Free expression today
In a YouTube-less Pakistan, where children and young women are punished for their freedom of expression while radical, militant societal elements are given prime time coverage
A parent is told at a parent–teacher meeting that her daughter has been careless lately. When asked to describe and draw an eggplant in science class, she left the stem white. The parent reprimanded the child who in her defence stated, “The egg plant that I’ve seen at dadi’s house has a white stem.” In other words, the child drew and expressed what she saw. She, in a sense, expressed her freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression. It is a punishable offence if accompanied with a lack of responsibility for some. For others, their saving grace. I met a bright young woman this week who, in a sense, owes much to her freedom to express herself critically. Her parents died when she was 16. Since the brother was abroad studying, she was sent to live with her married sister. Saddled with difficult in-laws and husband, her sister would spend most of her days crying. She, on the other hand, couldn’t stop asking questions. Most of them were uncomfortable ones. Why is there a dichotomy between what is said and done? How can you talk about working for Islam’s supremacy if you can’t fight your own nafs, were questions that this young woman would ask of the male family members. Why women cannot women study was another question. When against all odds she went to a co-ed university, it was an uphill battle. “My sister and I would be taunted every day. While I would leave, my sister would get to hear how immoral I had become.” Yet, our young friend trudged on. When self-doubt would creep in, she would ask herself, “I don’t know if I’m right but I certainly know that they are wrong.” When all else would fail, religion would be used to blackmail her. When she would be told about what Islam enjoins about women’s education, movement, etc, she would say, “Show me the verse. Where does it say in the Quran that women can’t study and work? In Islamic history, the seed money for its propagation was given by a woman, namely Hazrat Khadija.”
Such questions and her inherent insistence to express herself freely were in her words “her salvation”.
The child who expressed what she saw can be potentially punished. Our young, questioning girl was also slandered by her own family for her freedom of expression. While the fate of the child is unknown, I am happy to share that the young girl rose to become a star in her chosen profession. Her questioning mind led her to successes with many awards but the highest award was given to her by her brother. After years of silence, he sent her a mail apologising for his behaviour, admitting that he was wrong and congratulating her on her questioning mind and thoughts.
To express one’s views in a free and conducive environment is one thing. To express one in difficult circumstances when the odds are stacked against you is daunting. In today’s world, when talk of freedom of expression led to media freedoms, which in turn led to journalists killed, discussion on freedom of expression is muddled. In today’s world, when the interior minister requests the media for a 15-minute delayed relaying, is he curtailing freedom of expression of the media and the citizens right to know or not? Is this 15-minute delay request reminiscent of the Zia regime’s curtailment of expression? Is it reminiscent of what Zamir Niazi called ‘the press in chains’?
The media of yore stood up for their freedom of expression. We have seen papers like The Muslim printed with censored words blackened as a mark of protest. In comparatively recent times, we have seen the main page of the Friday Times printed blank as a mark of protest against its editor’s detention.
However, that was yesterday. What does freedom of expression entail today? Conducting live interviews of Sikander and declaring that his wife looks like a film heroine, is this freedom of expression? A lot has been written about whether media has behaved responsibly or not. This, in my opinion, is a secondary question as it pertains to the kind of expression. In other words, is the expression responsible or not. For me, the primary question is: is ball-to-ball reporting of such events indicative of media’s freedom of expression or not.
I asked a few media personnel this question and got interesting responses. There were those who unfortunately became defensive and cited the people’s right to know as the ‘winning’ argument. But is it the people’s right to know things as soon as they happen? Is it the right to know or the right to know the millisecond it happens? If right to know is the oxygen of democracy, is ball-to-ball reporting the oxygen on which the likes of Sikander thrive?
Another troubling question is whether or not freedom of expression is geography-specific? A 15-minute delay of an Islamabad event is curtailment of the freedom of media but a complete information black hole of FATA is acceptable? Bombing of train station in Chaman, killing of Baloch leaders and the lack of information regarding numerous such events is a matter of ‘national security’ but the events in Islamabad or Lahore demand freedom of expression? A condom advertisement is pulled off but Hafiz Saeed is free to express his thoughts while leading Eid prayers. Hafiz Saeed on twitter is freedom of expression but Baloch Hal is a threat to national security?
I ponder these questions in a YouTube-less Pakistan, where children and young women are punished for their freedom of expression while radical, militant societal elements are given prime time coverage. All in a day’s life in Pakistan.
The writer is a development consultant. She tweets at @GulminaBilal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org