IN its limited understanding of events, particularly the complex workings of the Middle East, the Trump administration feels it has achieved a masterstroke by assassinating Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month. However, in much of the region the hit has galvanised anti-American sentiment, with the peoples of the Middle East denouncing Washington’s brazen disregard for other states’ sovereignty, with calls for the US military to leave the region. Soon after the strike that took the lives of Soleimani and several others, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a prominent commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, the Iraqi parliament passed a motion calling for the removal of all American forces from their country. On Friday, thousands of followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — whose forces have battled American troops in Iraq in years past — staged a massive march in Baghdad telling the “occupier” to “get out”. Muqtada al-Sadr also called for security arrangements between Iraq and the US to be cancelled.
The anti-American rage in Iraq is understandable, and the Soleimani assassination is only one of many triggers of the Iraqi unrest. Nearly 17 years after America invaded their country to rid it of weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found, Iraqis have little to cheer about. While it is true that corruption among the Iraqi ruling elite plays a substantial part in the miseries of that country, clearly the root cause of Iraq’s deprivation is the American invasion. George W. Bush’s ill-advised foray managed to dislodge a dictator — though once upon a time Saddam Hussein was a valuable client in the campaign against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran — but at the same time it destroyed a functioning country. Even elsewhere in the Middle East, America’s actions, along with many of its European and Arab allies, have brought nothing but trouble for the peoples of this region, with regime change helping fuel further chaos. For example, in Syria, the US-led bloc intervened in what was purely a domestic uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted rule, resulting in the internationalisation of the conflict, as Russia and Iran jumped in to protect their ally. The chaos in Syria also gave spaces for deadly outfits like the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda to take refuge in.
Yet, apparently no lessons have been learnt, as America still seems intent on playing global policeman. For example, Brian Hook, Mr Trump’s point man on Iran, has been quoted as saying that if Esmail Qaani, Gen Soleimani’s successor as Quds Force head, continues to threaten American interests, “he will meet the same fate”. Instead of indulging in such arrogant behaviour and imperilling the security of the region, the US needs to change tack. It should not be playing the role of an imperial overlord. If America were to approach the Middle Eastern countries with respect, it could go a long way in improving its own security, as well as that of the region.
A standard curriculum
IN theory, education should be the great leveller. However, in many other post-colonial nations like Pakistan it is quite the opposite. Parallel systems of education in this country — private, public and madressah — generally serve to reinforce social divisions and act as a barrier to economic mobility. Justice, therefore, demands such a system be overhauled. In this context, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, while attending an education seminar in London, reiterated a long-standing promise of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a conversation with this paper, Mr Mahmood said that a uniform curriculum developed with the consensus of all stakeholders would be implemented across the board — in government and private schools as well as madressahs. He observed that at present the only career option for seminary students is to become prayer leaders, but that after sitting their board exams they would be eligible for “careers in the military, the police, or anywhere in the mainstream job market”.
Aside from the injustice of having an educational framework where only a rarefied elite has access to the best career choices, creating a level playing field is also a practical concern. Education is a critical component of madressah reform, an issue that acquired greater urgency over the years as religious extremism tightened its grip on the country. It is true that only a small minority of seminaries, out of an estimated total of some 30,000 in total, have been imparting jihadist teachings, but young people frustrated by limited avenues of career advancement tend to be more easily seduced by extremist ideologies that can impart a sense of agency. However, standardising the curriculum should not be at the cost of the overall quality of education, otherwise everyone stands to lose. An equally important consideration is the pedagogical method. After all, many madressahs have long taught ‘worldly’ subjects to their students but critical thinking is alien to their approach. Of utmost importance therefore is the recruitment of suitable teachers who will impart lessons in the uniform curriculum in a way that actually benefits the students when they test the waters of the job market. That will not be an easy task: madressahs, accustomed to being essentially independent entities, have resisted multiple efforts at what they perceive as state ingress into their functioning. However, the government by making madressah reform part of the national education reform initiative may have adopted a course more acceptable to these institutions.
Women on wheels
ON Friday, hundreds of women were issued driving certificates and employment with a ride-hailing service at a packed event organised by Women on Wheels in Karachi. A few months earlier, these women had received training after the initiative was first launched in the city in November 2019. And there are now plans to extend the programme to other parts of Sindh. Since its inauguration in Punjab four years ago, WoW has tried to empower thousands of women to ride motorcycles, along with offering them subsidised bikes, as a way to encourage women’s mobility and normalise their presence on the roads. While Pakistani women have made great strides over the years, and more and more women enter the workforce each year, the mere sight of a woman riding a motorcycle to reach her destination is still seen as an anomaly here. Typically, women sit at the back of the motorcycle, behind a male member of the family, often nestling a child or two precariously in their laps, while their flowing dupattas or abayas risk getting entangled in the wheels of the motorcycle — which is a common cause for accidents.
Women riding motorcycles or bicycles — to get to work, to run errands, or simply for leisure — are an everyday sight in many parts of Asia, including some Muslim countries. Unfortunately, Pakistan lags behind the rest of the world in many regards, and the belief that ‘good’ women do not leave their homes or have lives independent of men is still persistent. Hopefully, with the continuation of initiatives such as WoW, the sight of women on wheels will become so commonplace within a few years that it will not raise eyebrows nor lead to lewd comments and leering — in other words, it will be a journey as comfortable as it is for men. After all, it is only fair that half the country’s population receives its full right to occupy public space without fear of harassment, intimidation and judgement.