Geopolitics

Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan: Perils Of A Diplomatic Triangle

Russia's foreign minister visited Pakistan for the first time in nine years — just in time for the deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. It points to an important change of actors in one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world.

On April 6, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Pakistan to lead conversations on Afghan peace, military supplies and cooperation in the nuclear sector. It was the first visit by a Russian official to the country since 2012.

"We can confirm that Russia is willing to continue to assist in strengthening the anti-terrorist potential of Pakistan, including supplying them with appropriate equipment," Lavrov said at a press conference, as Russian daily Kommersant reports. According to Lavrov, Russia and Pakistan will continue practicing regular joint tactical exercises to combat terrorism and piracy together.

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Why Women's Rights And Pakistani-Indian Peace Go Hand In Hand

From Rwanda to South Africa, examples abound of countries ending conflicts by boosting women's rights and creating spaces for them to assume more leadership roles.

-OpEd-

ISLAMABAD — Cricket legend Imran Khan's swearing-in as prime minister of Pakistan has opened the way for a positive shift in Indian-Pakistani relations. But such a shift will happen only if both sides think differently about the relationship and go beyond the tried and tested approaches of the past.

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Gwadar Port, Where Chinese And Pakistani Ambitions Meet

GWADAR — Landing at Gwadar International Airport is a bit like landing on the moon. The tarmac lies in the middle of a desert, and there's no other aircraft in sight except for a C-130 from the United Arab Emirates Air Force. The place seems all but abandoned.

In the area around the airport, houses under construction are scattered among dunes and bushes. Closer to the center of Gwadar, sand tracks run between the houses. This port city in the province of Balochistan on the Arabian Sea, is one of Pakistan"s poorest. The population lives on fishing. The beach from which the boats leave is covered with garbage, wrapped in a putrid smell.

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India And Pakistan, A Virtual Return To History Of Shared Troubles

Using social media platforms, professors from Pakistan and India developed a course that looks at the two countries' histories without nationalistic biases.

LAHORE — "We are all a part of the same rhetoric, the same story, which has been told to us very differently," says Duaa Rehman, a freshman from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She's one of over 20 students, from both India and Pakistan, who recently concluded a course on South Asian history which was co-taught by an Indian professor, Pallavi Raghavan from the OP Jindal Law School in Sonepat and Ali Usman Qasmi, from LUMS in Lahore, Pakistan.

Same but different: That's how we've come to understand the cultural similarities that tie us to our neighbor. We love their musicians, they love our movies (even when we don't return that love), we love their suits and their male celebrities; we all love cricket. We love talking about how similar we are, we equally love avoiding the conversation about how we came to be different.

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Sources
Bismillah Geelani

Wagah The Dog? The Daily Paradox Of Pakistani-Indian Border Ritual

WAGAH — Here at the India-Pakistan border, thousands of men, women and children have gathered to watch a stunning ritual: On either side of the border, military march back and forth, as music roars and crowds cheer.

Known either as the Wagah border ceremony, the lowering of the flags, or "Beating Retreat" ceremony, the ritual has been performed every day since 1959, as flags are lowered around sunset. "Summer, winter or in any kind of storm, whatever the weather or political conditions, the parade doesn't stop," said Sumer Singh, former Deputy Inspector General of India's Border Security Force (BSF).

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Geopolitics
Naeem Sahoutara

Erdogan’s Purge Stretches All The Way To Pakistan

KARACHI — A Turkish family is rushing out to a weekend protest in this populous Pakistani city; outside the Karachi Press Club, Turkish residents release doves as a sign of peace; 25 Turkish teachers plea for safety in Pakistan. These Turkish families have lived here for over two decades, teaching at a network of international schools led by Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamic cleric from Turkey, who currently lives in the United States.

In the last 16 months, 28 Gülen schools and colleges across Pakistan have been shut down under pressure from the government in Ankara. Staff members now face deportation and some say they are feeling unsafe in Pakistan for the first time.

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Society
Fifi Haroon*

When A Movie About Rape Gets Past Pakistan's Censors

Cleared by the Central Board of Film Censors on appeal, top Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor's 'Verna' is a flawed film, but a wake-up call for a nation obsessed by patriarchal honor.

"Power di game saari, power di game ah, Ullu di pathi tenu samajh kyun ni aandi ae?"

(It's a power game, all a power game, Don't you get it you, foolish girl?)

The beat of Xpolymer Dar's rap theme rips through the cinema hall as the film opens. The lyrics, by the film's director are like a whip on a horse's back. Rape/politics/power-games and more. This is explosive stuff.

I am watching Verna, perhaps the most eagerly awaited film in Pakistan this year. As usual with its celebrated director Shoaib Mansoor (Khuda Ke Liye, 2007, Bol, 2011), it was shot under tight-lipped secrecy. As the film progresses, there are many predictable gasps, and a few unexpected giggles. Perhaps the gravity of the topic makes people awkward. Or has Mansoor, inexplicably and accidentally got it horribly wrong?

A few days before the release of this controversial film, based on the rape of a young teacher played by Pakistan's best-known star Mahira Khan, no one was quite sure it would even be viewed by a Pakistani audience. The Lahore première was cancelled at the last minute by Shoman Films (Mansoor's production house) and HUM TV, the film's distributors on account of non-certification.

The Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), one of three in the country, was not inclined to let it go as is. Five members of the 21-member board, which controls what passes before people's eyes in Islamabad as well as cantonment areas throughout the country, saw the film. Four of those objected. Of the 12 cuts reportedly requested, all referred to the political content in the film and not the physicality or social context of the rape. Not even the hard revenge story that escalates as the film progresses. Mansoor refused to comply with the board's demands and asked for an appellate review. The social media uproar over the ban helped; Pakistani Twitter rallied against the idea of muting or cutting the film. Verna was reviewed and certified for general release.

Simultaneously in India, Rajputs raged over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati with lead star Deepika Padukone's life being threatened by hardliners. Padukone chose this time to support her counterpart in Pakistan. When asked in an interview about the ban on Verna she said: "Sad that a small section of people do not understand the power of cinema and what it can do to the world."

Of course, it could be said that the powers-that-be in Pakistan fully understand the power of cinema, which is why they were so anxious about a film that accuses a governor's son of rape.

Cinema in Pakistan had dwindled during the 1980s and 1990s due to a combination of unrelated circumstances; the Zia state's clamp down on filmmaking meant that producers had to deposit about 20% of the budget into government coffers as safeguard before initiating filming. Already burdened by the onslaught of Indian films becoming widely — and illicitly — available on VHS tapes in video markets for pennies a night, Pakistani producers increasingly found making films unaffordable and untenable.

In 2007 Shoaib Mansoor's Khuda Ke Liye, a gripping account of a young musician's radicalisation, heralded the return of Pakistani cinema and the arrival of Fawad Khan in films. Many see Mansoor's debut movie (ostensibly funded by the PR wing of the Pakistan army) as a game-changer and a watershed in Pakistani cinema. It's rather affectionately called a "revival" by journalists and the film fraternity alike; though the filmmakers who make up the fraternity have changed.

Crucially this is not a revival of Lollywood, the movie industry based in the heart of the Punjab, where films are now rarely made. Shaan Shahid's remake of Mahesh Bhatt's Arth being one of the exceptions. The spotlight has moved to Karachi, where almost all the new directors are either film school graduates or from the advertising world. Others like Nadeem Baig — whose films Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (2016) and Punjab Nahin Jaoungi (2017) have been the two biggest blockbusters in Pakistani film history — have traveled to film via successful TV serials like ‘Dillagi" (2016). To all of these young Turks, Shoaib Mansoor is sort of the paterfamilias of modern Pakistani cinema.

Mansoor, however, has become increasingly reclusive after his success, choosing to live away from the rest in the more sanitized environs of the capital, Islamabad. He doesn't give interviews, and doesn't really discuss his work with the film fraternity or the media. While Mansoor is reported to have consulted with the War against Rape (WAR) organisation, which focuses on activism around sexual violence against women in Pakistan, he did not show the film to them or seek an opinion on the story he chose to tell. Hence the success or failure of Verna is entirely his own.

Official film poster for Verna — Source: Wikimedia Commons

So, why is Verna, flawed in part and hammered by many critics in Pakistan, nonetheless such an important film? For one, it addresses the issue of sexual violence against women head on, unflinchingly and without concession to young patriots on social media who point out that Pakistan's statistics are much lower than India's.

In truth, for several social reasons the reporting and prosecution of rape cases in Pakistan is thought to be low, and hence the data incomplete. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states that sexual violence against women in Pakistan is "rampant" and WAR contends that at least four women are raped daily. Cases which do make it to the media are horrendous; earlier this year a young girl of 16 was ordered to be raped by a man in full view of villagers as punishment for her brother's rape of his sister.

But for every case that comes to light, there are possibly hundreds that are hushed up. In 2014, WAR estimated that of the 383 sexual assault cases reported in hospitals across Karachi, FIRs were registered only in 27.67% of the cases. The stigma of rape plays out in any country in the world, but especially in a country like Pakistan, where reputation and honor are such loaded words, and where so many girls think first of killing themselves rather than reporting a rape. The HRCP reports that almost 800 rape survivors had either attempted to take their lives or had committed suicide — the stakes are incredibly high. So on a simple level, a film focusing on rape so intensely, directed by the country's most famous director and featuring its most prominent actress draws attention to a hidden world shrouded by the obsession with honor and suffocated by the feeling that women are physical repositories of this honor.

When a woman is raped in Pakistan, it is her whole family that feels a loss of honor, which ad often imposes a silence on her experience to protect their reputation. Verna spotlights this muteness at length, fervently espousing a woman's right to speak up and also stating that what is wrought on her body does not take her dignity away.

Some Pakistani reviewers have said the film is fundamentally flawed. Writing in Dawn, the newspaper's culture editor Hamna Zubair worries that by presenting Sara (Mahira Khan) as "a male director's fantasy female avenger," the film glosses over the trauma and mental anguish faced by rape survivors. "People need to see the trauma caused by sexual violence," she tells me. "They need to know this is a life changing event. Verna failed to communicate that."

It is also true that the aftermath of rape is not experienced the same way by every woman. Rape trauma syndrome lists various behaviors that survivors exhibit: some women become emotionally numb or use disassociation as a front-line defense against the shock of the assault. Anger or hostility is also perceived by rape counselors as a perfectly normal coping mechanism though less common because society doesn't encourage women to express outrage. The rape survivor is often also angry at those around her, who may not be supporting her to the extent she needs. So Shoaib Mansoor's Sara is not totally beyond the realm of possibility.

Where Verna does, however, begin to stumble is when Sara decides to submit to a second night with her rapist in order to gather evidence against him. At this point it would be important to show she is conflicted or even repulsed if only to make the episode more believable for Pakistani viewers. I think that Mansoor overplayed his cards here because you have to take your audience along with you in a film such as this. The scene could have been just as shocking but played less mockingly and with more variance and hesitation than a brief change of expression on the heroine's face. The acclaimed Pakistani director Jami (Moor, 2015) vented on Facebook: "Showing a victim going back to be raped again was a new low." Last year Paul Verhoeven's Elle received accolades across the board for its nuanced and unconventional storytelling of a woman getting on with her life immediately after her rape and more controversially getting involved with her rapist before avenging the crime. But Elle is a complex, probing film that doesn't take easy avenues. The issue with Verna is that while it is heavy-handed and didactic in the main, it tries to be nuanced in the most difficult scene in the film. You can't have it both ways.

Mahira Khan in Verna

Verna veers between modernity and conventional filmmaking in an inconsistent manner and tries too hard to take on all the burdens of the world. Some depictions, like the uncouth manner in which Sara's husband (Haroon Shahid) doubts that she fought her rapist hard enough are probably truer to life than one would wish, but his later transformation is unconvincing. Where it does succeed is its understanding of the power structures in Pakistan and how political power-play and corruption combine to subvert basic rights. And these were precisely the areas the censors were worried about.

Ironically, both Padmavati and Verna — films on different sides of the border — focus on rape in different ways. While the Pakistani film, despite being clunky, urges women to live and fight back after sexual assault, the Indian one potentially valorizes a character who opts to die for "honor" in anticipation of rape. The latter in my estimation is a far more dangerous message to send out to women in South Asia, especially in a country where, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped every day.

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Green Or Gone
Lakshmi Supriya

In Pakistan, Arsenic-Laced Water Puts Millions At Risk

BENGALURU — In vintage crime novels, there is often someone murdered by slow poisoning, and arsenic has been a common weapon of choice. It works the same way in your body — slowly killing you — if it is present in the water you drink beyond a certain threshold. This is why it's disturbing that, according to a new study, the groundwater along the densely populated Indus river basin in Pakistan is severely contaminated with arsenic, putting the health of over 50 million people at risk.

Arsenic occurs naturally in Earth's crust. It is used by humans in some alloys in car batteries and semiconductors, as well as to make some pesticides and herbicides. Certain inorganic compounds that contain arsenic are highly toxic. Exposure in small doses causes headaches, dizziness, diarrhea and changes in skin coloration. When the poisoning becomes acute, convulsions, vomiting and muscle cramps can be caused. Prolonged exposure to arsenic affects various organs — including the lungs, skin and the kidneys — leading to various types of cancers and ultimately death. Arsenic in the soil accumulates in plants, especially in leafy vegetables and apples, and may inhibit plant growth. However, it is at its deadliest to humans when it pollutes groundwater used for drinking or irrigation. It has been estimated that about 200 million people worldwide use such arsenic-contaminated water.

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Geopolitics
Mudassar Shah

Cruel Border Stories Between Pakistan And Afghanistan

PESHAWAR Ayesha Rahmat, a 31-year-old mother of five, lives in a small, two-room house with an open kitchen in this northern Pakistani city. The smell of the bathroom cuts through the air.

Ayesha has four daughters and a son, but her husband of more than 20 years, Rahmat Khan, is gone — Ayesha says his absence has left her in a desperate situation.

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Sources
Naeem Sahoutara

A Space Of Her Own: Pakistan’s Ladies Dhaba

In Pakistan, men dominate public life. There are very few occasions women can enjoy being out by themselves. But now there’s a place in Karachi that’s giving women the opportunity to enjoy a long-awaited cup of tea.

KARACHI At Pakistan's largest truck terminal in this city, drivers sip hot tea at a small roadside stall called a "dhaba" in between their shifts. The patrons share a common gender — only men are served at the hundreds of thousands of dhabas across Pakistan.

But just a short motorbike ride away, I find something interesting. On a narrow street on the outskirts of Karachi, I enter a two-story building and climb the stairs. A banner reads: "Welcome to the Ladies Dhaba."

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blog

Panama Papers & Politics, From Pakistan to Iceland

SPOTLIGHT: PANAMA PAPERS & POLITICS, FROM PAKISTAN TO ICELAND

It's been more than six months since a massive leak first exposed vast networks of offshore financial dealings linked to a Panama-based law firm. But the reverberations of the so-called "Panama Papers" continue to show up in unlikely places. Pakistan's opposition party announced today that two of its supporters have died after police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching to the capital Islamabad to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Driving the opposition's outrage are revelations from the leaked Panama documents that appear to show Sharif's family owned offshore holding companies. Opposition leader Imran Khan, a cricket hero turned politician, has vowed to send a million supporters to the city tomorrow to force Sharif to step down or agree to a corruption investigation.


In a starkly different corner of the globe, Iceland's Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson announced his resignation on Sunday. His Progressive Party was routed in a general election that had been scheduled after his predecessor was forced out after another series from the Panama leaks showed that he and his wife had stowed away millions offshore.


While it's indisputable that leaks from tiny Panama have shaken far-flung parts of the world, it remains to be seen which political players will gain from it. It's fitting that Iceland's Pirate Party, which saw strong gains in the election, was founded by activists, anarchists and former hackers. It's also true that Pakistani opposition leader Khan, who's calling for the graft inquiry, was himself forced to admit to using an offshore company to avoid paying tax on the sale of a London property.

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LGBTQ Plus
Naeem Sahoutara

After Killings, Pakistan Play Tackles Transgender Stigma

LAHORE — Over the past few months, the prestigious Al-Hamra Theater in this Pakistani city has been staging a first-of-its-kind play, one that very much pushes cultural boundaries in the conservative Muslim society.

The play, called Teesri Dhun, focuses on the discrimination transgender people endure in Pakistan, where they are often shunned by families, schools and employers. Not only that, but the actors themselves are members of the transgender community.

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Geopolitics
Naeem Sahoutara

Post-Lahore, Pakistan's Timid Efforts To Fight Terrorism

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pledged to crack down on terrorism after the Easter Sunday attack that killed 72 people. But the tragedy has raised serious questions about the country's strategy and the political factors at play.

LAHORE — Seven-year-old Shina Ahmed lies in a bed at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Lahore. Her uncles had taken her to the park to play on Easter Sunday, when all of sudden there was a loud explosion. She doesn't remember much more after that.

The blast at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park killed 72 people, including Danish Masih's sister. "We were sitting at the canteen," he recalls. "I had just gone outside the park to find my other relatives, who were also coming to join us. There I heard a big bang. When I turned back, there was big spark of fire and many dead bodies on the ground."

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blog

Death Toll Rises In Lahore Suicide Bombing

Scenes of chaos are making the front page of Karachi-based daily Dawn on Monday, after an Easter Day suicide bombing in a Lahore park killed at least 70 people and injured more than 300.

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Geopolitics
Naeem Sahoutara and Jarni Blakkarly

Pakistan To Australia, Along The Hazara Refugee Trail

QUETTA/JAKARTA/MELBOURNE — Five-year-old Mohammad Raza is holding a photograph of his uncle Sadiq Ali. He believes his uncle is in Australia and that he will soon send a toy airplane. But his grandmother knows that Sadiq Ali is detained abroad. Sadiq left, she says, because he didn't see any hope for his future in Pakistan.

"It was a tough time for him here," she says, "He ran his own shop but got tired of having no work because the area was unsafe. So he left the country."

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