AsiaGlobal Voices

Trending Opinions From Across the Region

AsiaGlobal Voices is a curated feed of summaries of opinion articles, columns and editorials published in local languages in media from across Asia.

The publication of AsiaGlobal Voices summaries does not indicate any endorsement by the Asia Global Institute or AsiaGlobal Online of the opinions expressed in them.
Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist

Umair Javed, Assistant Professor, Lahore University of Management Sciences, in Dawn (March 8, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Commonwealth Secretariat)

Women and Political Inequality: Exclusion Cannot Be Allowed To Persist

Gender inequality takes a variety of forms in Pakistan, but a fundamental one is political inequality. Gender-based variation in politics include barriers to voting, barriers to seeking elected office, barriers to access within political parties, and barriers to representation in policymaking and governance.

Leaving other aspects aside for the time being, it is worth starting with the most basic act of political participation: voting. Out of Pakistan’s nearly 106 million registered voters, only 44 percent are women, at least 6 percent less than their actual proportion in the adult population. These issues are compounded at two levels – eligible female voters not being registered on electoral rolls, and women not being registered as citizens at all.

Even if women are registered, female turnout tends to be lower than male turnout across the country. The male-gap in voter turnout in the 2018 general elections stood at 9.1 percent, with 11 million more men voting than women.

So what factors are responsible for driving this suppression of women voters, and what can be done to mitigate it? Evidence from the authors’ prior fieldwork in Lahore suggests that gatekeeping by male household members remains a persistent factor, even in urban centres; 8.3 percent of male respondents said it was not appropriate for women to vote in a general election.

Outside of household dynamics, the lack of engagement by political parties also contributes to inequality in voting outcomes. It is this last factor, which highlights both a central problem, as well as a pathway towards reduced gender-based political inequality. Political parties face the greatest responsibility in minimizing exclusion. If resolving this issue requires legislation and its implementation, political elites should work it out through legal reform. What is clear is that the current state of exclusion cannot and should not be allowed to persist.

The Helplessness Americans Feel
Thursday, January 14, 2021
The Helplessness Americans Feel

Rafia Zakaria, attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy, in Dawn (January 13, 2021)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Joe Flood)

The Helplessness Americans Feel

Ever since 9/11, and arguably even prior to that, Americans believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem. Such was this belief that in the post-9/11 years the Department of Homeland Security was created to protect the US from Islamist militancy. And as everyone in South Asia and the Middle East experienced, that was hardly all of it.

In Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorists had hidden, a military campaign (still ongoing) killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. In Iraq, a functioning infrastructure of governance was dismantled, nearly a million innocent Iraqis were killed and several millions more rendered refugees. The weight of the cumulative carnage spanned decades and its true measure is still not known. In the US, every Muslim became a terror suspect, and mosques were filled with undercover FBI agents trying to find terrorists.

Those days lasted until Jan 6, 2021. Until then, and despite the rising number of home-grown white supremacist terror attacks, Americans still believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem, inextricably tied to something about the faith. If anyone, particularly a Muslim, interjected, the retort would be something like, “Yes, maybe not all terrorists are Muslim, but so many are”. It would be the beginning of a pointless argument, the only value of which was how it exposed the extent of American Islamophobia.

Perhaps Americans who are watching in disbelief can use this time to consider the position of Pakistanis who watched their country slip into chaos and carnage for the entire duration of America’s so-called war on terror. The helplessness they feel is the helplessness that Pakistanis felt – wanting to do something but not knowing what to do, also knowing that the intoxications of extremist ideology are such that those who have been affected by them cannot be easily converted to reason and rationality.

Countering the Indian Threat
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Countering the Indian Threat

Zahid Hussain, journalist and author, in Dawn (December 23, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Gabriele Giuseppini)

Countering the Indian Threat

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has again warned of an Indian plan to launch a “surgical strike” on Pakistan. For a Pakistani leader to describe an Indian plan of blatant military aggression as a “surgical strike” is beyond one’s comprehension. Surely the foreign minister did not realize what the term might convey, but in diplomacy one needs to be extremely careful about the nuances. It is indeed a grave situation and one that needs to be handled more seriously.

Any military incursion into Pakistan would be a risky gamble by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such reckless action would also be in danger of spiraling out of control and turning into a full-blown military conflagration. The underlying calculation of Modi’s escalation is that India can afford this brinkmanship given the country’s diplomatic clout. But it is hard to believe that any blatant act of aggression will go unnoticed.

A major challenge for Pakistan, however, is how to respond to the Indian bellicosity. There is no doubt that Pakistan’s armed forces are fully capable of effectively countering any Indian military adventurism. But foreign aggression cannot be defeated by military means alone. The country’s major vulnerabilities are its weak economy and perpetual political instability.

There is a need for a broad consensus on key national security issues. Lack of clarity on national security is a failure of our leadership. It is mainly the responsibility of the prime minister to provide leadership. Instead of taking parliament into confidence on the Indian escalation, the political leadership has relied more on media and tweets to inform the nation about the threat. Our diplomatic efforts have also been hampered by the lack of a robust foreign policy. We need a more proactive approach to meeting the serious security challenge while refraining from creating panic.

Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem

Huma Yusuf, writer, in Dawn (November 30, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: DFID)

Water Scarcity is the Biggest Problem

Arguably Pakistan’s biggest problem is water scarcity. The country faces acute water scarcity by 2025 and will be the most water-stressed country in South Asia within two decades. Almost 30 million Pakistanis have no access to clean water. One would think that the best way to spur discourse on water scarcity would be to focus on basic human rights: the right to access clean water, food and maintain hygiene. 

Another approach could be to emphasize that Pakistan’s water crisis is in fact a failure in water management, an example of our governments’ and bureaucracy’s inability to deliver basic services. Studies argue that Pakistan’s water scarcity can be addressed through data gathering, improved efficiency, reduced losses and improved sowing. More and better-coordinated government initiatives and subsidies, such as the drip irrigation scheme in Punjab, are needed. The 2018 National Water Policy needs a revamp, and aggressive implementation.

But the water management argument has not caught the public imagination. The national debate on malnourishment, which affects one-third of Pakistani children, also fails to make the link with water scarcity. Malnourishment is highest in Pakistan’s irrigated districts, where agriculturalists prioritize growing cash crops for export over domestic food security.

If Pakistan is to rally around the need to address water scarcity, it needs a new narrative. Water needs to be reframed not just as a citizen’s basic right but also as a political priority, central to our prosperity. Fisherfolk are campaigning for the Indus River to be granted personhood and associated rights. Many see the idea as too radical. But it indicates the desperation of those most affected by water scarcity. It might be just the new narrative we need to talk about our most pressing problem.

The Government’s Failure of Communication
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
The Government’s Failure of Communication

Fahd Husain, editor, in Dawn (October 10, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Office Islamic Republic of Pakistan)

The Government’s Failure of Communication

Faced with the most potent threat since coming to power, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party today runs the risk of tripping on what it has always considered its core strength. In the age of communication while fighting a war of communication, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s team may be falling victim to a failure of communication.

This failure can be encapsulated in three distinct points: (1) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else; (2) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else; (3) obsession with opposition at the expense of everything else. This everything else in turn can also be encapsulated in three distinct points: (1) failure to define core areas of strength; (2) failure to defend core areas of weakness; (3) failure to design the government’s vision in terms of what it is and not merely what it is not.

The fault lies not in its stars but in its strategy. Ever since he entered the political arena, Imran Khan had framed his identity in terms of what he was not – not corrupt, not dishonest, not a dynast, not in politics for business, not beholden to vested interests and not ready to compromise on principles for political expediency. He painted what he was not in reference to his predecessors. This framing was critical for his political branding.

It worked. But now the government is sagging under the weight of its innumerable spokespeople. The government’s army of ministers, advisers, special assistants and spokespeople have failed to communicate effectively because they are unable or unwilling to comprehend, contextualize and convey much beyond their bequeathed party DNA. It is easy to mock, taunt and sneer; not so easy to explain, elaborate and enumerate. The PTI is falling into its own communication trap.

The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics
Friday, August 21, 2020
The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Associate Professor of Political Economy, National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, in Dawn (August 21, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: @Ahm4dJamal)

The Mass Party and the Digitalization of Politics

Popular politics used to be the preserve of mass political organizations that could legitimately claim to represent the interests of significant sections of the population. The idea of the mass party was inextricably tied to democratic statecraft.

Some would argue that this idea is now dead. Even though Pakistan has always been dominated by an authoritarian and militarized state that sabotaged democratic politics, mass political parties have thrived. The field of politics has been transformed by digital technology with profound implications. Digitalization allows for millions of people to articulate themselves politically and highlight the injustices and inequalities that litter our social landscape. Yet it also reinforces the feeling that mainstream political parties are at best unable and at worst unconcerned with what takes place at the grassroots.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) certainly claims the mantle of a popular mass party. But it is far more accurate to describe it at as an agglomeration of entrenched “electables” that has nevertheless been able to project itself as a mass organization on the basis of successful media projection and active digital cadres. It relies on tried and tested signifiers like “corruption” and “national security” even as it benefits from a youth bulge that has been bred on an anti-politics narrative championed by our own establishment and emblematic of neoliberal “governance” around the world.

The vision of rule by a popular and progressive majority has been displaced by institutional and subjective logics that are producing majoritarian tyranny. It may not be possible to reconstitute the mass par­ty of the 20th century. Pakistanis who want to overturn the establishment-centric system and institute genuine economic and political democracy have to think more deeply about building a meaningful political form rather than limiting themselves to outrage in an online space already dominated by the right.

The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence
Thursday, July 2, 2020
The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (June 29, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: United States Institute of Peace)

The Tyranny of Power Asymmetry and Dependence

Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives have principally been shaped by its geostrategic location in a tough neighborhood. This explains why security concerns had such a dominant influence. The sweep of foreign policy over the decades reveals a complex interplay between internal and external factors, and between domestic goals and an ever-changing international environment.

Of course, big power interests had a major impact on policy, intersecting with elite interests to sometimes complicate if not aggravate Pakistan’s challenges. An unedifying aspect of this was a mindset of dependence fostered among officials during prolonged periods of the country’s alignments. This dependence proved to be habit forming. Reliance on external financial assistance created a perverse incentive for urgent economic reform and serious domestic resource mobilization. It also encouraged ruling elites to constantly look outside to address financial deficits and other sources of internal vulnerabilities, even see outsiders as catalytic agents to promote development and solve problems at home.

The most recent turning point has seen Pakistan tie its strategic future more firmly to China while facing an implacably hostile India. In fact, the country’s daunting foreign policy challenges call for a more imaginative strategy to navigate a more complex and unsettled multipolar world.

The world has changed fundamentally but habits ingrained over the years by the ruling elite have yet to do so. Pakistan learnt to rely on itself for its defense when it pursued and acquired the strategic capability to deter aggression. But the habit persists of seeking help from foreign donors to deal with chronic financing gaps — frequently dramatized by frantic trips to Arab capitals. A similar lesson has yet to be learnt about financial self-reliance which is only possible through bold fiscal reform and a reordering of budget priorities. The tyranny of dependence waits to be overcome.

During Ramazan, Covid-19 is an Opportunity for Those who Pray
Friday, May 15, 2020
During Ramazan, Covid-19 is an Opportunity for Those who Pray

Nikhat Sattar, writer, in Dawn (May 15, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: pxfuel)

During Ramazan, Covid-19 is an Opportunity for Those who Pray

Even as the world battles a virus that has gripped the human race, Muslims observe the month of fasting with fervor and hope. Covid-19, in fact, should be taken as an opportunity for those who pray, because they can now do so in isolation and away from temptations of social gatherings. This is the time for deep introspection and developing and strengthening one’s bonds with the Creator, with no one watching.

Ramazan is very special for Muslims. It is one of the main ways God prescribes for them to work towards developing piety and righteousness. Indeed, if we do not control tendencies to anger, abuse, lying, cheating, committing other small or big sins, our fasts will be merely acts of starvation.

The main reason for the special place occupied by Ramazan in the hearts of Muslims is that the Quran was first revealed during this month. The night during which this revelation first came to the Prophet is the one every practicing Muslim aspires to search for and find. It is the blessed night during which every matter is decreed. It is the night in which, through prayer, sins are forgiven, supplications are accepted, and mercy and blessings surround the persons engaged in prayer.

It is clear that sincere worship during this night would have considerable worth in the eyes of God. This is when angels descend to do God’s merciful bidding. This is the night of peace, consolation, warmth and compassion, bringing Muslims and the universe together into one entity of creation by God, bound to Him by virtue of this connection and hence bound to each other, called upon to establish peace and harmony, with each other and with nature.

In the Coronavirus Crisis, Media Censorship will Backfire
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
In the Coronavirus Crisis, Media Censorship will Backfire

Huma Yusuf, journalist, in Dawn (April 20, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes

In the Coronavirus Crisis, Media Censorship will Backfire

As Covid-19 rips through the global population, governments are trying to suppress the news for various reasons — to keep public order and minimize panic, to burnish state credentials for crisis management, to score political points, or to seize control of the press and strengthen authoritarian control.

Newspaper publication across the Middle East has been suspended. Iraq withdrew Reuters’ licence for suggesting that the country was concealing the extent of the outbreak. Russian media outlets have been ordered to remove content critical of the state. In Pakistan, medical staff have been discouraged from speaking to journalists.

News suppression can be fatal. If it had not been for media censorship in China, news of the coronavirus would have surfaced earlier, saving lives and potentially avoiding the current pandemic. Governments have to strike a balance between allowing a free flow of information and regulating media content to ensure accuracy. This is tricky. And in countries like ours with authoritarian tendencies, the specter of fake news provides a convenient cover for rampant censorship.

In Pakistan, the crisis could lead to intensified media censorship. But such action would backfire. Lack of accurate information will breed complacency, impatience with lockdowns, and the inevitable spread of the virus. As the full economic impact of the pandemic becomes apparent, censorship will make obvious a discrepancy between the official narrative and what people are experiencing that will damage government credibility and produce resentment among the public.

Our government should support quality reporting by making information — and protective equipment — available to journalists. The media needs to get coverage of the pandemic right, keeping it timely, factual and in proper context. This will rebuild trust with the public, which has been lost in recent years.

Forced Conversions: Enticement Without Threat Should be Punishable
Thursday, April 16, 2020
Forced Conversions: Enticement Without Threat Should be Punishable

Sulema Jahangir, Honorary Executive Director, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, in Dawn (April 12, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: mariwara)

Forced Conversions: Enticement Without Threat Should be Punishable

The discrimination against women belonging to a religious minority has become worse. Women are becoming victims of rape, abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion. That largely underage girls are “converting” to Islam speaks volumes of their vulnerability.

In 2016 and last year, the government of Sindh attempted to outlaw forced marriages and conversions but religious parties objected both times, insisting that women of religious minorities convert willingly. While there are cases of forced conversion, there are also instances of influential men preying upon vulnerable young women, enticing them to convert and marry. Could enticement without the threat of violence become punishable?

Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s faith and that no one shall be subject to coercion to do so. Exploiting a position of power to entice vulnerable people or subordinates to convert amounts to coercion, which should be outlawed.

Once women convert, there is no going back, as apostasy would mean a death sentence. In many cases, women are also told that their families are infidels and they cannot meet them. This impedes their access to justice as they remain in the clutches of powerful men.

Pakistan has failed to comply with its international obligations to protect non-Muslim women and girls from exploitation by powerful groups and criminal elements. Even worse is the psychological impact on families of minorities who worry when their daughters venture out, and the culture of intolerance that is promoted when local leaders celebrate another conversion and marriage as a victory for the Muslim faith. This sends a chilling message to our most vulnerable people – that their girls are not safe.

Why Soft Power is Pivotal
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Why Soft Power is Pivotal

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, UK and UN, in Dawn (April 6, 2020)

Summary by Alejandro Reyes (Photo credit: UNIC Islamabad)

Why Soft Power is Pivotal

The global health emergency is showing the significance and impact of soft power – a country’s attributes or behavior that appeals to others and creates positive perceptions. Consider the case of China. After its success in fighting to contain the coronavirus, it has extended help to over 80 countries, setting an example admired the world over, notwithstanding the negative rhetoric of detractors.

China created a soft-power effect. By earning respect through its conduct, China managed to elevate its global position. This demonstrates how instrumental soft power can be in enhancing a country’s influence and international standing. When wielded as part of a country’s diplomatic strategy, soft power can pay rich dividends, enabling that nation to achieve its foreign-policy goals. Soft power is now an essential ingredient in international diplomacy.

Pakistan is among the bottom 10 in the Global Soft Power Index 2020 report recently released by Brand Finance. Western countries are in the top five, along with Japan and China. Singapore is the top Southeast Asian nation at number 20. Pakistan needs to step up its diplomatic game and act strategically. Nation branding is essential, and policymakers should identify and imaginatively incorporate our soft power resources into our foreign policy, engaging more vigorously in public diplomacy to shape our narrative abroad. There is no reason why Pakistan should be at the bottom of the global soft power league.