Wednesday, February 14, 2018
By MEHREEN ZAHRA-MALIK
When a friend told Hussain Liaquat that police officers in the Pakistani capital might be checking cars for anything red or heart-shaped the night before Valentine’s Day, he decided to get creative.
Mr. Liaquat, 22, went to the giant Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad and found a poster from “House of Cards,” his girlfriend’s favorite television show. Then he went in search of the perfect romance novel.
“I decided not to buy her balloons and chocolates, to avoid police confiscating them,” the mathematics student said, leafing through a copy of Erich Segal’s “Love Story.”
“Someone told me this is like the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the 20th century,” he said. “I think I’ll get it.”
Like many other couples in this city of two million, Mr. Liaquat and his girlfriend celebrated Valentine’s Day below the radar. Last year, the Islamabad High Court banned Valentine’s celebrations across Pakistan, deeming them “against the teachings of Islam” and a sign of growing Western influence.
So, for the second year in a row, red “I Love You” balloons and heart-shape boxes of chocolates were essentially contraband. Police officers in Islamabad searched through streets and shops in recent days looking for Valentine’s Day sales. A concert by Atif Aslam, a popular heartthrob singer, that had been scheduled for Wednesday was postponed.
Some restaurant managers reported receiving calls from unknown numbers asking whether boys and girls had exchanged gifts on their premises, and whether they knew of other establishments that might be observing the holiday. A number of florists and gift shops in Islamabad complained that they had lost significant business as customers stayed away.
But there were also many in Islamabad who did not mind taking a risk for love — or to make some money — in defiance of the ban.
In the affluent neighborhood F-7, where Obaid Malik, a young businessman, was parked outside a strip of flower shops, sellers elbowed one another to show him the long-stemmed roses he had asked for. Before the ban, the street had typically been jammed the night before Valentine’s Day, but now the shops stood quiet and sellers seemed more desperate than usual to make a sale.
“What does Valentine’s Day have to do with the government? Why are they bothering people?” Mr. Malik said as the florists showed him different types of roses. Three defiantly red helium balloons hovered in the back of his car.
“Three balloons because, you know, ‘I love you’ is three words,” he said.
Mr. Malik said that he would not take his wife out for Valentine’s Day lunch or dinner this year, but that he planned to surprise her by cooking her breakfast.
“People are still going to go out and do their thing and have fun — maybe just in different ways,” he said. “You can’t ban love.”
Another customer, Shakeel Khan, a banker who was buying white lilies for his mother, said he had taken his fiancée out for a Valentine’s Day dinner over the weekend.
“I had heard of the ban and didn’t know what to expect, so we thought, let’s just get it out of the way,” Mr. Khan said. He stood in front of a flower shop filled with white roses, multicolor gladioli and purple chrysanthemums — but not a red rose in sight. The shop’s owner, Muhammad Imran, said the police had warned him not to sell red flowers on Valentine’s Day. So the red roses, he said, were hidden in the back of the shop, where he would lead loyal customers who asked for them.
“My workers have also been calling customers to let them know that home delivery is available this year for the first time,” Mr. Imran said, asking that the location of his shop not be disclosed. “Delivery is just safer,” he said with a shrug.
At the Baramda cafe, the manager, Tariq Sohail, glanced at a table on the pavement outside, where a young man and a woman sat smoking and laughing.
“You can ban a day, but you can’t stop people from being together or from falling in love,” he said, breaking into a laugh.
Some restaurants decided online promotions would be safest. “We’ve got a 15 percent discount today, but we only advertised it on Facebook and Instagram,” said a waiter at Nocciola Chocolaterie.
Similarly, a few customers said they had opted for “virtual dates” to avoid possible harassment by the authorities at restaurants.
“My girlfriend can’t get out tonight, so I’ll be Skyping with her,” a university student said over coffee at the upscale Kohsar Market. His friend, a curly-haired young woman, suggested changing Valentine’s Day to Friend’s Day. “That might work better in Pakistan,” she said. A third friend, wearing a bright red hoodie, disagreed: “No. We need a Valentine’s Day revolution here. That’s what we need.”
In another part of town, police officers shooed away a man who had set up a stall to sell single roses. “We are just doing our job,” one said when asked why they had intervened. Balloon sellers were also on the lookout for the police. Most had chosen not to sell heart-shape or red balloons, instead opting for stars, circles and bird- and animal-shape ones.
But one vendor, Muhammad Akhar, was boldly selling red balloons that read “You Are Mine.” “If the people who are coming to buy them are not scared,” he said, “then why should I be?”
He was not the only balloon seller taking a stand. Next to a boy offering giant, animal-shape balloons, another young vendor held some small heart-shape ones, red and white.
“I didn’t blow them up to their full size,” said the boy, Sarfaraz Ali, looking over his shoulder with an impish smile. “I’ll do it for you if you want one.” But when he spotted a couple of police officers approaching, he started to back away.
“Madam, please wait for me here,” he said as he bolted, the tiny hearts trailing behind him. “Don’t go away, I’ll be right back!”
There could not be a better tribute to Asma Jahangir than the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, who called her death the passing of a ‘human rights giant’.
Asma — I told her when I met her last in London — you are perhaps the last straw. After you, indeed, there would be a deluge. As long as she was there, there was a hope of a fight back when the generals were talking of mainstreaming of terrorists who had killed more than 70,000 innocent Pakistanis, children, men and women, soldiers — chopped their heads off and played football with. It was hope that people like me at the fag end of my own innings needed but that too has been snapped by her untimely death when Pakistan as a country, as a nation and as a society needed her most.
Like I asked myself the question when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007 — that did we need anything more to destroy the country? Now with national horizon clouded by dark forces engulfing rapaciousness of religious extremism and with more vigorous efforts by the extremists to bury Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan — dies Asma — the bravest of the brave hearts that we could afford to lose in our last battle for survival?
Asma’s death is being equally mourned by those who could differentiate between good and evil. It will be mourned every minute, every hour and every day whenever and where-ever there is a cry of the helpless. There could not be a better tribute to her than the words of the United Nations Secretary-General who called her death as passing of ‘human rights giant’. He praised her courage in campaigns for justice and equality for all. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued his ‘heartfelt condolences’ to those grieving the 66-year-old lawyer, who co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and also once served as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. “We have lost a human rights giant. She was a tireless advocate for inalienable rights of all people and for equality — whether in her capacity as a Pakistani lawyer in the domestic justice system, as a global civil society activist, or as a Special Rapporteur. Asma was brilliant, deeply principled, courageous and kind.”
I knew she was under constant threat from dark forces. She was considered a thorn in their back. Their partners in the trade of terrorism and sectarianism saw in this little woman, a giant standing opposed to them
Indeed, diminutive Asma was a tireless advocate for the aggrieved voiceless in a jungle of growing intolerance in a country where the moral slide was so steep that cases such as Zainab’s had become the order of the day. Despite challenges forced on her by retrogressive elements and those in cahoots with them in the dark state, she stood aloft tallest as the unparalleled crusader as the nation’s conscience keeper for the distressed, weak, less privileged, deprived, persecuted minorities — a voice for them to be heard.
In her sudden death Pakistan has lost its most outstanding crusaders for human rights. Having shot to fame for carrying on a legal battle for her father and democratic rights of the people against dictatorship, she made a name for herself in young age. As a lawyer it was not just a profession that she had to adopt but a mission for providing legal assistance to the needy that were denied services of legal community because of their social bearing and lack of economic resources. Asma made herself readily available gratis any hour of the day to fight the legal battle for the poor and destitute.
I knew she was under constant threat of the dark forces. She was considered a thorn in their back. Their partners in the trade of terrorism and sectarianism saw in this little woman a giant standing opposed to them. They hated her since she opposed victimisation of minorities in the country Quaid-e-Azam established where religion was supposed to have no role to play in the business of the state.
They were annoyed at her for pleading the cases of missing persons, her demand to demilitarise Balochistan, to let its people breathe freely and enjoy democratic and constitutional rights — her life was always under constant threat, various attempts were made but she escaped. She was perhaps second leader after Benazir Bhutto who stuck to her avowed goal not to give up her mission despite knowing that it could mean violent death. Whenever I warned her, she used to repeat Benazir’s words — “if it (death) has to come, let it come. One must not fear nor should one give up the causes that one has struggled all her life”.
I met her first time in early 1989 at a dinner in Prime Minister’s House Rawalpindi. We had ISI Chief Lt. Gen Hameed Gul with us on the table. Being flamboyant that he was, I don’t know about Asma, but I had the first experience of a general’s ranting. We were shocked when he disclosed — perhaps a state secret — that soon Jalalabad would fall-to a joint operation of Mujahideen and ISI. I differed with his detailed expose, so did Asma. And being a Punjabi Kuree, she gave him a little bit of her mind when Gul boasted that our borders would extend to the banks of River Oxus. In Punjabi she told Gul-that “be careful, General Sahib, instead of extending, hope we don’t get shrunk in.”
No doubt it was an interesting discussion and I could see the inextinguishable fire in her to speak up boldly whatever she felt was right. Perhaps her warning meant that — beware today you think Afghanistan is our strategic depth, tomorrow it could be other way round. She has been proved right with the turn of events in the region. Those very Mujahjideen who Hameed Gul had fed, trained and armed — have turned their guns on us and instead of Afghanistan as our strategic depth, Pakistan has become a strategic depth for them with Americans threatening to drone their safe havens in Pakistan.
Asma Jahangir was a very sensible person and having witnessed the hapless condition of the poor in the countries of the region, she was a very strong supporter for peace and conflict resolutions without resort to war. Often I see vitriolic comments about her relating to her efforts to bring Pakistan and India to start dialogue on Kashmir. Any friendly comment by her in India for fostering peace has been cause of consternation in certain obvious quarters in Pakistan working under the sponsorship of the dark state. Its hounds in the media go berserk in orchestration that she was an Indian agent and works for Raw.
Asma believed in calling a spade a spade, never comprising her principles for personal relations. I knew how much close she was to Benazir Bhutto and how much respect Bibi extended to her. Her last public appearance in UK was at Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall where she delivered her last tribute to her friend Bibi on February 5, 2018 at Benazir Bhutto Memoriam — a memorable one, indeed.