Speaking up

Kamila Hyat
Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

In recent times, the contrast between the reaction to human rights issues on university campuses in Pakistan and the United States has been stark. At home, we have witnessed little of the outrage expressed on US campuses, where students protesting for the rights of Palestinians have faced arrests, suspensions, have been denied degrees or been handed over to the police. The strong influence of Zionist lobbies in that country undoubtedly plays a role in these actions.

In Pakistan, we do still occasionally hear calls for Palestinian rights as Israel continues its atrocities against the last Palestinian people remaining on the soil it calls its own and the keffiyeh is seen around a fair number of necks and used as a headscarf or belt. There is a far larger volley of voices calling, justly enough, for the rights of Kashmiri people and against the offences committed in recent years against Muslims in India. Pakistanis are also quick to spot Islamophobia when and wherever it occurs. However, the focus often shifts quickly to other pressing matters, both at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, they seem less focused on seeing crimes against religious and ethnic minority groups at home. We hear very few calls for the rights of Christians, even after recent offences such as the murder of a Christian man at a shoe factory in Sargodha after he was accused of blasphemy or the terrifying lynching to death of a man in Swat. Similar charges led to more attacks in at least five churches and more homes in Jaranwala in 2023, and of course offences against other minorities continue from day to day and week to week everywhere in the country.

Hindus, who constituted almost 20 per cent of the Pakistani population at independence, have largely fled the country. Today, they number just over one per cent of the Pakistani population. Diversity in the country is decreasing rapidly and to add to the hatred for minorities, we also have disputes of ethnic origin and hatred against groups such as the khwaja siras who recently won rights which have been opposed strongly by particular groups. Few have spoken out openly or in public about this form of hatred which also targets others of gender expression or sexual orientation outside of the established norm.

Many Pakistanis still claim, astonishingly enough, that minorities are treated equally in Pakistan and there is no discrimination. It is uncertain if they fail to read the newspaper stories about mob slaughter and public lynchings or are blind to the discriminatory job advertisements which appear in newspapers on a regular basis, limiting work in the sanitation sector to Christians.

The crucial question is: how are we to change this reality? India managed to bring about a significant change through mass awareness campaigns and strong lobbying by political parties opposed to the ruling BJP. Of course, this is not enough. But it is a start. Our opposition political parties need to think along similar lines.

The current school curriculum paints minority groups as villainous figures, in some cases even when it is trying to include them as equal members of society. But the sense of being ‘different’ is not dispelled. We have changed from a society which till the 1970s did not see vast differences between groups of different religions to one that chooses to see any reason to penalise them simply because of what they believe in.

But that of course is not the only reason why we need to be a more united, more equal society. In modern times where religion figures less and less in the lives of people in the developed world, we need to accept that minority groups must be given the rights promised to them at the time Pakistan was created. This has not happened. Indeed, the opposite has taken place. Discrimination has grown harsher and more widespread, affecting virtually every minority community in one way or the other. Children at schools are taught how to differentiate and this sets up the patterns we see everywhere today.

The lack of unity simply means a less equitable country with laws that punish specific groups in various ways. Things have to change. We need to make Pakistan a place where every citizen can live no matter what belief she or he holds and what school of thought they belong to.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at: