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'Pakistan is not ready for a democracy yet'

By Salil Kumar
February 09, 2004 13:30 IST
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Sharmeen Obaid is busy. The Pakistani filmmaker, in Mumbai recently for the screening of her documentary Terror's Children, which focuses on the plight of Afghan children in Pakistani refugee camps after the fall of the Taliban, says in her two days in the city she granted around 15 interviews.

When she made the documentary in 2002, Obaid had virtually no experience. After 9/11, Obaid, then a graduate student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA, returned to her native Karachi and was struck by the massive influx of refugees who had fled from Afghanistan.

On returning to the US, she wrote about their plight in newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer. But she found people were not paying attention and decided to make a documentary.

She began to search for a producer to invest the money. She sent proposals to many people with no response.

Finally, an email came from New York Times Television, which offered an initial $6,000 loan. The company also provided the equipment and the necessary training. The Smith College's Kahn Liberal Arts Institute came to support her.

Now she has finished her second film, Reinventing the Taliban, which is about the rise of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of Islamic parties in the North West Frontier Province -- and started shooting for the third from February 5.

Reinventing the Taliban debuts on February 9 on the Discovery Times Channel.

The young filmmaker spoke to Salil Kumar.

Let us start with your third film. What is it about?

My third film is about India and Pakistan -- the new peace gestures between the two countries and what that means for President Musharraf, because somehow it seems to be tied with the assassination attempts that he is being having. It is an investigative piece to find out what it would mean for future Pakistan as well.

What does it mean for a future Pakistan?

I think most Pakistanis are very tired of war and this war rhetoric that has been drummed into our ears for years and years. I think they want peace now and the fact that the world has changed so much post 9/11 means a lot for the people. I seriously feel that with the new peace gestures people have opened up a lot to India and warmed up to India.

It has a lot to do with the media as well because the cable networks in Pakistan beam Zee and all these news channels straight into the homes of people, so at least people know what Indians are like because otherwise before you could not visit this country, you had no perception of what India was like.

Now there is a reciprocal thing that's happening because you get to see Pakistani channels here as well. So I think the media has helped a lot.

Also Read: A New Pakistan?

What effect have these assassination attempts on President Musharraf had on the peace process? Do you think India believes Musharraf more after the assassination attempts?

I don't know if I can comment on that, but what I can comment on is that I think it has finally hit home to Musharraf that Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of jihadis is a home grown problem. And it is hitting close to home now -- the windshield of his own car. He has been tried to be assassinated thrice already. He realises he has to get rid of the problem, and once that problem leaves Indo-Pak friendship will blossom.

He came in as a general. He has become more of a politician now.

I think he has. He has become more of a politician and I think he has realised what he wants. President Musharraf looks up to Turkey as a model for a Muslim country. He wants a secular, forward, progressive Muslim country. He wants people to invest in Pakistan. People are investing in India but they are not investing in Pakistan because of the brand of fundamentalism.

He wants peace. He wants a progressive Pakistan and for a progressive Pakistan he needs to leave his military baggage behind, which he has done. I feel he is taking the right steps in the right direction and for Pakistan he will be the leader.

He will be leader for quite some time?

I feel he should be the leader because I do not see any other alternatives in my country. If you honestly ask me, he is the best leader my generation has seen.

A soft dictator?

I wouldn't even call him a dictator. In fact, I take offence when the West calls him a dictator because he is not a dictator. He is a leader that needed to step in. Pakistan is not ready for a democracy yet. Between [former prime ministers] Nawaz Sharief and Benazir [Bhutto] we have seen a lot of bad politicians.

His idol is Kemal Ataturk...

Yes, his idol is Kemal Ataturk.

How far has he reached?

I think he is trying very hard. He has opened up the media in Pakistan.

It is remarkably free, isn't it? When you take into consideration that the first thing dictators do is muzzle the media. But the media in Pakistan has prospered under him.

It is extremely free, yes. He has given licences to new television channels; he has opened up new radio channels; more news magazines have come out under him, and apart from that he has a very secular agenda. Even in his speeches. In my second film I have showed a speech of his that he gave in which he said, 'If you want to grow a beard you grow a beard, you want your women to stay at home, you do that, but don't ask me to grow a beard because I am not going to and don't ask the women I know to stay at home because I don't want them to.'

Everyone is passionate about Islam and everyone is a Muslim. I don't think people need to be told how to follow religion. That is how I personally feel, and that is very representative of what Musharraf is doing right now in Pakistan.

How much will the rise of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal affect his standing? The more he is seen 'caving into US pressure,' the more he is perceived as 'caving in to Indian pressure,' the more the mullahs stand to gain.

Pakistan had no choice after 9/11. If it did not align with the West it would have ended up like Afghanistan. He made a very clear-cut decision. Also, remember Pakistan is the only Muslim country with a nuclear arsenal. I don't think the West is very excited about that. As we have seen, nuclear technology can be transferred…

I think as for the rise of the MMA, it is a backlash of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. But the people in Pakistan are also very fed up with having religious leaders tell them what to say and what to do. Many people I spoke to on the streets when I was making my second film, which is about the rise of the MMA, said that they wouldn't vote for that agenda again.

What happened was that the agenda that the MMA came on [with] is that they are going to try and implement the true  Sharia and they are going to get rid of corruption and provide employment. Instead, what they have done is try and ban co-education and music and art, which the people in NWFP (North West Frontier Province) are very fond of.

How different is the NFWP now that the MMA has come to power?

The NWFP was always culturally conservative, but religion was never enforced the way it is being enforced under the MMA. I think it has changed a lot. Women are scared of going out without their faces covered. There are small steps being taken, when I spoke to MMA leaders they said each drop makes an ocean. So they are trying really small things right now, but I think for the rest of the country it is a wake-up call.

Religious leaders were never elected before this and now that they have been elected they [Pakistanis] see their power and people are scared that the civil liberties they enjoy are going to be taken away from them and people are fighting back now.

Also Read: 'General Musharraf's policies have meant business'

How difficult was it for you as a woman to film the documentary in the NWFP?

It was relatively easy for me for two reasons, because I was a woman and men there respect women a lot. I was told a lot of things that no other journalist would be told simply because I was a woman and I was not perceived as a threat. If I were a man I would never have been able to make that film.

What can be done about women in the NWFP?

I think education is the key thing, but I think education for men in the NWFP is a key thing as well, because I think unless the men in the NWFP change it is very hard for the women to change.

How long did it take you to make the film?

I was in the NWFP for five weeks.

And where did you stay? What was the experience like?

I was in Peshawar. I travelled to Darra Adam Khel up in the mountains to the gun factories of Pakistan and then down to the Turkham border with Afghanistan. It was an incredible experience. The men are very hospitable and respectful on the one hand and on the other hand I saw billboards with women's faces blackened. Of course, there were no women with their faces showing so I was the only woman with my face showing. 

Since I am a very loud and aggressive woman and I walk very fast, I am so unlike the women in the NWFP, who always walk behind the men and are silent and things like that. I was always pointed out. But all in all I think I had an incredible experience and I had incredible access that very few people were able to get.

You wore a headscarf?

I did wear a headscarf and I wore salwar-kameez.

But you did not have a veil.

I did not wear a burqa and I always refused to wear it because my religion does not say that I cover my face, so why should I?

Coming to your first film, about Afghan refugee children. How many such children are there in Pakistan now?

There are actually hundreds and thousands of children still left in Pakistan because the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is that even though American forces control Kabul, they don't control the rest of the country. We all know that Kabul does not represent Afghanistan. There are no jobs there and there is still fighting going on so these people are still in Pakistan because they have no options.

And in the madrassas they get free food, free stay. That will be the motivation for them to join a jihad.

Let's put it this way. If I was caught in a war and I was an orphan and I was in Pakistan and I was made to work for 15 hours a day as opposed to me getting free food, clothes and shelter and being educated, I would choose the latter. I don't think these children have any choices.

And (about) them joining jihad, I think that in the last six months the Pakistan government has cracked down so heavily on the Islamic madrassas that if they have any foreign students that are not Pakistanis and they don't register with the government they are shipped out of the country.

I have actually read instances and heard of hundreds of students getting taken out and shipped out. So the government is trying to something about it.

What is the solution?

These children need to go back to their homes.

Many of their parents must be dead.

Many are dead, many are still in Afghanistan and their children have come to Pakistan to earn money. But these children need to go home for two reasons. I sympathise with them, but my country is a Third World country. It is already supporting so many underprivileged children. We do not have resources to support these Afghans, and a lot of these Afghans do brings drugs into our country, do bring the gun culture to our country.

A guest is a guest for only such an amount of time. When a guest overstays he is not welcome anymore. I wouldn't say that Afghans are not welcome anymore but they have their own country to go back to and they should.

New York Times Television funded your films. Your critics say that is pushing the Western agenda. What do you have to say?

I would have to say how many other Muslim women in this world have been given grants by The New York Times. Forget that. How many documentary makers have gotten a grant from The New York Times? It is a very hard thing. You don't get money to make documentaries in Pakistan. It is a stepping stone for me. I am going to have a few films under my belt and I am going to look for independent funding. I think it is a great opportunity for me because I make films primarily for the West.

I think I am a liaison. I have been educated in the West and I represent a very modern face of Pakistan and a modern face of the Muslim woman. I think it is my job to show that Islam is a very progressive religion and show that Pakistan is a progressive country. If I can use The New York Times as a vehicle for that, then all for it.

But isn't there a disconnect here? On the one hand you say in the West Pakistan is always portrayed negatively and on the other hand you take grants from Western agencies.

I don't think so because I am making a film which is a positive film. I am showing them a different side of Pakistan. If this funding would have gone to an American he would have come to Pakistan for 10 days and made a stereotypical film and gone back.

New York Times Television Chairman William Abrams wrote to Stanford University saying, 'When you are done educating her, please send her back our way.' Will you take up the offer?

[Laughs] I think I don't want to take up the offer right now because I want to freelance for a lot of different channels. I want to do a lot of different things. I think there will be many opportunities that will come my way. 

I don't think I should tie myself up now.

Will you live in Pakistan?

I am in the US right now. I am finishing my masters in June. Then I am moving back to Pakistan to start my fourth film.

What is about?

It is about Kashmir, but I am not at liberty to discuss it right now.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda


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