The F-Words: Faith, Fight And Feminism

This new era, driven by technological advances, has made activism more visible and exploitation more marketable. But the issues remain the same.

The F-Words: Faith, Fight And Feminism

I was born into a Muslim family in undivided Pakistan. So, before I could utter a word and think for myself (I do not know at what age exactly human beings, especially those in prominent positions, can think for themselves), I was bestowed with a name, identity, ethnicity, language, and faith that I did not choose. Perhaps this happens to all newborns. 

However, there was another aspect to my preordained identities, and this also occurs with millions of children born in war and conflict zones. I was assigned a side in a conflict, which I only recognised much later in my journey as a rights activist and professional, growing up and loving present-day Pakistan.

My mother, born in Munger city in the state of Bihar, grew up in Chittagong, Comilla, and Dhaka, and she speaks Bengali with native proficiency. My father was born in Sarai Saho Village, Chapra, and worked in academia in Rajshahi and Dhaka. Both of them had already experienced two migrations in united India. They apparently integrated into their new homeland, the then East Pakistan. 

However, they had to opt for a third migration, driven by their affection for West Pakistan and its army, and they faced the consequences of their Bengali friends' anger in former East Pakistan. 

They left behind all their assets and their loving family members, some of whom were later killed or became prisoners of war. They also left their newly built home in Muhammadpur, Dhaka, where ZA Bhutto once held a meeting. He was denied permission to hold a public gathering, and some common friends requested my father to provide his space—the hall that he had built for mushairaas and literary activities but never got a chance to use. 

They arrived in Islamabad after staying in Karachi for a while with me and my younger sister, a little before the fall of Dhaka in 1971. I share this to express my deep empathy for those who experience banishment, marginalization, displacement, migration, and hatred due to being misunderstood

I am starting this monologue, not a conversation, to offer a perspective through the lens of an ordinary person like myself. Who is my audience? Perhaps none are interested in my reminiscences and narratives. Nevertheless, I feel the need to draw attention to the duality and selectiveness of rights-based activism and advocacy, as well as the interpretation of our history and foreign policies.

Most social media influencers from Pakistan can be broadly categorized into two groups. The first comprises high-profile individuals from the realms of activism, academia, analysis, authorship, and diplomacy, primarily based in developed countries like the US, UK, etc. They express their opinions in a dispassionate manner, reflecting their high emotional intelligence, and sometimes, they mock less-educated Pakistanis with a common, emotional perspective. 

The second group consists of emotionally driven individuals, ranging from the less-educated to the highly accomplished, who comment on almost every global and national issue. What do they have in common? 

Their collective amnesia and/or ignorance concerning the stranded Pakistani Biharis serve as a common factor, and on occasions, many do not miss the opportunity to express their disdain for "muhajirs." This is the politest word, though there are many other derogatory references to identify them. 

In my writings, I have made it explicitly clear that I do not align with MQM-type politics and have voiced my discontent regarding the opportunistic Urdu speakers in Karachi. Our native language is not Urdu but Bihari or Bhojpuri. 

However, it is true that many people who migrated from Muslim minority provinces of India in 1947 are collectively referred to as 'Urdu-speaking Mohajirs' in Pakistan. 

I should stop here, as I realize that I may never convince those who are unwilling to pay attention to our issues, and I may never find compassion. Nonetheless, I am writing out of a sense of duty to document the perspective and position of my side. It is important to acknowledge that my side must have made mistakes, as can be inferred from the historical fact that this community has always loved Pakistan unconditionally. 

Sadly, some 300,000 - 400,000 of us are still residing in ghettos in Bangladesh, as Pakistan abandoned them mercilessly. One Pakistani dictator even referred to them as "Bhikaris"(beggars)  and stripped them of their nationality. Perhaps the younger generation may become interested in delving deeper into the history of this dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, beyond what can be found on Google. Ironically, "Zia" means "light," and "Haq" means "right" in Urdu, yet the man embodied neither.

When General Zia toppled the elected government in 1977, all Pakistanis were compelled to reidentify as Muslims, many were excluded from the fold of Islam. Strangely enough, over the years, my repulsion for this military dictator has diminished. As an honest and undiplomatic activist, I feel compelled to admit this change in my heart. 

However, this is not due to a ratification of his autocracy. 

Rather, my rejection and deep-seated repulsion have increasingly shifted towards those who supported him, strengthened his position, and benefitted from him. It is easy to guess who these individuals were. Sorry, I used the wrong tense. In fact, the supporters and torchbearers of Zia are still very much present and influential in our politics, bureaucracy, journalism, and civil society at large.

Today, many engage in discussions about the status of women and the state of human rights, with a particular focus on forced disappearances, through tweets, podcasts, music, art, street protests, and press conferences. 

Many young feminists, hailing from both privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds, actively participate in women's empowerment movements, with or without financial resources or funding, and they frequently make headlines. Some even receive prestigious fellowships, awards, and access to the Diplomatic Club. I am glad for all of them. 

However, the extent to which this activism actually benefits the affected populations remains a matter for evaluation. The new era, driven by technological advances, has made activism more visible and exploitation more marketable. Still, the issues themselves are not new. 

Zia's regime changed the topics of conversation that I could recall from my childhood memories. In hushed whispers, there were mentions of the disappearance of certain academics, a few poets, and writers. 

I distinctly remember the disappearance of the young academic Tariq Ahsan from QAU, Islamabad, who was the son of the famous poet Ahsan Ali Khan, and the story writer and educationist Begum Akhtar Jamal. Tariq was fortunate enough to return, although in poor health, and he left the country afterward. 

By the way, I used ‘a few poets and writers' because a significant number were neither brave enough nor foolish enough to reject the Academy of Letters banquets organized on the instructions of the bureaucracy. 

The introduction of the new system also affected my music class, as it replaced the legendary Madam Azori's piano lessons with compulsory Arabic lessons. While I have some satisfaction with my grasp of the Arabic language, I do not view this change as valid, and I still harbour regret that I could not receive music education in school. 

The privileged students have already enrolled in private dance and music classes, but for students like me, hailing from urban, modern, middle-class backgrounds, the outcome has been less than favourable.

The good thing was that, despite many betrayals in personal and professional spheres, I consciously refrained from becoming a bitter and unfair person. Throughout my life, I have stood in solidarity with oppressed individuals. 

I never saw myself as a Bihari activist; instead, I considered myself an empathetic human being.

It is only in recent years that I have started writing for this unfortunate, unheard community because I believe that ignoring their struggles would be an injustice to my activism. I must disclose that there are times when I long for external validation, hoping that one day, the remarkable and impactful mighty ones will also detect the trauma faced by raped Pakistani Bihari women and the ordeals of stranded Pakistanis.

They have made immense sacrifices for the love of their country, giving up everything for their connection to the land, and have not witnessed Pakistani planes coming to their rescue. I understand that addressing this issue is not just challenging but almost insurmountable. The plight of stranded Pakistani Biharis in Bangladesh remains a disregarded concern for Pakistan's intellectuals and establishment. Additionally, who would want to dedicate time to an issue often dismissed as non-newsworthy?

I pause my recollections of a haunting and painful past to turn our attention to the harsh realities of our contemporary world. One such reality is that speaking about 'human rights,' class sensitivity, deprivation, coercion, and the struggles of the oppressed is not only fashionable but also a prerequisite for engaging with influential institutions across various sectors. 

Another concern is the questionable silence of our Pakistani literary figures. Furthermore, a significant majority of activists are closely tied to the words and tweets of elite and renowned activists, leading to a lack of independent activism. The complete truth often goes unspoken, and the voice representing everyone's interests remains relatively unknown.

Looking from a global perspective, it is expected that most influential celebrities in general and Nobel peace laureates in particular, should confront pressing global concerns, including Israel's actions and the Palestinian situation. 

Elite Pakistani feminists and liberals are also encouraged to break free from their partialities. The careful and calculated activism does lead to fame, fortune, and positions. 

However, becoming a true champion of human rights is a matter of responsibility. Feminism embodies the principles of social justice and equality. Speaking up for rights is not a business; that is why it is essential to rise above all biases and choose to stand with all the innocents of the world who were never free to choose their faith, freedom, and foreign policy.

Pakistani intersectional feminist Dr. Rakhshinda Perveen is a volunteer campaigner for causes like anti-dowry violence legislation, gender- & marital-status-based taxation and creating empathy for the forgotten “missing Pakistanis” aka Biharis. She can be reached via Twitter: @Kafekaam