Paranoia and patriotism

Jun 17 2006

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THERE are times when I am convinced of our irredeemable hypocrisy: the instinct to say one thing and do another, and to condemn others for what we do every day has become a national trait.

Take, for instance, a news item that appeared in a Lahore daily a few weeks ago. It seems that to their credit, two members of the National Assembly had moved a bill in parliament to end an odd anomaly that has existed on our statute books for years. If a Pakistani male marries a foreigner, his wife has the right to claim citizenship. But a foreign man marrying a Pakistani woman does not have the same privilege.

In order to end this gender bias in our Citizenship Act of 1951, Kunwar Khalid Yunus and Mahnaz Rafi had proposed changes to give Pakistani women the same right men enjoy when it comes to marrying foreigners. The draft amendments were sent to the interior ministry for comments, and after sitting on them for two years, it has apparently orchestrated opposition with provincial counterparts as well as sundry intelligence agencies.

One of the objections raised by the interior ministry reads: “The right to obtain nationality can be used by any foreign country to plant its agents in Pakistan after arranging their marriages with Pakistani women.” Presumably, if a foreign woman marries a Pakistani man, she cannot be a planted agent. Beyond the paranoia inherent in this argument, there is the notion that there are hordes of spies waiting to get married to women here.

And the mandarins and spooks in the ministry seem to have forgotten that they are the ones who permitted an army of foreign militants into this country, ostensibly to fight in Afghanistan. These foreign agents stayed on and are now busy killing our own people, including our soldiers. In fact, Pakistan must be the most welcoming country in the world for illegal migrants: literally millions of Bengalis and Afghans have settled anywhere they chose to without any questions being asked. If anything, officials of the interior ministry have colluded in this influx by handing out ID cards and passports to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants.

Those objecting to these progressive changes also need to remember that scores of thousands of Pakistani men over the years have been granted citizenship in the West by marrying women there, usually of ‘desi’ origin. If Britain, for instance, were to withdraw this right on the (understandable) basis that it permitted too many foreign men to settle and claim all kinds of social benefits, there would be a hue and cry. And no doubt, our government would lead the protests. Indeed, many Pakistani men enter into such marriages simply because it entitles them to settle abroad. And yet, while some of the offspring of such matches have become terrorists, these Pakistani men have not (yet) been accused of acting as ‘foreign agents’.

I am not aware of any protests over this hypocritical opposition to these changes, nor have I come across any letters or editorials in newspapers condemning it. The whole issue seems to have been largely ignored. But it does say a lot about us as a people. At the highest official level, we are basically saying that while a man can marry a foreigner who can then be naturalised, a woman is too stupid to be trusted to exercise sound judgment.

But the sad reality is that in Pakistan (and in much of the Muslim world), most women do not make this most critical of decisions on their own. Arranged, and often forced, marriages are the norm, not the exception. This being so, why this song and dance about ‘foreign agents’? If a girl’s parents are arranging the match, is it likely that they will pick a spy for a son-in-law?

While it would appear that these shallow arguments are aimed at blocking all foreign men from taking advantage of the proposed liberalisation of the Citizenship Act, the truth is that it is India-specific. Partition divided thousands of families, and in a society where intermarriage is common, the pool of marriageable men and women in various communities has shrunken. While it is OK for Pakistani men to marry Indian Muslim girls, our interior ministry is convinced that if Pakistani girls were to marry Indian men, the floodgates would open, and we would be swamped by Indian agents.

It would take a very dedicated spy to actually get married to pursue secrets or cause problems in Pakistan. Unfortunately, our own spooks and their masters have yet to enter the 21st century where keeping secrets is harder than ever. Google Earth, a popular website, can give you detailed images of whatever part of the world you want to have a close look at. Commercial enterprises exist to sell satellite photographs. The Internet is a great source of what was once secret information.

Quite apart from the spurious espionage angle, there are the wider aspects of women’s rights. The Constitution grants men and women the same rights, so how can the interior ministry block the proposed changes on the ground that they might make their work more difficult? As it is, the interior ministry has not exactly set a shining example of efficiency thus far: the country is awash with illegal guns; murderous jihadis have multiplied; crime is flourishing; and drug addiction is rampant. Under these circumstances, one would have thought the interior ministry would have enough to do, rather than try and block legislation aimed at removing an archaic anomaly from the law.

What was encouraging was that both MNAs who moved this private members’ bill sit on the government benches. Unless their colleagues in the MQM and the Muslim League get cold feet after the interior ministry salvo, they should be able to muster enough support to push their bill through. One hopes the PPP will lend a hand. Surely General Musharraf should knock heads to enact the draft legislation because progressive laws should form the basis for his ‘enlightened moderation’. However, one fears that in the prevailing ultra-nationalistic, paranoid and hypocritical environment in the country, we will live with the existing Citizenship Act of 1951 for another fifty years.