some things from the black market. On their way back, they were stopped by the police, their car was searched, they were arrested and beaten up at the police station. The next day, Raja Anwar called a meeting at Gordon College Rawalpindi and the whole college came out in their support. When they were met with violence, students from other colleges came out. This was the trigger. Who would’ve imagined that the country would light up from a simple smuggling charge?

The government also underestimated the situation. The fire spread from Rawalpindi, which we termed as the least political city, to Karachi, Peshawar, Sahiwal, Lyallpur, Sheikhupura and Lahore. In three weeks, it became a nationwide movement. Then it spread to Dhaka, Chittagong, and in East Pakistan. This was the moment when Pakistan was unified in the truest sense; when people from below united across the 1,000 miles-long divide. When a student was beaten up or killed in Karachi or Lahore, women in Dhaka used to march in rallies barefoot in white saris. 

Then, slowly, workers also joined the movement. But it is important to remember that mobilisation in peasants was not very high, and they never came out in good numbers. Organisation in farmers increased after the movement, not during it. The movement was largely urban. Workers came out and so did the Railway Workers Union, which had a strong political history and organisation under Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim’s leadership from even before the Partition. Women, sex workers, lawyers and junior civil servants also came out. There was also some disgruntlement in the ranks of the army as well, where junior soldiers refused to open fire. The unity was simply outstanding. We must recognise that this wasn’t just class solidarity. Of course, there was a good amount of that, especially after the workers came out, but this was a movement which was initiated by students and eventually it captured the whole of society. 

It must be remembered that in any revolutionary movement institutions emerge which do not possess power themselves, but they challenge the structures of power – such as the relationship of the party and Soviets following the Russian Revolution, which we tend to forget. It was after the Bolsheviks had won the majority in Moscow and Petrograd Soviets and defeated the moderates that they decided that it was time for insurrection. In Pakistan, there were no Soviets, or something similar, because no effort was made for it. The closest we had for Soviets were street demonstrations, which have their own limitations. We could not make these alternative institutions of power. 

Resultantly, the state made Ayub resign and announce elections. From those elections came large political parties – Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Mujibur Rehman’s National Awami League which came out with its six points for regional autonomy. The Maoist Left, however, in both west and the east, failed to support the movement.

I asked Maulana Bhashani why they had not supported the movement. He used to take me to Kissan meetings in Bengal. I told him that because of his position, Awami League had formed hegemony in East Pakistan. He responded that he had met Zhou Enlai during his visit to China who had assured him that China would support Pakistan since it was an anti-imperialist country and that they would support the current regime to their full potential. 

I told him that this was a lie, and that he should have known that as opposed to being anti-imperialist, Pakistan and the current regime were basically owned by America. Pakistan and China are friends only because of their own interests with respect to India, but I told Bhashani that he shouldn’t have listened to the Chinese. 

The situation in the western part was similar. The Maoist faction of the National Awami Party, people like CR Aslam, did the same. They didn’t support the movement and, therefore, the presence of the Left was minute. This is why the PPP gained support. Left wing students joined the PPP in large numbers. I remember that Bhutto came to London with JA Rahim and called me. I went to him and he gave me the party’s manifesto which Rahim had written. He asked me to read it, which I did, and then told me that they wanted me to become a founding member of the PPP. 

I politely declined and said that this was not my manifesto, as I was a socialist revolutionary. I told him that he was making a mistake by adding religion to this manifesto because the National Awami Party had taught us that not only was it necessary to keep religion out of politics, it was doable us well. I told him that he was taking on a fight that we could not win. 

Bhutto had actually played an integral role in the movement as well. He was there on the streets, he made speeches everywhere and went to jail as well. He knew that jail had in-house tape recordings, of which he took great advantage. When his lawyer Mehmood Kasuri used to go interview him, he would say rhetorical things because he knew that he was being heard and recorded. 

I remember in one instance when he bashed the appointment of General Musa Khan as the governor of West Pakistan. He said that when he would win over power, he would “make him wear a gharara and make him dance on the streets!” It was due to such actions that he gained a lot of support. The entire base of PPP in its formative years were radical students.

MI: Bhutto generally stands for socialism in Pakistan. Other than the fact that the PPP was not secular, what do you think should be the Left’s criticism of the party’s manifesto?

TA: Some things in that manifesto would have surely taken Pakistan forward, as it was actually progressive. One main thing which was mentioned in the manifesto – but very poorly – was land reform. It was in the 1970 elections that we witnessed for the first time that peasant consciousness had drastically increased. PPP’s candidates had defeated landlords in many areas and we used to joke that even a dog with PPP’s colours would defeat any feudal. They should have introduced radical land reforms at that time, since the situation of peasants was extremely devastating, especially in Sindh where feudalism resembled old-age slavery. I think that Bhutto couldn’t entirely move past his Sindhi landlord mentality because many feudals from Sindh joined the party after his victory. 

This is how the cycle repeats itself in Pakistan. There is a specific layer of the rich who change their party allegiances as the governments change. Same happened with the PTI, which aroused hopes of modernity in students, but eventually fell victim to the same cycle. So, in a way, PPP started that cycle, which was initiated in Sindh but soon spread to the Punjab as well. Big feudals of Multan joined the party as they realised that they had to go with him. 

I must acknowledge here that PPP’s victory in elections greatly affected and increased the consciousness of the people. It is a fact that land evictions were completely halted in PPP’s government. 

However, when farmers used to visit Bhutto after he won, they were made to wait outside for a good amount of time, which is a way of showing who was truly powerful. Yet, when Bhutto finally did meet them and listened to their various concerns, he would concede that he had done nothing about their issues and used to ask them if they had ever had a leader who talked to them about their concerns the way he did. All farmers would say that they hadn’t. And that was all.

The most important thing to remember is that for the first time in Pakistan’s movement, a political organisation and its leadership got a chance to implement large scale reforms. I won’t say revolution, because they never believed in revolution to begin with. But they had the opportunity to introduce large social and economic reforms. They could have confronted large industries and families and even the army, especially after the defeat in Bangladesh. The army could have been reformed and cut down to size. Generals used to fear Bhutto. 

What Bhutto did was to say that he would address soldiers every week, which was complete vanity. Even the generals felt that though he could talk to the soldiers, the army would still be run by them. When they got a hold of themselves, they stopped those addresses, even during the time when he was prime minister…but Bhutto was always more consumed in the politics of which general was with him, and which one was against him.

When I visited Pakistan in January 1977, he misbehaved with me. When I was finally able to come back after that visit, I was invited to a debate at the Oxford Union. Benazir was the union’s president at that time. Prior to the debate, Bhutto ringed Benazir up and asked her why she had invited one of his enemies to the debate. He also asked her to find out what I thought about the situation back at home, as I had just come back. 

When Benazir asked me, I told her that I was pretty clear that a coup d’état was being prepared against him and it was only a matter of months. I told her that there had been assassinations attempts as well, to which she said that they knew that it was going to happen, especially seeing Kennedy’s fate. But her response also reeked of arrogance. She said that they weren’t worried about any coup because the generals were “in their pockets.” I asked her to tell him, even quote me, that in Pakistan, no general is in the pocket of any politician and if this lesson has not yet been learnt, only God knows what will happen.

And this is what happened. General Ziaul Haq was a master of flattery. When Bhutto used to walk into the room, and Zia had been smoking, he would immediately put the cigarette away and stand in his honour. When Bhutto visited Multan, where Zia had been the Corps Commander, he ordered soldiers to put down their uniforms and welcome Bhutto as civilians. This was why Bhutto made him the chief while five generals were over him in the pecking order. He thought that Zia was one of his own.

MI: You spoke about class in the context of the 1968 movement. How do you analyse the rise of the PTI in recent times? What classes do you think have played a role in its rise to power? How do you characterise the PTI’s politics in general?

TA: First, I want to say with full disclosure that I have known Imran for a very long time. We used to meet when he was a cricketer. I was quite fond of him, if I speak with honesty. Once he called me for lunch before he retired. I went and he said he had an important question to ask. “You will continue to do what you do – write books – but us sportsmen have a very short lives in our careers. So, what should I do after retirement?” 

I responded that there is something that is not there in Pakistan but very much needed. “We need a national film institute through which we invite people from all over the world to train us how to make movies – this is how the art film industry has grown in India. Even though we cannot compete with Bollywood, we still need to develop this industry.”

He said that I was right, but what was in there for him to do? I said, “Become an actor.” 

He said he could not act. “But that’s not a disqualification!” I said. “Look at Amitabh Bachchan. Who says that he is an actor?” 

He thought I was making fun of him, but I was serious. Then I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to join politics.”

I warned him that Pakistani politics was a dirty world, but he said wanted to bring change in our society. He spoke like a liberal. He told me his plans about the cancer hospital. I eventually said to him that if that’s what he wants, he can surely give it a go.

When the PTI was founded, this was his mood. He just wanted to modernise the country…but ideas like socialism were too far from him. He attracted support from a particular social layer in universities and from largely well-off middle class families. People liked his dynamism and the fact that their generation knew who he was. 

People were hopeful and so was I, because I truly felt that it was extremely important to eliminate dynastic parties in Pakistan, both the Sharifs and the Bhuttos. I thought of them as really unhealthy to our democratic social order. 

So I thought that the PTI might modernise and eventually rid us of these families. But that didn’t happen and it couldn’t have happened. Because those who run politics – the little social layer of the rich – (like Jehangir Tareen and his ilk) joined the party and eventually started to do all that they used to do in Sharifs’ time. 

A direct consequence of this is that hatred for such politics will emerge very quickly. People will grow tired of them. We, therefore, need a movement-party, not in the traditional sense but one that can make people believe in an alternative.

This is why I always say that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is a great and noble development. Pashtuns have been living in constant war for over 40 years. The oppression against them has been devastating. This movement is a big development…we cannot repeat the same strategy again and again, but this is how the work is done and movements are run. 

As for the PTI, they’re done. The chief minister they have appointed in the Punjab is completely silly and witless. Who takes him seriously? A donkey could have been better in his place. And this is not even a joke. 

During Zia’s era, an activist wrote Zia’s name on some donkeys and the donkeys were arrested by authorities. It is an actually true event!

MI: Young people are now becoming interested in Leftist ideas. How do you see this new youth as a part of the global discontent? What is your message to them?

TA: I tell them two things: first, that whatever is happening in Pakistan is not the Left’s fault. Left was never strong enough to even make those mistakes. Nawaz Sharif’s party was formed by the army to challenge the PPP and Bhutto. PPP has degenerated to an extent that the only thing they can do now is to make money. Now that the people see what is happening to the PTI, they tell me that they feel sorrow. They say that they thought that a new government might just come and change things around by ending corruption. But the truth is that they have declared that only the corruption carried out outside this party will be prosecuted. 

Hopelessness is like a virus because it makes you passive. It is very important to keep hope alive, even if on a low level and to start working, regardless of how small the scale is. 

Once I went to Cairo, a year after the Iraq War. Muslim Brotherhood was banned but was in opposition. I went to my Marxist friends and told them that I wanted to meet them no matter what. I went to a health clinic whose owner was a leader of the Brotherhood. He knew of me and decided to meet me. 

I asked him that Iraq was facing war, Palestinians were being wiped out but you do nothing. You can do something by taking Islam’s name! 

He told me that hell would break loose if America takes a step forward. I asked him how his party was able to form such a strong base. It was then that he became interesting. He said that in the last 25 years, since this neoliberalism came to their land, they had started to go to poor neighbourhoods and began building health clinics there. They gave free medical advice as well as medicine. He said that this is something they were not able to do in Nasser’s time. It is due to this work that the doctors’ union is theirs today. The Jamaat-e-Islami tried to do the same in Pakistan on a very small scale. 

I think that such tactics are very important for the Left to establish contacts. A lot of Pakistani doctors go abroad for work. More than 2 million Pakistani doctors are working in the USA. We have to work with political education. This is one thing to be done. 

Secondly, it is extremely unfortunate that the new generation of the Left is not passionate about reading. They’re so used to social networking that it has become a substitute to books. Therefore, it is very important, even for movements like PTM that they read, and they read together. We have to inculcate in the newer generation that reading is necessary not only for our careers but for us to understand our history, our politics, and our economy. 


How is Lenin Relevant for Politics in Pakistan Today?

Illustration: Iconspng.com

Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

Introducing Lenin

The untimely crisis of COVID-19 has melted away political, theoretical and ideological certainties held by many. Its sudden eruption has punctured a hole in existing knowledge revealing the vulnerable void upon which social, economic and political life is built. At a moment in which the coordinates of life itself are disrupted, how do we posit the relevance of Lenin, a political leader often accused of being the architect of a rigid model of politics exercised through the all-knowing vanguard party?

We argue that beyond this depiction of “Lenin the bureaucrat”, by both Leftist admirers and conservative critics, there exists an alternative trajectory present in the thinking of the Soviet leader. This subterranean Lenin is one who is open to acknowledging the contingency of events, confronting disruptions caused by crisis and willing to learn from the heroic initiatives of ordinary people. Through this theoretical openness, Lenin challenged exhausted categories, reposing the political questions of his time beyond the existing limits of theory. We argue that Lenin’s theoretical approach was not a closed system but rather what we can call an open Marxism. He called it a guide to action.

Due to his serious engagement with the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Marx, Lenin emphasised that reality is always much more intricate, lively, and multicolored than theory can ever be, and that theory must continually be developed and transformed through experience and engagement with real political struggles of the masses. We believe a re-reading of Lenin through this lens is crucial if we are to build a socialist politics adequate to our uncertain times.

Lenin’s Break from Orthodox Marxism

Many commentators on Lenin’s thought emphasise how Lenin saw the vanguard party as the site par excellence for political thinking. This stems from a specific reading of his famous work What is to be Done? that views party cadres as essential in bringing political consciousness to the working class. The notion applied a rigid bifurcation between theory and practice, where theoretical ideas appeared from outside the unfolding class struggle rather than being immanent to it.

It is important to note that Lenin’s thought took a major leap in 1914. The beginning of the First World War shattered Western mythology of linear progress that had sustained both liberal and Marxist thought. The horrific violence of the war buried the certainties of orthodox Marxist thinking, revealing the contingent and untimely nature of political events. It is at this juncture that Lenin became interested in Hegel’s dialectics, making detailed notes from Hegel’s Science of Logic to comprehend the crisis of theory in the midst of the Great War. His primary break from conventional Marxism began to appear in this period as he moved away from linear notions of time and began paying more attention to the contradictory rhythm of revolutionary politics, with its unexpected initiatives, traumatic reversals and novel possibilities.

This interest in grasping the contradictions of the actual unfolding political movements made Lenin less interested in the rigidity of the party and the program. He was now more interested in the new creative energy of workers who demonstrated their capacity to take initiatives in the form of organised Soviets that emerged in the middle of the war. After observing the appearance of the Soviets, Lenin came to the conclusion that a new possibility in politics had opened up and, therefore, argued that the current form of the Bolshevik Party will become obsolete if it doesn’t transform itself in sync with the rhythm of the growing workers movement.

This meant that the workers of Russia had demonstrated their capacity to win power and reorganise society through self-mobilisation, making bourgeois democrats and liberals redundant in the struggle for socialism. In that sense, Lenin recognised that practice alone should not have the burden of becoming adequate to theory but theory itself had to be transformed to become adequate to the questions emanating from the terrain of concrete struggles.

Lenin developed his notion of socialism alongside the formation of the Soviets, demonstrating workers’ power—a force repressed by the logic of capital. Soviets represented the creative initiatives and vital energy of the workers. This capacity of the masses for self-determination and for reorganising the world freed from the tyranny of capital is what socialism was for Lenin. Some of his most popular writings during this period attempted to synthesise the lessons of the upheavals caused by the workers movement and to relate them to the crisis of state power and volatility of the global conjuncture.

This is why Lenin did not keep his theory in his books or to himself but used it as political interventions to deepen debate within the actual social struggles. The Threatening Catastrophe, Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, State and Revolution and other writings offer concrete explanations of strategic possibilities for socialist politics in the political conjuncture.. He was convinced that all ideas must be submitted to discussions with organised workers who were laying the seeds for a new world. Today our task is similar to that of Lenin as we intimately attach ourselves with the creative initiatives and new energies of workers that are developing amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is from the vantage point of existing struggles alone that we will be able to develop a notion of socialism adequate to our concrete reality. 

Lenin after the Revolution

The tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that the flexibility in thought and practice displayed by Lenin after the revolution was replaced by the dogma of the party. Raya Dunyevskaya pointed out in her book, Philosophy and Revolution, that “never, for a single moment, did Lenin ever lose sight of the program. He made strategic concessions, but he kept the program, the new Universal, concretely before the people.”

For example, in his pamphlet “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, Lenin defines the tasks of the workers as the creation of new “subtle and intricate” relations of labor. Without the creative power of the workers, there would be no socialist revolution. That is how Lenin saw the task of the government, to conjure, to draw out this creative power, to clear out of its way the leftovers of the old bourgeois ideology, including its institutions and social practices. Speaking at the Fourth Conference of Trade Unions in 1920, Lenin articulated the crisis of the Soviet state with his usual precision, stating “The workers as workers must in their unions protect themselves, their economic and cultural interests, against the workers acting in their party as rulers of the state.” Lenin here identifies a tension between workers embedded in the state apparatus and workers involved in the politics of the workplace—a productive, dialectical tension that undermines the later Stalinist emphasis on absolute loyalty to the Socialist State and the party.

More importantly, by insisting that workers should organise independently, Lenin was emphasising the capacity of subaltern groups to organise themselves as a ruling bloc. It is pertinent to note that Lenin was writing in a country that was still largely agrarian and needed an alliance of different marginalised social groups to build an alternative political project. This meant that the revolution could not follow an already defined path and had to be seen as an experiment in popular participation rather than as an application of an already existing theory.

In his essay “On Cooperation”, for example, he engaged with the problem of party bureaucracy and warned that governance without mass participation is antithetical to socialism. He said,

We should cover Russia, specifically the peasant Russia with a network of peasant cooperatives. The peasants are not active, they are not administering the state, and they are not administering the economy. We have to devise ways and means of making them administer. Cooperation is the way. We are backward, we have not enough culture to make the state of State and Revolution, but if we can get this nationwide co-operative system among the peasants, this would be socialism, as far as we can get.

In other words, only the involvement of working masses in administration could up the possibility of a different order—a theory that nullifies the rigid belief in industrial production as the only hallmark of progress.

COVID-19, Pakistan and the Relevance of Lenin

Lenin’s confrontation with linear notions of time and his insistent on practice to mediate the gap between theory and reality made him an important interlocutor for revolutionary movements in the Global South.  . His name became synonymous with the de-centering of the revolutionary movement from Europe as anti-colonial fighters took their inspiration from the Soviet Union’s adversarial position towards colonialism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lenin’s writings in places like Pakistan rivaled those of Marx in terms of popularity, making Lenin a major mediator between Marxist theory and anti-colonial struggles.

Yet, the Lenin that is popular in Pakistan is a particular kind of Lenin who had already figured out the theory and laws of revolution for the entire world. In this simplistic analysis, the vanguard party is the arbitrator in the revolutionary movement and has the final decision-making power on essential questions of the class struggle. Moreover, it appears as if the categories constructed by Lenin were not limited to the time space in which he conducted his struggle, but were abstract concepts that could be fitted into any external situation. Thus, many of our comrades stick to Lenin’s conclusions which appear rigid, while jettisoning his method that privileges the contingency of social struggles over existing political theory.

In other words, today in Pakistan we are faced with a complex political terrain that demands that we innovate in practice. For example, we are experiencing a loss of deeply held certainties on the political stage. There is no political party that proposes a significantly different vision of development other than the one proposed by International Financial Institutions. The situation became more precarious under COVID-19 as millions of people have been rendered jobless, their worth reduced to the machines that have become redundant during the crisis. What are we witnessing is the disposability of lives that appear superfluous from the point of view of capital.

With the collapse of linear notions of development, the central question for the ruling class is how to manage the poor rather than empowering them. This means that we need a more expansive understanding of political subjectivity in Pakistan to build a genuinely popular alternative.

For example, the existing politics of trade unions is hopelessly inadequate at a time when neoliberalism has eroded the concept of long-term employment and has transformed a vast majority of the workforce into informal labour or unemployed. As trade unions only continue to cater to the salaried classes, union membership has dropped to below one percent of the workforce. The situation requires annulling the gap between contract and salaried workers, as well as between the growing number of unemployed youth.

This is precisely what Lenin meant when he pushed his comrades to move beyond trade unionism or the immediate battle at the work place. Unless one takes into account both production and reproduction (the latter involving housing, health care, education, water), we will not be able to build working class unity that can seriously confront the myriad ways in which capital seeks to divide the people. We need to build workers committees who not only agitate on the factory floor but link these struggles with those in the communities where a large number of unemployed youth reside.

Moreover, new forms of resistance have emerged against Pakistan’s decadent state structure that excludes large sections of the population from the ambit of citizenship. One example is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) which represents Pashtuns from the war-torn areas of ex-FATA. The region was reduced to mere cannon fodder for the state and imperialism’s geo-strategic calculus. It is in the context of a war economy and brutal repression of communities in Pakistan’s peripheral regions that a movement such as PTM, which asserts the dignity of the people, can gain so much popularity. The state has responded by accusing such movements of being foreign conspiracies, since they exceed the normative language that the state uses to designate acceptable behaviour. This is why grassroots activists such as Baba Jan from Gilgit-Baltistan, Mehr Abul Sattar from Okara Military Farms and a host of abducted activists from Sindh and Balochistan appear as a major threat to the state. They all insist on asserting their equal status by demanding justice, and thus exceed the violently patrolled boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour in Pakistan.

We are also witnessing the emergence of a powerful movement for women’s emancipation that is challenging the patriarchal structures of society. Hundreds of young women have mobilised under the banners of Aurat March and Aurat Azadi March, putting women’s rights on the national agenda. Similarly, last year saw the emergence of a new consciousness on the climate crisis among the youth of the country. The Climate March in September last year saw hundreds of young people pour out into the streets of dozens of cities in Pakistan to protest our disastrous economic model that not only diminishes the dignity of labour but is annihilating the environment on which we depend.

Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, many orthodox Marxists view these movements with suspicion as they do not follow the trajectory of class dualism. Yet they shed light on the disparate forms of oppression that are essential to peripheral capitalism and also point out the absences within the Left, particularly on the role of women in any emancipatory struggle.

It is precisely here that the repressed side of Lenin discussed at the beginning of the article is so crucial to unearth. Lenin is not a thinker who imagines class struggle to be a neat and clear antagonism between workers on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other. Instead, he recognises the historically-sedimented differences that are used by the state to cement its power, a fact that shapes the terrain of the class struggle in each specific context. As Mathieu Regnault has argued, Lenin is a thinker of combinations of struggles that can help produce an alternative politics that could not only confront the hegemony of capital over people’s lives, but also undermine the power of the state that uses coercion to separate people from each other.

The point is made clearer in the following quote by Lenin on the impurity of the revolution.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

This is the side of Lenin who is looking for strategic alliances, weakest links and is not afraid of appearing “impure” in order to advance the struggle of the oppressed. If the Left has to move towards a winnable strategy, we must play the role of building bridges between different indices of pain and combining them to produce a common project. In Pakistan, this means bringing together the politics of oppressed nationalities, unemployed and precarious youth, women and the climate justice movement with that of traditional unions to create a new political subject adequate to the questions of our time.

We must acknowledge that currently the Left in Pakistan does not have the form that can weld together these different struggles. But if we learn from the Lenin who privileged practical innovation over theoretical fidelity, we will be able to open up space to develop a new hypothesis for the Left. Our task here is less of an attachment to scientific “laws of revolution” allegedly discovered by orthodox Marxists and implemented by the party. Instead, we must create a new conceptual vocabulary for understanding the present moment and imagining novel horizons for our practice. The challenges of today’s revolutionary politics force us to think as artists involved in building new constellations of love and solidarity. As a profound thinker of excessive contingency and unexpected encounters, Lenin is a major interlocutor for us in our efforts to build a new revolutionary practice in Pakistan.

Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.

Zahid Ali is a member of the Haqooq e Khalq Movement and currently working as research assistant at LUMS.


The Moral Virus

Illustration: The New York Times

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

There is a popular joke about the promise of celestial virgins (hoors) for pious Muslim men who make it to heaven—it quips how this promise is not really a reward for the eager men but more of a punishment for the hoors.

Tariq Jameel’s supplications in the government’s fundraising telethon have been controversial for all the wrong reasons. The indignation over his blaming delinquent youth and immodest women for the COVID-19 pandemic or the outrage over his graphic sermons about hoors are misplaced.  Such tropes and imagery have always proliferated in Friday sermons, madrassa teachings, jihadi training and in religious programming and pietist fiction. Plenty of similar content can be found in the historic works of Muslim ethicists too.

The ashrafia feigns offense on the hoor erotica as told by Muslim clerics and stereotypes them as crude, oversexualised and unscholarly. But many of the elite classes themselves practice and consume sexual willfulness (including pornography) covertly and secretively. Prudish middle class morality is only averse to sexual expression when it is part of public discourse, art, or education. Both the conservative and liberal schools of thought privilege men’s sexualities over that of other genders. Only purists on both sides agree that women must not be reduced to or objectified as sexual fantasies. Instead, ideological purists invisibilize the female body under the pretext of protection.

According to traditional Muslim ethical and spiritual teachings, women are considered to possess weak nafses and their physical desires are either neglected or require taming. Meanwhile, the material reality is that Islamic laws regulate Pakistanis’ sexual conduct with a special focus on policing women. While there are some compensatory rights for women in these philosophical and legal fields, these are not equally compelling or compellingly equal.

There are no advocates for Muslim women’s sexual equality and male (and female) clerics continue to privilege Muslim men’s sexualities as the norm. Correcting this inequality is a political project and difficult in a brutally patriarchal and sharply gender-segregated society that puts premium on, or fetishizes, the sexual purity and haya of women as some social cure for imagined moral viruses. With no alternative register for computing women’s sexual desires, promises or problems, which standard can underwrite sexual equality in Pakistan?

Somewhere along the historic path and capitalist advancement, Muslim marriage became disconnected from sexual pleasure and reduced to a procreative arrangement. Over decades, the matrimonial sections of our newspapers reveal that the ideal marriageable woman is a lesser or human version of a hoor—fair-skinned, beautiful, simple, obedient, pious, educated, yet modest or wrapped in veil. A foreign passport is a useful asset, too.

While the matrimonials describe the good wife in urban and domestic terms, the heavenly hoor in popular sermons is imagined as curiously antithetical to the Muslim wife—post-human, permanently libidinous, tantalizingly made up, fashionably semi-clothed, a mute sex siren (presumably infertile because child-care is not a responsibility to be repeated in paradise). This split in hoor/wife expectations is a perverse replication of the Madonna/whore dichotomy said to define expectations of femininity in traditionally Christian societies.

The real crisis, however, is not clerics reifying female sexuality through the hoor promise—it is quite common to explain abstractions in material or physical terms: pleasure, love, labour and freedoms are notions that are routinely reified in societies and materialised by capitalism, to the point of becoming fetishized. Any lofty objections to the hoor ideal will mean challenging the spiritual and sexual privileges assured to Muslim men in the Islamic gendered order. Clerics like Jameel are simply the gatekeepers who guard against such theft.

It may be a valuable project to trace the historic overlaps and consequential disconnect between Muslim sexuality and marriage or even same-sex desire, but this will not fix the unequal social or power relations between genders. It would also be self-defeating to get into a debate that attempts to rationalize a divine fantasy or plays the male hoor card. Efforts to level the field are also exploited by many leftist and liberal men who equate sexual liberation with the ‘freedom’ for women to provide men casual sexual gratification.

Instead, the required task is to recover and support Muslim women’s sexuality as valid on its own terms and to cultivate a vocabulary for a worldly discussion on how sexual inequalities define social and power relations in Pakistan. Muslim women need to rewrite and represent female desire—not for sacrificial, pious purposes or as moral medicine but for their bodily autonomy, rights and pleasure. The hoor fantasy, otherwise, will linger as a sexualized, passive, Muslim feminine ideal, in contrast to women who will only be valued as pious versions with no sexual agency of their own and whose prime purpose will be to serve men and index the virtues of an entire society.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is the author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (SAP, UK; Folio, Lahore, 2018).