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The relinquishing freedoms

October 25, 2012

We all wish for freedom. Very few can explain what they mean by freedom; and fewer still know what to do with it.

Here, in Pakistan, we may not have much else but we do have freedom in some ways. If anything, we have too much of it. This is one, and perhaps the only advantage of living in perpetual chaos that characterises Pakistani society: there is no order, no authority, no laws or leaders to follow – everyone is free to some extent. As a wise man, selling masculine strength potions on a Lahore sidewalk once remarked: ‘Our men exercise no control over their thoughts, tongues and sex organs’. They don’t have to. They are free to think, speak and act. Some women too are free to manipulate these free men.

So if you are a young person feeling stifled at school or in your neighbourhood, or if you are a middle-aged person feeling caged in at your work place or in a marriage, your problem is not the lack of freedom, but an inability to define and pursue ‘your’ freedom.

Let’s say, I wished for economic freedom. I used my savings to build assets that would provide me with sufficient income to last me a lifetime. Now, I am free from the shackles of employment and I am free to choose what I do with my time. Day one of my freedom is marked by excitement of not ‘having to’ do anything. I start my day the way I choose and do what catches my fancy. Day 10, and I’m already getting bored with my freedom, because there’s nothing to pursue and no one to challenge or engage me. Achieving economic freedom is possible, but useless if I don’t know what I want out of it.

Achieving any kind of freedom is possible – absolutely any freedom imaginable. The operative word here is ‘imaginable’. It’s the mind – the permanent residence of imagination – that perceives, prioritises and pursues. The freedoms we don’t exercise are the ones we do not know about, or the ones we self-censor out of our wish list because we have been ‘persuaded’ that these are undesirable freedoms.

Take for instance the freedom to sleep for as long as one wishes. Sleeping is the oldest of all addictions, and the most potent of all intoxicants. To have a restful, comfortable and deep sleep is among the highest of pleasures known to human beings. A satisfying sleep is what purges us of all the junk and dust we collected through the previous day, and prepares us to face the next day with vigour and excitement. Sleep soothes, it nourishes, it heals, and it entertains with fascinating sounds, stills and video clips …

But except for the first few years of our life when we are allowed the natural sleep cycle, the society makes it its business to cajole or force us into breaking our sleep earlier than we wish to. There is school, there is work, there is religion, there are domestic responsibilities – for one reason or another our sleeping hours are set and enforced by others.

Like all pleasurable addictions, sleep too has been looked down upon by organised religions and the societies they created. The religious scholar is encouraged to wake up before the birds and attend to the creator, and the secular student is taught to use early morning hours when, say, preparing for an exam, writing a speech, solving a complex problem. One of the most widely-held beliefs, across continents and skin colours, is that waking up early is a good quality and waking up late is not. Those who oversleep others in a joint family are considered abnormal, or eccentric, or unhealthy. Those who are late for school or work are punished.

So immense is the power of the suggestion: ‘sleeping hours are lost hours’, and so consistently it has been hammered into our heads, that the idea of sleeping for 10 to 15 hours, even on a weekend, sounds too fanciful and if put in practice, will make a majority of us feel guilty. For a few, freedom to sleep for long hours is important and they exercise their freedom despite everything. Others find excuses: it’s impossible to keep my phones switched off for that long, there’s a baby in the room, my spouse snores, there are chores to be done in the morning, there’s too much noise from the street. There are any number of reasons why you can’t sleep to your heart’s content, but they all have to do with you. No one is taking away your freedom to sleep. If there is anyone, it’s the adult in you that has bought into all the propaganda against sleep.

Sleep is just one example. There are other freedoms you rob yourself of routinely, because of tradition, elders’ advice, family expectations, peer pressure, fear, and above all, the universal losers’ mantra: ’aisa hi hota hei’. Whether or not you use it, you have the freedom to study a subject you are interested in rather than the one all your peers are choosing; you have the freedom to say no to a job that takes more than it gives; you have the freedom to change a profession or line of work at any time in your life; you have the freedom to stay quiet when you have nothing to say; you have the freedom not to marry if you are not prepared for it; you have the freedom to decide when to have children; you have the freedom to call a spade a spade; you have the freedom not to kill an animal to celebrate Eid al Azha.

You have freedom. What would you like to do with it today?


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.