The show is called taboo. The topic is domestic violence. Six panellists share clips from the lives of unfortunate victims, women whose faces have been burned with acid, who have been beaten out of their homes with no safe house to turn to, and those like Shukria Gul, who is now HIV+ because she was forced to marry a man recently returned from Kenya and infected with AIDS. Luckily, her children tested negative, but she speaks tearfully of her haunting revelation about her own condition.
The stories are fit for the worst horror movie script but how could they depict the lives of seemingly ordinary, and in spite of their circumstances, well-meaning and intelligent women? It all seems so different from the Pakistan I lived in and constantly return to. I am saddened and perplexed by their experiences and doubt my own understanding of how widespread the plight of women in my country may be, having led more or less a protected life and been fortunate enough to have a father and a husband who are as pro-women’s rights as I am. But at the same time, I cannot help but think that this is freedom of the press at its best.
Without access to key information how can one even begin to solve the problem? Private television channels have mushroomed in Pakistan in the last few years, providing a medium of expression to not just the downtrodden and victimised but also to a burgeoning young crew of rock and pop vocalists, models and artists, and at the other end of the spectrum, the mullahs. Indeed, television in Pakistan nowadays is truly a reflection of its multi-lingual, multifarious population of 160 million plus.
In fact, if television were considered the benchmark, we would rank high in the league of democracies. Almost nothing is unspeakable. Aitazaz Ahsan, a leading constitutional lawyer with a Pakistan People’s Party affiliation, has agreed to represent the Chief Justice of Pakistan, who was suddenly removed from office on charges of corruption when the Supreme Court decided, suo moto and after vociferous appeals from the public, to hear the case of missing persons abducted in the name of fighting the war on terror. Criticism of President Musharraf and his policies no longer results in raised eyebrows on the part of the viewers of Pakistani television, but when Mr. Ahsan, in response to a question on a talk show, stated that he would like to cross-examine General Musharraf in court for his allegedly wrongful dismissal of the Chief Justice, the host was clearly alarmed. "Do you really think that is likely to happen?" he inquired.
"The atmosphere is changing," responded Mr. Ahsan. "One day justice will be done. And it will be sooner rather than later." As an ordinary Pakistani citizen, I can only pray that his words will come true. But who checks whom? I recall one of the first principles I was taught at law school in America-one cannot demand equity with unclean hands. In Pakistan, the politicians have all too often been linked with corruption and therefore let the people down. Feudal lords with clandestine Swiss bank accounts and defaulting industrialists alternately checker the scenery of Pakistan’s political landscape if democracy is left to run its unchecked course, the army insists.
And so it cannot help but interfere. The army does this in the interest of the people, to save them from corrupt politicians. But are the generals clean, ask the politicians. With first jibs at prime property in every major city and lucrative defence contracts to look forward to, are the generals really in a position to point fingers? Quite apart from the financial benefit an army man can look forward to if he is fit enough to struggle through as a major or colonel and finally end up as a general, there is also possibility of the windfall political appointment or ambassadorship post-retirement as long as the military government remains intact. This is where the problem occurs. In order to prolong military rule, deals must be made with corrupt politicians willing to switch sides. Mock elections must be held to tell the world that we have suddenly transformed into a democracy and therefore have the right to stay on.
Musharraf’s government, to its credit, was weary of making too many deals with too many corrupt politicians. And thus, a new resource was tapped into: the technocrats. Apart from the controversial replacement of Prime Minister Jamali with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, other appointments made sense. A health minister was chosen on the basis of his work record and a competent minister of science and technology immediately began adding value. In the past, civilian rulers in Pakistan had made such appointments on grounds of loyalty and how long a party member had withstood the pressure of jail instead of their relevant experience or competence. But in Musharraf’s Pakistan merit counted.
Moreover, with a veteran banker as prime minister, the creation of wealth and increased consumption were evident on the streets of Karachi and Lahore, where BMWs began to replace Honda Accords, the previous upper class vehicle of choice. If mobile phones are the barometer, then one can argue that the wealth has trickled down. But, without a doubt, the greatest beneficiaries of the new government policy and attitude were the bankers and brokers of Karachi. Not only were they making more money, they had increased influence in Islamabad, far more than in any previous government. They dabbled in property and traded stocks on information available to them but not to the public-at-large, and some say, caused the stock market crash of 2005.
And then Tariq Hassan was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan. An able and honest lawyer with the right credentials, he took his job seriously. But when his findings led to influential members of the financial community and the upper echelons at the Ministry of Finance, he was quickly shown the door and replaced by an insider, sympathetic to the allegedly guilty.
Were the technocrats, previously respected for being on the right side of the law and not evading their taxes, becoming Pakistan’s new tainted class? It is widely commented in Karachi’s jet-setting banking circles that a million dollars in bonus to banking chief executives is now within the realm of the achievable. Surely such high take-home figures are common in the financial service industry of London or New York, but on the paan-spit laden Chundrigar Road of Karachi they seem not only an anomaly but brew discontent in the hearts of politicians, generals and the common man alike. Perhaps not so much because of the sheer monetary value but because there is a sense of illicitness, that this is an unregulated industry favoured by the government. In a country where the percentage of tax paid by the highest tax bracket was recently slashed from thirty to twenty percent, the common person’s resentment is not unfounded. This is unchecked capitalism at its worst.
But with a free press ready and willing to take on the case of the underdog, the average citizen is increasingly demanding rights, whether it is the battered and abused wife, the father whose son was abducted by authorities in the middle of the night or the man who lost his shirt in the stock market crash and fraudulent property schemes. The cry for justice is loud and clear.
Slowly, it is gaining momentum. Lawyers have taken to the streets and judges have resigned in support of the Chief Justice’s sudden disappearance. The government is at a loss with no respectable lawyer willing to fight their case. The country as a whole has taken a stand, and the powerful seem to be backing down slightly. The cry for justice lives on.