My Journey to Pakistan: Paradoxes, Surprises, Despair and Hope

Date: May 2010

First paradox: Man on the street vs. velvet society

I landed in Karachi in rush hour traffic at 8:30 pm. My driver, Karim was only too eager to give me a quick fix on Pakistan from his perspective as a man on the street. He says with conviction: “Benazir was killed by her jealous husband, Zardari is a puppet of the US which, by the way, is behind the Taliban and responsible for the mess not only in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq but also in the rest of the world. Further, the price of basic staples is crippling the common man. By August 14, independence day next year, Pakistan, as a state, will cease to exist.”

From the street to the velvet society, my favorite cousin greets me cocooned in her lovely bungalows. Lush lawns and all the amenities of the west combine with the household help, good living and spacious family time of the East. We settle into dinner in the bedroom with my 90 year old aunt where the trolley is rolled in with hot chapattis, corn curry, chicken in yogurt and fresh mangoes for dessert.

There is a deep divide between the madrasa culture and the velvet society. The disrespect is palpable as my cousin’s husband says: “You are going to meet those fundos?” My cousin, who underplays her smarts by describing herself as “just a housewife” tells me what I need to tell America: “The US must give aid with strings attached. They must support education. And women’s economic empowerment – women are half of our power source. America should downplay itself in Pakistan- be invisible. Pakistan will toe the US line – the US must set a high bar.”

The next morning, I rush out for my flight to Lahore and find myself with a driver accompanied by a guard. I recall an earlier visit to Pakistan for a family wedding where I was completely intimidated by guards with Kalashnikovs who paced the compound all night long. Security and precautionary living have become a way of life for the velvet society.

Surprise: A Wahabi leader I like
At Lahore airport, I am met by my colleague, Azhar Hussain, who developed the innovative teacher training program for madrasas which the Muslim Women’s Fund will support. He introduces me to his traditionally dressed companion, Qazi Abdul Qadeer Khamosh, a Wahabi religious leader. Azhar says: “This is the first and last time you will shake the hand of a Muslim man in Lahore on this trip. Qazi Khamosh, a mild mannered man of moderate height and weight in his mid 40’s has an open face, a welcoming smile and ignores the fact that I have forgotten to cover my head with my dupatta, scarf. The handshake surprises me, rubs against my stereotypes of a Wahabi who I expect to instantly dislike.

Qazi Khamosh is secretary general of the Alliance on the Restoration of Democracy which was created in 1999 when former president Musharraf came to power. It is an anti military alliance- focused on reinstating the constitution and having an independent judiciary.Surprises continue: The Qazi tells me that he is personally guided by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, who was guided by five precepts – liberalism, progressiveness, modernity, democracy and a respect for social values — the first Law Minister of Pakistan was a Hindu. The skeptic in me wonders: Is Khamosh one smart cookie, catering to the fact that I am Indian and therefore value the uniquely Indian definition of secularism, which is that all people – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists – can freely practice their faith and be tolerant towards each other?

More paradoxes and surprises come tumbling out as Khamosh shares his views with me on assorted subjects including his marriage to his first cousin.

Qazi Khamosh espouses support for civil society and NGOs. He wants to move people away from hate and towards appreciating a universal humanity. He says: “poverty is a magnet for madrasas and madrasas are a magnet for radicalism.”

Khamosh has his finger on the economic pulse of Pakistan and is insightful about the sociology and psychology of destitute Pakistanis when he explains: “Men have to accept that the one income family model is dead. When a woman earns, she will be respected and her opinion will be counted. Currently, we have male values, but when a woman becomes economically independent, she becomes a partner in the couple.”

Khamosh wins my heartwhen he introduces me to his wife in their bedroom and says: “She is not only my wife. She is my friend. I don’t do anything without consulting her.”

Unadulterated Despair:

The long car rides were broken up by visits to girl’s madrasas – the very purpose of my visit. On the first day we drove to Gujrawala on the outskirts of Lahore where we visited our first madrasa, Jamia Taleem- ul- Quran Wal Hadith Lil Binnat, a 65 year old institution considered the mother and springboard for girls’ madrasas. I100 girls attend this madrasa and about 350 girls are borders. Here we were greeted with little girls who created a circle in the entrance way, each holding a tray of rose petals which they showered us with as we entered the premises

We met with Bareera Khokhar, principal and administrator who has been at this madrasa for thirteen years The madrasa offers two programs: one is a Masters in Islamic Studies and adolescents from 15-20 are enrolled in this program; the other is a Masters in memorizing the Quran and the girls enter this after 8th grade and they are 10-13 years old. Both programs are recognized by the government.

We start the madrasa tour. It is 120 degrees outside. Power shortages are the norm. No lights. No fans. The girls in some cases were divided by age into sections and sat in little rooms on floor mats in their traditional clothes, with heads covered. Many students raise their dupatta or scarf above their nose so just their eyes are visible. As we walked in and out of several classrooms, I was overwhelmed. Crushed by a sense of total despair, I recognized that the madrasa education was so woefully inadequate in training the girls to be educated, employed and self sufficient. It seemed like such a colossal waste of human potential in a desperately poor country where every pair of hands needs to be put to work to feed the hungry mouths.

One woman who participated in the teacher trainings shook me to the core when she said “ Muslim women need to be hidden as if covered over by a lid.” She lectures to thousands of women every month. She is our nemesis but fortunately, I was told, she is the exception rather than the norm.

Hope in two places: Teacher trainings and the Qazi’s views to reclaim “true Islam”

Teachers who have participated in the training programs focusing on – math, science and history plus gender and human equality with non violence – experience a paradigm shift in perspectives and values as Umair Khokhar explained: “I learned to understand the intent of a speaker, to be broadminded, to not judge a speaker by one’s own faith and to recognize and steer away from sectarianism.”

Khamosh says the teacher trainings have given him clarity and inspired him to work with tough institutions and leaders in the second tier of leadership. He says before the teachers attend the 3 day training, they think “people (non Muslims) are lost. After the program, they recognize that they are lost and need to mend their ways.”

I hear an amazing story about a traditional teacher who attended the training. – which ignited a spark. She was so charged that she begged her mother to join her in the training. The family’s first response was: “you are acting like an agent of the outsiders.” The mother complied and soon mother/ daughter conspired in successfully persuading the son/brother, a member of Laksh e Taiba, cited for the Mumbai blasts last year and other terrorist attacks, to relinquish his role in that organization.

The big challenge in Islam, says the Qazi, is to understand how it is being used/manipulated today. We have to learn how to use Islam to promote peace and modernity. When I credit him with showing us a new path, he quickly responds with: “I am showing true Islam” and explains that as madrasas turn moderate, many Muslims shy away from funding them.

My one regret is that in my short visit I was not able to connect with more Muslim women who could give me insights into the madrasa world. Yet, when I hear Khamosh saying that he is trying to figure out how men and women can be re-socialized in a productive way, and that Islam is not a hate promoting religion but rather one that bestows rights on women, I can’t help but wonder if he is part of a turning tide – against nihilistic Islam. As cited by the Economist, in Egypt and Sudan, new trends are emerging- Bin Laden’s global jihad is retreating and Islam, inherently democratic and peaceful is gaining ground – despite the bloodied landscapes of Pakistan’s once heavenly landscapes in the Swat Valley.

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