Monthly Archives: April 2011

Mukhtar Mai’s search for justice continues

Mukhtar Mai case protest

In 2004, TIME magazine reported that the brutal gang rape of Mukhatr Mai “sent shock waves across Pakistan.” For her strength in standing up to challenge the practice of honor rapes and killings in rural villages, the magazine named Mukhtar Mai one of Asia’s Heroes. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed her, “The Rosa Parks for the 21st Century”. Seven years later, the latest chapter in Mai’s story has come to a close, and justice remains elusive.

Last week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the men who gang raped Mukhtar Mai, freeing all but one. Human rights groups in Pakistan are publicly speaking out against the verdict.

They expressed concern over the long delay in dispensation of justice. “The victim was raped in 2002 on the orders of a local panchayat. The Chief Justice of Pakistan took a suo motu notice of the case in 2005. And despite the intervention it took more than six years to come up with this decision, which is a source of concern for the women of Pakistan.”

They feared that the decision might further strengthen anti-women parallel legal and judicial systems and mechanisms in the country. “The criminal justice system too is not pro-women and is patriarchal in nature. Impunity is the order of the day.”

But Mukhtar Mai is not giving up. Her legal counsel, Barrister Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, announced plans to file a petition seeking review of the judgment, and Pakistan People’s Party parliamentarian and presidential media advisor Farahnaz Ispahani Tweeted that President Zardari was personally requesting the government look into the case.

Sadly, the media response to the Supreme Court’s decision has taken a back seat to headlines defending Pakistan’s spy agency. Some of Pakistan’s more liberal journalists have spoken out against the injustice, lambasting Pakistan’s Supreme Court for “rendering a heinous crime such as gang rape almost unpunishable.” But much of the more conservative Urdu media has avoided in depth discussion of the issue. In response to one notorious case, Pakistani journalist Sana Saleem wrote an open letter to popular talk show host Mubashir Lucman for his harsh, unsympathetic treatment of Mukhtar Mai on his show.

If Pakistan’s media hasn’t paid much attention to Mukhtar Mai’s case, however, Pakistan’s government has. Last week, President Zardari instructed Interior Minister Rehman Malik to “take every measure to ensure protection to Mukhtaran Mai.”

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, politicians have spoken out against violence against women and pledged to provide security and legal aid to Ms. Mai as well as to women across the country.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Women Wing Sindh Information Secretary, Sharmila Farooqui, said here on Saturday that the government is committed to provide full protection and justice to needy women in Karachi and other parts of the country, besides providing legal assistance to rape victim Mukhtaran Mai in her decision to file a review petition in the court.

“Women in Karachi are performing their duties with dignity and courage after the government enacted the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act and passed the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill last year. The government has also established a women police station in Karachi and more such stations will be established across Sindh,” she said in a statement.

This is the root of Mukhtar Mai’s cause – educating people about the rights of women, protecting women who are threatened by violence, and working to change both attitudes and outcomes in a manner that ensures greater respect and justice for women in Pakistan. Working together, government leaders and human rights organizations have the opportunity to provide a brighter, safer future for Pakistani girls and women. They deserve our support.

Is the WSJ being used as a proxy in internal Afghan debates?

Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama, and Asif Zardari

Matthew Rosenberg’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal claims that Pakistan is secretly urging the Karzai government in Afghanistan to sever ties with the US and change to a Chinese-Pakistani led alliance to secure the country. But reading the article, it quickly becomes apparent that the article more likely reflects a divide among Afghan officials who are using Pakistan as a foil and the US media as a proxy in internal debates.

According to Rosenberg, the source for this revelation is “Afghan officials.” If you read further, however, you’ll learn that Afghan officials have split into “pro- and anti-American factions at the presidential palace trying to sway” President Karzai. In fact, despite the claims of anonymous “Afghan officials,” Matthew Rosenberg quotes presidential spokesman Waheed Omar saying, “Pakistan would not make such demands.”

So what was said at the April 16th meeting between Pakistan and Afghan leaders? According to US officials, it was likely a discussion about how to proceed should the US pull out of the region – a legitimate security concern with target drawdown dates looming.

Some U.S. officials said they had heard details of the Kabul meeting, and presumed they were informed about Mr. Gilani’s entreaties in part, as one official put it, to “raise Afghanistan’s asking price” in the partnership talks. That asking price could include high levels of U.S. aid after 2014. The U.S. officials sought to play down the significance of the Pakistani proposal. Such overtures were to be expected at the start of any negotiations, they said; the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best, they noted.

Evaluated in the context of existing cooperation in the region, this read by US officials makes more sense than any suggestion that Pakistan is attempting to freeze the US out of Afghanistan. Reason notwithstanding, Wall Street Journal readers are likely to walk away with an unnecessarily sour feeling about the intentions of the Pakistani government. But is this fair?

Mr. Rosenberg’s sources – unnamed “Afghan officials” – are not even described as having been present for the conversations but simply “familiar with the meeting.” A spokesman for the president denies that Pakistan is pressuring Karzai to “to dump [the] U.S.” as the Wall Street Journal headline screams. And despite the Journal reporter’s rather hyperbolic claim that “no other party has been as direct, and as actively hostile to the planned U.S.-Afghan pact, as the Pakistanis,” such a characterization is belied by ongoing security cooperation between the two countries.

This is not to say that the US and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on everything. Each country has its own priorities for the region, and cooperation comes where those priorities overlap. Relations between Pakistan and the US have been described as tense over the past few months due to negotiations over the use of armed drones and interagency coordination on counterinsurgency operations. But negotiations over such operational details are standard in coalition forces, and Pakistan and the US continue to work together to protect shared security interests.

As an experienced South Asian correspondent, Matthew Rosenberg should recognize efforts to use his work as a proxy in internal government debates. Speaker John Boehner recently recognized Pakistan’s great sacrifice in the fight against militant extremists, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen praised cooperation between US and Pakistani troops working jointly against terrorist groups. The Wall Street Journal should not distort Pakistan’s record.

US Should Focus on Pakistan’s Civilian Leadership

Asif Zardari meeting with Barack Obama

This week’s visit to Pakistan by Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and the resulting public statements about cooperation in the fight against militant groups along Pakistan’s Western border has once again highlighted the extent to which US-Pakistan relations continue to focus on military-to-military dialogue. While close military cooperation against extremist groups requires military-to-military dialogue, the US must be careful not to weaken the authority of Pakistan’s civilian government by ignoring Pakistan’s civilian leadership.

An essay by Aqil Shah in the May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics” makes a strong case that the US should make a concerted effort to further shift its negotiations with Pakistan from a military-to-military model to one that focuses on strengthening the authority of the civilian government.

Pakistan is unlikely to collapse, but the imbalance of power between its civilian and military branches needs to be addressed if it is to become a normal modern state that is capable of effectively governing its territory. For its part, the United States must resist using the generals as shortcuts to stability, demonstrate patience with Pakistan’s civilian authorities, and help them consolidate their hold on power.

Where too many analysts express frustration with a perceived slow pace of reforms being implemented Pakistan’s civilian government, Aqil Shah prescribes patience.

If the “third wave” of democratization in the 1970s and 1980s had any lesson, it is that democracy does not necessarily require natural-born democrats or a mythically selfless political leadership. In fact, a strong democratic system can mitigate the baser instincts of politicians. If anything, the experience of countries such as Chile, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand in the last few decades shows that the strength and quality of democracy may be linked to the stability of the party system. This is good news for Pakistan.

The author even takes the counterintuitive, but plausible position that the family dominance of Pakistan’s major political parties may actually be a positive.

It is true that Pakistan’s civilian politics is dominated by a few families, namely the Bhuttos, who control the PPP, and the Sharifs, who control the PML-N. In a perverse way, however, the hold of the Bhuttos and the Sharifs on their parties may be one of the main reasons that these parties have survived the military’s divide-and-rule repression and may consolidate democracy in the future.

While political parties should aspire to increased internal democratization, US analysts should consider the role powerful families have played in strengthening our own party system. Pakistan’s politics may be dominated by Bhuttos and Sharifs, but America too has seen its share of Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes and, arguably, grown stronger for them.

The notion that military interventions weaken the country’s democratic institutions has even been put forth by Pakistan’s famously adversarial judiciary. Recently, Pakistan’s Chief Justice addressed the long-term effects of military intervention on democratic development.

“When there are political crises, we have witnessed military intervention followed by military rule. Thus, there emerged a vicious circle of brief political dispensation followed by prolonged military rule. This state of affairs brought many setbacks and hampered the process of evolution of constitutionalism and democratic system of governance.”

In spite of the myriad obstacles thrown into Pakistan’s path to democratic modernization – coups, wars, poverty, natural disasters, and terrorism – the Pakistani people have consistently demanded to choose their own leaders and decide their own future. Though the democratically elected civilian government faces a number of challenges both internal and external, it remains resilient.

Today the government continues to work with opposition parties to strengthen the democratic process and address important issues by building coalitions across political parties and working towards consensus solutions. The US should encourage this resilience by acknowledging the centrality of Pakistan’s civilian government in its government-to-government negotiations and providing the space necessary for democratization to firmly take root.


Speaker Boehner Issues Statement on Pakistan

Speaker John Boehner“A strong U.S.-Pakistan relationship is vital to the interests of both of our countries. We had frank and productive discussions with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders. While the relationship between our two countries has seen its challenges, we discussed the importance of working through these issues and renewing our partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

“We recognize that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani people have made great sacrifices in recent years in the struggle against extremism and terrorism. Al Qaeda and its extremist allies have made Pakistan a target, and the Pakistani nation has suffered deeply as a result. We appreciate the efforts of the Pakistani military and the sacrifices of those troops and the Pakistani people. We also appreciated the hospitality of Prime Minister Gillani and pledge to continue working together on behalf of our countries.”


Pakistani Legislator Stands Up to Extremists

Last night’s PBS NewsHour featured a segment on Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) parliamentarian Sherry Rehman whose support for reforming the nation’s blasphemy laws has made her the target of threats from extremists. In the clip below, she talks to NewsHour’s Margaret Warner about the rising tide of pro-democracy moderates in Pakistan.

Capacity Building in Pakistan’s Media

Pakistan mediaMonday’s presentation by Dawn reporter and Woodrow Wilson Institute Scholar Huma Yusuf examined the state of Pakistan’s media and offered excellent insights into the at-times-controversial institution and provided suggestions for addressing issues confronting Pakistani journalists and media consumers.

Beginning the event, “Who Watches the Watchdog? The Pakistani Media’s Impact on Politics and Society,” Huma recounted a story from July 2007. It was during this month that a standoff between religious militants and government security forces occured at the Lal Masjid in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

As militants were holed up in the mosque, Pakistani journalist Kamran Khan called and urged the militants to surrender. The cleric leading the group agreed to a surrender if they were assured free passage. Kamran Khan then called the government and, for all intents and purposes, began acting as a negotiator between the two sides. This was a pivotal moment, recounts Ms. Yusuf, when Pakistani media transcended its role as an informational institution and began to leverage its considerable power to shape public opinion to become a political actor.

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Educating Pakistan

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared 2011 ‘the year of education’ in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari called for “structural improvements in the funding, management and oversight of educational institutions.” As the US looks for ways to strengthen ties between our two countries, helping Pakistan improve its education system should be a top priority.

At the post-secondary level, Pakistan is currently faced with the task of exploring new ways to coordinate higher education policy. As a result of devolution requirements in the 18th Amendment passed unanimously by Pakistan’s National Assembly last year, the nation’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) is set to be dissolved.

Pakistani Senator Raza Rabbani (PPP) stated on Friday that the HEC would be replaced by a new federal agency, the Commission for Standard Higher Education that will continue funding universities and scholarships. As Pakistan’s higher education policy advances, the US Department of Education should provide important technical assistance through the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) as it has successfully done in Europe and Brazil. As Pakistan shifts from a federally managed higher education system to one funded and managed by the provinces, American experience with successful state-run public colleges and universities.

But higher education is only a part of Pakistan’s education emergency. Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s population is under 25 years of age, and the youth literacy rate hovers at just over 50 percent for boys and just over 40 percent for girls. While Pakistan’s higher education policy is in flux, Pakistan’s primary education needs serious help.

Thankfully, there is good news. The US is investing $20 million to remake the classic children’s education program, Sesame Street.

“The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning, and inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated,” said Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer at the Lahore-based Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, which was awarded the commission for the project in collaboration with Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American show. “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.”

Similar projects been hugely successful in over 100 countries where the Sesame Street Workshop has worked with local media to develop and produce culturally relevant programs that concentrate on literacy and early childhood development.

Alam Simim (Egypt)

Sisimpur (Bangladesh)

This type of early childhood educational programming can have a huge impact on the lives and educations of Pakistan’s children. But we should not stop there. The US has the experience and expertise to help Pakistan modernize it’s educational system. Doing so would help ensure that Pakistan’s young population is able to meet the demands of tomorrow’s economy, and that Pakistan has the skills and expertise necessary to ensure its success in the future.

American decision makers often talk about winning the hearts and minds of our friends in Pakistan. But we’ll never win hearts if we ignore education.