2018 was not an easy year for Pakistan

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The year that was

And what should be the year ahead

The month of December is always a mixed bag of joy and sorrow. Ominous for the end of a year, it is a reminder of broken promises and those to be kept, of what is lost and what is to be gained, of ambitions left unfulfilled and resolutions to be made. For some, the year ends as a milestone. For others, there may be many more miles to go. But, nevertheless, a year end always brings memories, cherished and poignant, with lessons to be learnt for times ahead.
 
The very first and the most harsh lesson learnt at the beginning of this year by Pakistanis, was with the death of Zainab. New Year celebrations had hardly ended that the angelic faced girl, barely seven years old, was brutally assaulted and murdered. Though not the first in the country, and in fact, one of many by the culprit, the horrid crime shook the nation to its core. It was indeed a victory when the criminal was nabbed and a case of justice delivered when he was proven to be guilty and finally, meted out death with capital punishment.
 
Zainab’s death opened a new debate for sex education and child abuse in the country. It forced us to look inside the deep crevices of society and question the causes: the frustration, the exposure to media, untamed animal instincts and a viscous cycle of abuse that emerge as an ugly outcome. While efforts have been made to create more awareness and surely, parents are striving to make their children prepared, the issue remains as one which gradually fades out of memory.
 
And so many may have forgotten about the fate of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman acquitted after nearly a decade of languishing in jail on a false charge of blasphemy. Again, it was a brilliant case of justice delivered as well as better late than never, but sadly, the bigotry and intolerant extremism suffocating our minds took over. Massive protests broke out across the country, on the behest of a rather minor and newly emerged political group. Protests have been curbed, but for the sake of her life and for the normalcy of routine in the country, Asia has yet to breathe in fresh air, out of the confines of obscurity.
 
Asia’s acquittal and subsequent remonstrance, along with sit-ins over an ‘error’ in electoral law regarding the finality of Prophet hood and uproar over the appointment of a prominent but ill fated economist due to his faith, were all reminders of growing intolerance in our society. The reminder is inevitably tagged with the fear of not commenting over it, although many, like myself, have failed to attach it to our minds, in the hope to see better times.
On the whole, will the education system in Pakistan have a win-win situation in 2019, is a question yet to be answered
What also would linger in our memory, is the sentence and release and yet again conviction of former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Undoubtedly, in one of the most sensational cases in the history of Pakistan, a thrice elected leader of the nation was proven guilty of massive corruption and falsehood. Anti-corruption drive has become the talk of the year and many are still grilled to reveal the sources of their acquired wealth.
 
Talking about wealth, the financial resources of the country reached a critical low in 2018. Bent on not borrowing further from international donor agencies, the prime minister, holding seat late summer amid raised expectations along with criticism and allegations of rigging, is still on a spree of collecting funds from brethren and friendly countries. The step may surely give some breathers, but what may be a long term impacting initiative to treat the chronically diseased economy, is as yet, unknown.
 
When the incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan, assumed office this year, it also saw his struggle culminate, from a star cricketer to becoming a politician. It ushered an era of new leadership, after decades of seesaw politics between two rival parties, holding office in turns.
Months passed in 2018 also saw the tumultuous and bitter row between the government and the private sector over education, a constitutional right of a Pakistani citizen, which is the duty of the state, but negligence over the years paved way for private enterprises to assume the role. For sure, they demanded and extracted a price, until the parents said ‘no more’. But the recent and binding decision of the apex court of ordering elite schools to reduce current tuition fees by 20 percent and raise not more than five percent in future, has put the sector in jeopardy, in contrast to the parents’ jubilant expectations. With drastic cuts in revenues, what downward changes in facilities provided by these schools would come, will be witnessed in the next year. With the whole debate, public schools and their education system also coming under ire for under performance, talks about uniform education system and standard curriculum are going on in the government circles. On the whole, will the education system in Pakistan have a win-win situation in 2019, is a question yet to be answered.
 
This year, an international movement of #MeToo also made some impact in our country. The movement started here when performing artist Meesha Shafi alleged another, Ali Zafar of sexual harassment on more than one occasion. With both having their share of support, the spat has turned legal, with no outcome as yet. So is the case in journalist Urooj Zia’s allegation against philanthropist Faisal Edhi and multiple accusations against comedian Junaid Akram. The nation still chooses silence over justice in cases where a man’s integrity may be questioned by a woman. Even when Urdu literati Professor Sahar Ansari was proven guilty of harassing his colleagues, the society still accepts him and showers accolades over him. Perhaps, a lesson to be learnt next year would be, to address issues regarding women on a more serious note.
Why would this be important? Because this year’s incumbent cabinet has only three women among more than 20 members. Because in this year, gender parity in Pakistan remained second lowest in the world. More than 50 percent of women, who make up more than half of the country’s population, are still denied education.
 
And while we as citizens of Pakistan can decry intolerance and demand the rights to education and health, as well as push boundaries of restrictive beliefs as feminists, as journalists, we can raise our voices to some extent against the slow poisoning of the industry.
Curbs on freedom of expression came in many forms this year. The World Freedom Index ranked Pakistan 139 out of 180 countries. It’s report, regarding Pakistani media as among the most vibrant in Asia, noted that they were “targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organisations and the feared intelligence agencies”.
 
This vibrant group of journalists continues to pursue its passion with only the proverbial pen and paper, for it is fast becoming a penniless profession. The end of the year has brought a haunting and dismal wrap up for the industry, as its professionals have had a lengthy span of 12 months comprising violence, censorships, financial breakdowns and continuing issue of harassment – for the females.
 
So what would one wish for in 2019? Stronger awareness campaigns and stricter vigilance to ensure that no Zainab’s innocence is desecrated. That justice, when imparted, would be upheld and not decried. That freedom to live and work in this land will stretch beyond faith or belief. That some political and economic stability would prevail, in the country and the region. That education be imparted in its true spirit to the next generation and not lose its purpose in a row between profiteering and service. As a woman, I would wish that others like me in Pakistan, come closer and become bolder to support each other in times of injustice, including violence and harassment. And above all, I would strongly wish that the suffocating environment of journalism, with more curbs and no remuneration, ends and this industry flourishes in its true form of vibrancy.
 
The year that was, asks for a lot of wishful thinking to pin hopes for in a new year. What expectations are met and what promises are fulfilled, is the test of time.
 
By SHABANA MAHFOOZ