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How many steps from my 37 lashes?

In news rooms,board rooms and drawing rooms across Pakistan,a new conversation is finally underway.

Written by Huma Yusuf |
April 9, 2009 11:53:25 pm

In news rooms,board rooms and drawing rooms across Pakistan,a new conversation is finally underway. As the war on terror ceases to be a fringe phenomenon,restricted to the tribal areas and Swat Valley,the political is becoming disturbingly personal. Discussions about spreading militancy and the war on terror are no longer peppered with contentious acronyms — ISI,CIA,RAW,NATO,TTP — as conspiracy theories have been replaced with genuine concern.

Pakistanis are increasingly acknowledging that the war on terror is a war within,a war for us to fight,and a war that we might yet lose. Recent terrorist attacks have targeted Pakistanis on Pakistani soil,and with each assault,death tolls rise,the numbers of wounded soar,and the arbitrariness of the targets overwhelms. In Manawan,13 were killed in an assault on a police academy. In Jamrud,a suicide bombing during Friday prayers killed 70 people and left 125 injured. In Dera Ismail Khan,an attack on a funeral procession killed 32 and left over 145 people injured. In Islamabad,what should have been the safest spot in the heart of the city — the barracks of the Diplomatic Protection Department — was targeted by a suicide bomber who left eight people dead. And in Chakwal,a formerly peaceful Punjabi district,a suicide attack at a Shia mosque killed 26 people and injured dozens — stoking sectarian tensions where previously there were none.

Not surprisingly,national morale is sinking by the day. When Pakistanis see Muslims at prayer and families in mourning being slaughtered by the dozen and wake up to realise that their protectors cannot protect themselves,how could it not? But let’s be honest: in trying times,people have the uncanny ability to become desensitised,and a fine line between intellectual anxiety and personal despair is somehow maintained. The Pakistani Taliban’s promise of two suicide attacks a week until drone attacks in the tribal areas cease has forced many to grit their teeth and reconfigure lives lost as collateral damage. Death tolls,after all,can be reduced to impersonal statistics.

For that reason,even as the immediacy of the Taliban threat registers,you’ll hear people in Karachi say that they’re grateful they do not live near security checkpoints or police stations — the Taliban’s favourite targets. These people wrongly assume that there is still method to this madness and are deluding themselves into thinking that they are safe. But even these defence mechanisms are easily breached.

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The wide circulation of a video clip showing a teenaged girl being flogged by Taliban militants in Swat was one of the first instances in which militant rhetoric became a humanised reality. Instead of disembodied limbs and buildings reduced to rubble,Pakistanis were forced to confront Chand Bibi’s screams as they reverberated on private television channels. This victim of the Taliban had a voice,a story,a specific circumstance. Unlike a casualty figure,she was hard to put out of one’s mind.

And so Pakistanis reacted: activists marched,secular politicians condemned,and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court issued a suo moto notice regarding the atrocity. As a nation,we briefly mustered the courage to fight the good fight against the Taliban. Since then,however,the video clip has been denounced as a fake,right-wing clerics have warned against questioning Sharia law,and Chand Bibi has both denied that the flogging ever occurred and refused to appear in the Supreme Court,saying that she observes the veil and thus will not leave home. In other words,Pakistanis have seen their secular politics and democratic institutions fail to undermine the high-handedness of the Taliban.

This public defeat is being compounded by personal fear. In Karachi,several women wearing the traditional shalwar-kameez have recently been approached by bearded men — who in some cases have been armed — and warned against leaving the house without covering themselves from head to toe. As bad news spills in from all corners,many Pakistani women are beginning to wonder,‘how many steps away am I from my 37 lashes?’

Indeed,signs abound that Pakistanis have internalised the muddled values and intimidations of the Taliban and are now beginning to articulate their fears in strange ways. Cultural compromise is becoming one of the most common ways in which to safeguard oneself against militancy even while getting on with life as usual. The result is both absurd and worrying: a colleague recently attended his daughter’s sports day at a private,English-medium school in Karachi. There he saw young girls participating in sports events wearing headscarves on top and little white shorts below. The other day,I stopped off at a salon offering a beauty package that emphasises well-shaped eyebrows,long eyelashes,and doe eyes free of puffiness or dark circles — that is,a vanity treatment for veiled women. While Pakistanis might try to laugh off these quirks,they’re now forced to admit that their society is becoming unrecognisable,even to them.

The writer is features editor at ‘Dawn’

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