Monday, March 25, 2013

Faking It

Pakistani education system has been faking it. For almost forty years now it has been pretending to impart knowledge and slapping degrees on those who survive it.

Since my friends label me as one with an elephant’s memory, let me narrate a couple of stories first.

In Queen Mary’s School in the eighth grade we experienced the first signs of the impending educational downfall when the school fell short of English teachers and we were introduced to Miss. X who said ‘law-fing’ instead of laughing and ‘drawma’ instead of drama. Then in the ninth grade we found ourselves being taught Pakistan studies by  Miss. Y, who had probably never heard the term coup d’état and therefore proceeded to pronounce it as ‘cope-de-at-at’.

Another memory is from Kinnaird College for Women. I recall listening in on a conversation about a certain girl ‘Z’ who it seemed, had shown interest in becoming a grade school teacher. Now Z, besides being a certified ‘fast girl’, lacked the studious diligence one would expect from someone aspiring to tutor younger kids. This is probably why one of my friends commented and I quote:

"میں تو اپنے بچوں کو کبھی اس سکول میں نہ بھیجوں جہاں یہ پڑھا رہی ہو"
(I’d never send my kids to the school where she’d be teaching).

My friend’s judgmental opinion notwithstanding, ‘Z’ was hired by a popular school (chain) system and if not an early retiree, she should be working on our 4th generation right this very moment.

Fast forward two years, in the mandatory English language class at PUCAD (Punjab University College of Art & Design) we laughed in good humor listening to the professor read from a composition turned in by one of the students from Southern Punjab. The topic was simply ‘My first day in the Fine Arts Department’. The student wrote and I quote:

“I live in old hostel. Today morning I wake up and burshd my teeth… ”.

No it’s not a typo. The student did write ‘burshd’ instead of ‘brushed’ probably because  ‘brush’ is ‘bursh’ in Urdu and he got confused or because the teacher responsible for correcting him didn't know it herself just like Miss, X, Miss. Y and Z. How he managed to pass intermediate English in order to enter MFA (a course with an ‘English only’ reading list), was a mystery  but I wasn't going to hold it against him... not until six years later when he graduated and was hired by a Southern Punjab University, thereafter joining the ranks of X, Y & Z.

The last one kills me. In 2008 my sister told me about her six years old twins’ Urdu teacher who showed little Mehr-un-Nisa(مہرالنساء)  to write her name correctly and wrote Mehrooneesa (مہرونیسا).

National education policy 2009 states:

“Our education system must provide quality education to our children and youth to enable them to realize their individual potential and contribute to development of society and nation, creating a sense of Pakistani nationhood, the concepts of tolerance, social justice, democracy, their regional and local culture and history based on the basic ideology enunciated in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

But the 2010-2011 Education Statistics by Academy of Education, Planning and Management make the above pledge sound like a cruel joke.

The report states that 58% of the total number of schools is of primary standard, 15% middle and only 9% are high schools. Inter and degree colleges are 1% each. The report also states that 28% of the available schools in Pakistan are private but they employ more than 42% of the total number of teachers thus creating a huge imbalance in distribution of qualified personnel in the education sector. Moreover these private schools are concentrated in urban areas of the country and enjoy a 64% share in the urban school business. They claim 54% enrollment and employ 64% of the total number of urban teachers. But when it comes to the economically less privileged rural areas the private sector contributes only 16% of the schools and caters for less than 20% of the students living there.

There are more appalling statistics available online through various reports, the worst for me being that of the total enrolled, less than 60% make it to the fifth grade.

In the given scenario we might still want to penalize Jamshed Dasti, Shumaila Rana, Sheikh Waqas Akram and the other 103 accused members of the parliament for ‘lying’ about how they acquired their 'educational certification' but what’s the point? In a country where education is not a right but a commodity, where its quality changes with the price and location and where we have been inducting Xs Ys and Zs in the tutorial staff for the past thirty years isn't the nature of most degrees essentially ‘fake’? Or in Aslam Raisani’s words: "a degree is a degree! Whether fake or genuine, it's a degree! It makes no difference!"

Thursday, March 14, 2013

کوئٹہ کے گندے بچے

بعض خبریں ایسی ہوتی ہیں جن پر انگریزی میں لکھتے ہوۓ شرم آتی ہے. لیکن چونکہ چپ بھی نہیں رہا جاسکتا اور پاکستان کا پردہ رکھنا بھی فرض ہے تو بہتر یہی ہے کہ گھر کی بات گھر کی زبان میں کی جاۓ تاکہ غیر کو انگلی اٹھانے کا موقع نہ ملے.

خبر کچھ یوں ہے کہ کوئٹہ پولیس نے گیارہ بچوں کا گروہ حراست میں لیا جو دہشت گردی کے مختلف واقعات میں ملوث ہے. کپیٹل پولیس کے زبیر محمود کے مطابق تمام بچوں کی عمریں  گیارہ اور اٹھارہ سال کے درمیان ہیں اور تمام کا تعلق انتہائی غربت زدہ گھرانوں سے ہے. انہیں دو سے پانچ ہزار روپے معاوضے کے عوض جاۓ وقوعہ پر دھماکہ خیز مواد پہنچانے کے لئے استمعال کیا جاتا تھا. بچوں کا کہنا ہے کہ وہ اس بات سے لاعلم تھے کہ جو 'پیکٹ' انہیں دیۓ جا رہے ہیں وہ درحقیقت 'بم' ہیں.

اب آئیے چند حقایق پر:
·        پاکستان میں مئی، دوہزاربارہ (May, 2012)  کے اعداد کے مطابق سرکاری طور پر مقرر کردہ کم از کم تنخواہ آٹھ ہزار روپے ہے.
·        اس قانون کا اطلاق ان تمام سرکاری اور غیر سرکاری اداروں پر ہوتا ہے جو پچاس یا اس سے زائد افراد کو ملازمت فراہم کرتے ہیں.
·        ملک کی ستر فیصد (%70) آبادی نچلے طبقے سے تعلق رکھتی ہے یعنی ستر فیصد افراد آٹھ ہزار یا اس سے کم آمدن پر گزر اوقات کرتے ہیں.

·        پاکستان دنیا کا دوسرا بڑا غیر تعلیم یافتہ ملک ہے.
·        ملک میں لگ بھگ تیس ہزار (30,000) سکول صرف سرکاری فائلوں میں واقع ہیں.
·        بارہ ہزار سات سو چورانوے (12,794) سکول کھلے آسمان تلے لگتے ہیں.
·        چونتیس ہزار تین سو چھیاسی (34,386) سکولوں میں بجلی نہیں ہے.
·        تئیس ہزار تین سو انچاس (23,349) میں بیت الخلاء نہیں ہے.
·        پچیس ہزار دو سو سینتیس (25,237) میں پانی کا نلکا نہیں ہے.

Quetta March 13, 2013.—AFP Photo 

ان اعداد وشمار کی موجودگی میں کم از کم اتنا تو ہوتا کہ کوئٹہ کے گیارہ گندے بچوں کو پڑی ہتھکڑیاں قومی اور صوبائی اسمبلیوں کے اجلاس کے شروع اور آخر میں گیارہ گیارہ مرتبہ چھنکائی جاتیں. بلکل اسی طرح جس طرح وظیفے، چلّے اور میلاد کے شروع اور آخر میں درود پڑھا جاتا ہے. 

خبر کہتی ہے کہ یہ بچے یونائٹڈ بلوچ آرمی کے ہاتھوں استمعال ہوتے رہے. میں کہتی ہوں کہ ہو سکتا ہے ہندوستان اور امریکہ کے ہاتھوں بھی استمعال ہوۓ ہوں. پاکستانی طالبان اور لشکر جھنگوی نے بھی انہیں پیکٹ اور دو دو ہزار پکڑاۓ ہوں. کیا فرق پڑتا ہے. حقیقت تو صرف یہ ہے کہ پاکستان میں بچوں کو دو ہزار دے کر بم بھجوایا، رکھوایا اور چلوایا جا سکتا ہے.

شاید اس لئے کہ جن سکولوں میں ان بچوں نے روزانہ پڑھنے جانا تھا وہ سکول فائلوں میں اور فائلیں افسروں کی الماریوں میں بند ہیں.

یا شاید اس لئے کہ جن ماں باپ نے ان پر دو ہزار خرچ کرنے تھے انکی جیب اسکی متحمل نہیں ہو سکتی.

یا پھر اس لئے کہ یہ گیارہ کے گیارہ بہت گندے بچے ہیں، سب قصور انہی کا ہے اور اسی لئے ان سب کو ہتھکڑی پہنا کر لائن میں کھڑا کیا جانا چاہیے تاکہ آئندہ کبھی ایسا نہ کریں.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Matter of Ahmedinejad and Elena Frías de Chávez

The question is not what’s going on between Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez’s mom, because nothing’s going on there. The question is also not what’s going on in the heads of those who are objecting to a certain compassionate embrace because again, there’s nothing going on there either (at least nothing that one can term as sensible thought process). So what remains to be asked is ‘what’s going on with this religion’? And the answer to that is, ‘plenty which many do not want to acknowledge.

The ‘term’ to understand here is ‘na-mahrem’ or ‘ghair-mahrem’.  ‘Mahrem’ or ‘Mahram’ from Arabic means ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited’. Prefix it with ‘na’ from Farsi or ‘ghair’ from Arabic (both meaning 'not') and it should becomes the opposite. But, interestingly, in this case only, instead of changing the prefix enhances and somewhat seals the meaning of the word. A 'na-mehram' therefore is essentially the 'most forbidden'.
Na-mehram is not a word used for just anything. In fact, the term was created as legal terminology for Islamic sharia to interpret the difference between marriage and incest.

The Quran says to the men:
Prohibited to you [for marriage] are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father's sisters, your mother's sisters, your brother's daughters, your sister's daughters, your [milk] mothers who nursed you, your sisters through nursing, your wives' mothers, and your step-daughters under your guardianship [born] of your wives unto whom you have gone in. But if you have not gone in unto them, there is no sin upon you. And [also prohibited are] the wives of your sons who are from your [own] loins, and that you take [in marriage] two sisters simultaneously, except for what has already occurred. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.

And for the women it says:
Al Quran (4:23) An-Nisa
And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.
Al Quran (24:31) An Nur

Where the above examples are not the only in Quran addressing ‘mahrem’ or ‘na-mahrem’; the holy scripture is certainly much less definite about gender based social segregation. And as the above examples show how important it is to maintain the prescribed male female interaction protocol, one wonders why Allah would not instruct about non-sexual physical contact unless it were simply unnecessary. 
However, Islamic sharia does not rely on Quran only. It borrows equally (if not more) from the 'Ahadith' (sayings of and about the prophet narrated by followers) to give 'Sunnah' (prophet's practices) a proper place in the Sharia. The most interesting (read 'thought provoking') fact about Ahadith is that the process of their authentication, compilation and documentation did not begin until almost two centuries after the prophet's passing. for someone like me, this fact alone creates issues with the authority of this 'source'. 

I usually do not go by Ahadith owing to controversies attached to various narrators and authenticity thereof, but since sharia law is defined as a composition of Quran and Ahadith, here are some on shaking hands with a ‘na-mahrem’.

"It is better for one of you to be pierced by an iron needle in the head than to touch the hand of a woman that is not allowed to him." (Tabarani) 

This sin is considered a fornication of the hand, as the Prophet ….. said, "The eyes fornicate, and the hands fornicate, and the feet fornicate, and the intimate parts fornicate." (Ahmad) 

Is there a person purer than Muhammad? And in spite of that he said, "I do not shake women's hands." (Ahmad) He also said, "I do not touch women's hands." (Tabarani) 

Aisha, said, "No by Allah, the Prophet's hand never touched a woman's hand, he used to accept their pledge of allegiance by [hearing their] words only." (Muslim)

Islamic sharia proceeds to further exact boundaries as in the chart below, most of which are not to be found in the Quran:

As far as the Quran goes, there isn't any confusion regarding gender differentiation, discrimination, and lopsided hierarchical power between Muslim men and women.

Men are superior and therefore in charge of women (An-Nisa 4:34).
Men inherit twice as much as women (An-Nisa 4:11)
Testimony of 2 women equals that of 1 man in legal matters (Al-Baqrah 2:282) 
Men can 'keep' up to 4 wives at a given time (An-Nisa 4:3)

Not to mention the convenience that men have in divorcing, independent travel and the exclusive honor of leading the prayers. Last one so much so that even a mother has to stand behind instead of next to her son in a prayer congregation. 

Surprisingly there is nothing which would prevent compassionate hugging and sympathetic hand patting.

So coming back to the questions above and the hoopla thereof, I want to humbly suggest that other than wisdom, there is much pleasure in reading and learning. Especially about what we let constitute our lives and what we follow blindly. Not only does it prevent one from hitting at will sometimes it brings absolute vindication.

Ahmedinnejad doesn't have much to lose here. His term ends in August 2013 and that will be that. As for those who want to slap him for his bad behavior, the Quran says:

“It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by ALLAH and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys ALLAH and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path". 
Al Quran (33:36) Al-Ahzab

As ambiguous as these lines are, I would want to conclude that judging muslims should sometimes leave judgement to the divine  omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient being.   

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The myth of equal opportunity

Availability vs Accessibility

Hugo Chavez passed away yesterday.
Since the year 2000 his socialist government was focused on achieving the UN adopted Millennium Development Goals. Statistics confirm that Venezuela under Chavez showed consistent improvement towards each goal and was predictably set to achieve its targets for the first deadline of 2015.

On the evening of the 2002 Venezuelan Coup d’état attempt I was sitting with some people at TGI Fridays near Valco Mall in Cupertino. It was the time when Silicon Valley’s ‘.com’ bubble had already sprung many leaks. Amongst those present at our table was a young Indian entrepreneur, founder member of a startup, struggling for the next round of funding; hence not in a good mood. So when the discussion drifted from Venezuela to socialism I made the mistake of opining how Pakistan and India could use the socialist model to combat poverty. The young Indian entrepreneur did not receive this well. 

I am not sure if it was the ‘socialist’ suggestion itself which made him visibly upset (since at that time CPI (M) was still strong in West Bengal) or my reference to ‘poverty, Pakistan and India’ in the same sentence. Whatever the reason/s the young man wasted no time in declaring me incompetent of making such a comment and proceeded to bullet spray me with numbers (mostly percentages) ‘meant to depict’ the good future and fortune of the Indian common man. The few I remember were:

‘India offers everything, malls, clubs, nightlife’ … probably correct.
Everyone has access to a car, a computer and a cell phone’ … not correct.

I was surprised (read ‘frustrated’) to see how easily the word ‘access’ is confused with the word ‘available’ specially at the hands of one who is in the business of convincing Hedge Funds about the viability of his product.

This is what the dictionary says:
Suitable or ready for use; of use or service; at hand.

The ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use.

A few examples could be:
  • Alcohol is available in my house but my kids do not have access to it.
  • BMW cars are available in Pakistan but my mom’s gardener does not have access to one.
  • Opportunity to create another 27 storied residence in Mumbai is available in India but my dearest friend Manju does not have access to it.

And dare I say that at that time in TGF Fridays 
  • our Indian entrepreneur's targeted hedge fund had dollars available, but just not accessible to him. 

In other words availability does not guarantee access. Access requires a just and useful distribution of means which would eventually ensure that opportunities are availed on equal grounds.

Here in the US we make the same confused mistake while defining ‘Equal Opportunity’. We like to be called the champions of equal rights but shirk and scream ‘bloody socialist’ when asked to create the financial equilibrium much needed to determine equality of any kind. Obviously in our culture ‘granting’ equal rights does not take priority over personal property, income and inheritance. Sadly in this case, the individual, not the society, takes preference. 

The idea of equality and Equal Opportunity might be very appealing to most people but its details and mechanics often put the same people in a double bind. Where Chavez’s socialistic ways brought a nation together, there were those few who fled the country in disagreement. While Venezuela mourns for the one who helped it come out of poverty and stand on its own two feet by putting domestic progress first, Venezuelan expats in Florida cheered his death over beers. 

Allow me to say this:
Through creation of societies and social institutions humans have been able to march on broader avenues towards bigger goals. ‘Celebrating’ the death of a human defeats the purpose of being civilized. It is very similar to a child rejoicing the death of a parent who expected him/her to support weaker siblings so they could also become strong. To achieve that purpose the parent enforced rules against hogging resources and privileges with which the child disagreed and ran away. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Of Political Correctness, Profiling & Social Disparity

Political correctness can sometimes be stifling; more so under pressures of passion. The higher a society rates on being cultured the smaller and tighter become the vents for simple retorts and spontaneous reactions. Or at least that’s the general idea.

It’s amusingly interesting how political correctness goes hand in hand with freedom of speech in this country. In my fifteen years here I've witnessed the worst of freedom of speech in ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ and the best of political correctness in the use of the word ‘different’.

It’s not an inviolable etiquette though; in fact it’s one which is expected to be forfeited in trying and maddening times. It’s also a career builder in the entertainment industry particularly when entertainment is not the purpose. Bill Maher rode the high tide while being politically incorrect, until he was taken off air in 2002. Rush Limbaugh doesn't and hasn't ever cared and Bill O'Reilly apparently follows a different etiquette where all is fair in love, war and politics.   

But, from where I come, political correctness is not a huge thing, probably because there it is a very homogenized society. Though color doesn't define race in Pakistan (Pakistanis are a mixture of many races) there are various other details which take care of keeping people divided both laterally and horizontally. If the Irish think they are always unfairly profiled as ‘stupid’ in jokes, they should see how Pakistanis combine homophobia with humor when the punch line to most Pathan jokes is a comment on their ‘presumed gay fetish’.

Then there is the “endearing” political incorrectness. My mother calls my younger son ‘baingan’ (eggplant) because he is dark skinned… and so is she. When we were younger my sister was often called ‘moti’ (fat) because she was chubby, I was called ‘lissi’ (sickly) because I was thin and our cousin with severe Down syndrome was called ‘jhalla’ (retard), because he was.

Out of the four examples above the first three can probably be justified on some level using Pakistani reasoning. The last one is cruel; and it’s from there that I begin wondering about what is that which demands political correctnessIs it simply sensitivity and empathy present in some people by nature or is it a lesson in how to train one’s self to when to rein in? Is it a matter of being excessively passionate or a case of personal preferences? Probably all, but I want to add another ‘reason/dimension’ here. I think that most (if not all) political incorrectness occurs due to a hidden, ever present  sense/need of superiority which makes itself visible for just that moment when the deed happens.

Let’s for example take a regular day to day situation involving food. I have yet to come across a society as morally invested in food preservation as Pakistani people. Food is not to be thrown away PERIOD. We are taught as kids to serve ourselves less than we think we desire to ensure a clean plate at the end of the meal. We must eat neatly so if anything is left on our plate can be consumed by a sibling, a servant or a beggar. We are accustomed to picking up food if we find any on the ground, kiss and touch it to our eyes and place it somewhere higher where the birds or squirrels can get it.

BUT, if the fish smells off at a restaurant in Lahore my expression and body language will show my displeasure and after summoning the waiter I will say something like:
دیکھ تو لیا کریں کیا سرو کر رہے ہیں آپ لوگ. اسقدر بو آرہی ہے. باسی مچھلی ہی  کھانی ھوتی تو ہم یہاں کیوں آتے؟"
(Why don’t you guys check what you are serving? It’s stinking horribly!  Why would we come here to eat if we wanted stale fish?)
Some might want to go a little further to show their annoyance and add something like:
اتنی اتنی قیمتیں لکھتے ہیں منیو پہ اور کھانا دیتے ہیں گندہ بو والا؟ شرم نہیں آتی آپکو؟
(You put such exorbitant prices on your menu and serve filthy stinking food; aren’t you ashamed of yourself?)

I wouldn’t do that in San Ramon. In San Ramon if the fish smells off at a restaurant I’ll say something like:
“Would you please ask the chef to check if this smells alright?”

Why on earth does that happen? Why am I so polite to the San Ramon waiter but not to the one in Lahore? Is one of the reasons because I know that the waiter in San Ramon is, for all practical purposes, my equal in rights and therefore is entitled to the same treatment that I’d prefer for myself. He/she could be a neighborhood kid waiting tables at night and going to law school in the morning (or vice versa) and, quite capable of eating meals in a similar or a better restaurant.

But in Lahore I know that kids destined for law schools do not take summer jobs or night jobs to pay their fees. Exceptions aside, those who wait tables in Lahore are there because that’s the best money making opportunity they could get. Therefore, the one serving me will have to be one of the following:
  • ·         From a far off rural village without light and running water, trying to work his way up a very very steep socioeconomic ladder with really far apart rungs.
  • ·         A newlywed with a pregnant wife in a small one room flat, trying to work his way up a very very steep socioeconomic ladder with really far apart rungs.
  • ·         An older son with aging parents and unwed sisters, trying to work his way up a very very (blah blah blah).

And I fear that this presumed knowledge controls my reaction. I stay polite to the San Ramon waiter because I do not feel superior to him but I take rude liberties with the Lahore waiter because if he is waiting tables then no way in hell could he be a rung above me on the afore mentioned socioeconomic ladder.

The above example might appear to be contrived/exaggerated to some but the fact remains that in Pakistan wealth defines social status and social status defines eligibility. The chasms between social classes are abysmal and human rights change definition from one social class to another. Therefore a separate bathroom outside the house for for all domestic helpers is not a polite gesture acknowledging their need for privacy but a silent announcement that they do not qualify for the same as their employers. The kids from the servant quarters may play with the kids living in the house but may not sit on the sofas and chairs inside the house and may not eat with their ‘superior’ friends’. Maids and nannies may accompany the ladies and kids to eating out sprees but should sit at a distant table while the family and friends dine.

I’m not going to address the sadness triggered by the above observations because that should go under a blog post titled “You are rich because I am poor”. I would stick to the discussion and move on from socioeconomic superiority to that involving ‘intellect and perception’. In this category, I’m afraid, between Pakistan and the US neither is better than the other and both are equally obnoxious. The realities may differ but the sentiment remains the same, consistently revolving around the notion of ‘I am better than you’.

Conducting his show on Racial Profiling, on May 7, 2002, Bill Maher had a panel of four including Kevin Nealon (SNL), Adel Iskander (Middle East media scholar), Salman Ahmad (musician/singer Junoon) and Arianna Huffington.  While in a heated argument  Maher gestured towards Iskander and Ahmed collectively addressing them as Muslims to which Iskander objected and accused Maher of profiling. Apparently Iskander’s Egyptian heritage and his connection with Al-Jazeera had led Maher to assume that he was a Muslim. “I’m a Christian” Iskander stated leaving his host visibly confused for a few seconds.

I considered this an error on part of the research team of 'Politically Incorrect' until Maher served us with ‘Religulous’ in 2008. The ‘research free’ and ‘argument less’ content of the film made me wonder if the guffaw on 5/7/2002 wasn't erroneous research but actually a reflection of Maher’s blatant derision of ideas and thoughts he personally considers wrong?
Why does Bill Maher use ridicule instead of facts? Why does Rush Limbaugh insult instead of argue? Why does Bill O’Reilly shout instead of talk? And had they behaved the same if they were not powerful known names in the media?

Pakistan has come a long way from the time when eating utensils in the use of 'Christian house servants' were neither shared nor touched nor placed with other utensils in the kitchen.
US has come a long way from use of racial and gender slurs.
But, on a certain level, there remains a mindset which secretly nurtures a superiority complex and we catch its glimpses every now and then in political incorrectness and profiling reminding us of numerous disparities among the human race.