Recent Pakistani cultural production has shown a distinct turn towards human rights discourse.
Writers and film-makers are increasingly representing minorities’ precarious position in contemporary Pakistan, and many of them also explore fierce debates about human rights, Islam and cultural relativism.
We should examine how fiction, film and poetry put the human into human rights; the next installment of this column will focus specifically on theatre for development.
In this year, which is still young, Pakistan has already witnessed the murders of Shia Hazaras and of NGO activists.
Arson attacks against Christians in Joseph Colony, Lahore, shocked the nation, and Ahmadis continue to find themselves under attack, as they have done since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto amended the constitution to label them non-Muslims in 1974.
It is unsurprising, then, that Pakistan was recently described by the Asian Human Rights Commission as having “one of the most serious” human rights predicaments in Asia.
Human rights groups challenge the widespread persecution of minorities, but their views are seen by many as being alien to, or incompatible with, Pakistan, or the wider ‘Muslim world’.
The allegedly ‘Universal’ Declaration of Human Rights is often perceived as a coercive, secular product of the West — another stick with which to beat Coca-Colonised nations.
One Islamic scholar, Abdulaziz Sachedina, unequivocally supports the enforcement of human rights, but argues that notions of democracy, pluralism and rights cannot be unanimously agreed upon “without taking into account contextual and communitarian interpretations imposed upon the inclusive language of secular and religious texts”.
Ron Dudai begins his important article “Advocacy with Footnotes: The Human Rights Report as a Literary Genre” (2006) with the following statement:
“The human rights movement has given us a new vocabulary, new standards, new mechanisms and a new literary form: the human rights report ... Not a journalistic report, not a peer-reviewed academic piece, different from a legal brief, not quite a non-fiction documentary, and aiming at being something other than the old-fashioned political pamphlet: it is a whole new kind of publication, with its own rules of style and presentation.”
Based on my reading of human rights reports on Pakistan by groups including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Committee on the Rights of the Child, I agree with Dudai’s tongue-in-cheek point that the human rights report constitutes “a genre of its own”, although there is enough variation between individual reports to add that it is a flexible form.
Writing for a particular audience and using its own terminology, authors of human rights reports employ a fact-finding, legalistic style — often replete with scholarly footnotes — to establish credibility.
However, the human rights report also has points of productive overlap with creative genres such as film and fiction.
This is especially evident in the report’s inclusion of testimony, its sole vehicle through which emotion is allowed to penetrate measured, quasi-academic arguments.
Similarly, films such as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face about acid attacks on women, as well as novels such as Bina Shah’s Slum Child and Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (both of which deal with Christian communities in Karachi), highlight individuals’ articulation of their own experiences and those of the minority groups from which they come.
What these very different texts share is a sense of responsibility to the story of human rights violation, but also to the person (real or imagined) whose story it is.
Sometimes these two responsibilities clash, as is indicated by the acid attack victims’ accusation that they had not given Chinoy permission to broadcast their story in Pakistan.
Arguably one of the first texts to link literature with a nascent idea of human rights was the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association Manifesto, drafted in London in 1935 by leftist writers and intellectuals from British India.
The manifesto’s main argument is that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today — the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection, so that it may help us to understand these problems, and through such understanding help us to act.
This has had and continues to have profound implications for the arts and human rights in the subcontinent, because of the connections made between aesthetics and emancipatory politics.
In her one-act play Behind the Veil (1932), for example, Progressive writer Rashid Jahan’s representations of purdah, arranged marriage, polygamy and childcare are ahead of her time.
The play follows the conventions of the PWA’s manifesto by advocating social change, although it and the PWA collection Angarey, in which it was published, also alienated many Muslims with an anti-religion stance.
Moving forward to Gen Ziaul Haq’s 1980s regime, the We Sinful Women collection published in 1991 responded to the period’s Islamisation, suppression of women’s human rights and censorship with searing anger.
Outspoken and penetrating, it contained iconoclastic poems by Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed and others (translated from the Urdu by Rehana Ahmad).
More recently, Jamil Ahmad, in his sparse but powerful short story, “Sins of the Mother”, depicts an unnamed, eloping couple who are ultimately the victims of honour killing after sheltering for many years with bored soldiers assigned to a remote military outpost in Balochistan.
Rather than allowing his lover to be condemned by the Siahpad tribe’s extrajudicial laws, the man kills the woman himself before being stoned to death; only their child escapes in this evocative story about hospitality, vengeance, gender and sexuality.
Yet it is important not to pin the blame for Pakistani women’s manifold problems solely on religion.
In her essay “Forget the Soundbites, Focus on the Reality,” Maha Khan Phillips argues that “the issues that let women down in Pakistan are rampant corruption, deeply entrenched feudalism, tribalism, ethnic division, and even cultural legacy,” rather than Islam, as is often supposed in the West.
Hanif, who is also the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and writes for the BBC and Dawn, recently authored a brave book for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The pieces in The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are are based on horrifying accounts by relatives of some of the thousands of Baloch who have disappeared in recent years, allegedly with the clandestine involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
In a passage on the banality of evil revealed through legal processes, Hanif writes that one of the relatives of the missing “did what everyone in Balochistan with an abducted family member does” and went to the police station to file a first information report (FIR).
Yet when it became clear that he would name the intelligence agencies as his relative’s kidnappers, the police refused to file the report.
Laconically, Hanif continues, “He went to the High Court. The court ordered that an FIR be registered. No FIR was registered.”
Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Zohra Yusuf writes in the collection’s foreword that Hanif’s conversations with relatives of the disappeared were “moving — and disturbing — in a way that statistics can never be”.
Our examination shows that this is true of cultural texts more broadly. Lacking the human rights report’s footnotes, literary texts and films soar because of their creative advocacy of humanity and humaneness.
Follow us on Twitter @books_dawn