We are only truly free in the moment before birth. As soon as we step into the world, society begins to shape us in its own constantly evolving vision. By the time we are mature enough to exercise self-determination, we have already conducted life, for years, in line with what was expected of us, and so, to deviate from a path carefully laid out is already beyond comprehension. Conversely, the aberrations that are few and far apart have essentially three options: to conform; to become outcasts; or to opt out of the system altogether, which means one of three things: death, an indifference to varying degrees of harassment, or relocation.

Interestingly, what binds the conformist and the non-conformist together is also what sets them apart: the shared inability to exercise free will. While the conformist blindly marches to the beat of the status quo, deeply entrenched in a system of sleep-eat-consume-repeat, the non-conformist avoids expression to survive.

In a country like Pakistan where minorities are publicly humiliated and their murderers pardoned; where religious debates are fought with kevlar jackets on egg shells; where taboos exceed slogans; where women have to fight for every inch of their right to exist as equals; where millions serve in bonded labor; there are enough missing freedoms to drive any kind of non-conformist out for good.

But how did a nation, incredibly charged for its freedom in the 1940s as it were, become so terribly enslaved to such a narrow take on life? How did we travel so far from the secular ideal Jinnah articulated as a primary guideline to state governance?

In his first Presidential address, Jinnah said, ‘No power can hold another nation, and especially a nation of 400 million souls, in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time’. And then the oft-repeated yet largely unheeded words, ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State’.

Unfortunately, long before Pakistan was swapped with the mouthful ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, Jinnah’s words were clinically erased from school curriculum. Secular sentiment vanished against heightened religiosity that labeled, sorted and separated people as though they were products on display in a super market. The right to freely practice religion, however, was only one of many freedoms denied to the people of Pakistan. Other essential freedoms that were robbed from us include the freedom to choose economic independence, and with respect to women, the freedom to act as equals.

Soon after Pakistan was born, American influence and a belligerent neighborhood in general led us to a culture of borrowing and buying goods we couldn’t otherwise afford. Capitalism promised competition and higher rewards for increasingly efficient labor. The free market model was put to the test in fledgling economies like ours, but fluctuations in leadership failed to see development plans through. We became slaves to a debt our leaders signed up for in the interest of national security; a debt that brought little or no improvement in the lives of the lowest common denominator. Financial dependence on a foreign power meant another freedom compromised. We used foreign money and towed the foreign line and the trend persisted through autocracies and democracies alike.

Furthermore, in the power struggle between military and civilian rule, and the culmination of this struggle that utterly disregarded the wishes of the common man, difference of opinion at the top left people at the bottom with neither roti, nor kapra nor makan. Millions already oppressed under inescapable feudal obligations remained indebted to their ‘benefactors’ and were unable to break free from their hold. The lucky ones who fled from ‘feudal imprisonment’ to urban centers like Karachi were willing to work in the city as chefs, chauffeurs, batmen, butlers, maids, security guards and gardeners; a socio-economic class that was employed full-time but could not afford a wedding, an elaborate medical treatment or a decent education for their children without additional support from the employer. They made enough to make ends meet. This was, and is still very much a class that will spend its entire life at the mercy of the elite.

While it is more than clear that all people (young, old, rich and poor) are enslaved at some level or another, women living in poverty are by far the worst affected and the least understood in our society. The UN estimates that over 20 million people in Pakistan are manipulated into bonded or forced labor. In terms of modern day slavery, Pakistan is the third worst affected country in the world.

Across the global landscape, varying degrees of societal freedom correspond to varying degrees of tolerance and the two are directly proportional to each other. In Pakistan, freedom was always a malleable concept, used effectively by politicians to substantiate their ideas and to gain mass support.

In 1947, when Jinnah addressed the nation, freedom meant freedom from colonial rule and religiosity. In 1958, when Ayub Khan addressed the nation, freedom meant freedom from economic depravation and Indian influence. In the 70’s, Bhutto nationalized industries, embraced the right wing and his freedom was again freedom from despondency. Zia’s freedom was freedom from western culture. It was as though the word ‘freedom’ was a plaything for politicians; a free for all phrase to entice the masses.

Today, life in Pakistan carries on in the same vein. Power hungry politicians are demanding freedom from corrupt rule. A noble call, indeed. But as they up the ante each day, using words like ‘Azadi’, they must understand what freedom really means and that restoring it constitutes far more than emptying the pockets of corrupt countrymen.

The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.

Khizr.imran@gmail.com