Explaining Pakistan’s love for Princess Diana

Cover photo credit: Ushah Kazi

By: Ushah Kazi

Pakistan, like many other countries in the region, has a turbulent, colonial history that it continues to grapple with. Particularly as the digital age allows more and more Pakistanis to voice their agitations regarding the vestiges of British colonization.

The monarchy, for example, is often scrutinized for its history, and continued influence. While the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II was met with sadness across South Asia, scholars and historians also took the opportunity to critique her role in the politics of the region. They raised questions not just about the history of colonization and how that continued to impact countries such as India and Pakistan, but also the queen’s insistence on ‘non interference’ when she could have played an important role in mitigating conflicts. 

And yet, Princess Diana is a rare royal, who avoids most of that scrutiny. In fact, many would argue that the late “People’s Princess” was and continues to be a popular figure in many South Asian countries, Pakistan included. 

Consider this, here’s an image that I took on the streets of Hyderabad, in 2021. Nearly 24 years after her death. Not just is this beauty salon using her image, but the name ‘Diana’ itself. 

A beauty salon in Hyderabad Pakistan 

A lot can be said about Pakistan’s “colonial hangover” and how our history permeates via accepted beauty standards and celebrity culture. Still, it is worth exploring why Princess Diana is singled out in the way that she is. 

For example, in an article titled ‘An Ode To Princess Diana’s Special Relationship With Pakistan’, Saman Shad starts the piece off by stating, “if you ever mention Princess Diana to my mother she will look back at you misty-eyed. “She was so wonderful,” she would say, followed quickly by, “gone too soon…”  

Colonial hangover and beauty standards notwithstanding, not every British monarch or foreign celebrity elicits such reactions. Why then, is Diana an exception? Her multifaceted relationship with Pakistan offers up some explanations. 

The people’s princess; Diana’s links to charity 

The late Princess of Wales visited Pakistan thrice. First in 1991, then in 1996, and finally in 1997 a few months before her death. Her first visit to Pakistan was significant not just for the country, but for Diana herself. It was her first solo trip as a royal, and as noted by People Magazine senior editor Michelle Tauber, she used the trip to put a lot of emphasis on causes that mattered to her.   

By the time she came back to Pakistan in 1996, for a fundraising event for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, Princess Diana had already been working to raise awareness about, and funds for cancer research elsewhere. In 1993, she opened the Wolfson Children’s Cancer Unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey, and in 1996 helped raise more than $1 million to support cancer research at the Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern University. 

When she visited Lahore in 1996, there was a lot of speculation about the trip. News reports from the time reveal that Imran Khan was criticized for using the trip to bolster support for himself in a bid to enter politics. In hindsight, however, the trip and the princess herself are often remembered favorably by many in Pakistan in lieu of her charitable work. 

She visited Pakistan again the following year and was again instrumental in raising funds for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital. Interestingly, this was after her divorce had been finalized. It was another instance of Diana engaging with people; sans the monarchy. 

A few weeks after her final visit to Pakistan, the Princess of Wales died in an infamous car crash. Imran Khan (chairman of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust, who would go on to become Prime Minister of Pakistan), revealed in an interview that she had made the 1997 trip at his behest, adding that she had arrived on short notice. While reacting to the news of her demise, Khan called her “a friend in need,” 

While her visits to Pakistan took place many years ago, they continue to endure. For instance, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made their own trip to Pakistan in 2019, parallels were drawn between Kate Middleton and the late princess.  

An iconic image 

During her life and posthumously, Diana is recognized as an iconic figure. Always popular for her beauty and style of dress, she was at a time one of the most photographed women in the world. Her position in global iconography would play an important role in bolstering her appeal to the public. 

As pointed out by Eleri Lynn, Curator of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, in a Vanity Fair article, the late royal’s style was curated in a bid to communicate. “It is very surprising how little footage there exists of the Princess actually speaking,” she said, “we all have a sense of what we think she was like, and yet so much of it comes from still photographs, and a large part of that [idea] is communicated through the different clothes that she wore.”

Veteran Pakistani fashion designer Rizwan Beyg (who designed one for her more than once) maintained that how Diana presented herself when she visited Pakistan also made a statement.

In a recent interview with Samaa, he described her style as “experimental” in that, “she was one of the few people who had broken away from the typical monarchy, of what they used to wear.” He noted particularly that her travels often reflected in the clothing she wore. 

In light of her penchant for standing out, Beyg, who was asked to design for her by her friend Jemima Goldsmith, settled on a “more feminine” version of an Achkan, which is traditionally worn by men in Pakistan. 

As noted by Lynn, the clothing that she wore conveyed messages, even when she didn’t speak. In relation to Pakistan then, what she wore has singled her out as an elegant figure from the pages of history. Her ensemble is routinely lauded by local publications (even after all these years). And even in Diana-focused memorabilia that can be found in Pakistan, the iconography follows the same narrative. 

My mother’s recipe folder, bought at Sunday Bazaar in Karachi, in the early 2000s 

Media scrutiny: Dr. Hasnat Khan and The Crown 

It would be fair to say that ‘Diana Mania’ has entered the digital age because of the popular Netflix series, The Crown. Albeit the show itself has elicited mixed responses. In particular, the historical revisionism that the series is accused of has often invited controversy. For example, Jemima Goldsmith, who had been brought on to help write the script for the fifth season, felt that the series did not depict the late princess “as respectfully or compassionately” as she had hoped. She went on to cut ties with the series as a result. 

The latest iteration of the show deals with arguably the most turbulent yet well-known time period pertaining to the British monarchy (the 90s). This coincidentally was also the time when Princess Diana was most actively seen in public. But, the show shortens or skims past much of her life, work, and even personhood. 

In a scathing review of the fifth season for Vulture, critic Roxana Hadadi derided the series for its portrayal of the princess. Writing, “gone is the Princess Di I remember: the woman whom my Iranian mother and other female relatives spoke about with warmth and empathy and whose kindness, interest in other cultures and countries, and desire to take control of her own life …made her a beloved figure in diaspora communities around the world.” 

Hadadi contends that the show presents her as a “vengeful, immature and materialistic” person who is “easily distracted by clothes and men.” This treatment arguably extends to how her tryst with Pakistani-born cardiologist, Dr. Hasnat Khan (played by Humayun Saeed) is presented. Relegated to two episodes, their relationship is portrayed as a fleeting encounter. In reality, however, it didn’t just last longer but was also a lot more complicated. As revealed by Jemima Goldsmith in a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, at one point the relationship was allegedly so serious that Diana was considering moving to Pakistan. 

Dr. Khan, who is famously private, has said that he was “good friends” with the late princess. 

Diana in the public eye

On a rare occasion, when Dr. Khan did speak to the press in 2021, he was particularly vocal about the media scrutiny she was met with. Commenting on her explosive 1995 Panorama interview with former BBC journalist, Martin Bashir, Dr. Khan claimed that Bashir “exploited” the late princess’ “vulnerabilities”. 

Dr. Khan spoke of the incident after Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, had alleged that Bashir used forged bank documents and false information to get her to agree to the interview. 

Since then, the BBC has had to donate the amount it made from the interview and compensate Diana’s former private secretary for damages. 

There are mixed reports about what the late princess herself felt about it. According to Dr. Khan, a young Prince William allegedly told her that she had made a “mistake” and referring to Bashir said, “mummy, he’s not a good person.” However, her biographer Tina Brown maintained that Diana did not “regret” the interview. 

What we can be sure about, however, is that the candor with which she spoke about her mental health, struggle with an eating disorder, and marital problems made her even more popular. Apart from, arguably, the most famous Diana quip of all time (“there were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded”) she also detailed how Prince Charles was jealous of the attention she was garnering. 

In hindsight, this acknowledgment of the cracks in her marriage made her appeal even stronger. As NPR producer Mia Venkat highlighted, perhaps what allowed women from diverse backgrounds to relate to Diana more than anything else was that she too struggled in a loveless marriage. Moreover, South Asian women could relate to the pressure of staying in such a union because of the taboo surrounding divorce. 

Simultaneously though, the fact that she did go on with the divorce, and continued to work in spite of formally separating from the monarchy, only added to her legacy. 

As Hadadi highlighted in her article, it was the late princess’ “willingness to break away from the monarchy’s façade of happiness and steadiness,” where she was able to “go rogue with her charity work” and express her emotions, that cemented who she was, and how she would be remembered. 

Perhaps those same moments of international renown, that betrayed her spark and independence, have also captivated Pakistan for all these years. Moments that set her apart as the most dazzling royal and royal dissenter almost simultaneously. Where many British monarchs would make the trip to Shaukat Khanum, Diana would be held up as the benchmark. Where foreign dignitaries would try their hand at embracing local fashion, no one would be quite as elegant as the Princess of Wales. Where other royal rebels would form a bond with women across the country, nobody would be met with as warm a reception as the late Lady Di.

Ushah Kazi has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

The Legend Of Maula Jatt globalizes Pakistani cinema’s most formidable story 

Cover photo credit: The Legend Of Maula Jatt movie poster (Geo films)

By: Ushah Kazi

Spoiler alert; this report does not contain major spoilers for The Legend Of Maula Jatt, but it does spoil the ending for Maula Jatt (1979) and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s short story Gandasa. 

Even before its release, Bilal Lashari’s latest offering kept Pakistani cinegoers and culture buffs on the edge of their seats, for years. The first look trailer of The Legend Of Maula Jatt, released in late 2018, became an instant classic. But initial whispers about the Waar director turning his attention to what he himself called “Pakistan’s original film genre” had been making rounds since 2013. 

The saga of Lashari’s potential ‘magnum opus’ thus dates back nearly a decade. But the story of Maula Jatt, and his unique brand of cinema goes back further still. Not only can the 1979 film be called one of the most popular Pakistani films of all time, but there have been several attempts at remaking it. In 2013, while interviewing Lashari about his rendition, The Express Tribune reported that they had been approached by four production houses in two years, regarding potential Maula Jatt reboots.

It is interesting then, that in order to breathe new life into the story, Bilal Lashari has had to detach it from the context that made the original a cult classic in the first place. 

The Actual Legend Of Maula Jatt 

The character of Maula was first introduced via Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s short story titled Gandasa

While it has been credited by the screenwriter of both the original and 2022 reboot as his inspiration, there are notable differences. In fact, Qasmi’s story, according to Ali Kapadia, is not only dissimilar to what was seen in the 1970’s films (fun fact, Maula Jatt itself was a sequel to Wehshi Jatt) but was almost antithetical. Literary Maula, according to Kapadia, serves as a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity and how the revenge-driven culture of the time was shaping Pakistani men (the story was published against the 1960s backdrop of war and nationalistic calls to enlist). 

Throughout the story, Maula is opposed to violence, but must resort to it because of the emasculating insistence of his mother. By the end, he can’t avenge his family as per her decree, and instead lets his foe walk away, bursting into tears in the aftermath. When his mother lambasts him, Maula asks, “can’t I even cry?” 

Kapadia asserts, “with that picture of a tearful eye, Gandasa is Qasmi’s response to “boys don’t cry” – the nation’s reassuring lie.” 

Maula’s Film Debut 

By the time Qasmi’s story was reimagined for the screen, Pakistani cinema itself had gone through a transformation. 

According to Sher Khan and Hashim Bin Rashid, an oft forgotten legislation that shaped Punjabi cinema in particular, was the Goonda Act (passed in 1959 and enforced in 1968). Reportedly while it was in force, “over a dozen men” were labeled as ‘goondas’ (a person engaged in a list of activities deemed illicit) and killed in police encounters across Punjab. 

They claim that as a response, families of these men ventured into film production, in a bid to tell their side of the story. Many of the films that fall into the ‘gandasa’ genre (so named because of the ax that Maula wields in every iteration of the story) were produced by them.  

By the 1970s, there was also a constant threat of censorship (even Maula Jatt wasn’t cleared by the Censor Board, but was able to draw in the crowds because of the Lahore High Court’s stay order on the ban). Simultaneously, the aftermath of the 1971 war, meant that Urdu language film distributors lost a chunk of their audience.

Such a landscape was ripe for the introduction of a genre that reflected the chaos of the time. And thus, Sultan Rahi’s turn as the film version of Maula became a sensation. As Khan and Rashid note, not only did Rahi present a kind of hero never seen before, but the stories of such films, which borrowed heavily from the caste identities across the region, struck a chord with audiences. 

Kapadia explains the difference between Maula’s origins and his foray into films like this, “in essence, the film ‘fixes’ Maula into what a son ought to be – an instrument of war.” Considering the context that produced the films, this is perhaps unsurprising. 

Maula Jatt 2022

The trajectory of Pakistani cinema has been incredibly unstable. It hasn’t gone through peaks and troughs; it has experienced multiple deaths and attempted rebirths. There have been decades of slow growth, followed by complete stagnation. Because of this, much of the current audience is not aware of the country’s most iconic films. Even Fawad Khan, who stars as the titular character, admitted that he had limited exposure to the original prior to being approached for the remake. 

Screengrab: The Legend Of Maula Jatt trailer

What has survived however, is an animosity towards the gandasa film genre. Bilal Lashari himself explained these sentiments when he said that such films “are blamed for the death of Lollywood”

Such accusations are a little unfair, when as noted by Anwar Maqsood in a rare interview with the man himself, Sultan Rahi was for all intents and purposes a one-man-institution. Nor do such dismissals acknowledge the potential of the genre. To quote Lashari, “the entire world has been exporting their own styles and versions of cinema outside their territory, but we have been silent”.

However, it’s interesting to note that despite his interest in the local classic, Bilal Lashari’s rendition has international leanings. Deviations in the storyline notwithstanding, this is perhaps the biggest change that the filmmakers decided on. The original source materials were cemented in the culture of the land. Yet here, the choices seem to borrow from international media. 

Calling the director “Pakistan’s only master of action,” Rafay Mahmood and Zeeshan Ahmad acknowledge that he “opts for certain set and prop elements that stick out. Anglo-Saxon wood barrels and tables inside a mud structure doubling as a pub… In an ideal world perhaps, the makers of TLoMJ (The Legend Of Maula Jatt) could have played more with local visual elements…” 

Reviewing the film for Something Haute, Hassan Chaudhry notes that while audiences are informed that the story takes place in Punjab, the exact location of the village is not revealed. 

In his review for The Guardian, Cath Clarke called it “Game of Thrones meets Gladiator”. In light of its penchant for hypermasculinity, Mahmood and Ahmad also compared it to KGF. Perhaps its aesthetics can also be compared to recent Sanjay Leela Bhansali historicals, and later seasons of Dirilis: Ertugrul. 

Screengrab: The Legend of Maula Jatt trailer

Moreover, Sarwar Bhatti, the producer of the original (who had previously been embroiled in copyright suits with the producers of the reboot) stated that “after watching the trailer, I felt that these characters belong to some barbarian kingdom. 

Arguably, this international focus is anything but coincidental. Lashari has maintained that several aspects of the original needed to be updated to appeal to modern audiences. And if box office numbers are accounted for, the international appeal has worked in the film’s favor. As of the writing of this report, The Legend of Maula Jatt  has collected Rs. 19 crore, from five countries in three days. There is every indication that it will continue to break ground. 

Ushah Kazi has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

5 fun ways to celebrate 14th August this year 

Cover photo credit: Canva

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi

For the past few years, celebrations of any kind have been few and far between. A global pandemic, and the ensuing economic and political situations have meant that many of us will just settle for a quiet evening alone. With that said, Pakistan’s 75th year of independence is a benchmark. And if you were hoping to make the country’s diamond jubilee celebrations a bit more special, here are five easy ways to do just that! 

Make a batch of independence day cupcakes

Some of us are mavericks in the kitchen. And some of us are not. Regardless, if there was ever a time to get creative, this could be it. If you’re feeling experimental, try this recipe from Ainy Cooks (which includes flags made from fondant). If not, this is a much simpler version from Let’s Cook With Maryam

Photo credit: ainycooks.com

Azadi trivia night with friends and family

Whether you resort to a collective zoom call or are fortunate enough to be with loved ones for 14th August, a fun little quiz can be a great bonding activity. 

Here’s a quiz that you can start off with, and add any questions that you feel should be included. 

Side note; an independence day themed cupcake could be an excellent gift for the winners!

Movie night featuring Pakistani gems 

Pakistan has its fair share of cinematic treasures that don’t often get their due. Two movies you should definitely show some love to are Cake (available from the studio on their YouTube channel) and Pinky Memsaab (available on Netflix). 

Photo credit: Shondaland (Cake)

Listen to a playlist of classic Pakistani songs 

You can start off with these classics and then work your way towards the newer melodies. 

Bonus: enjoy independence day lighting in your city with friends and family 

If you’re in a city that celebrates the day with a lighting display, you could plan a road trip with loved ones. 

Photo credit: A State Bank building with colorful lights (APP photo by Qasim Ghauri)

Ushah Kazi has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

Watching Ms. Marvel is like “looking into a mirror” for Desi, Muslim Americans

Cover photo credit: “Ms. Marvel” (Disney+)

By: Bareerah Zafar

Disney+’s newest live-action television series, Ms. Marvel, is a breath of fresh air when it comes to Muslim and Pakistani representation in Western media. 

Though it was review bombed on IMDb, it is the highest-rated Marvel project on Rotten Tomatoes, surpassing Endgame and Black Panther. It also has the highest BIPOC viewership of any show on Disney+.

Ms. Marvel, based on a comic book series of the same name, follows 16-year-old Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American Muslim girl from Jersey City. She unlocks powers that reveal secrets about her family’s past and attract cosmic beings from another dimension. 

Photo credit: “Ms. Marvel” (Disney+)

At its core is a love letter to the Muslim and Pakistani people who too often find themselves stuck with the same, tired, racist narrative.

Decentralizing whiteness

Western media has a pattern of othering communities that are not white, from suggesting that people from the Middle East are “barbaric” (Aladdin), to portraying Muslims as terrorists (Iron Man), to pushing the narrative that hijab oppresses Muslim women (Elite).

Ms. Marvel overcomes these stereotypes and presents a new narrative. 

Ms. Marvel is the first Pakistani and Muslim superhero to grace the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The show places a heavy emphasis on her identity and seamlessly weaves it into every aspect of her story without taking up screen time to explain every inside joke, symbol, song or tradition.

The show features conversations about Bollywood movies, casual Urdu and Arabic phrases, an Eid-al-Adha celebration and a traditional Desi Muslim wedding. It even uses the misrepresented term “Allahu Akbar”  (meaning “God is greatest”) in its correct context.

In an interview with Q on CBC, actress Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan) spoke about the importance of normalizing the existence of Muslims in Western media.

The cast and crew also consist mainly of BIPOC talent.

A story nearly every young South Asian in the diaspora can relate to 

Many Desi Americans said watching Ms. Marvel was like looking into a mirror

Many of us can relate to the brown family dynamics: the strict parents, the gendered double standards, the fear of disappointing our elders by pursuing our passions. We can also relate to praying in a mosque alongside our family and friends, celebrating Eid, learning dances for weddings and dealing with gossiping aunties.

Ms. Marvel portrays all aspects of brown and Muslim communities without stereotyping or tokenizing. It is clear that the creators put a lot of thought and care into Kamala’s story, creating a unique addition to the MCU and a comfort show for American Desis. 

Photo credit: “Ms. Marvel” (Disney+)

Educating on our forgotten history

One of the many aspects of Ms. Marvel that sets it apart from other forms of South Asian representation is its incorporation of our history.

Episode 5, titled “Time and Again”, takes us back to the late 1940s when British colonizers were taking their leave and India was split along a religious divide. We meet Kamala’s great grandparents, played by beloved Pakistani actors Mehwish Hayat and Fawad Khan, as they navigate tensions during the Partition. 

As Kamala’s brother, Amir, said, “Every Pakistani family has a Partition story. And none of them are good.”

In the show, you’re at the train station with Kamala and her family, watching a sea of bodies as they desperately attempt to board the last train to supposed salvation and escape the trauma left in the wake of British imperialism. 

As you watch, there’s a heaviness on your chest, as if you can feel the weight of what your ancestors went through. You experience the fear, the grief, the hurt, and you can’t look away. 

This history is rarely touched upon in the American school system so it’s not uncommon for American Desis to often feel a disconnect with their motherland. Ms. Marvel brings us closer to our home and our ancestors in the most beautiful and respectful way. 

This show is a refreshing addition to Phase Four and a win for all marginalized communities. It set a precedent for what South Asian and Muslim representation should look like and brought a much-needed change to the MCU.

Bareerah Zafar is a Pakistani American Muslim journalist based in Southern California. She dedicates her career to empowering underrepresented communities through storytelling.

Salman Toor’s rising star – revolutionary art in Pakistani diaspora

Cover photo credit: Time 100 Next 2021

By: Alexandra Bregman

Two years ago, hardly anyone outside  of Pakistan had heard of Salman Toor. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1983, his moody figures were quietly collected by the elites of his home country, pondered by the Brooklyn set, and shopped around by the New York staple for South Asian art, Aicon Gallery. With the November 2020 ‘How Will I Know’, his first solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City, however, Toor completely exploded onto the global art scene and became an overnight art world darling. 

The prices speak for themselves. In December 2020, Toor’s first-ever auctioned painting, Rooftop Ghost Party I (2015), sold for eight times its estimate at Christie’s for $822,000. Weeks later at Phillips in London, Liberty Porcelain (2012) sold for nine times its estimate of £40,000, at £378,000 ($505,688). And by June 2021, Toor broke his own sales record of $867,000 when Girl with Driver (2013) sold for $890,000 in Hong Kong.

Salman Toor’s “Rooftop Ghost Party I” (2015) – Artnet News

The 15-painting retrospective at the Whitney Museum drew its title from a painting called Dancing to Whitney (2018). It was one of Toor’s first artworks in what has since become his signature style, based on a memory of dancing to Whitney Houston with friends. In the painting, and in life, the sinewy queer male figures were pondering the lyrics. How will they know what the future holds?

The present holds The Frick Collection. Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters at the Frick Madison space features Toor with three other New York artists, all focused on queer identity, in conversation with European art: Doron Langberg, Jenna Gribbon, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, on view through January 2022.

Among the reasons Toor did not initially capture the attention of museums and collectors was that he was afraid. The artist spent the first 14 years of his life growing up in Lahore, where he told BOMB magazine he was deemed a “sissy boy”, “often bullied at school and policed everywhere else.” In an interview with Them magazine, Toor said shame was used as a weapon and the threat of violence was always underneath the surface.

In a later conversation with fellow artist Chitra Ganesh for the Whitney showcase, Toor added, “When I grew up in a largely gendered and homophobic culture, I was very used to safe spaces, so the paintings move in between private and public spaces…I realized I was still creating safe spaces, because they made me feel happy and comfortable. And the more I had, the more abundantly I felt at home…” 

Paintings like The Smokers (2018) and Nightmare and Car Boys (2019) reference the terror of lurking officers in a state defined by its strict penal code, a far cry from the joyfulness so clearly shown in scenes from New York. This spilled over into his art, which catered to South Asian audiences. The work that is now so beloved was just for his apartment, a private world where he could be free.

Salman Toor’s “Ambush II” (2019) – Nature Morte
Salman Toor’s “The Smokers” (2018) – Aicon Contemporary

The new works quickly went viral on Instagram. The groups of figures resonated with audiences during the pandemic, who were hungering to reconvene and socialize, and speak to a rapidly changing collective consciousness. As societal norms are questioned on an international scale, the question remains how this will circle back into Pakistan.

“I was very lucky to be part of a culture that was changing here,” Toor told Whitney curator Ambika Trasi, “In which people were being assertive, wanting to be seen, producing new ideas of beauty and multi-ethnic progressiveness that are imminently exportable.”

Aligned with the “queer intelligentsia,” Black Lives Matter and the feminist art of friend Indian artist, Ganesh, some of Toor’s work shows scenes of brown men in contemporary nightlife settings in New York. As a Pakistani artist, his work expresses apolitical expressions of joy that are at odds with a global perception that associates Pakistan with terrorism, security, the Taliban and religious extremism. 

Rather, Toor’s happiest paintings are scenes of the interior home and underground bar scene in New York and Pakistan alike, where he could—finally—feel safe. The intimacies of everything from apartment trinkets to technology and skin creams reveal the hodgepodge of the everyday, a take on 21st century portraiture thus far not yet fully represented.

Toor’s work is a part of an important canon of contemporary South Asian artists who draw inspiration from colonial Indian miniature painting (including Shahzia Sikander), but it is particularly poignant because it finds the self where it has never been before. 

In art history class at college in Ohio, the only dark-skinned subjects of Old Master paintings were the servants. Now, he belongs in a powerful canon with Ganesh’s open sexuality and goddess Kali, Black artist Kerry James Marshall’s scenes of familiarity. There are queer artists like Israeli painter, Doron Langberg, and even David Antonio Cruz with his Puerto Rican Pieta (2006). To the Pakistani gaze, this untraditional crew is a reminder that radical acceptance is happening across the pond, and that neglecting to do so will bleed out top talent. 

Perhaps in reaction to the neglect of this rich inner world, Toor’s subjects take on a mythic, even melodic quality. Dance is a recurring theme in Toor’s work, which stems both from Baroque paintings and a brief stint on a hippie commune, but also evokes the festivities depicted in subcontinental miniature painting, particularly the ragamalas. 

Salman Toor’s “Four Friends” (2019) – Whitney.org

Toor’s training was initially highly derivative, drawing inspiration from Dutch and Italian Old Masters and the flourish of Mughal women’s eyes and shoes. The paintings still possess a slightly French Post-Impressionist movement; Toor says he drew inspiration for the mix-and-match palette of the figures from Picasso, but the bedroom scenes and bright backgrounds suggest Henri Toulouse-Lautrec or Amedeo Modigliani. In any case, the global perspective of the artist threads together the many images he has consumed throughout his life, seeking his own power through nostalgia. 

The paintings, Toor told BOMB, are much about dichotomy: the Old Master versus the Instagram photo, overconnected but not interconnected, the Old Master light of a cell phone. Loneliness in the public eye, happiness and freedom punctuated by the passions of queer life.

But in this fantasy universe, the hairy brown bodies always find themselves at peace. They possess a mythic power; Toor imagines them as creative and educated, challenging societal norms about race and foreignness in America. They may never belong in the traditional sense as South Asians in diaspora, but they belong fully unto themselves.

Alexandra Bregman is a freelance writer with a specialization in art and art markets. She has previously written about South Asian art for The Art Newspaper, The Asian Art Newspaper, and Nikkei Asia among other publications.

The Taliban are back. Now what?

Cover photo credit: Canva

By: Sahar Khan

The Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan after taking Kabul last week. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled and landed in Dubai. While the Taliban’s offensive has been going on for months, it recently acquired a momentum that has startled the world. President Joe Biden stood firmly by his decision to withdraw troops, stating that the United States had achieved its core goals over a decade ago, which were to 1) dismantle al Qaeda and 2) find Osama bin Laden. He did, however, admit that Afghan security forces fell more quickly than anticipated. 

The Taliban have been steadily gaining ground for the last few years. The collapse of the Afghan security forces is due to a myriad of reasons, such as a lack of capacity, corruption, competing security forces (backed by the CIA no less), and a lack of resources. US intelligence also warned the Biden administration of the potential for collapse. Yet, none of that really matters now. The Afghan people are fleeing for their lives as their country falls apart and the airports become war zone-like. Now, many are looking more closely at Pakistan, which houses approximately 3 million Afghan refugees, with more refugees trying to come in.   

Implications for Pakistan

Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan dates back to the Soviet invasion, when the country’s intelligence agency and the CIA provided covert support to the Mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters) who were fighting the Soviets. The Mujahideen movement gained popularity in an unstable post-Soviet era and eventually became the Taliban. Pakistan recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan in 1996. After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan provided sanctuary to Taliban leadership, the Haqqani Network, and other militant groups, all of which has been documented in the works of foreign policy journalist, Ahmad Rashid, politics and national security writer, Steve Coll, and international relations professor, Hassan Abbas, to name a few.  

Yet, Pakistan has repeatedly said it supports an Afghan-led peace process. The Afghan peace process roughly began when the Taliban and Donald Trump administration signed a deal in February 2020 and continued — albeit slowly — with talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. 

Similarly, the US-Pakistan relationship has been rocky for some time. The US accuses Pakistan of playing a double game by sponsoring and harboring militant groups like the Taliban and Haqqani Network. While the US accuses Pakistan of not supporting its war in Afghanistan, Pakistan accuses the US of always using it and refusing to acknowledge the sacrifices it has made since the Global War on Terror began in 2001. Pakistan paid a high price for being a US ally in the form of civilian casualties and drone strikes. However, Pakistan maintains that its leverage over the Taliban, which the US perceives as being powerful, is actually not as strong. Ghani’s government also asked Pakistan to bring the group to the negotiating table and reduce the brutality of its offensive operations.

Prime Minister Imran Khan says it is unfair to blame Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan. Unfair or not, if Pakistan refuses to condemn the Taliban’s ongoing violence, it may permanently damage its own reputation on the world stage along with the economic pivot it’s desperately working on. Putting aside morality, it is also in Pakistan’s strategic interest to openly condemn the way the Taliban have come into power. Pakistan has been trying to show the world that it is not as closely aligned with the Taliban as it used to be in the 1990s, and that it does not control the group in any way. If that is really the case, the Khan administration has an opportunity to highlight this changed dynamic between Pakistani authorities and the Taliban.  

What the Taliban Want

The Taliban want international recognition — and in their quest to get it, the group has been busy presenting a moderate image of itself, stating that it will allow women to work and girls to attend schools. For the Taliban, recognition is extremely important as it would allow the group to have sovereignty over Afghanistan, though that sovereignty comes with the obligation to obey international law. For example: The Taliban would have to respect human rights, abide by international trade laws, give up their various illicit activities, and be open to diplomacy. Whether the Taliban wants to do any of this (and more) is unclear. 

The key question is: Will the international community recognize the Taliban? The answer is not so simple. 

Russia stated that its recognition of the Taliban will depend on the conditions on the ground. Russia’s main strategic goal after all is to ensure that the instability from Afghanistan stays away from Central Asia and its doorstep, a desire that is shared by Afghanistan’s neighbors. Similar to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are all worried about spillover effects and instability caused by the influx of refugees — during a pandemic no less. Iran is also wary of a Taliban takeover, which is notoriously anti-Shia. China has been a little more forthcoming by stating that it is open to having “friendly relations” with the Taliban. Pakistan has not officially recognized the Taliban either, but is laying the groundwork to do so.

For now, things are moving too quickly to accurately predict what will happen in Afghanistan. But one thing is clear: Innocent Afghans are paying the ultimate price.

Sahar is a research fellow in the defense and foreign policy department at the Cato Institute. Her research interests include state‐​sponsored militancy/​terrorism, counterterrorism policies, anti‐​terrorism legal regimes, and private military and security contractors. She focuses on US foreign policy in South Asia and Africa. She is also an editor at Inkstick Media. You can find her @khansahar1 on Twitter. 

Domestic abuse: Pakistan’s ongoing endemic

Cover photo credit: Canva

Op-ed writer: Anushe Engineer

Noor Mukadam. Her’s is a name most of us probably hadn’t heard of till July 20, but now it’s all we can think about. That the daughter of a former ambassador could be tortured and beheaded in an affluent neighbourhood in the nation’s capital is a bone-chilling thought for many to digest. As the triad from the influential Jaffer family await legal proceedings while being remanded in Adiala Jail, the nation waits to see how the judicial system progresses this case.   

Police arrested 30-year-old Zahir Jaffer and charged him with premeditated murder after finding 27-year-old Noor dead in his home. On July 24, police arrested Zahir’s parents and household staff who were accused of “abetment” and “willful concealment” in Noor’s murder. A police official said Zahir confessed to killing Noor on July 26. 

Noor’s murder is anything but an isolated incident; Pakistan has a dismal track record of violence against women. From 2004 to 2016, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 4,734 cases of sexual violence and 15,222 cases of honour killings (a practice where a person, usually a woman or a girl, is murdered by family members for allegedly bringing “dishonour” to the family). Honour killings and gender-based violence in Pakistan have ranked the country 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021.  

The news of Noor’s murder has been making headlines worldwide, not just because she was the daughter of  former Pakistani diplomat Shaukat Mukadam, but also because of the prominent and wealthy business family Zahir belongs to. Within days of the incident, a GoFundMe was set up to help Noor’s family cover hefty legal expenses, vigils were held in cities across Pakistan, Dublin, New York and London, and a mural of Noor was painted in Sialkot. 

Women who don’t share the same socioeconomic background as Noor often remain anonymous statistics of domestic violence. Their stories of trauma and abuse fall on deaf ears, not just because society has become desensitized to the repetitive cycle of violence but also because there is limited legal protection for them that isn’t actively enforced. 

A breakdown of the bill 

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 hasn’t been approved by Parliament yet, leaving the fate of the bill hanging in the balance. On the one hand, the bill was passed by the National Assembly in April of this year. However, plans are underway by religiopolitical parties to actively oppose the bill since they deem it contrary to what’s written in Islam. 

The bill itself offers a comprehensive definition of domestic violence encompassing physical, emotional, psychological and economic abuse committed against women, children or other vulnerable people. Offenders will be imprisoned anywhere between six months and three years and will also have to pay a fine of Rs20,000 — Rs100,000 as compensation to the victim. 

Why is the bill being opposed?

Religious parties are vociferously opposing this bill because they claim it goes against the teachings of the Quran, Islam and the constitution. Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) party said this was the government’s way of secularising the country. 

It’s not that JUI-F and other religious parties condone domestic violence, Fazl said. It’s that the domestic violence bill will destroy family life and promote “Western culture and values” instead of Islamic ones. 

Even the government seems to be appeasing groups like JUI-F in regards to the domestic violence bill. One of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advisers recommended that the bill be reviewed by the Council of Islamic Ideology to determine whether the bill goes against the teachings of Islam in any way. 

The CII has yet to announce their decision regarding the bill. However, since they proposed a bill in 2016 to allow men to “lightly beat their wives”, there is speculation that they might oppose the domestic violence bill since it outlaws physical abuse.

A lack of enforcement

Even if the domestic violence bill gets passed by parliament, it will only apply to the Islamabad Capital Territory. Sindh and Balochistan have their own provincial bills for protection against domestic violence, while Punjab passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015, but that’s the extent of legal protection offered in the country.  

Domestic violence is endemic and cyclical in Pakistan. The issue isn’t a lack of laws so much as a lack of stringent enforcement of those laws. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan welcomed Punjab’s new legislature with caution, reminding people that “cosmetic and purely procedural changes” don’t always have an impact.

Where do we go from here? 

July 2021 was when Pakistan and much of the world grieved for Noor and questioned how Zahir could have committed such a heinous crime. Five years earlier Pakistan was under global scrutiny when Qandeel Baloch, also known as Pakistan’s first “social media star,” was killed by her brother “for honour”. Noor, Qandeel and thousands of other women aren’t one-off cases of domestic violence and honour killings. Pakistanis need to acknowledge that violence and abuse towards women is woven into this country’s social fabric, and there is no guarantee that existing laws and regulations will effectively change that. 

For now, non-governmental organizations like White Ribbon Pakistan are taking the initiative to educate both men and women on women’s rights. They launched a nationwide legal literacy campaign and provide legal assistance to victims of violence. 

Anushe is a senior at Scripps College, California majoring in Politics with a concentration in International Relations. She’s currently a news editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life, and hopes to delve into investigative reporting post graduation. Anushe was also an Editorial Intern with The NewsRun in the summer of 2021. You can find her on Twitter @yesits_Engineer

Taking time off after having a baby remains an off-limit luxury for many

Cover photo credit: Canva

By: Sarah Munir

Suggested reading time: 8 minutes

Earlier this month, the Pakistan Cricket Board announced a refreshing new parental support policy that would allow both men and women cricketers some time off after having a child. As part of the new set of policies, women cricketers will be allowed to take a year-long paid maternity leave, in addition to the option of switching to a non-playing role as they approach their maternity leave, Dawn News reported. A contract for the following year will also be guaranteed when leaving for maternity leave. When the athletes return to work, they will be provided physical training and support to rehabilitate after childbirth. Male cricketers are also allowed concessions, and will be able to take a month-long paid paternity leave. On May 16, Pakistan cricket team captain Bismah Maroof announced her decision to take an indefinite maternity leave. 

The policy reform by PCB has been widely lauded as a much-needed step forward in providing childcare support and fostering gender diversity in the workplace. 

Tell me more …

Though women constitute 49 percent of Pakistan’s population, female labor force participation stands at 22 percent – placing it among the lowest in South Asia and the world.  The gender gap stands at 23.7 percent with only 4.2 percent women holding senior or middle management positions. According to the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020, published by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan also ranks 151 out of the 153 countries, surpassing only Iraq and Yemen.

Despite maternity protection being labeled a fundamental labour right by major human rights treaties like UDHR, ICESR and CEDAW, Pakistan has failed to provide sufficient childcare facilities to its workers, especially women. As a result, most women drop out of the workforce as they near or experience childbirth, reducing their economic participation drastically. When half of the country’s labor force remains unsupported and watches from the sidelines, it is no surprise that the economic performance takes a massive hit.

Source: Shutterstock

Between a rock and a hard place

According to local law, employers are expected to provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave (16 weeks in Sindh), free healthcare during and after pregnancy, protection from dismissals and periodic nursing breaks in accordance with the International Labor Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention 1919 (No 3). But the measures fall short of what is required or needed.

And in some cases, it directly affects the mothers who are trying to build a career while caring for their families. Kiran*, a medical officer at a Karachi-based private healthcare facility describes her employer’s policy of granting only a 45-day unpaid leave after delivery as “exhausting.” “Not having a daycare facility at the workplace also exacerbates the guilt of not being with my newborn. It feels like I am losing on both ends,” she shares.

Women who are employed in the private sector usually have better luck if the organization is progressive, the labor force is unionized and/or if their immediate supervisors are cooperative. Madiha Javed Qureshi, who was working at Nestle at the time of her pregnancy lauds the company for being extremely flexible with their maternity and paternity leave policies and providing day care services to parents. “Being a first-time mother is an extremely difficult and anxiety-ridden period for working women,” she says. “If my employer had not extended the kind of support they did, I can’t imagine how I would have continued working.”

According to Iftikhar Ahmed, founder of Center for Labor Research, paying for maternity leave and establishing day care centers should not be the employer’s responsibility. Instead, he recommends building of day care centers at a community level by the government and financing maternity leaves by social security rather than making it an employer liability.

Source: Shutterstock

Care and support goes a long way

Even when maternity/paternity leaves are flexible, lack of affordable and reliable childcare facilities often discourages young mothers from returning to work. With more and more families becoming nuclear, most women start contemplating leaving work during pregnancy as there is no one to care for the child. Zainab Bhatti, who works in a managerial role at LUMS, gives credit to the institution for allowing her a generous maternity leave but wishes there were more options for bringing your children to the workplace. “I am a special needs mother and it is difficult for me to leave my baby for prolonged hours.” Her concern is echoed by Bisma*, whose decision to continue work was impacted by the availability of a subsidized day care facility at the private hospital she worked at. “I don’t think I would have been able to work full-time without this support,” she says.

Unfortunately, if these needs are not met, legal recourse for workers is limited. Even in cases of unfair dismissals or discriminatory policies by employers, there isn’t much employees can do, says Parvez Rahim, a labour law and employee relations expert. “The labour litigation process in Pakistan is expensive and time consuming.  Even the cases of ‘alleged unfair dismissals from service’ take years for decisions,” he said. Hence, young parents are not left with much choice besides relying on each other or families for support or dishing out money from their own pockets to ensure that their child is in the safe hands of a private caretaker.

Is change on the horizon?

In January 2020, the Senate passed the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2018, which entitles women to a maternity leave of six months and also allows men a paternity leave of three months. Mothers and fathers may get further three- and one-month optional leaves but those will be unpaid, it says. The employer won’t be allowed to terminate the services of an employee for seeking leave under the provisions of the bill. The bill was moved by Pakistan Peoples Party Senator Quratulain Marri and is still to be considered by the National Assembly.

While some have lauded the bill for providing relief to working mothers and paving a path for equality, where men and women share the role of providing for and raising children together, others have reservations due to its limited application. The bill will be applicable only to enterprises within the administrative control of the federal government. Moreover, experts think some checks and balances are also required to ensure it is not misused as a recreational leave but instead allows fathers to step up as the primary caretaker while allowing mothers to rest or return to work.

Given the physical and financial strain of having a child, coupled with a lack of support from the state and employers, more and more young parents are choosing to delay childbirth. Those that don’t are often forced to take a sabbatical from work and/or forgo their career completely. According to Rahim, the sphere of labour laws in Pakistan is in “complete shambles” after the passage of the 18th Amendment in April 2010, which devolved more control to the provinces. There is little focus on maternity leave and working women’s rights when other critical labour welfare laws applicable to the entire workforce are on the “verge of total collapse”, he added. But some young parents choose to remain hopeful for change. “Women can be mothers and have ambitious careers at the same time. The world is making it happen for us, it’s about time that Pakistan takes a step in that direction too,” Kiran says as she gets ready for her first-born. 

A look at the rest of the world

Here are some countries that are miles ahead in terms of extending support to both parents:

Finland: Starting in 2021, each parent will be allowed 164 days, or about seven months.  A single parent can take the amount of two parents, or 328 days. 

Denmark: New moms in Denmark get a total of 18 weeks of maternity leave: four weeks before the birth and 14 weeks after, at full pay. During the 14-week period, the father can also take two consecutive weeks off.

Sweden: New parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay. 

Norway: Mothers can take 49 weeks at full pay or 59 weeks at 80% pay, and fathers can take between zero and 10 weeks depending on their wives’ income.

New Zealand: Earlier this year New Zealand began to offer a three-day paid bereavement leave for couples who have suffered a miscarriage. India and China also have similar policies in place that allows couples to take time off and grieve in case of experiencing a misscarriage.

Some names have been changed due to privacy concerns

Sarah Munir is a digital journalist with a focus on the intersection of technology and media. She has worked with several publications including Dawn, Facebook, Forbes, and most recently Twitter. You can reach her @SarahMunir1.