Happy almost-Independence Day, dear readers! As we crest the wave of seventy-one years of our green passport, cricket team and precarious sense of identity (all closely enmeshed), one likes to take a moment to consider ‘Pakistaniyat’ – a kind of New Year’s resolution; good intentions to be carried forward until next August.
The top of my list is a reintroduction of civics to all school curricula. Most of what ails us as a nation is our consistent and cussed refusal to acknowledge that the world outside our homes is also an extension of the same. One’s city does not exist as an enormous hotel, where municipal workers are an extension of house help who cleans up after you. One’s city is not a buffet either that you sample and be on your merry way. As citizens, one owes a civic duty to one’s country and city—the privilege of belonging comes with the responsibility of it. Being in a park does not give you permission to idly pull leaves off bushes or pluck flowers from public beds. Being in a heritage site does not mean you can write “I luv u Samina” on a pillar that had withstood thousands of years of vandals like you and still somehow has survived. When you drive, you are sharing the road with hundreds of people whose safety you endanger when you rocket through red lights as if your Honda were an ambulance racing to an accident instead of just an ordinary person who wants to get to Freddy’s high-tea before time’s up.
Civic systems—lines, traffic lights, flushing toilets when you’re done—exist to make everyone’s lives easier. When we follow the basic rules and live up to basic expectations of civility, it results in a community that is safer, kinder and less frustrating to live in. Civic systems are also important because they are equal for everyone, and heaven knows we need a little bit of bubble-bursting regularly. Our class striations are so stridently defined that certain people think rules don’t apply to them, just because they make more money, drive a bigger car or live a certain lifestyle. Sometimes it isn’t even money, just a sense of entitlement—men will try to weasel their way around rules if a woman is in charge, or an older woman will try to intimidate a younger man. What is this national obsession with power? Everyone is just waiting for the moment they can throw their weight around and crush someone else. Perhaps it is some sense of cosmic justice, that having suffered oneself it is only fair that at some point one becomes the oppressor too. Perhaps it is just greed, or a certain thrill to be had from being the purveyor of imperiousness for once.
Whatever it is, it makes for a society that is mistrustful of each other, constantly on the lookout for bullies or actively on the defensive from them. When rules are enforced with regularity and without needless torment, they become less a thing to be escaped and more a system to be followed without fearing it will somehow try to destroy you.
My second on the list of Improving Things for Pakistanis is tolerance. Much is said about how the Quaid specifically spoke of minorities and their rights. How he freely appointed Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis to be integral parts of Pakistan’s early government because they were competent and talented and deserved to be in those positions, be it Jogendranath Mandal, Dalit and law minister, or Alvin Cornelius, chief justice and Christian. Their religion wasn’t the point. How far we have fallen over the years, running Dr Abdus Salam out of his own country—the man wore a sherwani, pagri and curled khussay when he accepted his Nobel prize from the king of Sweden because he was proud of his heritage, even though his country didn’t want him. Growing up we heard endlessly about the various men who died for Pakistan—Aziz Bhatti, Rashid Minhas, Colonel Sarwar, etc—but not once did we read about Flight Lieutenant Cecil Choudhry or Wing Commander Mervyn Middlecoat, both Sitara-e-Jurat, or any of the Polish men who flew for PAF at risk of their lives. Our collective national consciousness has forgotten what it was like to be the Other—us second and third and fourth generation Muslim Pakistanis, we have no idea what it was like to be marginalized, harassed and beaten down by a majority religious group. It was enough to carve an entire country out of nothing. And yet here we are today, harassing political hopefuls like Jibran Nasir about his personal religious convictions. Here we are, standing by while Christians are lynched and forcibly converted. Where it’s taken seventy years for legislation that makes it possible for Hindu couples to separate, and wives to receive alimony and child support. Outer-religion tolerance is just the tip of the iceberg, but maybe if we can begin at the very beginning, with the broadest of demarcative binaries—Muslim/Not Muslim—the muscles of that respect can generate enough for strength to carry on through to inside-religion tolerance. The change we hope for is both as vast and as simple as this. Live and let live. Live, and help live.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.