A Princess Vanishes. A Video Offers Alarming Clues

BEIRUT — The princess known as Sheikha Latifa had not left Dubai, the glittering emirate ruled by her father, in 18 years. Her requests to travel and study elsewhere had been denied. Her passport had been taken away. Her friends’ apartments were forbidden to her, her palace off-limits to them.

At 32, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum went nowhere without a watchful chauffeur.

“There’s no justice here,” she said in a video she secretly recorded last year. “Especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable.”

So it was with a jolt of astonishment that her friends overseas read a WhatsApp message from her last March announcing that she had left Dubai “for good.”

“I have a very uncomfortable feeling,” one of them, an American sky diver named Chris Colwell, messaged back. “Is this real,” he added. “Where are you.”

“Free,” she responded. “And I’ll come see you soon.” She added a heart.

Her escape — planned over several years with the help of a Finnish capoeira trainer and a self-proclaimed French ex-spy — lasted less than a week.

Within a few days of setting sail on the Indian Ocean in the Frenchman’s yacht, bound for India and then the United States, the Sheikha went silent. She has not been seen since, except in a few photos released in December by her family, which says she is safely home after surviving what they said was a kidnapping.

Yet thanks to the video she made before fleeing, the sheikha’s face and voice have made their way around the world, drawing more than 2 million views on YouTube, spurring avid news coverage and marring Dubai’s image as a world capital of glitz and commerce like a graffiti tag.

Like the young women who have fled Saudi Arabia’s restrictive regime, Sheikha Latifa has made sure no one can forget how few freedoms are allotted to women in the Middle East’s most conservative societies — or how costly crossing Dubai’s ruler can be.

For all its megamalls, haute cuisine and dizzying skyscrapers, Dubai can flip at speed from international playground to repressive police state. It has drawn headlines in the West for detaining foreigners for holding hands in public and drinking alcohol without a license.

Last year, it was widely condemned for holding a British academic, Matthew Hedges, after accusing him of being a British spy. In recent years, the authorities have also intensified a crackdown on internal dissent.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re an ordinary Emirati citizen or a member of the royal family or an expat from a close ally like the U.K.,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If you’re harming that carefully tailored image,” she added, “you will face the consequences.”

Over the video’s 39 stark minutes, her voice composed and forceful, Sheikha Latifa described in fluent English her life of constricting privilege and stunted hopes. She hoped it would change if she could win political asylum in the United States.

“I don’t know how, how I’ll feel, just waking up in the morning and thinking, I can do whatever I want today,” she said. “That’ll be such a new, different feeling. It’ll be amazing.”

Fearing for her life if she was caught, she said she was recording the video in case she failed.

“They’re not going to take me back alive,” she said. “That’s not going to happen. If I don’t make it out alive, at least there’s this video.”

Sheikha Latifa first faced rigid restrictions after her sister’s failed escape attempt years earlier.

When she was 14, her older sister Shamsa escaped from her family’s security detail on a trip to England. Her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, owns a large estate and a prominent thoroughbred racing stable, Godolphin, there.

Hervé Jaubert, right, spoke at a news conference in London after Sheikha Latifa was captured aboard his yacht. He said he was helping her escape. Sheikha Latifa’s father said Mr. Jaubert had kidnapped her.

Hervé Jaubert, right, spoke at a news conference in London after Sheikha Latifa was captured aboard his yacht. He said he was helping her escape. Sheikha Latifa’s father said Mr. Jaubert had kidnapped her.

News reports at the time said Emirati personnel eventually tracked Shamsa to a street in Cambridge, forcing her into a car. When a Scotland Yard detective began investigating her case as a kidnapping, Dubai authorities refused to let him interview her. The case dead-ended there.

Sheikha Latifa said Shamsa, the only of 30 siblings to whom she was close, had been drugged into docility ever since, “basically like walking around with a cage following her.”

Horrified by Shamsa’s treatment, she said she tried to escape across the border to Oman. Retrieved almost immediately, she said she was held in solitary confinement for more than three years.

Emirati family law allows women to be punished for disobeying, and she said she was frequently pulled out of bed to be beaten, deprived of medical care and, until the final few months, even a toothbrush.

Even after she was released at 19, her life was defined by her family’s constraints as much as by its wealth.
She lived in a palace behind high walls, with 40 rooms spread over four wings — one for each female relative who lived there, said Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish woman who began training Sheikha Latifa in the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira in 2010. There were about 100 servants and an athletic compound with its own swimming pool and spa. Wherever the sheikha went, a Filipino maid went too.

But hers was a life of enforced, confined leisure. She could spend her money only on hobbies and sports including horseback riding and scuba diving, or on treating friends to lunch or manicures. She was not allowed to study medicine as she had wanted, friends said.

Nor could she travel, even to the next-door emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of seven city-states making up the United Arab Emirates. She pressed friends to describe every trip for her “like she was traveling with me,” said Stefania Martinengo, her friend and skydiving coach.

She was also barred from visiting any nonpublic places, even friends’ homes. An avid sky diver, she once parachuted secretly into an unapproved part of the city for 20 minutes of kayaking with Mr. Colwell.

When friends rode along in the boxy black Mercedes that often ferried her around, she put on headphones and sat in silence, refusing, in front of the driver, to say a word.

Skydiving was her chief distraction.

Dropping into the sky, “you’re equal to everyone,” Ms. Martinengo said. “You don’t talk, you’re just flying. I think she enjoyed being free in the sky.”

At first glance, she seemed neither fabulously wealthy nor wildly unhappy.

Introducing herself as Latifa, she was often taken for just another local woman. Under the all-covering abaya she wore in public, she usually dressed in T-shirts and athletic pants. She demurred her way out of most photos. She listened rather than talked. She never outright complained about her situation, friends said.

She never spoke about her family. Dubai’s dazzlingly wealthy flaunted their lives on Instagram; she was barely Googleable.

But she fantasized about running her own life. She talked about starting an Emirati skydiving team, hoping her father would let her travel to international competitions. A vegan who had become passionate about wellness and detox, she planned to invest in a yoga-and-juice center in Europe with Ms. Martinengo.

When Ms. Martinengo asked how she would help run the business without traveling, she said, “I have a feeling things might change.”

Almost no one realized until later that she had been planning to run for several years.

She first contacted Hervé Jaubert, whose website describes him as a former French intelligence officer and “no ordinary man,” who had once managed to escape Dubai in a small rubber boat by dressing as a woman.

She then enlisted Ms. Jauhiainen. At one point, they trained to dive and swim to Oman via underwater scooter.
Ms. Jauhiainen said Sheikha Latifa wanted to help other women who had been trapped in similar situations, and she wanted to get Shamsa out. If necessary, she thought she could work as a skydiving instructor.

To show that she was safe at home, the government of the United Arab Emirates distributed this picture showing Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, left, with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, in December.

To show that she was safe at home, the government of the United Arab Emirates distributed this picture showing Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, left, with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, in December.

“I’m ready to flip burgers or do anything as long as I have my freedom,” she told Ms. Jauhiainen.

A few days before they left, she sneaked out of a mall to record the video at Ms. Jauhiainen’s apartment.

“I’m feeling positive about the future,” she said. “I’m feeling like it’s the start of an adventure. It’s the start of me claiming my life, my freedom, freedom of choice.”

“I’m really looking forward to that,” she said.

The morning of the escape, Sheikha Latifa was driven to eat breakfast with Ms. Jauhiainen at a restaurant, as she often did. According to Ms. Jauhiainen, they got into her car and made for Oman, where they rode an inflatable raft, then Jet Skis, out to Mr. Jaubert’s yacht. A selfie they took in the car shows Sheikha Latifa grinning behind mirrored sunglasses, elated.

“We’re like Thelma and Louise,” Ms. Jauhiainen joked, referring to the 1991 American film.

“Don’t say that,” Sheikha Latifa protested. “It has a sad ending!”

As they sailed toward India on the evening of March 4, the women were getting ready for bed below decks when they heard loud noises. They locked themselves in the bathroom, but it filled with smoke. The only way out was up.

On deck, armed men whom Ms. Jauhiainen identified as Indian and Emirati pushed Mr. Jaubert, Ms. Jauhiainen and the Filipino crewmen to the ground, tying them up and beating them. They told Ms. Jauhiainen to take her last breath. Ms. Jauhiainen saw Sheikha Latifa on the ground, tied up but kicking, screaming that she wanted political asylum in India.

Before long, an Arabic-speaking man boarded. He made it clear, Ms. Jauhiainen said, that he had come to retrieve the sheikha.

“Just shoot me here,” she cried, Ms. Jauhiainen recalled. “Don’t take me back.”
Then she was gone.

Her father, Sheikh Mohammed, did not address her whereabouts until December, when the BBC was about to air a documentary. His office issued a statement saying that she was safe in Dubai, celebrating her 33rd birthday with family “in privacy and peace.” (Ms. Jauhiainen said the sheikha had not chosen to spend her birthday with family in years.)

The statement accused Mr. Jaubert, whom it called a “convicted criminal,” of kidnapping her for a $100 million ransom.

Sheikh Mohammed did not reply to a request for an interview sent to his office. The Emirati embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Things have only gotten stranger since.

On Christmas Eve, Dubai released the first public photos of Sheikha Latifa since her disappearance. They showed her sitting with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who confirmed that she had met the sheikha at her family’s request.

Ms. Robinson said Sheikha Latifa was safe with her family, but said she was receiving psychiatric care, calling her a “troubled young woman” with a “serious medical condition.”

“This is a family matter now,” Ms. Robinson said.

The sheikha’s advocates were taken aback that a respected human rights crusader had seemingly embraced Dubai’s official line. They disputed that she had a psychiatric condition, apart from any she might have developed because of imprisonment or drugging.

“I know 100 percent for sure that she doesn’t need mental care,” Ms. Martinengo said. “Maybe now, after all these treatments, but not before. How can you think that a person who’s been in prison for nine months wouldn’t seem troubled?”

Friends also found Sheikha Latifa’s appearance in the photos — slightly dazed, her eyes missing the camera — concerning.

With negative attention thickening around her, Ms. Robinson issued a statement saying that she had made her assessment “in good faith and to the best of my ability,” adding that the sheikha’s “vulnerability was apparent.”

By mid-January, a lawyer who had been working with activists left the sheikha’s case without explanation.

Several friends still in Dubai said they were too frightened to speak, while Mr. Jaubert abruptly stopped responding to requests to be interviewed for this article.

Sheikha Latifa had little doubt about what would happen to her.

“If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing,” she said in her video. “Either I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”

Pakistani woman police commander led defense of Chinese mission

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani policewoman Suhai Aziz Talpur heard of the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi while driving to work. She rushed to the scene to find two of her colleagues dead, and a trio of insurgents attempting to blow their way into the building.

Her fast response and actions during the nearly two-hour assault on the diplomatic mission in the southern port city have been praised for saving countless lives, turning 30-year-old Talpur into an instant celebrity – and potential feminist icon – in Pakistan, where female police officers remain rare.

“The moment I arrived, an exchange of fire was taking place, blasts had been heard, smoke was emanating,” Talpur, an assistant superintendent, told Reuters.

Right away, she took up a position to fire at the attackers and began calling for reinforcements.

“We started to advance inside the consulate and gradually neutralized the situation,” she said.

Since the attack a picture of Talpur holding her pistol, flanked by commandos, has gone viral on social media in Pakistan. Her bravery has also earned her a nomination for the country’s highest award for police officers.
Friday’s attack, claimed by separatist insurgents from the impoverished southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, killed four people, including two police officers who Talpur said were the real heroes.

“The real credit goes to assistant sub-inspector Ashraf (Dawood) and constable Amir (Khan) who kept the attackers engaged and sacrificed their lives,” she said.

Once the attack ended, Talpur was among the first police officers to enter the mission and began reassuring the staff.

“When I entered there was a Chinese lady and three or four Pakistani men,” she recalled. “The Chinese lady hugged me and I told her ‘you are in safe hands, things are under control’.”

Talpur, who is scheduled to be promoted soon, will be one of only two female officers above the rank of assistant superintendent in the Sindh provincial police force. But she believes women have a big role to play in law enforcement.

“A woman can be a better detective than a man, we see each and every thing and memorize it better,” she said.
Pakistan was recently ranked as the fourth worst country for women in a study conducted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. But the police and military have recently been running programs to encourage more women in law enforcement roles and in the armed forces.

Police officers are on the front lines of Pakistan’s battle against militancy, often targeted by Islamist and insurgent groups. In 2016, 59 cadets were killed when militants stormed a police academy in the southwestern city of Quetta. The attack was claimed by Islamic State, but Pakistani authorities blamed it on local militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

In Karachi, officers have been targeted by Taliban militants and scores have been killed in a wave of urban violence that engulfed the city for two decades from the 1990s.

Talpur, who hails from a small conservative village in the southern Sindh province, was studying to be a chartered accountant when she decided her chosen profession was too “dull” and joined the police instead.

Fahmida Riaz passes away in Lahore

LAHORE: Well-known progressive Urdu writer, poet, human rights activist and feminist Fahmida Riaz has passed away on Wednesday night. She was 73 years of age.

She passed away after a prolonged illness in Lahore where she was with her daughter

Fahmida Riaz was born on July 28, 1945 in a literary family of Meerat, UP, India. Her family settled in the city of Hyderabad following her father’s transfer to the province of Sindh. Her father passed away when she was four and so she was brought up by her mother.

She learned about the Urdu and Sindhi literature in her childhood and later learnt the language of Persian. After completing her education she began working as a newscaster for Radio Pakistan.

Fahmida Riaz was encouraged and persuaded by her family to step into an arranged marriage after the graduation from college. She spent some years in the United Kingdom with her first husband before coming back to Pakistan after a divorce. During this period she worked with the BBC Urdu service (Radio) and got a degree in film making.

She has one daughter from that marriage.

She has two children from her second marriage with Zafar Ali Ujan, a leftist impressive political worker.

Fahmida Riaz worked in an advertising agency in the city of Karachi before beginning her own Urdu publication Awaz. The liberal and politically charged content of Awaz grabbed the attention of the Zia era and both Fahmida and her husband Zafar were charged with various cases—the magazine shut down and Zafar was imprisoned.

Fahmida Riaz was faced with challenges due to her political ideology. More than 10 cases were filed against her during General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. She was charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Pakistan Penal Code. After her husband was arrested she was bailed out by a fan of her works before she could be taken to jail and fled to India with her two small children and sister on the excuse of a Mushaira invitation.

Her friend the renowned poet Amrita Pritam who spoke to then prime minister (late) Indira Gandhi which got her asylum.

Her children went to school in India. She had relatives in India and her husband later joined her there after his release from jail.

The family spent almost seven years in exile before returning to Pakistan after Zia-ul-Haq’s death on the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s wedding reception. During this time Riaz had been poet in residence for Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi and it is during her exile that she learnt to read Hindi. She was greeted with a warm welcome upon her return from exile.

Nargis, the Pakistani Hazara making strides in karate (By Saba Aziz) – Al Jazeera Sept 18, 2018

Nargis Hameedullah has had to fight for her dreams all her life – both on and off the field.
The 19-year-old is a Pakistani karateka based in Quetta, capital of the western province of Balochistan.

Nargis belongs to the Hazara community, one of Pakistan’s most persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. But that has not stopped her from beating the odds.

At the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia last month, Nargis became Pakistan’s first female athlete to win an individual medal at the multi-sport competition when she won bronze in the plus-68 kilogramme event.

“I always wanted to be the one to bring about a change,” Nargis told Al Jazeera. “I’m very happy to be able to write my name in history.”

Nargis’ success lit up a marginalised community that has been a target of ethnic and sectarian violence for decades.

At least 509 Hazaras, who are mainly Shia Muslims, have been killed in Quetta since 2013, according to the government’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).

The killings have mostly been part of a sustained campaign of shootings and bombings by armed sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

But as Nargis returned to her hometown of Hazara Town, a low-income ethnic neighbourhood in the western outskirts of Quetta, she was showered with rose petals by school children who lined up on the streets.

The beat of the “dhol”, a drum, accompanied by the flute, was complemented by a beaming Nargis who was surrounded by dancing residents who gave her a hero’s welcome.

Nargis relished her time in the spotlight, but she said her rise to stardom in Pakistan has not come without bumps.

Hameedullah was given a hero’s welcome on her return home from the Asian Games [Nargis Hameedullah]
February 16, 2013 is a day still etched in Nargis’ mind.

A bomb attack by the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group at a busy vegetable market in Hazara Town killed at least 84 people. Nargis’ maternal grandmother’s brother was among those who died.

“It [his death] really shook me and it affected the entire family,” she said. “I will never forget that day.”

At least nine members of the Hazara Shia community have been killed in a series of attacks since March this year.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Hazaras are particularly vulnerable, because of their distinctive East Asian ethnic features as well as Shia religious affiliation.

Nargis’ train journeys to Lahore and Islamabad for tournaments and training camps are always full of anxiety, with thoughts of the next target killing weighing on her mind.

“As a player, I train physically, my strength has increased, but emotionally and mentally, I have really been affected [by these bomb blasts].”

For the roughly 600,000 Hazaras living in Quetta, security is a major concern. With multiple checkpoints, blocked areas and only one road to enter and exit the community enclave, navigating around the city is not easy, said Nargis.

“A lot of the girls say that any day we could become victims of target killing, so what’s the use of playing? Mentally, I get really disturbed by the security situation.”

She grew up amid violence and security threats, picking up mixed martial arts aged five before making the transition to karate in 2010.

Nargis now juggles almost four hours of training each day with her studies and English tuition at an academy.
“I have got a lot of support from my family. Whenever I go [for tournaments], they make a lot of sacrifices, taking care of my travel expenses.”

Her father works at a local flower shop and mother is doing overnight shifts as a nurse to make ends meet. While there is a lot of opposition from outside the Hazara group, Nargis is all too familiar with the negative remarks from within the conservative community.

But her parents have continued to support their daughter’s athletic career.

“People tell us to focus on her education, and they criticise us and talk a lot,” her mother, Qamargul Hameedullah, said.

Even if I win the world title, and my hijab is a bit off, the Hazara community will not appreciate that
Nargis Hameedullah, Pakistani karate player

“My relatives always say ‘why does Nargis need to play sports, she should select some other career or job and then support the family’,” Nargis said. “They say, ‘she just kicks and punches, what will she get out of it?'”

The hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, is also a “major issue for the Hazara people”, her mother added. Nargis wears one and is “very fearful” of it coming off during her fights.

“Even if I win the world title, and my hijab is a bit off, the Hazara community will not appreciate that.”

Despite the challenges, Nargis is striving to make her name in a country that has traditionally had success in sports like cricket, squash and hockey.

Nargis was not the first Hazara to make the country proud in karate. Her senior, 30-year-old Kulsoom Hazara, who also hails from Quetta, has won gold at the South Asian karate championships for the past three years.

“A few years ago, people had the mindset that what do girls have to do with sports or karate,” said Nargis. “Even now, some families say that, but there have been a lot of changes. Families are sending girls to different sports clubs for karate, taekwondo, wushu.

“We have a lot of martial arts clubs [in our community] and mostly, the participants are women.”

One of those clubs is the Hazara Shotokan Karate Academy on Kirani Road run by Nargis’ long-time coach and former national player Ghulam Ali.

The 2004 South Asian Games (SAF) gold-medallist, Ali, said he has noticed women from his community, making strides not only in sports, but other fields as well.

“Presently, in Hazara Town and Mari Abad [another predominantly Hazara suburb], there are more girls than boys participating in everything,” said Ali, who trains more than 80 girls at the club.

“After a long period of restrictions, they [Hazara women] are getting more freedom. In the past, we faced a lot of oppression, but now we are getting some chance. And we’re trying to get involved in every field – in universities, shops, businesses, sports. It’s really great.”

Ali is confident that more women will draw inspiration from Nargis.

The teenager, meanwhile, is now dreaming to qualify for the Olympics.

“I want to raise my country’s flag and would also like to hear the national anthem being played and everyone standing up in respect.”

UK ‘deeply concerned’ by brief abduction of British Pakistani journalist and establishment critic

The UK has expressed deep concern after a British Pakistani journalist was abducted by unnamed men in the latest seizure of a media critic of the military establishment.
Gul Bukhari was driving to a television studio late on Tuesday when her car was intercepted by pick-up trucks in the city of Lahore.

Her plainclothes abductors were overseen by men wearing military uniforms according to her driver. A mask was placed over her face and she was driven off.
Ms Bukhari, a dual British national, was later released to her family who said she was well and requested privacy.

But the British High Commission said it was giving her consular assistance and said it was “very concerned at reports of Gul Bukhari’s abduction”.

Ms Bukhari has been an outspoken critic of the military in advance of what is expected to be a tense general election scheduled for July 25.

She has also defended ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who clashed with the defence establishment before the Supreme Court forced him from office last year over an undeclared source of income.

A string of social media activists have been kidnapped in the past year in what rights’ groups say is a campaign to intimidate and silence critics of the powerful security establishment.

Five bloggers disappeared for several weeks last year before four of them were released. All four sought refuge abroad, with at least two since saying they had been tortured by a state intelligence agency while in captivity.

A leading English language newspaper last month complained it was being blocked from sale in large parts of the country after it published an interview with Mr Sharif that angered the army.

The military has denied any role in previous disappearances and did not immediately comment on Ms Bukhari’s seizure.

But the incident was seized on by activists as further evidence of a concerted effort to stifle dissent and scare off critics.

“If true, this would be a most audacious attempt to silence a known critic. Is this Pakistan or Kim’s North Korea or Sisi’s Egypt?” Syed Talat Hussain, a prominent journalist, said.

Instep Today Aurat March 2018: Freedom over fear

KARACHI, March 10: Thousands of women, men and transgender people gathered on Thursday to take part in the first ever Aurat March (Women’s March) held in Karachi to rally against discrimination and acts of violence towards women and other gender minorities in Pakistan.

The event marked the global celebration of International Women’s Day which is celebrated across the world to honour the daily struggles of women and pay tribute to their social, economic, cultural and political achievements.

Karachi’s Frere Hall, Lahore’s Lytton Road and Islamabad’s Press Club were meeting points for the women who came out to highlight these issues.

‘Aurat March’ was planned and organised entirely by a diverse group of women belonging to different ethnicities, classes and sections of society. The march itself was not linked to a particular organization, political party or group. In fact, it included representatives from the Awami Workers Party, the Feminist Collective, the Women’s Collective and Girls at Dhabas among others.

That’s what makes it more significant – it was a collective effort, not spearheaded by any one entity, making it a movement that all Pakistani women (and men who support women’s rights) can own.

The Aurat March, spearheaded by Sheema Kermani and the independent rights organization, ‘Hum Aurtain’ was originally meant for Karachi. The idea inspired similar women’s rights organizations and progressive forums in Lahore and Islamabad.

While the numbers were not as high in Islamabad and Lahore as they were in Karachi, there was still a significant presence that made its way to show their solidarity.

The crowd in each city grew as everyone kept marching on from the starting point till the crowds dispersed. Women (and men) held placards and banners and shouted slogans like ‘Ghar ka Kaam, Sab ka Kaam’ and ‘Women are humans, not honour’. They had placards that read ‘paratha rolls not gender roles’, ‘freedom not fear’ and ‘our rights are not up for grabs, neither are we’.

Women wore t-shirts that read ‘my favorite season is the fall (of patriarchy)’ and ‘girls just want fun-damental human rights’. Some wore masks of deceased social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch and one group held a charpoy that said ‘patriarchy’s janaza’ (funeral of patriarchy) on their shoulders.

A number of prominent personalities put out social media messages in solidarity with those who were marching. There was a video montage circulated of celebrities and activists saying ‘equal’ and ‘barabar’ – many of whom also participated in the walk.

According to the organisers of the event, the goal was to get women to come out on the streets and help them reclaim public spaces. Leena Ghani, one of the organisers of the Lahore march told Instep that Lahore’s march was in solidarity with Karachi’s.

“The Karachi march was much bigger because they had been planning it for longer but it was heartening to see that every woman felt it was inclusive.”

She shared how women were most happy about reclaiming public spaces and feeling safe on the streets.

The women said they were marching in solidarity with women all over the country and globally, as a promise to carry the torch of resistance until women were treated equally in the society.

The agenda was to start conversation around and demand fundamental rights as women, including an end to violence against women, labour rights, reproductive rights, environmental justice, anti-sexual assault laws, wage equality, fair political representation and opportunities, education equality, equality for the transgender community and an end to child marriage and honour killings.

The events in all three cities were open to the public and women from all walks of life came out.

There were also some men and a large representation from different schools, colleges and universities present on the occasion. The march was quite a landmark in Pakistan’s women’s rights movement and one can only hope it’s the beginning of change

A sisterhood with nerves of steel

“The truth does not change when a government does. Like freedom, truth is open to misuse, but, again like freedom, it can’t be withheld on that count,” wrote the late Razia Bhatti in one of her searing editorials.

These were not merely fine words: Ms Bhatti, editor of the Herald and later of Newsline – not to mention the women journalists who worked with her – stood by those words throughout her career, speaking truth to power no matter how ruthless her adversaries, be they despots, ‘democrats’ or drug barons.

Women journalists like them were never more in need of courage than during the repressive Ziaul Haq years, when they fought not only for the freedom of the press but also against state-sponsored misogyny that impacted their personal and professional lives.

By that time, more women had begun to enter the field, especially in the English-language media, and this sisterhood found a collective voice.

That steady trickle of women journalists was to become a flood some decades later as scores of private television news channels began to crowd the airwaves. But it all began with an intrepid few who had the self-belief to break into the male domain that was journalism at the time.

A list of these accomplished women would have to include, among others, names like Najma Babar, Ameneh Azam Ali, Najma Sadeque, Rehana Hakim, Nargis Khanum, Zohra Karim, Maisoon Hussein, Saneeya Hussain and Jugnu Mohsin.

A couple of them – Sherry Rehman, one time editor of Herald, and Maleeha Lodhi, the first woman editor of a daily newspaper in Pakistan – have moved on to distinguished diplomatic and political careers.

To many of them, Razia Bhatti (left) and Maleeha Lodhi are figures to emulate.

Among the pioneers was Zaibunnisa Hamidullah who wrote for Indian newspapers before independence. Post-1947, she began writing a column for Dawn, which made her Pakistan’s first female political commentator.

She was also founder and editor of Mirror, a unique combination of a glossy society magazine with hard-hitting editorials – the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove – that repeatedly took Ayub Khan’s government to task. The magazine was banned twice for its temerity.

However, women like Ms Hamidullah were outliers. With its odd hours and somewhat seedy reputation, it was some time before families began to consider journalism a suitable career for their daughters. When Mahnaz Rehman, resident director of the women’s rights organisation Aurat, told her father she wanted to work at a newspaper, he was horrified, even more so because she wanted to join an Urdu newspaper.

“English journalism was considered a little more respectable at the time. But I stood my ground, and joined Musawat [the PPP mouthpiece].”

Not only that, but Ms Rehman later became secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the lone woman holding her own among a sea of men at the noisy union meetings.

Women’s periodicals, among them Aanchal, Bedari and Akhbar-e-Khawateen – the latter being the first women’s weekly in Pakistan – were comparative oases of calm. However, besides offering the standard ‘feminine’ fare catering to the Urdu-speaking public, some of them also carried content on social issues and women’s rights.

Shamim Akhtar, editor of Akhbar-e-Khawateen for 22 years, says: “We even did stories based on undercover reporting such as one on a fake pir in North Nazimabad. One story of ours [about David Lean’s relationship with a married Indian woman] even got us into trouble with Dr Israr Ahmed.”

For many women, Dawn, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan, was where they cut their teeth in the profession. In fact, editors at the paper actively looked to hire female journalists. Nargis Khanum, who passed away just recently, started off back in 1966 as a reporter covering art and culture.

Shahida Kazi, fresh out of journalism school, joined the same year as a reporter. Although, like Ms Khanum, she had a ‘safe’ beat — health, education and women’s issues — a female reporter was unheard of at the time. “As a feminist and a Marxist, my job was to prove that anything a man can do, I can do as well,” she says.

Some of her male colleagues, however, used to call her a ‘meena bazaar’ reporter because they thought she couldn’t cover ‘important’ stories. Ms Kazi forayed into politics in 1968 when she joined PTV, from where she retired 18 years later as senior news editor.

In this era of many ‘firsts’, Zubeida Mustafa joined Dawn as features editor in 1975. The men, an old-school bunch, did not quite know how to react to this young woman. “They would stand up every time I entered the room,” she chuckles.

Within a few months, Ms Mustafa was promoted to assistant editor; before her, no woman had been in a position senior enough to have a say in matters of policy or articulate the paper’s stance on various issues through the editorials.

In this brave new world, at least for women, a very mundane problem presented itself – the location, or even the existence, of a ladies’ toilet on the premises. “If I’d asked my colleagues, I think they’d have fainted,” says Ms. Mustafa.

“So I’d zip across to the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, where I’d worked earlier.” Only an accidental encounter one day with the women at the Herald magazine in one of the many corridors in Haroon House solved that mystery.

If journalism was generally a boys’ club back then, the parliament beat was particularly so. But that didn’t deter the feisty Anis Mirza, whose wit and eye for detail livened up her column – ‘From the Press Gallery’ – that she penned for Dawn.

In one column she wrote: “Outside the National Assembly … rain washed away the stifling dust, heat and haze of the Punjab. But in the National Assembly, octogenarian Maulana Hazarvi was asking stifling questions on whether or not government provided separate compartments for ladies in rail cars.”

Challenging gender stereotypes – typified by the quaint term ‘lady reporter’ – required dogged determination and, sometimes, the capacity to turn liability into an opportunity.

Nafisa Hoodbhoy, who joined Dawn in 1984, got the coveted political beat after she dug into the health beat that she’d been assigned, and started reporting on gunshot victims piling up in hospitals as a result of ethnic warfare raging in Karachi at the time.

“After seeing me at every incident, a crime reporter from an Urdu newspaper finally cried out in exasperation ‘Doesn’t Dawn have any male reporters left’?”

Political reporting from the 1980s onwards, especially in Karachi, with newly emerging centres of armed street power and an unaccountable law-enforcement apparatus, meant that journalists – regardless of gender – risked life and limb at the hands of one quarter or the other.

Late one evening in 1991, ironically after attending a protest demanding an end to brutality against journalists, Ms Hoodbhoy narrowly escaped falling victim to an attack herself. It was only presence of mind that saved her from two would-be assailants lurking in the shadows near her house. The foiled attack made headlines across Pakistan.

Mariana Baabar, during her 38 years as a journalist at The Muslim, Frontier Post, Nation and The News, knows a thing or two about violence against journalists. Sometime during Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure as PM, the Jang Group was locked in a battle with the government.

When the FIA stole the publication’s newsprint, a group of Jang employees, including Mariana, descended upon the law-enforcement agency’s Rawalpindi office to protest.

There they were set upon by FIA personnel, who thrashed them with steel batons. “If I wasn’t wearing my winter coat at that time of year, my injuries would have been far worse,” she says.

To this day, she remembers her blood running cold at a remark made by one of the men raining blows upon her. “We killed the wrong bitch,” he hissed. A few weeks earlier, Ms Baabar’s German Shepherd had been poisoned.

These trailblazing female journalists didn’t see their gender as a handicap in their profession (except perhaps for the lack of ladies’ toilets at almost every newspaper in the earlier days!). They simply shrugged and got on with their work.

Women drivers break cultural barriers in coal-rich Thar

ISLAMKOT: As Pakistan bets on cheap coal in the Thar desert to resolve its energy crisis, a select group of women is eyeing a road out of poverty by snapping up truck-driving jobs that once only went to men.

Such work is seen as life-changing in the dusty region bordering India, where sand dunes cover estimated coal reserves of 175 billion tonnes and yellow dumper trucks swarm like bees around the country’s largest open-pit mine.

The imposing 60-tonne trucks initially daunted Gulaban, 25, a housewife and mother of three from Thar’s Hindu community.

Up to 400 trucks may be needed once digging is done deep enough to reach mineral, and a driver can earn Rs40,000 a month

“At the beginning I was a bit nervous but now it’s normal to drive this dumper,” said Gulaban, clad in a pink saree.

Gulaban — who hopes such jobs can help empower other women facing grim employment prospects — is among 30 women being trained to be truck drivers by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), a local firm digging up low-grade coal under the rolling Thar sand dunes.

Gulaban has stolen the march on her fellow trainees because she was the only woman who knew how to drive a car before training to be a truck driver. She is an inspiration to her fellow students.

“If Gulaban can drive a dumper truck then why not we? All we need to do is learn and drive quickly like her,” said Ramu, 29, a mother of six, standing beside the 40-tonne truck.

Until recently, energy experts were uncertain that Pakistan’s abundant but poor-quality coal could be used to fire up power plants.

That view began to change with new technology and Chinese investment as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key branch of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to connect Asia with Europe and Africa.

Now coal, along with hydro and liquefied natural gas, is at the heart of Pakistan’s energy plans.

SECMC, which has about 125 dumper trucks ferrying earth out of the pit mine, estimates it will need 300-400 trucks once they burrow deep enough to reach the coal.

Drivers can earn up to 40,000 rupees a month.

Women aspiring to these jobs are overcoming cultural barriers in a society where women are restricted to mainly working the fields and cooking and cleaning for the family.

Gulaban’s husband, Harjilal, recalled how people in Thar would taunt him when his “illiterate” wife drove their small car.

“When I sit in the passenger seat with my wife driving, people used to laugh at me,” said Harjilal.

But Gulaban, seeking to throw stereotypes out of the window, is only focused on the opportunities ahead.

“As I can see our other female trainees getting paid and their life is changing,” Gulaban added. “I hope…for a better future.”

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2017

A disaster in the making’: Pakistan’s population surges to 207.7 million

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — For years, Pakistan’s soaring population growth has been evident in increasingly crowded schools, clinics and poor communities across this vast, Muslim-majority nation. But until two weeks ago, no one knew just how serious the problem was. Now they do.

Preliminary results from a new national census — the first conducted since 1998 — show that the population has grown by 57 percent since then, reaching 207.7 million and making Pakistan the world’s fifth-most-populous country, surpassing Brazil and ranking behind China, India, the United States and Indonesia. The annual birthrate, while gradually declining, is still alarmingly high. At 22 births per 1,000 people, it is on a par with Bolivia and Haiti, and among the highest outside Africa.

“The exploding population bomb has put the entire country’s future in jeopardy,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in the Dawn newspaper recently. With 60 percent of the population younger than 30, nearly a third of Pakistanis living in poverty and only 58 percent literate, he added, “this is a disaster in the making.”

The chief causes of the continuing surge, according to population experts, include religious taboos, political timidity and public ignorance, especially in rural areas. Only a third of married Pakistani women use any form of birth control, and the only family-planning method sanctioned by most Islamic clerics is spacing births by breast-feeding newborns for two years.

Even if the birthrate slows, some experts estimate that Pakistan’s population could double again by midcentury, putting catastrophic pressures on water and sanitation systems, swamping health and education services, and leaving tens of millions of people jobless — prime recruits for criminal networks and violent Islamist groups.

But instead of encouraging fresh ideas to address the population crisis, the census has triggered a rash of arguments over whether certain areas have been over- or undercounted, or reclassified as urban instead of rural. These squabbles amount to fights over political and financial spoils, including the number of provincial assembly seats and the amount of funding from the central government.

A few people, however, are paying close attention to the larger picture. One is Shireen Sukhun, a district officer for the Population Welfare Department in Punjab province. Her mission is to persuade Pakistani families to have fewer children and offer the families access to contraceptive methods — but she is keenly aware of the obstacles.

“The fatal combination we face is poverty and illiteracy,” Sukhun said. “It takes a long time to change people’s mind-sets, and we don’t have the luxury of leaving it to time.”

One outpost in her campaign is a tiny, bench-lined room in Dhoke Hassu, a congested working-class area of Rawalpindi. Inside, Rubina Rehman, a family welfare worker, listens all day to women’s problems with feverish babies, painful deliveries and other woes. Once they feel comfortable with her, she broaches the topic of contraception.

It has not been an easy sell. All the clients are Muslims, and most have little education. Some have been taught that God wants them to have many children. Some have husbands who earn too little to feed a large family but keep wanting another child. Some would like help but are too shy to discuss a taboo topic.

“When we first opened this post, women were frightened to come, and some people asked why we were against increasing the ummah [Muslim masses],” Rehman said. “But we explained how the prophet taught that you should have a gap of 24 months between each child, and that you should consider the family’s resources when making decisions. Now we do not face such opposition.”

On Thursday, a dozen women crowded into Rehman’s office, some carrying infants or toddlers. Several leaned close and whispered to her, then slipped packets of birth-control pills into their purses. One woman named Yasina, 35, explained proudly that she had gotten an “implant” — a hormone dose injected under the skin that prevents conception for several years.

“I already have five children, and that is more than enough,” she said. At first she had agreed to a tubal ligation, which the government arranges at no cost, but her husband, a laborer, would not allow it. “So I got the implant instead, and I didn’t tell him,” she said, bursting into laughter as the other women smiled.

Outside, the markets and alleys of Dhoke Hassu were teeming with a mix of Afghan refugees, migrants from rural Punjab and government workers. Some expressed confidence that God would provide for any children that came. But many said that it was important to balance family size with income and that their Muslim beliefs did not conflict with such practical needs.

“If half of our population is young, what will happen to their lives, their jobs, their needs?” mused Rizvi Salim, 29, a government railways employee carrying his only child, a 2-year-old girl, in his arms. Salim said that he was raised with seven siblings but that today, “things have changed. We do believe that God will take care of us all, but we also need to plan for our futures.”

But upwardly mobile urban communities are more open to such perspectives than rural areas, where two-thirds of all Pakistanis live. In village life, the influences of traditional culture and Islamic teachings are stronger, and the reach of public media campaigns about baby spacing is much more limited.

Attempts to open rural family welfare offices are often met with community suspicion and political opposition, but health officials say more mothers are asking about birth control. The remaining major taboo, they said, is permanent contraceptive practices such as vasectomies or tubal ligations.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the population nearly doubled, from 17.7 million in 1998 to 30.5 million this year. The province is home to several million Afghan refugees, numerous Islamist militant groups and conservative religious leaders suspicious of supposed foreign plots to sterilize Muslims. But their views, too, are evolving.

“Islam does not contradict the idea of family planning, but it challenges the Western concept of birth control,” said Mufti Muhammad Israr, a religious scholar in Peshawar, the provincial capital. He said Islam allows “natural family planning” via breast-feeding but not “stopping the reproductive system permanently. The prophet Muhammad asked believers to marry and produce children.”

Hospital officials in Mardan, a large district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said this month that they frequently deal with cases of child malnutrition and often see mothers with several very young children. They said that although more married couples are seeking family-planning services, women still have difficulty getting their husbands to cooperate.

One pregnant housewife waiting to see a gynecologist in Mardan had a small child on her lap and a 5-year-old girl by her side. All looked weak and malnourished.

“My husband doesn’t care about my health or the health of our children. He can barely support us, but he wants more,” said Zarina Bibi, 34. She said that a doctor had advised her to take a break from childbirth for several years but that she had no choice. “My husband doesn’t want birth control.”

Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the rate at which Pakistan’s population has grown.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

New Pakistan PM wants probe of harassment charges against Imran Khan

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s new prime minister called on Friday for an investigation into allegations that opposition leader Imran Khan harassed a woman lawmaker, charges Khan dismisses as revenge for his role in the ouster of then-premier Nawaz Sharif.

A furious social media backlash threatening violence against Khan’s accuser, lawmaker Ayesha Gulalai, has also exposed raw nerves about the treatment of women in Pakistan.
The case has been splashed across domestic media, at times eclipsing the installation of a new cabinet led by Sharif’s ally, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as prime minister.

Abbasi told the National Assembly he wanted a special panel to investigate the allegations.

“We respect the person who has made the accusation, but we also respect the accused, and it is their right to be able to contest these allegations,” he said.

On Tuesday, at a news conference at the National Assembly, Gulalai had announced she was quitting Khan’s opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, saying he had no respect for women and had sent her obscene text messages.

Khan, a former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team, denied the allegations.
He said he had a long record of professional work with women and accused Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of organising a smear campaign ahead of elections next year.

The announcement, four days after the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif over undeclared income he denies having received, in a case Khan brought before the court, prompted PTI supporters to accuse her of working for the ruling party.

On Friday, Khan said any parliamentary probe should look into any financial connections between his accuser and the ruling party.

He said “PML-N want to simply settle their political scores” after several court cases against him “flopped” but added, “Nonetheless, I welcome the committee being formed by the prime minister” as long as it was based on evidence.

Gulalai, however, told Reuters she stood by her allegations, adding that she was not surprised at being the target of online threats, including calls to douse her in acid and raze her home.

“In our society, it is common that a victim is targeted, always, and if you’re a woman you hardly find anyone to stand by you,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Richard Balmforth