RDS_190301 Khan for Nobel Peace Prize

There is something in the air. Something palpable, something positive, something that is a suggestion that things are falling into place, even if in some parts of that place there is unevenness, a roughness. From personal to the larger, I feel a sense of a reawakened optimism, a recalibration of hopes into expectations that have the potential to turn into reality. Despite things appearing to be what they have been for a long time, there is a shift that is imperceptible at times, and is as visible as a ray of sunshine when you least expect it.

March has that power for me as I become a year older, mind you, not necessarily wiser! I see things around me making sense, words turning into action, plans taking the shape of mechanisms that are meant for a larger good, age-old regressive mindsets getting a much-needed and a long-delayed jolt, and empathy replacing apathy beyond the feel-good words on paper to touch real lives of those who exist on the margins, looking in, holding their breath for things to change.

On March 10, on a lazy Sunday, a friend took me to the auditorium of the Human Rights Commission Lahore for the screening of multi award-winning short film, Rani, a production of Grayscale, a boutique film company headed by Akbar Allana, a passionate filmmaker who in his words is also an industrialist, a gardener and a foodie. The audience watched the 15-minute movie, written and directed by Los Angeles-based Hammad Rizvi, silent, rapt, as it tells the story of a certain incident that happens in the life of a transgender Rani, playing by the real-life transgender model and activist Kami Sid.

A stunning, tall, graceful trans-woman, Sid is everything that turns stereotypes on their ungainly head, making you take a long, hard look at a marginalised community that has suffered in silence the noisy disgrace it had no part in manufacturing. In Pakistan in May 2018 was passed the historic bill, Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, in which citizens are accorded by law the right of self-identification as male, female, or a combination of both genders, while also having the right to have that identity registered on all official documents, including National Identification Card, passport, driver’s licence and education certificates. Not much has changed in reality.

The stark, hard-hitting, brave Rani taking an unvarnished look at myriad undesirable truths of society –an environment of open discrimination and limitation of options for transgender persons, unwanted pregnancies, unwanted female babies– gives you a few moments for that silent introspection that makes you ask yourself questions, and to ask society questions that go unanswered. The classification of human beings into two genders pushing the third one out is not merely exclusionary and discriminatory against a large number of human beings it is against the very idea of humanity.

How can the genetic construct of a human being be their fault? Why should anyone be judged for how they are born? Underneath it all, all human beings are the same blood, flesh, heart, mind, soul. What creates a difference is the box they are made to tick for their gender. And watching Rani in a room full of people of all genders, what I felt was a sense of a change that seemed to be tiptoeing in.

It will be slow, it will be hard, but it will happen. This world will become a good place for all who are different, who are marginalised, who are trans, male or female. Pakistan will be a trans-inclusive country, one Rani, one Kami Sid, one story, one taboo broken, one barrier removed, at a time.

The fight is not for tolerance. It is for acceptance.

'We will take freedom by force'

On March 8, on International Women’s Day, thousands of women, along with men and transgender folks, marched in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and other cities, in the second iteration of what is called an Aurat (woman) March. From gathering at the Lahore Press Club to march to the Alhamra Art Centre, Lahore, organised by Nighat Dad, a leading digital rights lawyer and an activist, and co-organised by groups of women organisations collectively known as Hum Aurtain (We the Women), there were chants of “Hum chheen ke lainge azaadi,” (We will take freedom by force), and “Pidr shahi ka nizam, nahin chalega nahin chalega (Roughly translated: down with patriarchy) that rang loud and clear, as some onlookers smiled, some looked confused, and some encouraging.

In a very clearly male-dominated Pakistan, the need for awareness of rights of women, all marginalised communities and the need for equality and justice for all has always been there. Now it is enunciated without whataboutery; it is conveyed through an unambiguous message of: enough; it is presented without any pretense of hiding behind decorum, the expected norm of behaviour for women, the societal expectation of the correct female behaviour.

From basic dignity of existence to the right to justice on all levels, the march is symbolic of a changing narrative: all genders are equal, and that is no longer a mere slogan, a feel-good message. It is a battle that is long and hard, but the fact is it has started, and it will continue, until if not everything but much changes. For the good, and for good.

On my Twitter timeline full of trivia and news of all kinds of human and natural tragedies, on March 9, one tweet captured my attention. It was the response of Aon Abbas Buppi, an official of a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, a PTI leader, to the 45-second video of a child, female, her head covered, sitting next to her father’s grave. There was a tweet in Urdu of a Saudi Arabia-based Pakistani Abdul Salam Sawti: “Alas, when an orphan girl who was thrown out of school for she didn’t have books went and sat at her father’s grave, listen to this report for what she says.” Buppi, Managing Director of Pakistan Government’s Bait-ul-Mal, tweeted in Urdu: “This video made me cry. I don’t have words. If anyone has any details about this child, please share them with me.”

Many people on social media noticed Buppi’s tweet, and asked him to help. And he did. Like his leader, Prime Minister Imran Khan, Buppi showed that it is empathy that is the key factor in the functioning of this new government. It may be of not much significance to many people, to me it is huge: for someone in government to notice the pain of even a nameless child on a caption-less video on social media.

On March 12, Buppi tweeted, tagging me: “ Just spoke with the little angel Maryam and her mother in Mardan. Pak Bait-ul-Mal will pay for all the expenses for her education. Thanks to all those who raised this issue and kept on reminding us about this princess. “

My tweet-response was simple: “So happy to see this, Aon, thank you so much for your concern and your effort to find the child. This is the empathy that shown and practised steadily transforms a government into a system that works for betterment of all. Thank you again. And thank you, govt of Pakistan.”

A philanthropist and a politician who is dedicated to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision for Pakistan, Aon Abbas Buppi’s work ethic is best summed up in what he recently said to Prime Minister Khan: “ I draw my inspiration from you [Khan]. Every time I get stuck I just think what my PM would have done. That makes it easy to decide.”

And I know my optimism about Pakistan under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan is not misplaced. One positive act, one positive change, at a time...