From begging to earning! Chakwal girls break a taboo (When NGOs Make A Difference)

With all humility, it was elating for me to visit a slum of Chakwal the other day. I saw a young woman of 24 waiting in a pink-white rickshaw for her regular fares, two female teachers, as I reach the makeshift school established beside the dismantled Chakwal-Bhoun railway track in Kazamabad locality under the Jhuggi School Project.

JSP, as it is called, is indeed an inspiring initiative for educating the children of slum dwellers.
Bali Rani, the confident and smiling rickshaw driver, picks up her regular passengers from the school and drops them at their homes.

Besides picking and dropping the two teachers, she has five other regular passengers.

Bali had never thought she would be called to be a bread-earner for her family – her two children and her aged and ailing mother, that too plying a rickshaw on the roads of Chakwal city plagued by unruly male rickshaw drivers.

Bali was born to a family of the forsaken and abandoned nomads of Pakistan in a slum in Sargodha. Her parents used to live on begging.

When girls of her age were spending time playing and at school, Bali was accompanying her mother on begging rounds.

“Barefoot and in tattered clothes I used to trudge along my mother,” she tells with tears welling in her eyes recalling her woeful past.

At 18 she was married to her cousin.

Instead of bringing happiness, and relieving her of her drudgery, the betrothal added to her pains.

“My husband was a drug-addict who never earned a single penny,” she recalls.

Three years into the marriage, the birth of two sons brought her the joy of motherhood but made life much tougher.

“Whenever I asked my husband for money and food, he would get furious and start beating me. I tolerated the daily beating and humiliation for some time but not long and got divorce from him,” she said, rather triumphantly.
With her two sons Bali returned to the slum of her parents and to begging. Later the family moved from Sargodha to Chakwal with hopes of “better hunting grounds”.

But her sensitive soul rebelled and she quit begging in August 2016.

“Begging was the worst experience of my sad life. Many snubbed my pleas for alms, while others would offer money in exchange for sex. That was revolting. I never yielded to their lustful demands,” she said.

“However, there also were God-fearing people who gave me alms without a frown on their face.”

Life changed for Bali six-months ago when Yunus Awan, social activist and chairman of the local NGO, the Trust, Awareness and Knowledge (TAIK), which runs the Jhuggi School Project, convinced her to turn a new page in her miserable life.

Bali was trained for a month in driving a rickshaw and the Plan Pakistan organisation donated her, in partnership with two other girls in her position, a pink-white rickshaw under its pilot project meant to make impoverished women financially independent.

Since then the three have been living a happier life.

“Male rickshaw drivers harass us by hurling foul remarks at us but I damn care.

I just ignore them with the contempt they deserve. It is their evil nature which they would continue to display,” says Bali in exasperation.

People of Chakwal at large though appreciate and show respect the three brave female rickshaw drivers.

“Don’t women in our villages drive donkey-carts, and do all kinds of hard work in the fields and at home, like tending the cattle? So why frown at women driving a rickshaw, or motorbike or a car?” wonders Yunus Awan, the chairman of TAIK.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2017

Donald Trump protests attract millions across US and world (Jan 21, 2017)

Millions of protesters have taken to the streets of cities in the US and around the globe to rally against the new US President Donald Trump.

Larger numbers of demonstrators than expected turned out for more than 600 rallies worldwide.
The aim was principally to highlight women’s rights, which activists believe to be under threat from the new administration.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump used his first full day in office to visit the CIA’s HQ.

He said he was “1,000%” behind the spy agency’s employees and also accused the media of being dishonest in its reporting of the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

Mr Trump did not refer to Saturday’s protests.

‘We are the majority’
The biggest US rally was in the capital Washington, which city officials estimated to be more than 500,000-strong.
This far exceeded the 200,000 that had originally been expected by organisers of the Women’s March on Washington.
By most estimates, it also surpassed the crowd at Friday’s presidential inauguration.

The protesters in the nation’s capital heard speeches from Scarlett Johansson, Ugly Betty star America Ferrera, Ashley Judd, Gloria Steinem and Michael Moore among others.

A planned march to the White House proved impossible as the entire route was filled with demonstrators.
Interim DC Police Chief Peter Newsham told Associated Press: “The crowd stretches so far that there’s no room left to march.”

During his speech, Michael Moore ripped up a copy of the Washington Post, saying: “The headline was ‘Trump takes power’. I don’t think so. Here’s the power. Here’s the majority of America right here. We are the majority.”

The singer Madonna also made an appearance, swearing several times in a speech carried live by major US TV networks.

“Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House,” she said.

America Ferrera told the crowd: “We march today for the moral core of this nation, against which our new president is waging a war.”

Huge crowds were reported at other US protests.
So many turned out in Chicago – some 150,000 – that a planned march had to be called off and the event declared a rally. Streets were also overflowing in Los Angeles.

Huge crowds were also reported in New York, Seattle, Boston and Miami, some of the venues for about 300 nationwide protests.

Many women wore knitted pink “pussy hats” – a reference to a recording that emerged during the election campaign in which Mr Trump talked about groping women.

Organisers of a London rally said between 80,000 and 100,000 people had taken part there. Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol were among the other UK cities holding protests.

Anti-Trump marches took place earlier in Australia, New Zealand and in several Asian cities.

Women’s March Sydney co-founder Mindy Freiband told the crowd: “Hatred, hate speech, bigotry, discrimination, prejudicial policies – these are not American problems, these are global problems.”

Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Geneva, Budapest, Prague and Berlin were among the European cities that took part.
In Paris, protester Francoise Seme Wallon said Mr Trump was “a nasty guy and he’s dangerous for the whole world”.

Mr Trump’s first full day in office began with an inter-faith service at Washington National Cathedral.
He then visited the CIA’s HQ in Langley, Virginia.

In a speech there, he told about 400 employees: “There is nobody who feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than me.”

During the election campaign, Mr Trump had sharply criticised the intelligence agencies over their stance on alleged Russian involvement.

Mr Trump also talked up his yet-to-be-confirmed nominee for CIA chief, Mike Pompeo.
“You will be getting a total gem,” he told the employees.

In one of his first steps, Mr Trump ordered government agencies to ease the “economic burden” of the health law known as Obamacare.

His team also quickly overhauled the White House website. The revamp replaces Barack Obama’s policies with Mr Trump’s new agenda.

The new administration lists only six issues on the website – energy, foreign policy, jobs and growth, military, law enforcement and trade deals.

Critics complained that it made no mention of civil rights, healthcare, climate change or LGBT rights.

Muslim woman who voted for Trump asks Georgetown to intervene over professor’s ‘hateful, vulgar’ messages

A former Georgetown professor who wrote an opinion article in support of President-elect Donald Trump has asked the university to intervene after a current Georgetown professor responded with insults and an obscenity on social media.

After Trump was elected in November, Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a co-founder of a Muslim advocacy group, wrote a Washington Post article titled, “I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.” On Thursday, Nomani filed a formal complaint with the university, alleging discrimination and harassment after comments made by Christine Fair, an associate professor in Georgetown’s School for Foreign Service.

“I am a single mother who can’t afford health insurance under Obamacare,” wrote Nomani, who taught at Georgetown from 2008 to 2012. “As a liberal Muslim who has experienced, firsthand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the ‘Islam’ in Islamic State.”

On Nov. 22, Fair responded to the post on Twitter.

“I’ve written you off as a human being,” Fair wrote in one message detailed in the complaint. “Your vote helped normalize Nazis in D.C. What don’t you understand, you clueless dolt?” Fair wrote, later adding: “YOU publicly voted for a sex assailant.” She went on to say that Nomani “pimped herself out to all media outlets because she was a ‘Muslim woman who voted for Trump.’ ”

Fair called Nomani’s appeal to her employer a “very dangerous trend.” She said Nomani, a former professor at Georgetown, has no standing at the university to complain.

“I am most concerned about the increasing appeal to employers to silence the criticism of citizens made in their private capacity as citizens,” she wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Because most of us need our jobs, as few of us are financially independent, this is the most pernicious form of bullying of critics.”

After trading direct messages with Fair on Twitter and appealing to Fair’s supervisors last month, Nomani filed the complaint Thursday with the university’s Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action organization.
“I am writing to share with you that, as a result of my column, Prof. Fair has directed hateful, vulgar and disrespectful messages to me, including the allegations that I am: a ‘fraud’; ‘fame-mongering clown show’; and a ‘bevkuf,’ or ‘idiot,’ in my native Urdu, who has ‘pimped herself out,’ ” Nomani wrote in a Dec. 2 email included in the complaint to Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. “This last allegation amounts to ‘slut-shaming.’ ”

As Nomani’s complaint recounts, Fair took to Facebook on Dec. 6, saying that Nomani had published private direct messages and attacked her First Amendment rights by appealing to her employer.

“She has no right to decry criticism . . . even criticism that is in language that offends her fragile sensibilities,” Fair wrote in a Facebook post. “ ‘F–k off’ and ‘go to hell’ and ‘pimping yourself out’ for media coverage offended her . . . but not ‘I can grab their p—–s’ or the various misogynist, racist, xeonophobic [sic] race-baiting bulls–t espoused by her candidate of choice.”

Fair concluded: “So again, Ms. Nomani, ‘F–K YOU. GO TO HELL.’ ”

Georgetown officials said it was unclear what action, if any, it would take on Nomani’s complaints.

“We take these issues seriously and understand and appreciate the concern about the tone of these exchanges,” university spokeswoman Rachel Pugh wrote in an email. “As an academic community we hold dear our commitment to free speech and expression. Being committed to the free and open exchange of ideas does not mean, however, that we approve of or endorse each and every statement made by members of our faculty.”

Nomani said Wednesday that she knew Fair when she worked at Georgetown and once had dinner at her house. In her Dec. 2 email, she said she considered her a friend.

Nomani said she doesn’t want Fair to lose her job, but thinks an apology and training are appropriate.

“I honor the First Amendment, I believe in the First Amendment,” she said. “With all rights come serious responsibilities. Civil discourse is one of those responsibilities, especially for educators. We are models.”

In a Dec. 28 follow-up letter to Irfan Nooruddin, a professor in Georgetown’s School for Foreign Service, Nomani said Fair has continued to criticize her on social media, calling her an “attention mongering crybully” among other insults.

Death threat, warning to media spray-painted on Karachi murals

The walls of Karachi Press Club — which had recently been painted with colourful murals of several progressive civil society activists and journalists — were vandalised last night allegedly by members of politico-religious parties.

The messages left by the vandals were spray-painted over the portraits of nearly all women activists featured on the wall.

Though the vandals remain individually unidentified, the walls have the initials of politico-religious parties Pakistan Sunni Tehreek (PST) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLY) sprayed on them.

A call for executing Asia Bibi, currently on death row as a blasphemy accused, was written in large black letters next to the portrait of Yasmeen Lari, a prominent architect, historian and humanitarian aid worker.

Lari’s portrait had been defaced with crude marks spray-painted on her face. A line in Urdu below the painting read:”Immediately arrest and hang Shaan Taseer or you’ll be responsible for the consequences.”

Shaan Taseer is the son of slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his guard for speaking against Pakistan’s blasphemy law and in favour of minorities’ rights. Shaan recently repeated his father’s stance on the blasphemy law, and has been criticised heavily by the religious right for his views.

The portrait of Zubeida Mustafa, a renowned journalist and the first woman in Pakistani mainstream media, had been defaced with the words “Curse on the Jewish media” sprayed across her face. Her quote: “Women’s lack of empowerment condemns us to social problems,” had been defaced with a profanity.

PST’s initials could be seen spray-painted on a mural honouring Perveen Rehman, who was killed in 2013 allegedly for standing up to Karachi’s powerful land mafia. She had been working on documenting land-use around Karachi, and this may have upset entrenched criminal elements in the city.

Her quote: “Development should mean human development,” has been sprayed over with a religious slogan.

The mural dedicated to Fatima Surraiya Bajiya, a playwright and social worker, had likewise been defaced with profanities directed at the Taseer family and demands to release Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who was among more than 150 individuals arrested by authorities in Lahore yesterday for trying to gather for a pro-blasphemy law rally on the day of Salman Taseer’s death.

It started with a retiree. Now the Women’s March could be the biggest inauguration demonstration.

Teresa Shook never considered herself much of an activist, or someone particularly versed in feminist theory. But when the results of the presidential election became clear, the retired attorney in Hawaii turned to Facebook and asked: What if women marched on Washington around Inauguration Day en masse?

She asked her online friends how to create an event page, and then started one for the march she was hoping would happen.

By the time she went to bed, 40 women responded that they were in.
When she woke up, that number had exploded to 10,000.

Now, more than 100,000 people have registered their plans to attend the Women’s March on Washington in what is expected to be the largest demonstration linked to Donald Trump’s inauguration and a focal point for activists on the left who have been energized in opposing his agenda.

Planning for the Jan. 21 march got off to a rocky start. Controversy initially flared over the name of the march, and whether it was inclusive enough of minorities, particularly African Americans, who have felt excluded from many mainstream feminist movements.

Organizers say plans are on track, after securing a permit from D.C. police to gather 200,000 people near the Capitol at Independence Avenue and Third Street SW on the morning after Inauguration Day. Exactly how big the march will be has yet to be determined, with organizers scrambling to pull together the rest of the necessary permits and raise the $1 million to $2 million necessary to pull off a march triggered by Shook’s Facebook venting.

The march has become a catch-all for a host of liberal causes, from immigrant rights to police killings of African Americans. But at its heart is the demand for equal rights for women after an election that saw the defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee of a major party.

“We plan to make a bold and clear statement to this country on the national and local level that we will not be silent and we will not let anyone roll back the rights we have fought and struggled to get,” said Tamika Mallory, a veteran organizer and gun-control advocate who is one of the march’s main organizers.

More than 150,000 women and men have responded on the march’s Facebook page that they plan on attending. At least 1,000 buses are headed to Washington for the march through Rally, a website that organizes buses to protests. Dozens of groups, including Planned Parenthood and the antiwar CodePink, have signed on as partners.

Organizers insist the march is not anti-Trump, even as many of the groups that have latched on to it fiercely oppose his agenda.

“Donald Trump’s election has triggered a lot of women to be more involved than they ordinarily would have been, which is ironic, because a lot of us thought a Hillary presidency would motivate women,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. “A lot of women seem to be saying, ‘This is my time. I’m not going to be silent anymore.’”

Trump Inaugural Committee spokesman Boris Epshteyn defended the president-elect’s popularity among women in an interview on CNN. While Trump did not receive the majority of women’s votes, he got an “overwhelming” number of them, Epshteyn said.

“We’re here to hear their concerns,” he said. “We welcome them to our side as well.”

That all this could grow out of a dashed-off post from her perch nearly 5,000 miles from Washington is amazing to Shook, who has booked her ticket and plans to be in the capital on Jan. 21.

“I guess in my heart of hearts I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t really think it would’ve ever gone viral,” said Shook, who is in her 60s. “I don’t even know how to go viral.”

Unsure of how to proceed in those initial few days, she said she enlisted the help of the first few women who messaged her to volunteer, some of whom independently also had an idea for a march. But as the march grew in prominence, it got caught up in a broader conversation in liberal circles about race and leadership, with activists and others criticizing that initial planning group for its racial makeup: Shook and all the women she tapped to help in the march’s nascent stages are white, she said.

Some also took issue with the name Shook had proposed, the Million Woman March, which was the name of a 1997 gathering of hundreds of thousands of black women in Philadelphia. The racial concerns set off a heated conversation on the group’s main Facebook page, with some African American women especially taking umbrage.

For her part, Shook said her aim was not to co-opt any other movement. It was just an idea that took hold after the victory of a president-elect caught on tape boasting of grabbing women’s private parts and the defeat of a woman who seemed to her much more qualified for the job. She said she had no idea of the race of the women she first contacted; in fact, she said, most had an image of Clinton as their Facebook profile photo.

Complicating matters, it became apparent that the march probably could not start at the Lincoln Memorial as Shook had proposed, since the inaugural committee has dibs on that space.

Overwhelmed and under pressure, the original organizers eventually handed the reins to a diverse group of veteran female activists from New York: Mallory, the gun-control activist; Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; Carmen Perez, head of the Gathering for Justice, a criminal-justice-reform group; and Bob Bland, a fashion entrepreneur.

Together, they settled on a new name: The Women’s March on Washington, a nod to the 1963 demonstration that was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. They even received the blessing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, Bernice King.

In the District, Janaye Ingram, the former executive director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, has been working to secure permits and hash out logistics for the march, including ensuring there is a proper sound equipment and sufficient portable toilets.

People traveling to attend the march seem less concerned with behind-the-scenes politics than the chance to call for more family-friendly government policies, equal pay for women or reproductive rights. Some say they simply want to stand against the crass way Trump has spoken about women.

Lindsey Shriver, a 27-year-old former pastry chef who is an at-home mom in Ohio, said she was offended this election cycle by Trump’s rhetoric, which she characterized as “hateful and misogynistic.” She also wants to highlight the need for paid family leave and affordable child care.

“I realized that being a feminist in my own personal life wasn’t going to be enough for my daughters,” Shriver said.

Caroline Rule, 57, a lawyer living in Manhattan, says she will attend with her 15-year-old daughter. While she agrees with the pro-women message behind the march, she said she would probably participate in any march that pushed against Trump’s messages.

“I absolutely despise Donald Trump and everything he stands for,” she said.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem has recently signed on as a march co-sponsor, and celebrities including Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee and Jessica Chastain say they plan to attend.

Feminist scholars say the march reflects an emerging view of feminism: one that is less defined by reproductive issues, such as birth control and abortion, and more by how the challenges faced by women intersect with those encountered by African Americans, the LGBT community and immigrants.

Still, reproductive rights will be a large part of the march, with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America as key partners.

Hahrie Han, a political science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara specializing in political organizations and political engagement, said it’s not all that surprising that individual women instead of an established organization founded this march. Established organizations all come with at least some political baggage.

“The challenge with having one organization brand it as its own is that each organization has its own image that draws some people and pushes others back away,” she said.

Afghan Response to Female Pilot’s U.S. Asylum Case: ‘I Am Sure She Lied’

KABUL, Afghanistan — Contending that her “life isn’t at risk at all,” military officials in Afghanistan have asked that the United States reject the asylum case of Capt. Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force.

On Thursday, Captain Rahmani revealed that she had applied for asylum this summer, saying she felt unsafe in Afghanistan, where she and her family have received death threats. For the last 15 months, she has been training at air bases in Arkansas, Florida and Texas.

Captain Rahmani said that her Afghan male colleagues in the air force treated her with contempt and that she felt at risk.

“Things are not changing” for the better in Afghanistan, Captain Rahmani said in an interview on Friday. “Things are getting worse and worse.”

Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, a Defense Ministry spokesman, disputed her claims of being in danger.

“I am sure she lied by saying she was threatened, just to win the asylum case,” General Radmanish said on Sunday. “It is baseless that she claimed her life was at risk while serving in the Afghan Air Force.”

“Since Captain Rahmani’s claim is new, we expect her to change her mind and return to her own country and continue serving as a pilot,” the general said. “We request from our American friends and government to reject her asylum case and send her back, because knowing the truth, Captain Rahmani’s life isn’t at risk at all.”

The American government has celebrated Captain Rahmani as an example of its success in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan. In 2015 the State Department honored her with its annual Women of Courage award, and Michelle Obama praised her courage.

In Afghanistan, few supported her decision, and there were worries that her asylum request would affect the process of training Afghan pilots outside the country.

“Captain Rahmani’s claim that she was harassed in the workplace is not true, because in the air force all the pilots and staff are well-educated and highly trained people,” said Col. Ayan Khan, a helicopter pilot in the Afghan Air Force. “How can they harass their female colleague who serves along them?”

A Female Afghan Pilot Soars and Gives Up

Perhaps no Afghan’s story better embodied America’s aspirations for Afghanistan than that of Capt. Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the fledgling Afghan Air Force.

She was celebrated in Washington in 2015 when the State Department honored her with its annual Women of Courage award. “She continues to fly despite threats from the Taliban and even members of her own extended family,” the first lady, Michelle Obama, said in a statement.

On Thursday, on the eve of her scheduled return to Afghanistan from a 15-month training course at Air Force bases in Texas, Florida and Arkansas, Captain Rahmani broke a sobering piece of news to her American trainers. She still wants to be a military pilot, but not under her country’s flag. This summer, she filed a petition seeking asylum in the United States, where she hopes to eventually join the Air Force.

“Things are not changing” for the better in Afghanistan, Captain Rahmani said in an interview on Friday. “Things are getting worse and worse.”

Captain Rahmani was 10 years old when the United States toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. As the Bush administration set out to rebuild a country scarred by war, it made promoting women’s rights a priority, a bold undertaking in a deeply conservative nation where women had been barred from schools and the work force.

During her teenage years, Captain Rahmani was inspired by America’s goal of emancipating Afghan women. When she was 18, with the support of her parents, she eagerly enlisted in her country’s air force. “It has been always my dream to do this job, be a pilot,” she said. “It made me really proud.”

The American government hailed her example as a bright spot in the difficult effort to build the Afghan Air Force, which has cost American taxpayers more than $3.7 billion. The endeavor has been marred by delays, logistical challenges and wasteful spending.

After photos of Captain Rahmani wearing tan combat boots, a khaki flight suit, a black head scarf and aviator glasses were published in the press when she earned her wings in 2013, she and her relatives in Kabul began receiving death threats. At work in Afghanistan, she said, she felt unsafe because most of her male colleagues held her in contempt. Still, she put on a brave face during the early months of her training in the United States, which began in September 2015.

“I would just want to encourage all of the females around the world, especially in my country where the females have no rights, to just believe in themselves and to have more self-confidence,” Captain Rahmani told an American military journalist in March 2015 during a visit to a Marine Corps air station.

But that resolve has eroded in recent months. The Afghan Air Force stopped paying her salary shortly after the American training program began, Captain Rahmani said. When female workers at an airport in southern Afghanistan were slain this month, she was horrified to hear some members of Parliament quoted as saying the women would have been safe if they had stayed at home.

This new phase of her life in the United States starts with trepidation. “It makes me really nervous,” she said of having her asylum petition pending when President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to bar Muslims from entering the United States. Still, Captain Rahmani said she sees the United States as a place where women can aspire to accomplish great things.

She doesn’t believe that to be true of her homeland. Pursuing pathbreaking goals in today’s Afghanistan as a woman is futile, she said. “It’s better to keep it as a dream and not let it come true.”

In Pakistan, five girls were killed for having fun. Then the story took an even darker twist.

ISLAMABAD, Dec 17 — It was just a few seconds, a video clip of several young women laughing and clapping to music, dressed for a party or a wedding in orange headscarves and robes with floral patterns. Then a few more seconds of a young man dancing alone, apparently in the same room.

The cellphone video was made six years ago, in a village deep in Kohistan, a rugged area of northwest Pakistan. It was the last time the young women, known only as Bazeegha, Sareen Jan, Begum Jan, Amina and Shaheen, have ever been definitively seen alive.

What happened to them remains a mystery. Their fates have been shrouded by cultural taboos, official inertia, implacable resistance from elders and religious leaders suspected of ordering their deaths, and elaborate subterfuges by the families who reportedly carried out those orders.

Even in Pakistan, where hundreds of “honor killings” are reported every year, this case was extreme. According to court filings and interviews with people who investigated it, the families confined the girls for weeks, threw boiling water and hot coals on them, then killed them and buried them somewhere in the Kohistan hills.

Later, when investigators appeared, relatives and community leaders insisted that the girls were still alive and produced a second set of similar-looking girls to prove it. They even disfigured one girl’s thumbprints so she couldn’t be checked against the identity of the victim she was supposed to impersonate.

The story illustrates many of the reasons Pakistani officials have failed to curb the problem of honor killings. These include the cruel sway of traditional tribal councils, known as jirgas, over uneducated villagers; the lengths to which such leaders may go to defy state authority; and the casual worthlessness they assign to the rights, lives and even identities of young women.

Today, the truth is finally beginning to emerge, mostly through the efforts of a few individuals including Afzal Kohistani, a young man whose brothers were killed as a result of the incident. He spent years seeking help from local and provincial officials, then petitioned the Supreme Court. In 2012, his case was dismissed, but last month the high court reopened it and ordered a new investigation that has produced a chilling report.

“This has destroyed my family. The girls are dead, my brothers have been killed and nothing has been done to bring justice or protect us,” said Kohistani, 26, who has received death threats. “I know I will probably be killed, too, but it doesn’t matter,” he said in an interview last week. “What happened is wrong, and it has to change.”

Renewed judicial interest in these long-ago events coincided with another encouraging development: the passage of a new law in parliament that strengthened judicial powers in honor-killing cases. Often, even when such crimes manage to reach the courts, there is no punishment because the law allows victims’ families to “forgive” the perpetrators — who are often their own relatives.

The new law, passed in October, gives judges more ammunition to impose life prison sentences for honor killings in extreme circumstances, allowing them to overrule personal deals by making the murder a crime against the state. But supporters fear that cultural and political resistance will continue to prevent justice being done.

“We don’t know yet whether the law will make much difference. Punishment is still not mandatory, and forgiveness can still negate justice,” said Benazir Jatoi, a lawyer who works on women’s rights. “Until there is more political will, I don’t think the lives of ordinary women threatened with honor violence will change.”

The Kohistan case unfolded in a conservative rural region where social mingling between genders was taboo. The the girls’ participation in a coed singing party was risky enough, but someone posted the video on the Internet, where it spread rapidly, bringing shame on their community before the vast virtual world.

The head of the local jirga, a Muslim cleric, allegedly issued a religious decree ordering the five girls to be killed for dishonoring their tribe, along with the boy seen dancing and every member of his family. There was no resistance from the community. After the girls were disposed of, several brothers of the boy were also caught and killed. The rest of the family, including Kohistani, fled the area.

stood for more than a year. No crimes were reported and no one came to investigate. Kohistani, a college graduate from one of the area’s wealthier families, said he repeatedly approached local and provincial officials, reporting the killings and seeking protection, but was chided for opposing the jirga’s verdict.

“No one in my district or my province has ever spoken against honor killing. They tell me I have defamed my culture, my religion, my tribe,” Kohistani said last week. “Everybody knows what happened, but no one is ready to come forward. This an illegal, unconstitutional and un-Islamic tradition, but people don’t even consider it a crime.”

Finally, with assistance from a lawyer in Islamabad, Kohistani appealed directly to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a liberal activist, personally took up the case in 2012 and ordered two fact-finding missions sent to the remote area by helicopter.

When the visitors demanded to see the girls, their families at first refused, but eventually presented three girls and said they were the ones in the video. The three delegates had no chance to speak to the girls in private, but they compared their faces to images from the video. Two were convinced of the likenesses; the third, Farzana Bari, said she had doubts.

“I was upset and confused. We had no translators who knew their dialect, and everyone there insisted these were the same girls,” recounted Bari, an academic in Islamabad. “When we got back the second time, I filed a dissenting report, but the judge closed the case. I still feel terrible.”

After that, life apparently returned to normal in the village for several years. One journalist sent photos of both groups of girls to analysts in England, who found only a 14 percent chance they were the same individuals. That evidence was taken to a provincial court, but it declined to take action. Kohistani, in the interview, named each of the original girls and their replacements, who he said were similar-looking sisters, cousins and sisters-in-law.

Finally, last month, Kohistani’s crusade got an unexpected break when the Supreme Court, under a new chief justice, agreed to accept his petition. Once more, a fact-finding mission was sent to the village. This time, it included a district judge and two police officers, armed with government ID records with the heights and thumbprints of the missing girls.

What they encountered was hair-raising.
In his report afterwards, Kohistan Judge Shoaib Khan said the village elders were “unanimous” in insisting that the girls were alive. But two of the girls they produced were much younger than the victims, according to their official birth dates. A third could not be identified because both thumbs had been burned; her parents insisted that it was from a cooking accident. He concluded that at least two girls did not match the ones in the video and that the others were probably also imposters.

“All this leads to the suspicious conclusion that something is wrong at bottom,” Khan wrote. The case, he advised, “needs exhaustive inquiry.”

One day last week, Kohistani, wearing a conservative suit and carrying a copy of the judge’s report, walked up to the Supreme Court. He smiled slightly as he shook hands with his attorney, and they went inside to wait for the next hearing.

Scooty revolution: Women learn to ride bikes on Karachi’s mean streets

She was perhaps the only one riding on two wheels in a world full of men. But, that was then. Now, within days, more than a thousand women have filled the application form to learn how to drive a scooty from Mehwish Ekhlaque. The applications are queuing up and they don’t have space for more.

“It has been my dream that a group of women ride with me, both for passion and as a means of commuting,” says Ekhlaque. Social media advertisements of the scooty driving workshops for women, advertised by Super Power Scooty, show Ekhlaque in her element. Helmet on, hair flowing out of it, with the protective gear on, totally in control – she is the image of an empowered woman that so many females in Pakistan want to emulate.

Faiza Saroj, a teacher, is one of Ekhlaque’s first students. Her husband is helping her get a grip of the scooty during recess. “This is a great new initiative. The stigma associated with women driving motorbikes has to end. We need a culture of acceptance for women who want to commute on motorbikes. I would love my daughter to learn to ride motorcycles too,” she says.Yet, stigmas are not easy to end, and the ride has not been easy for Ekhlaque as one of Karachi’s very few women who ride motorbikes regularly. While male-dominated groups of motorcycling aficionados have been encouraging and supportive, she struggles with the idea that motorcycling, both as a hobby and as a means of transport, remains limited to men. “A woman deserves the same sense of control a man gets when he kick-starts a motorbike. I belong on a motorbike. It makes me feel alive,” she expresses. However, Ekhlaque has had to be parts of all-men groups to take morning and evening rides and out-of-city motorcycle trips. “I don’t mind that, but we have to come to a point where women can also do this on their own,” she says.

In a city of over 20 million that still does not have a mass transit system, and a growing number of women pursuing professional careers, it is the need of the day that women have the option of using motorbikes as a means of transport. Yet, Karachi, a city where millions of motorcycles are registered and a much bigger number still unregistered, the number of women riding motorbikes can be counted on fingers. “I’m not learning this for recreation; it’s a need. Do people realise how difficult it is for girls who have to commute every morning from North Karachi to Saddar for work, changing many busses on way?” says Sarwat Muzammil. This young IT entrepreneur is a natural, according to Ekhlaque, and has learnt to ride the scooty within a day. “My father was initially reluctant; he was worried about my safety,” says Muzammil. “But once he met Mehwish, and we explained to him the reasons, he relented, and is in fact now encouraging me,” she shares.

Umair Malik and Haris Khan from the Pirani Group are part of the communications team that designed and marketed these workshops, and the response, they say, is more encouraging than they anticipated. “Mehwish is incredible. We were just testing the waters initially. Within days, we have realised the immense potential that lies in this,” says Malik.
The workshops are going to be conducted for three days every week – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – for the month of December at different locations in the city to enable the maximum number of women to benefit from the opportunity. And they are free of cost. They include both theory and practice. “Traffic laws for riding a motorcycle and safety protocol are part of the workshop,” confirms Ekhlaque.

However, these workshops are on for just a month, and each student will get a chance to learn for only two to three days. They will, at best, just give women a taste of the pleasure of riding a scooty, says Ekhlaque, who feels that she needs at least 10 to 15 classes with each student to bring them to a point that they are able to ride motorbikes confidently on their own in any part of the city, even during rush hours. “My dream is to have a motorcycling institute teaching women how to maneuver two-wheelers. But for that, I need support. I am hoping against hope that someone comes forth and invests in this cause. I need others who believe in this to join hands with me,” she expresses. The time is right. The demand is there. And so is the teacher. Are there any takers?

Pakistan to deport National Geographic ‘Afghan Girl’

Peshawar, Nov 4: An Afghan woman who appeared on a National Geographic cover when she was 12 will be sent back to the war-stricken homeland she fled decades ago, after a Pakistani court ordered that she be deported.

Sharbat Gula, whose striking green eyes were captured in an image taken by photographer Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1985, was arrested last week.

She was accused of living in Pakistan on fraudulent identity papers after a two-year investigation, one of thousands of refugees using fake ID cards.

Gula pleaded guilty on Friday, her lawyer said, and the court sentenced her to 15 days’ imprisonment and a 110,000 Pakistani rupee (£1,319) fine.

“She has already spent 11 days in jail,” Mubashar Nazar said. “We had requested the court release her on humanitarian grounds.”

An Afghan consulate official said the fine imposed on Gula had been paid and she would be released on Monday. “We will take her to Afghanistan in an honourable way on Monday,” said Abdul Hameed Jalili, a counsellor for refugees at the Afghan consulate in Peshawar.

Her four children will also return to Afghanistan. Gula, who has hepatitis C, has said her husband died several years ago.

The National Geographic image of Gula became the most famous cover in the magazine’s history. After a 17-year search, McCurry tracked Gula down to a remote Afghan village in 2002, where at the time she was married to a baker and had three daughters.

Pakistani officials say she applied for the fraudulent ID card in Peshawar in 2014.

Gula’s plight highlights the desperate measures many Afghans take to avoid returning to their homeland, as Pakistan takes a tougher stance on undocumented foreigners.

Pakistan has for decades provided a haven for millions of Afghans after the Soviet invasion of 1979. But since July hundreds of thousands have returned to Afghanistan.

Last month the UN refugee agency said more than 350,000 documented and undocumented Afghan refugees had returned from Pakistan in 2016. It expects a further 450,000 to do so by the year’s end.