Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Reality goes beyond labels

January 06, 2013

IN a strongly worded piece in the New York Times following the rape and death of a young woman in Delhi, Manu Joseph argues that gender-based violence persists because “India is essentially a village”. He claims that rural traditions, values and “narrow mindedness”, including misogyny, endure in India’s cities, and that India’s struggle for modernity can be cast as a “battle of the idea of the city against the idea of the village”.

Joseph’s critique implies that cities are the setting for all that is democratic, progressive, inclusive and grounded in universal rights, while villages are sites of hierarchy, communalism, exploitation and regressive thought. His piece echoes the language that dominated Indian media and civil society protests against the girl’s rape and government apathy towards violence against women: the phrase ‘feudal structure’ was repeatedly used to describe a village mentality that sanctions rape as a way to dominate and control women.

This Indian discourse is not unlike the conversation that erupted in Pakistan following the murder of Shahzeb Khan by the scions of feudal families. The crime has sparked unprecedented civil society outrage (in a way that the daily, excessive murder of middle- and working-class Karachiites of each other has not). “For Sindh’s feudals, Karachi lives come cheap”: this one news headline, pitting the provincial ‘interior‘ against the big city, sums up the public sentiment that feudal practices are out of sync with Pakistan’s urban zeitgeist, and therefore demand more urgent justice.

Given these widespread, anti-feudal (that is, anti-rural) views, it comes as no surprise that Pakistan’s latest saviour and would-be revolutionary has deployed familiar binaries in his rhetoric: middle-class vs feudal; city vs village; modern vs anachronistic.

Tahirul Qadri, the chief of the Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran, has stated repeatedly that his agenda targets Pakistan’s “feudal and exploitative forces” and that he seeks to establish a “middle-class order” and eliminate feudalism and dynastic politics. The support of the MQM — Pakistan’s largest, urban, middle-class party — is a much-needed fillip for Qadri’s mission. Using Joseph’s framework, it is easy to see this pairing, and the proposed Jan 14 march, as a revolt of the city against the village.

But such binaries should always be approached with scepticism. The idea that the village (or in the case of Pakistan, which is urbanising at the fastest clip in South Asia, the small town or peri-urban area) is the root of all evil while cities are founts of progressivism does not hold true for Pakistan. This is because Pakistani cities have incubated unique conservative ideologies in addition to importing traditional values from the village.

It has long been acknowledged that Pakistan’s urban middle class is caught between conservatism and modernity, desiring a pious, Islamic society but a globalised, capitalistic economy. In recent years, the desire for piety has manifest itself as something more extreme — right-wing ideologies that uncannily resonate with the agendas of extremist groups and militant organisations.

For example, reports of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi recruiting on university campuses in Karachi, Lahore and other cities are increasingly frequent. Al Huda’s popularity among young women is an urban, middle- and upper-class phenomenon.

Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, was feted on Facebook by young, urban, net-connected Pakistanis. Zaid Hamid — with his calls for a modern caliphate, Islamic justice, and the subjugation of India — amassed a significant following among university students and Facebookers in large cities and enjoyed the support of pop stars and fashion designers (notably, Hamid faced greatest resistance at Peshawar’s Islamia College University, where students from across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa condemned his attempts to promote terrorism).

The right-wing tendencies of Pakistan’s urban middle class are also echoed in politics: Shahbaz Sharif’s refusal to accept US aid and Imran Khan’s muddled messages — a rejection of the established (feudal) political order combined with a worrying sympathy for Fata-based militants and an appetite for isolationist policies.Pakistan’s largely urban legal fraternity is also complicit: consider the Lahore Bar Association’s decision to boycott products produced by Ahmadi-owned companies, or the judiciary’s recent crusade against ‘obscenity’ in the media. Pakistani urbanites also continue to donate generously to mosques and charitable organisations with known links to militant groups as well as directly to sectarian outfits.

While Pakistan’s urban middle class has remained ambivalent about the threat posed by extremist organisations, small-town dwellers and villagers have raised laskhars against the TTP, turned informants against various militant groups.

Compare the courage exhibited by Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai and the students of the Khushal School in Mingora with the defensive actions of the management of a prestigious school in Lahore, which ran front-page ads in newspapers disowning one of its teachers who had been accused of blasphemy.

My goal here is not to romanticise Pakistan’s villages, which remain entrenched in class, caste and gender hierarchies and are the sites of forced conversions, ‘honour’ killings, bonded labour, unfounded blasphemy accusations and rampant militant recruitment. The point is simply to demonstrate that the ills of the village cannot be highlighted through comparison with the progressivism of the urban middle class.

To ensure true progress, Pakistanis will have to move beyond labels for classes, social groups, and political movements, which are often simplistic and misleading. Let’s not talk about middle-class revolutions, feudal mentalities and the urban-rural ideological divide.

Let’s instead talk about specifics: the equal application of the law, free speech, gender sensitisation, state action against vigilantism, criminal justice system reform. In their precision, such principles and policies demand greater allegiance and action, and apply across demographics and ideological divisions.

The writer is a freelance journalist.