Piercing the Veil a la NYT

A Pakistani student at Stanford has produced a documentary about re-inventing the Taliban. This she has done on an assignment for the New York Times.

What Sharmeen Obaid didn’t ask the MMA beards – several of them – is whether in their 15-month-old reign, they have delivered the dreams of some 20 million voters who resurrected them politically because they were promised food, shelter, jobs and an end to corruption!

By padlocking their womenfolk as if they be cattle, banning music, defacing advertisements, have these squat, well-fed, fat-faced hirsute leaders of the six religious parties – the United Action Front – converrted the North-West and Balochistan provinces into an El Dorado worthy of emulation elsewhere?

“This madness must not be allowed to continue. We don’t need to be taught how to follow Islam and it’s none of their business,” Bushra Gohar, a Peshawar-based social worker and a blue-blooded Pushtun blasts the beards. “I will never cover my head – Islam does not tell you that it’s compulsory. If told by MMA to cover my head, I’ll resist, our civil liberties are threatened, it’s a cause for alarm.”

Gohar is furiously frank with her interviewer Sharmeen, an M.A. student of Journalism in Stanford University, on an assignment for the New York Times to produce a documentary titled Re-inventing the Taliban? It will be premiered in the US tomorrow on the Discovery Times channel. Millions will view it.

The best response comes from a model in Lahore: “The Shariah is being made to focus on what women are doing. Islam doesn’t revolve around women!”

“Yes, it does!” asserts a shrill Razia Aziz, an MMA woman member of our National Assembly. Staunchly loyal, she defends her party in hastily delivered sound bites, but is bowled out when it comes to a turf match between men and women MNAs: “We have little influence over them. Men don’t take us seriously…they feel superior and maybe they are right because this is what Allah ordained…women are more emotional…we need separate assemblies and speakers!”

Aziz says she’s free to go anywhere she pleases, but again contradicts herself by insisting that laws decreeing ‘chaddar’ for women must be promulgated without further delay!

A heft of the 54-minute documentary details the jingoistic climate prevalent in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province). Sharmeen, 26, is seen straddling among men-infested streets, the majority of them staring menacingly at her (no blame here, for the young woman attracts attention in her tomato-red shalwar kameeze with a matching dupatta that stubbornly refuses to cover her moving body). Dressed in similarly striking colours, Sharmeen even manages to move around Darra Adam Khel and fondle with firearms, something most Pakistani women would not be seen doing.

Fearlessly intrepid in attempting to pierce the veil in a bid to show the real face of MMA as the re-invented Taliban, Sharmeen moves freely in a landscape where women are sparsely seen in walking tents while trying to obliterate themselves fully. The young Pakistani woman is all over the place, quite at home in the male bastions of the Frontier with that alluring smile of hers and a charmingly confrontational style of questioning.

Her two sessions with the veteran politician Samiul Haq, founder of Darul Uloom Haqqania (super madressah) that has churned out the Taliban, are fun to watch, quite entertaining. He seems to enjoy the little arrows she slings his way, eliciting his comment on co-education, burqa as a fashion and women banned from work.

“Will I be able to work and even interview you five years from now if you fully enforce the Taliban-like edicts on women?”

Teasingly, the Maulana chortles, “You appear more concerned about yourself. Why worry? Allah has given you a place in the US…”

Prior to this very disarming exchange, the man who mentored the Taliban at his Akora Khattak seminary is all fire and thunder against the Americans who malign the Taliban: “It’s pure propaganda to crush Islam…secularism and the US are unacceptable to us and there can be no separation between government and religion. Progressive Islam is unacceptable.”

Come on – this is old hat – I have been hearing the Maulana parrot these cliches, by now so shopworn and hackneyed, since decades. The only difference today is that he’s actually calling the shots – something he’s always lusted after but never got till now.

Sharmeen seems obsessed with co-education and apart from engaging Samiul Haq in this debate, she earlier asks MNA Razia Aziz, the mask in black with just two slits for eyes. When the survival of women as human beings itself is at stake, I find the co-education question to be too facile to really resonate.

But Sharmeen belongs to another generation: “I grew up in a progressive Islamic society, listening to Guns N Roses and U2, familiar with the West; like millions of other Pakistani’s – wearing jeans and studying in a co-education school in Pakistan.” She’s the first in her family to study in America.

Any no-go areas in Peshawar? Nope – MMA men must be credited for allowing Sharmeen the liberty to move about freely filming anything that makes for a spicy story, including her firing guns and enjoying it thoroughly and in-your-face (to MMA) musical concert by singer Gulzar Alam chatting up two chicks!

Despite Sharmeen showing cops lollygagging with burning video cassettes allegedly in line with the Shariah laws (shown to excess) or stale footage of over-heated rhetoric at MMA rallies shouting death to America (cloyingly replayed here), I ask her if she is playing to her Western and Indian audiences by backing up electronically what her sponsor, the NYT, has been inking in its editorials on Pakistan and its leadership not doing enough to contain the Taliban menace: “Local governments (MMA) along the Afghan border continue to provide the Taliban with valuable sanctuaries,” is the latest NYT indictment.

“I don’t think I am playing to the Western phobia of religious extremism by portraying the worst of Pakistan,” answers Sharmeen. “I show a balanced Pakistan with two sides of the story. If my documentary had only concentrated on the religious elements, then I think it would have been fair to make this assumption. But my journey took me from the NWFP to Lahore, where I show a fashion show and where we meet liberated Pakistani women.”

Insisting that she was given “complete editorial freedom”, Sharmeen is on mark when she says that she did not “churn” out a Pakistani PR film. “There are things that are wrong in my country and I need to speak out about them, because if educated people like myself keep silent, then our country will lose out.”

But isn’t it a bit odd for her to rush to India and show her film, instead of Pakistan?

“Indians rarely get to see films made by Pakistanis. Everyone needs to see my film because it depicts the struggle within Islam between the forces of fundamentalism and secularism…. I plan to show my film in Pakistan as well. Unfortunately, we do not have a vibrant film culture and people rarely watch documentaries.”

The only interviewee to give Sharmeen a rough time is Khurshid Alam, leader of the dangerously armed and radicalized MMA Youth wing. Playing to the galleries (actually 6-7 men in crisp white shalwar kameeze sprawled on a nearby charpoy with one of them standing up defiantly, resting his foot on the cot facing Sharmeen), the professor of Business with eyes downcast makes a mockery of her questions on the treatment of women by putting counter questions to her – tacky and somewhat harsh.

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