REVIEW By Muneeza Shamsie

Aboard the democracy train: a journey through Pakistan’s last decade of democracy
By Nafisa Hoodbhoy, London, Anthem Press, 2011, 268 pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 0 8572 8967 4

In 1984, Nafisa Hoodbhoy became the first woman reporter at Pakistan’s leading English daily, Dawn, which had hitherto employed women journalists on its full-time staff only at desk jobs, as editors and subeditors. For a young woman reporter to travel to remote, conservative areas of Pakistan was both unusual and courageous. Hoodbhoy’s lively, and at times daring, eyewitness account provides many insights into Pakistan during her 16 years at Dawn.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto returned in triumph to Pakistan from exile, after the mysterious death of General Zia ul Haq, the military dictator. Hoodbhoy was sent to cover Bhutto’s historic election campaign aboard her “Democracy Train” (a phrase coined by Bhutto) which was received at stations by tumultuous crowds. Hoodbhoy’s gender proved a great advantage: as the only woman reporter present, she enjoyed greater access than her colleagues to the young, unmarried Bhutto.

Over the next decade, Hoodbhoy observed at first hand the rise and fall of Bhutto’s two short-lived governments. These alternated with the equally brief tenures of her political rival Nawaz Sharif. The real power broker remained the Pakistan Army. Hoodbhoy’s chilling account reveals complex political machinations as well as the many shortcomings of the Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments, including flagrant corruption.

Hoodbhoy goes on to explore the terrifying miscarriages of justice created by Ziaul Haq’s notorious Hudood Ordinance, which does not differentiate between rape and adultery, and which neither Bhutto nor Sharif repealed. In the fierce battle for justice waged by women activists and civil rights groups, Hoodbhoy’s press reports played a crucial role.

Hoodbhoy reveals she met her future husband Javed Bhutto “while hunting for his sister’s killer” (115). Her harrowing and riveting tale names the murderer, a powerful politician, and also describes his ability to use power, influence and money to subvert the processes of law and have the charges dropped.

Hoodbhoy also records the ethnic tensions in Karachi between Sindhis and Mohajirs (migrants who came from India after Partition), as well as the ethnic riots of the 1990s and the rise of the controversial Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). However, Zubeida Mustafa, then assistant editor of Dawn, says in her review of Hoodbhoy’s book:

“but she [Hoodbhoy] appears to have difficulty in getting to the roots of the ethnic problem. For instance the impression conveyed is that the MQM was a party of the Mohajirs with which the entire community identified itself. Her account hints at a degree of polarisation between her Sindhi-speaking and Urdu-speaking colleagues in Dawn which is far from true. The fact is that the MQM did not draw all Mohajirs to its fold. Many intellectuals as well as politically astute Mohajirs chose not to throw their loyalties with the party. (Mustafa 7)

Mustafa also points out that Hoodbhoy’s account does not mention MQM threats to Dawn and its “Mohajir” journalists for articles that incurred the party’s displeasure. Similar elisions and oversimplifications are reflected in Hoodbhoy’s historical analysis of Partition and the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto era. The book also suffers from a rather self-conscious and, at times, self-congratulatory tone, aimed at explaining Pakistan and herself to foreigners.

Hoodbhoy migrated to the United States in 2000 and her narrative covers terrorism and violence in Pakistan thereafter. The true value of her book, however, lies in the events that she reported and witnessed and which provide the key to the discordant forces battling for control in Pakistan today.

To read the original article, click on the URL below:

Journal of Postcolonial Writing
2012, iFirst Review, 1–2
ISSN 1744-9855 print/ISSN 1744-9863 online

One Reply to “REVIEW By Muneeza Shamsie”

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