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.

The Next Crisis

Op-ed writer: Bilal Mustikhan is a fourth year student studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University. He has interned as a sub-editor at the Dawn News business desk and is currently preparing for the civil services exam. He has a keen interest in international relations and world history.

Governments around the globe are struggling to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods. The Coronavirus has impeded routines, and is deepening both the health crisis and economic crisis. To add insult to injury, other crises are transpiring due to the status quo of the pandemic-stricken world. According to the World Food Programme, the virus, which has weakened healthcare systems and generated massive unemployment, may also lead to multiple famines.

Last year, approximately 135 million people faced food insecurity. The global pandemic could push approximately 265 million people to the brink of starvation. Massive political and social unrest will make it increasingly difficult to maintain fragile lockdowns imposed by developing countries. Protests have already erupted in parts of Africa and India, which are witnessing food shortages due to the disrupted global supply chain. An emerging swarm of locusts in global agriculture hubs has further exacerbated food security.

The onslaught of locusts can be traced to shifting weather patterns. An increasing frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Peninsula has dumped enough water to create an ideal breeding ground for locusts. Another cyclone hit northeastern Somalia and Ethiopia in December 2019, and set the stage for locust breeding grounds to flourish.

Grasshoppers and locusts come from the same family. However, grasshoppers prefer solitude and lack the ability to travel far. A certain species of grasshoppers transforms into locusts when they are brushed up together. This grouping allows serotonin to develop within grasshoppers, who then undergo certain behavioral changes, develop wings, turn yellow, and grow larger. Once they transform into locusts, they become egregious and eat everything in sight. They possess the ability to fly more than 100 kilometers while aided by wind, making them a dangerous migratory species. Their constant movement makes it logistically difficult to eradicate them.

Locust swarms have ravaged thousands of acres of land in parts of East Africa, seizing the spotlight from Coronavirus related distress as the risk of losing food poses a larger threat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization fears that a  second wave is likely to occur in late June-July due to favorable breeding conditions throughout May. The second locust outbreak will likely be much worse, since it will further destabilize food security and destroy livelihoods.

Authorities have struggled to tackle this locust invasion due to trade disruption. Coronavirus linked lockdowns and world-wide travel restrictions have obstructed the delivery of pesticides. As a result, farmers in a village bordering Kenya are trying to combat locusts with traditional methods, such as banging metal pans, whistling and throwing stones. According to Ethiopia’s agriculture  ministry spokesman, a wave of locusts is emerging in new areas – the damage caused by locusts has driven Somalia to declare a national emergency.

While ravening locusts flutter through parts of Pakistan, the government is handing out rations and donations to address the plight of the pandemic-stricken poor. However, the provincial and federal governments have failed to organize a joint pandemic response, and continue to be distracted by internal politics. In Sindh, the public health crisis  has kept local officials pre-occupied as they grapple with the virus. As a result, the provincial govt has neglected the influx of locusts that are devouring standing crops in parts of Sukkur, Kandhkot-Kashmore, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Dadu. While the world is facing a grim recession, any damage incurred to agriculture, which accounts for approximately one quarter of  GDP, will be detrimental.

The UN’s trepidation over this locust phenomenon, along with the World Food Programme’s warnings, call for a prompt response. Pakistan’s provincial and federal governments should seriously address the locust issue in conjunction to avoid a future food crisis that will not only lead to social unrest, but also massive unemployment.

President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions; A blow to the U.S. and global pandemic response

Op-ed Writer: Amber Jamil is an international relations professional with a focus on South Asia. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting immigration for 60 days is characterized as a short-term measure during the coronavirus crisis but may be a harbinger of tighter restrictions on future guest worker programs. The executive order applies to people seeking green cards for work, as well as spouses and children of legal permanent residents, and the parents, siblings, and adult children of U.S. citizens.There is concern the order will be extended indefinitely and become more restrictive.

Although Trump describes the order as temporary, it is an open-ended measure to remain in place until the administration determines the U.S. labor market has improved. A reevaluation in 60 days may extend restrictions as states reopen. This decision only accelerates the recession which is already all but a certainty.

There is overwhelming consensus by economists and the business community that immigrants fuel long-term economic growth. In fact, immigrants contributed to roughly two thirds of U.S. GDP expansion between 2011 and 2018. Nineteen percent of the nation’s 14.6 million self-employed workers are immigrants and responsible for a good share of the jobs created, hiring workers at virtually the same rate as the U.S. born.

A case study of Pakistani American physicians illuminates the critical role of immigrants in America and the reality of an intrinsic interconnectivity of social systems. The U.S. physician supply is strained in meeting the increasing health care demands of an ageing population. U.S. medical schools do not produce enough graduates to meet the needs of the country. Current forecasts expect a shortage between 40,800 and 104,900 of physicians by 2030. Without foreign doctors, the U.S. healthcare system would collapse, especially in rural communities.

About a quarter of all doctors in the U.S. are foreign-born and must secure a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant exchange visa conditioned on an individuals return to their home country for two years at the conclusion of the program. Pakistan is one of the top sources of foreign doctors to the U.S, second only to India. There are approximately 17,000 physicians and health care professionals of Pakistani descent in the United States and Canada. Medical College of the University of Karachi Pakistan has one of the largest number of graduates actively licensed in the U.S.

Trump’s executive order restricting immigration will lead to a sharp increase in Pakistani visa denials and narrow the pipeline to citizenship. After completion of residencies, many international medical graduates seek Conrad 30 waivers from the requirement to return home for two years. In exchange, they are required to work for three years in underserved communities. Participation in the Conrad 30 program creates a pathway to citizenship and as a result, many foreign-born doctors launch their careers serving rural communities and economically disadvantaged populations.

Members of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) embody the best of pluralistic America, adding to the rich fabric of the country by serving in public, private and civic life in their home country, as well as mother country.

In recent weeks, APPNA chapters across the U.S. raised funds and implemented COVID-19 relief projects in local communities. APPNA distributed personal protective equipment to hospitals and clinics across NY, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Other activities include distributing food to those in need, meals for first responders, staffing counseling helplines, conducting community awareness seminars, providing COVID-19 testing and volunteering in overwhelmed hospitals. In addition, APPNA members are contributing to Pakistan’s COVID-19 relief efforts through technical assistance as well as fundraising. 

Across the country, American’s know Pakistani Americans as their doctors, employers and neighbors. Contrary to rhetoric on the topic, immigration contributes to economic growth and expansion of the labor market. Looking ahead, the current level of economic pain means the U.S. will emerge from the pandemic with millions of debt-saddled workers in need of work. All critical engines of growth will be needed for a stable public health and economic future.

Space is a privilege

Op-ed writer: Kazi Akber is a writer based out of Karachi. He studied writing and philosophy at the University of Toronto. He presents written and oratory commentary on social and political issues. He also hosts a podcast called Kiya Kahe Ga Kazi.

As of April 23, 2020, the novel Coronavirus has infected 10,927 people in Pakistan, and 230 of those people have died. In the face of public outcry, the government recently extended a lockdown that had been in effect for 17 days.

The lockdown will be extended till April 30th. At that point, the government will conduct another evaluation to determine if the situation can be safely normalized. Social distancing appears to be the best way to slow the virus’s spread. Extensive global media coverage has shown us the disastrous results of delayed lockdowns. We have already seen 17,671 people in New York City die from the virus over the past 30 days.

However, if the primary solution is to stay home, what seems to be the problem? A majority of urban working class people in Pakistan cannot afford to stay home, due in large part to concerns about mental sanctity and economic strife.

Numerous people who fall under Pakistan’s poverty line live in slums, which are located in megacities like Karachi. Karachi is known to be one of the densest cities in the world, with more than 16 million people. The 2016 world population review quotes a staggering 24,000 people per square kilometer. This figure is understood to be greater now.

Karachi’s residents mainly live in cramped locales that are only fit to be inhabited for a few hours. While I sit in my 500 square yard house and wonder why it’s so hard for people to follow stay-at-home orders, I have to remind myself that a large percentage of the population risks suffocation and lasting mental health damage if they stay indoors for an indefinite amount of time.

Psychological studies have pointed out that social isolation and confinement can lead to lasting mental deterioration. The studies were conducted on sample groups from first-world suburbs. This raises the following question: If social isolation in presumably comfortable living situations can cause mental deterioration, what kind of damage will the residents of Karachi’s slums, with their confined spaces and limited rations, incur during this lockdown?

Adding to the strife of the working class are concerns about employment. Approximately 72% of Pakistan’s population is employed in the informal sector. That means no contracts, no healthcare packages and certainly no prior notice when employers prioritize the bottom line over the worker.

A lockdown may feel exhausting to some people who are obeying guidelines. However, a large portion of the population can’t adhere to social distancing laws, for reasons that surpass mere exhaustion. Even the great equalizing power of a global pandemic only partially mitigates the evident economic disparity in cities like Karachi, where those with privilege possess commodities they don’t even understand the value of, such as the liberty to stay at home, or the space to do so.

Unprecedented world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns often shift the paradigm of reality in some fundamental way. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it has dawned on an exhausted police force and Karachi’s frantic wealthy minority that a multitude of people in the working class simply do not have the privilege to comply with lockdowns. Space is essential for social distancing. Space, much like everything else, is a commodity that is not available to the downtrodden.

Nashra Balagamwala’s Experimental Show of Peace and Solidarity

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.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Nashra has found her creative niche by designing experimental and playfully political board games. No stranger to controversy, Nashra has in the past turned both Pakistan’s panache for arranged marriages, and the country’s political landscape into entertaining spectacles. In the wake of rising tensions, Nashra once again wanted to use her craft, while at the same time appreciating the sensitivity of the situation.

In a bid to represent this struggle, Nashra paired up with an Indian volunteer named Akansha Gupta, and staged a demonstration outside the consulates. Titled ‘disconnected’, it offered a creative expression for anyone on either side, who longs for peace. Both women wore red, showing their solidarity with Kashmir, and were connected in some way, for the duration of the process. They held hands, had their backs against each other, or were linked by a string. In their hands, they held flags of both India and Pakistan, fashioned into peace signs, to encourage, “an end to the brutality, and future conversations of reasonable peace.”

Despite her artistic vision, Nashra, like most young Pakistani’s witnessing the worsening situation, is not oblivious to its severity. She is particularly frustrated about the political circles that have turned their backs on discourse and diplomacy. “On the governmental level,” she says, “…I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. I think Imran Khan has made great moves towards this, but with the current Indian government, it seems unlikely in the near future.” A sentiment that, sadly, has been echoed by many. Regardless of the grim reality, which we all have to accept, an artist also has the capacity to encourage hope. And, Nashra hopes to continue doing this.

She is currently working on a game that will take inspiration from shared Pakistani and Indian pop-culture, and encourage camaraderie. As the young designer explains it, “this board game will allow players from both countries to come together, play, and laugh at the things they hold nearest and dearest to their hearts.” Apart from this, she is also planning to launch a non-profit organization called, ‘Make Chai Not War’, the proceeds for which will go towards relief efforts in Kashmir. In her own way, this vibrant young talent wants to encourage peaceful dialogue, as a means to move forward. And, if all of us take just one thing from her, it has to be the resolution to push forward.

When times are as grim as this, it is tempting to forsake hope itself. But, we owe it to those worst impacted by the tensions, and to our own humanity, to hold on to the promise of better days.