Pakistan’s obsession with Turkish media marks a deeper geopolitical shift

By: Sarah Munir

As the Pakistan Day Parade celebrating the passage of the historic Pakistan Resolution kicked off in full fervor on March 25 in Islamabad (delayed two days by uncooperative weather), some viewers were taken aback by a familiar tune. Amidst a sea of green and white flags and Pakistani nationalism on full display, a Turkish band paid tribute to Muslim hero Ertuğrul, Ghazi and the Turkish drama based on the life and times of Ertuğrul, the father of Osman who founded the Ottoman Empire.

An odd mix right? We thought so too. However, a deeper look at the dominion of Turkish dramas and celebrities among Pakistani viewers suggests that the tribute might be strange but not surprising. Turkish dramas are second only to American ones in terms of global distribution and Turkish is now the most-watched foreign language in the world, beating out French, Spanish and Mandarin.

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Pakistan is one of the largest markets for Turkish dramas – also referred to as Turkish dizis, which have covered everything from gang rape to calculating Ottoman royals. Series like Diriliş: Ertuğrul, Mera Sultan and Ishq-e-Mamnoon have enjoyed massive viewerships – Ishq-e-Mamnoon finale was watched by over 55 million people in Pakistan and Pakistan makes up 25 percent of Ertuğrul’s global audience on YouTube. In 2013, Pakistani TV channels screened 11 Turkish-made TV series and two movies, with 34,000 tourists flocking to Turkey the same year. The number was estimated to exceed a whooping 120,000 by the end of 2020, according to a report by Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency.

In her book “New Kings of the World,” writer Fatima Bhutto explains that Turkish shows initially found a footing in the Pakistani market due to their cheaper procurement costs compared to original Pakistani programming – an episode could be procured for between $2500-$4000, a stark contrast compared to a local show which costs more than $10,000 to produce. But soon enough the voracious storylines and light-eyed cast members had Pakistani audiences hooked.

The hype was only fueled further when Pakistani premier Imran Khan directed that Turkish dramas be dubbed in Urdu and aired on state-run Pakistani television. In an interview with local broadcaster Hum News, Khan said the airing of quality content like Turkish dramas was an attempt to educate and provide good role models to the country’s people, especially the youth.

But why exactly are Pakistanis so enamored by Turkish plots, production and characters? The answers may lurk deeper than fancy production designs, elaborate costumes and dramatic plotlines.  

Background: A celebrated brotherhood

Pakistan and Turkey have long held each other in high regard and referred to each other as “brother countries.” Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Pakistan after its founding in 1947 and supported its membership in the United Nations. Prior to Pakistan’s independence, Muslims of the British Raj also clubbed together under the Khilafat Movement of 1919-1922 in support of the dwindling Ottoman Empire. The Caliphate signified global Muslim unity. Even though the movement collapsed after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dismissed Mehmed VI, the last sultan, Indian Muslims continued to send financial support to the empire as it was on its way out.

Fast forward a few decades and Pakistan finds itself forging news allies while Asia goes through a massive geo-political shift with Saudi Arabia at odds with Iran, a hyper-nationalistic Narendra Modi in power in India and China’s rising global power. In this new reality, Pakistan appears to have found comfort in Turkey’s cultural values and a more modern brand of Islam. 

Source: Anadolu Agency

Khan’s fantasies to position Pakistan as a leader in the Islamic world

Since coming to power after a disputed election in 2018, Khan has said he wants “to create a Pakistan which is in line with the first Muslim society created by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina,” the holy city in Saudi Arabia where Islam emerged in the seventh century.

Khan has found a partner in Turkey’s Erdogan, who has attempted to impose Islamic values in the secular country. Since Khan came to power, there has been a clear uptick in high-level visits, military exchanges and exercises, purchase of defence equipment and political support for each other’s disputes with neighbouring countries between the two nations. Turkey has also expressed clear support for Pakistan when it comes to the Kashmir dispute with Erdogan comparing the struggle of Kashmiris to the Ottoman Empire’s fight against Allied powers during World War I.

However, Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia often places it at odds with the visions of Islamic grandiose that Turkey promises. Relations between Riyadh and Ankara have historically been tense over issues like the support of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and differences over approach in Libya and Qatar. The relationship reached its lowest point after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, 2018. Pakistan’s Khan was the first world leader to welcome Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after Khashoggi’s heinous killing—a crime that Erdogan helped bring to light despite repeated denials and cover-ups from Saudi officials.  

Source: BBC

An identity vacuum

Since its inception, Pakistanis have struggled with what it means to be Pakistani. Heroes and idols have mostly been cultural imports ranging from the Khans of Bollywood, the blue-eyed denim-clad heroes of Hollywood and now historical Turkish figures. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Forman Christian College-University in Lahore, says Pakistan has a “cultural vacuum coupled with incomplete identity formation.” “We first tried to become Arabs by taking inspiration from Arab heroes,” Hoodbhoy told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “But now that the Arabs have slightly moved towards liberalism, we are pinning our hopes on Turkey.” For the middle class, the conservative values, sword-bashing men defending Islam against its enemies and modestly covered women also offers a cultural narrative thats closer to home and hence easier to buy into.

Bhutto explains this further in her book highlighting that the Turks had managed to strike a nerve where Indian, American and Pakistani content failed. “They had achieved the perfect balance between secular modernity and middle-class conservatism,” she says. 

Stronger together?

In September 2019, leaders from Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia decided to jointly launch an English language television channel dedicated to confronting Islamophobia and removing “misperceptions” about Islam. The TV channel, which will be broadcasting in English, will create videos for social media platforms, produce documentaries and video news, according to reports. Additionally, Khan is also mulling over a proposed joint TV series with leading Turkish director Kemal Tekden dubbed Turk Lala. The series will highlight the role played by Muslims of the sub-continent during the Balkan War.

In addition, Pakistan had also announced plans to celebrate the centenary of the Caliphate movement of the 1920s in 2020. Earlier this year, Turkish foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also inaugurated the Turkish consulate under construction in Karachi, which is reported to be one of Turkey’s largest consulates in the world. 

Defence ties

The two countries also enjoy a strong military-to-military relationship, which is symbolized by the armed forces training exchange programme of 2000. Since the inception of the programme, approximately 1,500 Pakistani military officers have been trained in Turkey. Turkey also helps maintain Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 aircraft.

Source: Twitter/@iihtishamm

A Pakistani Ertuğrul

A group of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 26 also attempted to recreate the popular Turkish series in the Odigram village of Swat Valley. The young boys financed the film with the income from their business selling axes, swords, jackets, and borks, which they produced after watching the serial ‘Resurrection Ertugrul’, according to a Global Village Space report. The film will be released after Eid-ul-Fitr with the title, Pakistani Ertugrul, on YouTube. 

What happens next?

While the bond between Islamabad and Riyadh is cemented by historical ties, common adversaries and a shared foreign policy vision, it would be interesting to note how the relationship is furthered beyond Khan’s government. Moreover, the strengthening ties between the two countries should also provide a new template for Western and US policy makers who have  historically viewed Pakistan solely through an Afghan/Iran security lens and defined Turkey by the ongoing refugee crisis and Syria and Russia’s military influence. Until then, will our TV screens continue to be flooded by Turkish cultural imagery? The answer seems to be a likely yes.

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You can also read previous newsletter coverage of Turkish media in Pakistan here:

Bio: 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.

A Day in the Life of an Afro-Pakistani Student

Op-ed writer: Janib Ali Sheedi is from Larkana, Sindh in Pakistan. He is currently working as a self-employed academic tutor. He is simultaneously preparing for the Central Superior Service exam, also known as the CSS exam. Candidates who pass this exam are eligible to apply for civil service jobs with the federal govt. He is also a writer, with a keen interest in culture and international relations. He hopes to complete a graduate program from a university abroad some day. 

Being black in a South Asian society means one has to go through several challenges on a daily basis. I myself, being a student from the marginalized Afro-Pakistani Sheedi community, face unpredictable and constant hardships. I personally believe skin colour shouldn’t have anything to do with a person’s reputation. People are defined by their own deeds in society.  Unfortunately, there are some unnatural stereotypes about the caste, color and creed of particular communities. 

My community in Pakistan is not free from such stereotypes. I hail from Pakistan’s second largest province, Sindh, where our Sheedi community lives in the thousands. Judging from the Sheedi community’s social, financial and political status, they appear to be second-class citizens. We have inherited a colonial legacy, from a time when members of the African diaspora were enslaved and treated as anything but human.

Ongoing systematic discrimination against the Afro-Pakistani community has created a vacuum for us due to limited access and opportunities. One of the most common challenges is abject poverty. It is said that poverty is the  mother of all evils. This evil has consistently prevented my community from attaining an education. Owing to this, a majority of young Afro-Pakistanis work as labourers, drivers, house keepers, cooks and entertainers to earn a living. Levels of poverty and illiteracy among the Sheedi community are higher compared to other ethnic groups in Pakistan.

I remember when I asked my family to let me pursue a higher education from the University of Sindh, and they refused. At  the time, they could hardly afford two meals a day. My father was unemployed, even though he was literate. My life was really tough between 2011 and 2017. I had no choice but to start earning for my family. I used to work at a brick factory, as a daily wager building houses. I sold vegetables on a rented cart, and even grew crops in our small field.

Despite all this, I kept reading historical and general knowledge books at home. I was also a teenager, a phase that is known to be an emotionally vulnerable time for young people. The opportunities I had to give up, and the uncertainty about my future, made my teenage years even more difficult. Even though I had to deal with personal and financial setbacks, I told myself these struggles would make me stronger.

In 2016, with the help of my family’s financial contribution, I got admitted to a Masters programme at the University of Sindh. I was pursuing a degree in the university’s Department of Psychology. However, after two months of regular classes, I realized that semester fees, combined with the personal expenses that come with university life, would add up to more than what my father could afford. I eventually had to withdraw from the program for financial reasons. Then, I started preparing for the country’s competitive Central Superior Services (CSS) exam. 

I have not been able to clear the CSS exam so far. This isn’t a reflection of my competitiveness, but more to do with long-standing material obstacles that keep getting in the way. I am preparing for my third and final attempt to pass the exam. I am also working as a self-employed tutor to ease my personal financial situation, which has been an ongoing issue. 

To keep my morale high, I continue to learn about history. I also read autobiographies and biographies of great personalities. These activities allow my heart and mind work in coalesce and conformity. 

I still believe in the beauty of the future. Even if things are not going as planned right now, sooner or later, I will come out of this critical juncture. Mine is not the only story. There are thousands of young and passionate Afro-Pakistani students who are looking for help to pursue an education so they can have a better life.

I believe the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan need to give young people in the Sheedi community more access to education through material and moral support. If the government can spend billions of dollars on defence, it  can allocate more money to educational initiatives as well. The 21st century is the age of access, and our young citizens can play a vital role in building the nation. Young Afro-Pakistanis should also be given a chance to do this.

Thinking Big: Nitasha Syed

Pakistani-Canadian entrepreneur, Nitasha Syed, has a software engineering background. She is currently a Senior Product Manager at Rally Health. She started her career on the FIFA14 team, and moved to California’s Bay Area five years ago. Syed is also an advisor to early-stage startups (pre-seed/seed) out of the US, Pakistan, and India. She helps startups figure out product-market fit, user acquisition, retention, and growth.

On top of her long list of accomplishments, Syed recently launched a digital talk show on YouTube called Shaam Ki Chai, where she highlights the Pakistani diaspora all over the world. According to Syed, the stories told in Pakistani media haven’t changed for decades:

“Between dramas that depict cruelty to women (that she has to bear), morning shows that fight for eyeballs over controversial topics (that don’t move the country forward), and news channels that just sound like your grandmother’s living room where everyone is shouting over each other, the stories of Pakistanis and their accomplishments are getting lost,” said Syed.

She launched Sham Ki Chai to break through the traditional scope of Pakistani media, and shed more light on the stories of Pakistani expats “making waves all over the world.”

Even though Shaam Ki Chai is a very young venture that launched a couple of months ago, Syed has already interviewed some trailblazing and talented expats. From Kalsoom Lakhani (Founder and CEO of I2I Ventures, the first women-run venture fund in Pakistan), to Ali Ahsan (Co-Founder of MangoBaaz), to Safwat Saleem (a TED speaker, graphic designer and filmmaker). When asked what kind of stories she wants to tell, Syed said:

“I know this sounds broad, but I want to interview Pakistanis all over the world who are doing interesting things. I want to tell stories of how they (or their families) migrated out of Pakistan, and the impact they are making in their communities and the world. I want to use Shaam Ki Chai as a means to connect the diaspora to those back home, while simultaneously shedding a positive light on Pakistanis in the world.” 

It turns out Syed already has experience making shows. The first one was called Humans of STEM. The second one was called Unboxd, which originally focused on storytelling through photos. Unboxd transitioned from photoshoots to videos, and became an online series called “Hanging with Unboxd.” Syed created Unboxd to challenge stereotypes about women – she shared stories of women in STEM fields and showcased their multi-dimensionality. However, Humans of STEM ran out of money in the editing phase, and Unboxd “didn’t survive COVID.” Then, Syed hunkered down and came up with Shaam Ki Chai:

“This time I had three years of failures in my pocket. I knew how to create engaging original content in a scalable, cost-effective way. I could grow content viewership. I had a grasp on which engagement metrics to focus on. I knew how to create an outreach channel. I knew which distribution platforms to utilize based on the audience I am trying to target. I had experience setting up studios, working with cameras, lighting and sound. Most importantly, I knew what to spend money on, what I could get done for free (or close to free), what to outsource, and what to learn,” said Syed. 

Syed thought of the Shaam Ki Chai concept in September 2020, and started filming in October:

“Thanks to a team of extremely talented folks I had been working with for the past few years, I was able to launch it in January 2021,” said Syed.

Shaam Ki Chai set, outdoor patio

As we mentioned earlier, Syed has a full time job as a product manager at a health tech startup. Now, she is working on Shaam Ki Chai as well. It must take a superhuman level of multitasking to juggle a full time job and a digital show. We asked Syed how she manages her time and stays organized:

“I work a lot. That’s not a joke. I stick to a really rigid schedule of getting up early before my meetings at work start. I try to get in about an hour of Shaam Ki Chai work and then put my product manager hat on until about 5pm. After a few hours of a break, I am back at work until late. I have a distributed team, with most folks in Pakistan and one person in London. Missing a deadline, or a late response, tends to mean almost a day’s worth of delay in work. Productivity tools, emails, and of course WhatsApp is our friend.”

Since Syed actively follows content and entertainment coming out of Pakistan, we asked her what kind of content she wants to see more of in Pakistani media.

“Diverse stories of Pakistanis. The narratives of both men and women have not changed in Pakistani media for a long time.  A lot of these narratives are regressive towards women and paint men in a cruel light. I think it’s so unfortunate because that’s far from reality. Pakistanis are making waves all over the world,” said Syed.

As a follow up question, we asked how Shaam Ki Chai can fill that gap.

“I hope the stories told on Shaam Ki Chai can help bring new stories to Pakistani media. I’d love to see a drama about a Pakistani girl that goes abroad to study, starts a game development camp for young girls, and then ends up getting awarded by Variety (e.g. Laila Shabir, Founder of Girls Make Games); or a Pakistani born in Zambia whose PhD thesis is now being used to launch rockets into space (e.g. Ibaad Rahman),” said Syed 

What can we expect from Shaam Ki Chai in the next 3-5 years? Syed said she sees Shaam Ki Chai becoming a late-night talk show that brings together Pakistanis from all over the world for a conversation over a cup of chai.

On the set of Shaam Ki Chai

Speaking of chai…here is Syed’s favorite chai recipe (we had to ask)

Syed uses a Masala chai tea bag (which she thinks is cheating). She also dropped another disclaimer, saying she shares recipes like an aunty – very few measurements and a lot of ‘andazey sey karo’ (i.e. eyeballing it). 

  • Fill up a saucer with some water and wait for it to boil 
  • Add 2 teabags of Masala chai tea bags
  • Wait for the water to get darkish 
  • Add some milk 
  • Add some sugar
  • Wait for chai to boil to the top and turn down the heat
  • Let the chai simmer for about 5 minutes and voila!

Motorway rape case, public outrage, and how you can help

The purpose of this special report is to understand rape culture and identify some of the root causes of rape culture in Pakistan. The report also points out ways you can tackle the mindset, societal norms, and systemic failures that contribute to rape culture.


A breakdown of what happened

The incident: Two robbers allegedly raped a woman at gunpoint on the motorway last week. She was travelling from Lahore to Gujranwala with her children. Her car ran out of fuel while she was crossing the toll plaza on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. A relative in Gujranwala told her to call the police helpline, and was on his way to help. However, before the relative reached her, two armed men took her and her children to a nearby field at gunpoint and gang-raped her. The robbers also snatched her cash, jewellery and other valuables.

Where were the police? As for the helpline, police claim she hadn’t called by the time the armed men showed up. However, according to Al Jazeera, she phoned the police for help, but the two armed men took her and her children out of the vehicle before the police arrived.

Victim-blaming: Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) in Lahore, Muhammad Umar Sheikh, suggested that her own actions got her into trouble. He questioned why she left the house late at night, drove alone with her kids, didn’t check the petrol in her car, and didn’t take a route called GT road that is more populated. He also said the woman, who is a resident of France, thought she was in France and not Pakistan where society is different. Protesters are demanding CCPO Sheikh’s removal. Today, CCPO Sheikh reportedly apologized: “I did not mean anything wrong…if any misunderstanding was caused because of me, then I apologize.”

Our earlier newsletter that went out today sums up recent arrests, next steps, and protests against the gang rape.


Summing up public outrage


What is rape culture?

An environment in which sexual violence is considered the norm and justified. Victims are blamed for their own assaults. Cultural norms and institutions protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women bring it upon themselves to avoid sexual assault. Rape culture is rooted in patriarchal beliefs (i.e. the dominance of men, and the devaluation of women). Gender inequalities, discriminatory laws, and attitudes about gender and sexuality, fuel rape culture. 


Take a stand against rape culture in Pakistan

Change the mindset of society. Why is there a culture and system that produces men who rape women with impunity? What is taught in homes and schools? What is the value of a woman’s voice and consent? It is reportedly common for men to sit in a gathering where casual sexist jokes and objectifying comments about women are considered normal. This allows a toxic culture to develop, even if certain men don’t take part in these conversations, they shouldn’t let them happen. 

Redefine masculinity. Don’t let the boys or men in your life perceive violence as “strong” and dominance as “male.” 

Stop victim-blaming: When discussing a case of sexual violence against a woman, don’t bring up her sobriety, choice of clothing, or sexuality as the problem. Talk about how the perpetrator is responsible for her assault. Hold the perpetrator accountable. The cause of rape, is the rapist.

Don’t “make women smaller.” Keeping girls indoors and protected isn’t the solution. The root of the problem goes deeper, and risk aversion isn’t the only answer. It’s important to address systemic issues and institutional failures that allow rape culture to spread, rather than expect women to sacrifice their freedoms in order to stay safe. 

Take an intersectional approach. Rape culture affects all of us, regardless of gender identity, sexuality, economic status, race, religion or age. One step towards tackling rape culture is removing restrictive definitions of gender and sexuality that discourage people from expressing themselves. For example, there are cases where LGBTQI individuals are subject to “corrective rape,” in which the perpetrator intends to force the victim to conform with sexual and gender stereotypes.

Improve law enforcement. Elected officials and law enforcement agencies need to implement laws that promote gender equality and protect women. There is currently a lack of law enforcement that protects women and girls from violent crimes like rape. However, public hangings of rapists won’t stop rape from happening either. Imran Ali, the man who raped and murdered the minor girl, Zainab, in Kasur, was hanged in October 2018. Capital punishment clearly didn’t deter future rapists.  

Start police reforms. The police should make it easier and safer for women to report crimes. Create an atmosphere that is free of victim-blaming.


Donate to organizations that focus on rape and violence in Pakistan

Aurat Foundation: An organization working for women’s empowerment. The organization deals with a wide range of issues, such as ending violence against women and girls.  

Bedari: An organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. Bedari focuses on violence against women and education for women. 

War Against Rape (WAR): An organization that provides crisis intervention to sexually abused women and children, including free services like legal aid, psycho-therapeutic counseling, and basic medical assistance.

Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE): A women-led organization that conducts seminars to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace. Through its Survivor Support Unit (SSU), WISE also helps women who have survived torture, sexual harassment, and sexual assault by connecting them with legal services, counseling, and psycho-social therapy.

Exclusive interview with Julie’s lawyer, Hassan Niazi

DEEP DIVE: THE PLIGHT OF TRANS ACTIVIST, JULIE

News about the arrest of Pakistani trans activist, Julie, has been making rounds on the internet. Because of the online Naked Truth series, Julie became a viral, household name earlier this year. She had been vocal about the plight of the country’s trans community, receiving both support and criticism as a result. In particular, her arrest was allegedly based on a fabricated case. Because of a lack of attention from mainstream media channels, a lot of the facts about Julie’s case were unclear. That’s why The NewsRun and lifestyle and culture blogger, Ushah Kazi, worked together to clarify as many details as we could. You can visit Ushah’s blog to learn more about Pakistan’s transgender community.

We reached out to Julie’s lawyer, Hassan Niazi, and asked him about the case. We also recapped whatever has already been published about Julie’s case. 

A BREAKDOWN OF WHAT WE LEARNED

Background: Reportedly, on July 12th, a group attacked Julie’s friend Rosy at her residence. Julie, along with other activists, spoke out against this. A few day’s later, the same group behind the assault on Rosy allegedly retaliated by filing false charges against Julie and her friends. 

The alleged incident: On July 16th, Lubna, another member of the trans community, accused Julie and three others of attacking her at her home, and taking her valuables. However, according to Niazi, Julie was at Bari Imam at the time, and was never at the Golra Shareef suburb, where the alleged incident against Lubna took place. In fact, Niazi claimed that Lubna was the one who led a group of trans people to attack Julie in her home on July 15th. Basically, the group responsible for attacking Julie allegedly filed a First Information Report (FIR) against her based on a fabricated case.

Julie’s arrest: On August 10th, Islamabad Police arrested Julie and kept her in Adiala Jail. According to Niazi, the initial police report stated that Julie was not a part of any violent act. However, she was still arrested. 

Dissent within the trans community: The circumstances surrounding Julie’s arrest have brought the internal politics of the trans community to the forefront. Niazi suggested that Julie’s public commentary on trans rights threatened members of the trans community who reportedly benefit from the status quo. Niazi also claimed that members of the community are jealous of Julie’s “fame.” 

  • Challenging the guru-chaila system: Julie reportedly condemns the prevalent ‘guru’ (teacher) and ‘chaila’ (student) system, which Niazi has likened to “slavery.” Allegedly, some wanted Julie to be placed under “Guru Najma.” However, Julie left her guru, because she doesn’t want anyone to own her. Niazi said the gurus want money in return. 
  • Exploitation: Niazi went into detail about how people in the transgender community are assigned a “ranking.” Circumstances naturally turn gurus into heads of the community. When trans people leave their homes, they need a place to live, and prefer turning to the transgender community. If they end up staying with gurus, the gurus want something in return. Trans people make money for gurus through sex slavery or begging. When a trans person starts to become “useless” in the eyes of the guru, they are sold to another guru for a price.
  • Stance against begging: Julie wants members of the community to have employment prospects so they don’t have to beg to survive.
  • An alleged mafia: Niazi named Guru Najma as a member of a “mafia” group that allegedly put pressure on the local Station House Officer (SHO) to get Julie arrested. Lubna, who filed an FIR against Julie, is reportedly Guru Najma’s “chaila.” When asked about Julie’s history with this mafia group, Niazi claimed that threats and violence have been ongoing for a while. According to Niazi, two members of the trans community, who work with human rights organizations, went to the police station and advised Julie to comply with Guru Najma for reasons that are unclear. 

Julie’s release: Julie was recently released on bail. In order to ensure her release, Niazi and his team applied for bail, met police officers, and pushed judges to not give an adjournment. “…I can’t disclose more details, but I do know that dirty games were being played to delay the bail hearing and then her release,” he said.

Julie’s celebrity status: In a video published after her arrest, Niazi claimed that Julie could have faced even more danger had she not been so popular. He stated that trans people who rebel are normally murdered by such groups, and there is hardly ever a conviction.

Next steps: In a recent video, Julie thanked everyone for their support, and encouraged them to speak out against injustice. Niazi also encouraged people to, “accept Julie as your leader in this cause, raise your voice with her, and stand by her.”

Thinking Big: Hamza Choudery

Two Pakistani brothers, Hamza and Haroon Choudery, immigrated to Brooklyn, New York from rural Pakistan in 1998. Years later, all grown up and excelling in their respective careers, they co-founded a nonprofit called A.I. for Anyone, an Artificial Intelligence education resource that aims to make AI easy to understand. Their organization has grown exponentially since launching in 2017, and was recently featured in CNBC as well. The NewsRun interviewed A.I. for Anyone co-founder, Hamza Choudery, to learn more about this unique initiative that simplifies AI, even for people who don’t have a background in computer science!

According to Hamza, AI will have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities, the same communities that lack access to proper education materials. Haroon, Hamza, and their friend, Mac McMahon, set out to increase the accessibility of effective AI education resources.

“At the end of the day, our mission isn’t to create more data scientists (although, that may be a byproduct of our work). Our mission is to democratize AI education, so everyone, irrespective of background, has a voice in guiding when, where, and how the technology is deployed,” said Hamza.

Like most nonprofits and startups, turning an idea into action can be challenging. Hamza said establishing credibility early on was difficult.

“We exerted a lot of energy into cold calling principals and getting them to agree to bring us in for a workshop. After we delivered a few workshops, we were able to build on our momentum and scale more quickly,” he said.

24-year-old Hamza works at WeWork, and 26-year-old Haroon works at a healthcare company. Hamza himself doesn’t have a technical background in AI, but he helps spearhead the business development function, and finds creative ways to scale their impact. However, Executive Director, Haroon, and Director of Programs, Junaid, have technical roles in the AI space. As a result, they are able to offer subject-matter expertise and thought leadership on the AI front.

A.I. for Anyone is based in New York City. We were curious to know how much of the Pakistani diaspora has applied to the AI for Anyone workshop. Hamza said he doesn’t have exact figures, but they have definitely seen a large amount of Pakistani support. When asked if they plan to expand A.I. for Anyone workshops in Pakistan, Hamza said yes! A few academics from Pakistan have already reached out to collaborate.

“Haroon and I always look for ways to give back to our homeland. Developing a strategy around how to most effectively bring this content to Pakistan is on the roadmap for 2020,” he said.

Hamza and Haroon are still juggling their full-time jobs while running their nonprofit. Since we are total nerds when it comes to schedules and to-do lists, we asked Hamza how he manages to stay organized:

  • Remember why you started. When you’re working a full-time job, it’s easy to want to stray away from other priorities. To remain consistent, it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. If you don’t start with a genuine passion, it’s hard to fake it.
  • Invest in infrastructure. Our team at A.I. For Anyone did the heavy lifting of setting up systems and processes to make our operations as smooth as possible. I recommend making that investment upfront, so you minimize growing pains.
  • Don’t try to multitask! It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to multitask. I try to block off my calendar and devote all of my energy to the task at hand.

Since AI is also uncharted territory for The NewsRun, we had to ask: What is the key to making AI material easy to understand? Hamza said:

“With a diverse team, composed of individuals with backgrounds in computer science, philosophy, and business, we’re able to sense check the content to ensure it doesn’t include jargon or nebulous concepts. We also apply the following test to our workshop curriculum: ‘Could a child understand it?’ If the answer is no, we iterate. Ideally, we strive for our content to be analogous to Pixar movies, which are entertaining for children and adults alike. We not only want to make the content easy to digest for people without a technical background, we want it to also provide interesting perspectives for the more advanced consumers of our content.”

Hamza and the team at A.I. for Anyone don’t want students to be intimidated by AI. After teaching students the fundamentals of AI, the team encourages them to consume news about AI and maintain a pulse on the technology. According to Hamza, students should also try to predict how AI may impact the industry or role they eventually want to pursue. Hamza thinks this foresight can help guide students towards a career path that is “less prone to disruption.”

Many of us think about whether AI will have a more positive or negative impact on our lives. Here is what Hamza has to say:

“Although the AI revolution is virtually inevitable, the net impact is hard to predict. Where AI sits on the spectrum between “good” and “bad” is to be determined, so it’s our responsibility to try to guide the direction. Developing responsible AI will require widespread participation; we will need input from all groups and communities.”

Toxic households amidst a global pandemic

Op-ed writer: Rameen Shakil recently completed her Bachelor’s in Social Development and Policy from Habib University. She is the official blog writer at Primary Skincare and is also currently working as a full-time content writer. She hopes to become a clinical psychologist in the future. 

Pakistan has fallen victim to COVID-19 since 26th February 2020, when a student in Karachi University tested positive after returning from Iran. From February till July, the Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) reports that there has been a staggering increase of 200% in violence mainly against women and children.

A compilation of the national and provincial data broke the numbers down into 8 basic categories: early child marriage, child abuse, child labor, domestic abuse, kidnapping, rape, violence against women (VAW), and murder. 90% of these crimes were committed against women and children. This problem is not just confined to Pakistan. In fact, a spike in domestic violence around the globe has caused the World Health Organization to urge “governments to put women’s safety first” during the pandemic.

Policymakers need to realise that while lockdowns are necessary to curtail the spread of Coronavirus, the home is not a safe space for all. The virus has caused essential services such as helplines, shelter homes, medical facilities, and the police to become redundant. Countries like France have designed unique code words to be used at pharmacies by domestic abuse victims who are forced to quarantine with their abuser(s). This has triggered immediate intervention by the police, helping hundreds of women escape their toxic households. However, no such intervention has been seen by the Pakistani authorities.

One might have thought that the structural power imbalance within Pakistan could not get any worse, but the lockdown has further curtailed the mobility of VAW survivors, making it increasingly difficult for them to seek help. A sharp decline in economic activity has caused women to be forced out of their jobs and once again dependent on their abusers for survival. This has made them even more vulnerable to violence. The slightest disagreement over domestic matters, finances, or children could cause all hell to break loose. Furthermore, men who have been dismissed from the workforce are more likely to release their frustrations and aggression by physically, mentally, or emotionally abusing their partner and offspring.

Alongside women, children stuck in toxic households have become victims of child abuse. There is no denying that children are more vulnerable than adults to experience heightened emotional distress in the face of adversity or when their routines are disrupted. Being susceptible targets, children face the brunt of adult anger. Violence at home towards women causes a negative effect on children who are known to be good observers. Their mental health can be significantly affected, leading to trauma, anxiety disorders, and depression as they grow older.

With numbers rising each day, the future seems bleak. There seems to be no end in sight concerning the pandemic. Most children and young adults have been stuck within the confines of their toxic households for 24-hours-a-day since early March. This means that in cases where a parent or guardian tests positive for the virus, children are sent away to homes of relatives or acquaintances. We are already aware that most of the time, perpetrators of sexual abuse are acquaintances of the children. This puts them at risk of rape and sexual violence with no one to seek help from in the absence of their primary caretakers.

That being said, children are also at high-risk for mistreatment and abuse within their households. Child welfare organizations around the world, such as UNICEF, have sent out an alert, warning countries about a rise in child maltreatment. This includes sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In Pakistan, it is not uncommon for parents to be the prime perpetrators of rape or physical abuse. Let’s not forget Maryam, the 13-year-old girl living in Korangi Town who was repeatedly beaten up and raped by her stepfather, and his brother. Maryam’s mother knew what her little girl was going through, but could not stand up for her. Whenever she confronted her husband, he threatened to divorce her and kill all her children.

While Pakistan has never been a safe space for women and children, it is time for the government to devise robust legislative frameworks, policies, and programs that protect vulnerable children and women stuck in toxic households. A multi-faceted, holistic approach needs to be adopted on both the national and provincial level if we wish to rid our society of this menace.

Pakistan Needs To Stand In Solidarity With Its Own Black Community, Because Silence Is Compliance

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She 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 tragic, final moments of George Floyd sent shock-waves around the globe. Just the latest in a burgeoning list of Black Americans who had been killed, his death was a painful reminder of everything that still hadn’t changed. Right down to the anguished words, “I can’t breathe.”

In the wake of the now viral video, protests were organised across the US, in turn inspiring protests and shows of solidarity around the world. Among this outpouring, were open calls from the global South Asian community, to stand in solidarity with Black Americans.

Pakistani celebrities also joined the conversation, almost immediately followed up by call-out culture. Zara Noor Abbas shared a gut-wrenching video of a young girl, breaking down as she talks about her experiences with racism. Someone responded that Zara’s dissent against racism was interesting, given that she had starred in the commercial for a fairness face wash. Zara’s reply was rather scathing. Literally ending with, “a face wash is killing no one.”

Following this, my Twitter feed was flooded. On the one hand, I saw videos of activists on the ground, hurting, and chanting; a powerful show of strength in the face of systemic injustice. On the other hand, I saw some prominent names in Pakistan either lauding celebrities for their stance on racism, or ridiculing them for tweeting “Black lives matter” when they’d endorsed fairness creams in the past. And, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a gap in this cascade.

I pointed out as much when I tweeted something along the lines of,

“Dear Pakistan, Lyari, which is where most of Sindh’s Black community (Sheedis) reside is undergoing gang-violence, and you’re tweeting about how racist fairness cream ads are. Check your privilege.”

One Step Back

Now, with a grand total of twelve Twitter followers, this was very much a shot into the abyss. I didn’t expect a response; it was much more of an outlet for my own anger.

Growing up in Sindh meant that I was cognisant of the Sheedi community. I vaguely knew that their lineage could be traced to Africa, but had very little information about their history, or why it mattered. Then one day, my mother, who was conducting a seminar on Sindhi language and culture at my high-school, gave an impassioned speech about Sindh’s forgotten heroes. She mentioned the names of our own hidden figures, comparing them to international stories that Pakistanis drew inspiration from. She spoke about the civil rights movement in the US, and how while we were inspired by the Black leaders risking their lives, we didn’t even know who Hoshu Mohammad Sheedi was.

That name stuck in my head, because I had at approximately seventeen, been completely unaware that a Black man had played a significant role in Pakistan’s history. I discovered that Hoshu Sheedi, as he is affectionately called, was a general in the Talpur army, who was most remembered for his military campaign against the British forces of Charles Napier. At the battle of Hyderabad in 1843, he died uttering the words, “we will die, but not give up Sindh.”

It dawned on me that his calls for anti-colonial dissent had preceded the ‘great Indian revolt’ of 1857 by fourteen years. And then another thought; I had read about the battle of Hyderabad before. In a history book, for school in fact. But, while this book mentioned Napier and his forces, the name of Hoshu Sheedi was not included on those pages. It should be noted that this was a history book approved for a British Council GCE course. So, years after independence, we were still being instructed in the colonial versions of our own stories. And, there seemed to be no place for Hoshu Sheedi in that narrative.

Lessons and Erasure

In the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In the culture of Sindh, storytelling has a very special place. It is the cornerstone of not just cultural preservation, but life itself. So, I have to wonder, when we take people’s stories away from them, what is the extent of our injustice?

My family is rather prominent, with longstanding ties to Sindhi media and journalism. So, some months later, as I sat across from a prominent journalist (also a family member) I was really excited to be quoting the story of the brave, Black general, who had given Sindh one of its most powerful slogans. His response took me by surprise. Not only did he discredit Hoshu Muhammad Sheedi’s influence, but he dismissed the idea that slavery had ever existed in Sindh. No explanations were given for a community that was carrying the burden of our collective past. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a delineation of what was important in contemporary Pakistan, and what wasn’t.

Some years later,  in a Canadian dorm, I discovered yet again how unfair this wanton disregard was. Reading a blog about our history, I discovered that Pakistan housed the largest population of Black South Asians, and that many traced their roots back to the slave trade. (Although, not all. The history of the Sheedi community is very complex and interesting.)

There is something to be said about how uncomfortable the region’s tryst with the slave trade makes contemporary South Asians. When popular narratives insist that all ‘people of colour’ are natural allies, how exactly can South Asians come to terms with the actions of their own ancestors? Perhaps then, the erasure is to be expected. But, it is born out of convenience, and hurts a community that deserves our support.

Color Blind

In 2008, Dawn did a feature on the Sheedi community, where they interviewed Yaqub Qambrani. At the time, he was one of the organizers of the All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at. When I read the article, one of his sentiments struck a particular chord, “we have the attached stigma of slavery; people still tell us we are slaves.”

I didn’t understand the extent of what he had said. Later, I realized that there are so many gaps in the documentation of the Black Pakistani experience, that an answer would be difficult to find. But more than a decade later, I did find one. Tanzeela Qambrani made history in 2018, becoming Pakistan’s first Sheedi lawmaker. When speaking about her journey, she was very candid not just about her own struggles, but about the history that she had inherited.

A promising and energetic student, she rose in the ranks of a political landscape. When she became a councillor in 2015, social media was ablaze with comments about how she would, of course, support the most monied, and powerful candidates. Because, as the “daughter of a slave”, this was a given.

Tanzeela Qambrani’s father was an advocate. Her mother, an educator. Her siblings have careers in the corporate sector. In her own words, she had a typical middle class, Pakistani upbringing. Save for one difference.

In an article detailing racism’s structural persistence in the US, Robin DiAngelo comments on various aspects of what she calls “white fragility”. It wouldn’t be fair to connect her research about systemic racism in the US to Pakistan, but I would like us to consider something. DiAngelo comments on the notion of “colour blindness”, and it should be noted that, “the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”

In Sindh, a majority of the Sheedi community resides in Lyari, which also happens to be engulfed in gang-violence. Throughout their history, the community has been faced off against poverty, and struggled to empower itself. People like Tanzeela Qambrani showcase the fruition of their struggles. But that we had to wait until 2018 for a Sheedi lawmaker says a lot about how deep rooted racism in Pakistan is. And how far we still have to go.

In the Dark

Since I asked all of Pakistan to check its privilege, I think it’s only fair that I return the favour. As a fair-skinned Pakistani, I do not ever want to suggest that colourism is not damaging. Nor will I ever disregard the impact of fairness products. To respond to Zara Noor Abbas, no, a face wash never killed anyone (at least I hope not). But, making Pakistanis believe that something is wrong with the natural colour of their skin is a disgusting prejudice. And profiting off of it is shameful.

But, my sentiments remain. The murder of George Floyd raised questions about police brutality, systemic injustice and corruption. All of these apply to Pakistan’s own Black community. And, that we would shift the narrative to something a bit more controllable, is serving our own self-indulgent desires. But, it is also hurting an opportunity for us to know, and do better.

And, yet, when the violence is so long-standing, what exactly are we supposed to do?

Well, consider the story that I just told you. Like I said, given my minuscule Twitter presence, I wasn’t expecting anyone to listen to my words. I just set them out, because it was a truth that I was aware of. But, someone did listen. A day later, I got a message from Anam, the editor of The Newsrun. She asked me if I’d be willing to write about Pakistan’s Black community, because, “I want to educate myself and my readers.”

Today, you all are reading this rant (I mean think piece). And, I hope that the chain continues to grow. While I wrote this article, my younger sister said to me, “a story stays alive when you tell it.” And I think that’s a good place for all of us to start.