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Secrets of our darkened soul

Do nations have souls? The question is a hypothetical one. But if they do, then the soul of our country is shrouded in all kinds of ugly secrets; secrets we keep wrapped up in layers of hypocritical religious zeal and an enacted morality.

We exhibit this morality by attempting to ‘ban’ New Year celebrations or pretend that the occasion simply does not exist. Conversely in Dubai, a staunchly Muslim centre of the world but one where religious practice takes a calmer, more matter of fact form than is the case at home, a massive display of fireworks lighted up the Burj Khalifa and the fountain beneath it as the clock struck midnight.

At home private residences in Islamabad were raided to thwart party-goers and prevent celebration. Joy, it seems, is not to be permitted to our people. Even the simplest moments of life become shrouded here in secrecy, holding back much of what should be normal activity.

There are other darker, uglier secrets too. In Lahore, behind the closed doors of her home, a woman beat and killed her ten-year-old maid as this year began, apparently after the child tried to steal a small sum of money. The amount is, of course, insignificant. The crime of murder committed is not.

We have heard of similar cases before of extreme cruelty to those working as domestic labour, a sector that remains unregulated. Women tell stories of assault and virtual slave labour. Other children, no older than the little girl in Lahore, have been killed for the most trivial reasons. In many ways we are all guilty for allowing this to happen amidst us; for not speaking out when we see a frail nine-year-old yelled at for failing to lift a hefty toddler up the stairs or pausing to look at toys in a store as she accompanies her charges on a shopping trip.

Such silence amounts to collusion. We see it too in other areas of life, with only the familiar few marking the third anniversary of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Taseer’s killer remains unpunished – a hero in the eyes of many. And Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy who the governor had bravely tried to speak for, has now spent over four years in a jail cell, facing a death sentence and shunted from one jail in Punjab to another for fear that like other victims of the country’s blasphemy law she may be killed by other inmates.

The twisted nature of our society is visible elsewhere too. Dozens of ‘Hate Malala’ websites exist, spouting conspiracy theories – some of which insist she was never shot at all. There has been no attempt to block these sites – even as the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, following government orders, retains its ban on YouTube or sites run by Baloch or Sindhi groups.

Despite feeble attempts to block the millions of pornographic sites dotted across the vast expanse of cyberspace, porn is reported to be the material accessed most often in our country. Clearly there is a limit on the religious zeal we expound when it suits us. The Federal Investigation Agency has also reported a huge increase in sexual harassment over the internet, in a country where there are now estimated to be some 24 million internet users.

Almost all the victims are women, though five percent of the complaints come from men. Some of the harassment, involving photographs and comments posted on public sites, have been vicious enough to force women to quit jobs or educational institutions. Of course, this happens around the rest of the world as well, but in our society things are made worse by the social and family pressures involved when such incidents take place and allegations are hurled regarding the actions or morality of a young woman.

We have succeeded even in pulling joy out of the skies. The ban on kite flying means that in Lahore none of the coloured splashes that once marked the winter skies appear any longer. Little boys run after the torn, tattered plastic kites, homemade from shopping bags, that they can still sometimes find – and Basant seems to belong to a different age.

It is true the ban has been triggered, and to a certain extent justified, by the gory deaths that took place as a result of razor sharp twine cutting necks, including those of children and many passengers on motorcycles. But there are ways around this problem. Laws regarding the use of ‘chemical twine’ brought in mainly from China need to be enforced. This has been made possible in cities of India including Ahmadabad where kites have not been torn away from the hands of children allowing an age-old tradition to live on. In our country, it has particular value as the only secular festival on the calendar. Yes, safety must be guarded; kite flying zones can be put in place.

But the art of flying a kite must not be denied to future generations. It is part of our heritage, part of Lahore’s tradition and a ban on it means only even less entertainment for a country which already has a paucity of it.

So, what does all this say about our soul as a nation? Somehow, somewhere along the way it has become distorted and blackened – by hypocrisy, extremism and by a lack of clear-cut thinking on too many issues. We have deliberately manipulated our education system to deny people the right to think and form balanced opinions.

But it would be unfair to say that there is no hope. Everywhere in the country people demonstrate a ‘goodness’ that is almost unparalleled in the world – by offering up homes to displaced people, by giving out food even when they are barely able to meet the needs of their own families and by demonstrating a hospitality so extraordinary that it has left the visitors who still dare to come into our country dazed.

These values need to be built on. We need to trace our finger back along the map of our evolution and determine where things went wrong. We must then attempt to right them. If we are not able to do this, we would have given up our soul and allowed ourselves to turn into a people who lack humanity, morality or basic decency. With these qualities, good sense seems to be vanishing too.

We must cling on to what we have left and understand that there are forces at work that seek to destroy all that is good within our nation and tear it out of its heart. They must be prevented from doing so.

We have less and less time to act against these forces, to pull over those sitting on the fence to the side of what is right and ensure we understand what is at stake in this battle for our future. If we do not realise this now, evil will warp things to such an extent that they can never be repaired or put back in order again. Through the decades, we have changed drastically. There were once better times for our nation and its people. We must strive to reclaim them any way we can and as quickly as we can given that we are fast running out of time.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Kamila Hyat, "Secrets of our darkened soul," The News. 2014-01-09.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Telecommunication-Pakistan , Society-Pakistan , Extremism , Humanism , Woman , Children , Salmaan Taseer , Aasia Bibi , Dubai , Islamabad , Pakistan , Lahore , Balochistan , China