Afia Salam's Blog

Life is a journey

What does the society expect of its women!

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What does the Society expect of its women

Written by afiasalam

July 11, 2015 at 4:45 am

Sabeen: The birthday girl is not here anymore

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Sabeen painting

Today is Sabeen’s birthday. She would have been 41. When I think back to the first time I saw her, when she was all of 15 years, and I saw her pottering with computers at Zaheer Kidvai’s office it is amazing to realize how much of life she was able to pack in just these four decades.

Those were the days when computers were serious, expensive things; not something one allowed children to fiddle around with. Hence my surprised query to ZAK at what a ‘bachee’ was doing with them. I was taken aback when he said she was his friend’s daughter who was interested’ in computers. It is only now, in a conversation with ZAK after she has gone that I learnt that I was not the only curious one. He says she too asked who I was after I left, and when told my name, said she already knew me through my cricket writings, as that was another thing she was interested in….passionately! This actually became our first point of connect.

Sabeen ET

Over the years I got to know her, and whenever our paths crossed, which was quite often because of school friend Jehan Ara becoming a part of the trio making multi media solutions.

Unlike me, she wasn’t just into the game of cricket from a distance. She played it, and played it hard.

Sabeen with poster

Hard enough to damage her knees, and had to keep away due to doctors’ orders, which she rarely followed, for she believed in living life on her own terms and dealing with the consequences. She loved cricket, and cricketers. She always wanted to listen to off-the-record stories about them, and envied the opportunity I had to meet her heroes.Sabeen quoteWhile living her life passionately, she touched so many people along the way, becoming the supporter of the odd ones, the marginalized, the weak and threatened, the ones without means to gain attention. And there was nothing luke-warm about anything she did, or believed in.

Passion conjures up vision of frenetic activity, raised decibels, and things going haywire. But while enough of what was going on around her merited these states, the Sabeen I remember was always a picture of calm. Even in anger, and there were such moments a plenty, her ‘aap janaab’ never slid into ‘tum or tu’ though she reserved the right to let off expletives in English.. always ‘appropriately’ placed and targeted.

Passions that made her master the finest nuances of the Urdu language, of Jazz, of Classical music and Qawwali, which she just dived deep into. Yes ZAK’s influence was there, but that his introduction would ignite such passion probably he could not have imagined.Sabeen on scooter

And she was brave. Oh so brave, maybe to the extent of being reckless. She was brave not just because she chose to ride a scooter on Karachi roads, but because she wanted to have her say, come what may. This is what led her to swim upstream, and sometimes plunge in without testing the waters. Like she did when she went all out with her ‘fasla na rakhein, piyaar honey dein’ and earned the wrath, and faced threats from the lobby that wanted to heap all responsibility of immorality on the observance of Valentine’s Day.

Was that foolhardy? Maybe Was she worried? yes, Did it put a dent in her resolve to take a bold stance? No. They say this is why she was killed. That her killer cited her Valentines’ Day campaign as the reason he put 5 bullets in her, 3 years after the event. Really? Takes a bit of getting used to this notion. I still haven’t so won’t dwell on it.

I would rather talk about T2F, which is actually proof of what passion about an interest can create. The concept, the space, the programmes held there, all showed how fully she had thrown herself into this space that she wanted everyone to share… a space created for ‘intellectual poverty alleviation,’ her only demand to people coming there being, ‘bring your brain.’

If the space fell short to accommodate her ideas and plans and events, she went elsewhere, but she had to be a part of, if not at the center of events making waves in the city of Karachi… another one of her passions which always resonated with me. And all the time, while wracking her brains to keep her T2F financially afloat, whenever someone approached her to use the space for an event without the required amount in had, her answer used to be ‘daikh lein gey.. kuch kur lein gey’ (Will see what we can do about it).

And it Sabeen at Farieha'swas this spirit of kuch kur lein gey which made so many good things happen, through Sabeen, who would float new ideas and initiatives, introduce amazing guests, or kickstart an event, and sit at the back with that smile on her face which we all remember her for.

The only time she would intervene was if she saw the discussion getting out of hand or some people not being able to have their say, and she would take the mike to them.

Sabeen with Mahenaz

There was a quiet strength about her, which we now know she inherited from her mother Mahenaz Mahmud, whose calm and courage in the face of the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen her showed what she was made of, and the kind of genes she had passed on to Sabeen that enabled her to achieve so much in so little time.

So today when friends and admirers gather at T2F to listen to qawwali on Sabeen’s  birthday, they are not just there for the genre Sabeen had come to love and loved to promote; they are there to remember her, and the many ways in which she enriched lives.

Like them, I too would like that acknowledge that Sabeen, for all you did, and all you stood for, ‘tu maira hero.”sabeen-hero-karachi-mohsin-sayeed

Written by afiasalam

June 20, 2015 at 8:49 pm

Full frontal… the New Normal?

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Full Frontal Assault… the new normal?

Updated 2 days ago
A NEWSpaper front-page is supposed to give just that… the news!

The world is a happening place with never a dull moment. Even if you had scanned the headlines on your TV or the web before going to sleep, there would still be plenty of major stories developing during the night.

So you hear the thud of the newspaper fall on your balcony or driveway in the mornings and you rush there to get up to speed with the news. You impatiently flick off the rubber band and flip open the paper to see the headlines… and lo and behold… you are told to close your eyes and drink a glass of milk whose purity has been ensured for you. Or you are brought face to face with the virtues of sending money through a cell phone service… all this when you have not even brushed your teeth or had your first cup of tea or coffee!

Well ladies and gentlemen, please wake up and smell the coffee. This full frontal assault on the front page of your newspaper is set to become the new normal. The sharp intake of breath or gasp of dismay is about to give way to a shrug of resignation as the realisations dawns that this is the current trend; so like it or lump it!

While magazines have been known to ‘sell’ their front page (soul?), it did not raise as many eyebrows because no one expects an update on the news from a magazine cover. However, a NEWSpaper front-page is supposed to give just that… the news!

A sliver of news placed under the masthead as a sop to readers is how this frontal assault began. Maybe it was a testing of the waters. And the resultant hue and cry did not go beyond leg pulling by journalists of colleagues of that particular media group, and that too mostly on social media. There was very little reader reaction. Encouraged and emboldened advertisers took this to the next level by wiping the news completely off the front page and placing a full-page ad there instead. No sop, no space, no as a by your leave! Just full frontal!

According to Sarmad Ali. Group MD, Marketing, Jang Group says, “Pakistan has been slow in catching up with international practices and this was not very common here. The Australian, DNA India, The Guardian, Gulf News, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express The Khaleej Times, The Times of India and The Straits Times are only a few examples of newspapers accepting these creative placements.

Seasoned journalist, Chris Cork, for his part makes the distinction between advertising freesheets and newspapers. “If you are paying hard cash for a newspaper then you have a reasonable expectation of having news in your hands, especially on the front page.”

The ‘rules’ are silent. And there is nothing in the ‘guidelines’ (oh that hated word!) of the Press Council of Pakistan or the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) to restrict such encroachment. Hence the absence of a strong push back mechanism by the editorial departments, barring rare instances of preset space limitations for advertising.

In the absence of such regulations, if editors have a problem, according to both Talat Aslam of The News and Tahir Najmi ofExpress, they need “to kick up a fuss” because “you cannot deprive your readers of the whole page. The reader has every right to know all the major information in the form of news on the front page.”

In Aslam’s opinion, given that the advertisements which have so far hijacked the front page are nothing special or creative, they could have easily been placed elsewhere within the paper. This is why, new though the trend is, there needs to be an analysis of whether the brand garners positive feedback or flak from readers. Or is massaging the ego of the brand managers the only purpose that is served?

What about reader feedback? How do readers who have a problem with this trend express their point of view?

According to Javed Jabbar, “ if readers have a problem they must move beyond passive acceptance, and write letters to the editors and boycott buying the paper for a few days to make their point.”

Although the Media Commission set up by the Supreme Court has recommended appointing an Ombudsman or a Readers’ Editor for each publication, only a few have done so. Readers can write to them to register complaints, or they can set up consumer societies which talk back to the newspapers.

However, at the end of the day, the Ombudsman too may have to bow to financial realities. Unless and until newspapers themselves strike a balance between the rights of their readers and their revenue stream, we can let this debate develop to see what the Pakistani market will accept.

Written by afiasalam

May 31, 2015 at 4:05 pm

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Karachi: Beware of an earthquake; never mind the Tsunami.. yet!

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Written by afiasalam

September 16, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Rain on the (#AzadiMarchPTI #Inqilab) Parade

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Governance means reading the signs, making projections, extrapolating existing data to forecast trends and make arrangements and adjustments accordingly. It means number crunching, matching available resources to the demographic spread, so on and so forth, etc. etc. etc. That is what the incumbent  government does, and the opposition, which is supposed to be a government-in-the-waiting for whenever the people vote them in, keeps its eye on.

Now, despite the ‘heavy mandate’  barring the very few delusional (also called ‘dheet’ in Urdu) out of the 180 million Pakistanis, everyone would agree, at least in their hearts even if they do not want to articulate, that Nawaz Sharif and his coterie has taken ineptitude, nepotism and bad governance to whole new level.

While they want the nation to do a jig because the Rupee:Dollar parity has been dragged back to double digits, and rejoice at the visible signs of skewed development priorities like the Metro Bus and Flyovers etc, fact remains that the poor are getting poorer, rich richer, marginalized are more vulnerable today than ever before, the vulnerable now stand in the category of the threatened with extinction, the criminals roam free, justice is held hostage to street power etc.

All of the above need, nay, deserve to be changed, so the clarion call of ‘#Tabdeeli’ or change resonates with all and sundry. Raise the decibels, and the degree, and this calls gets another name by another group.. for instance #Inqilab! But look who is giving this call. Is it a case of the pot calling the kettle black? What do we have at the other end of the scale

On one side is a party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf, which has a chance NOT to do all that it accuses the Nawaz Sharif Government of PML-N in a province it holds sway in.. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Now to be fair, many a good initiatives have been taken there which can serve as a model for the other provincial governments if they can get out of their parochial silos. But there are plenty of regressive steps in fields that have an impact beyond the here and now; like education, and its basic building block, the curriculum. Now with its band of 30 off Parliamentarians against the ruling party’s 170, all of whom could not have gone past the post through rigging, its leader Imran Khan refuses to settle for anything but the ouster of the Government.

The other demand for #Inqilab or revolution is coming from a person who cannot be accepted as a stakeholder by any stretch of imagination. This flyby Canadian cleric, emboldened by the clout he was able to wield during his last year’s street theatre when the PPP was in power, wants to upchuck the existing system. #TUQ or Tahir ul Qadri of the #PAT or Pakistan Awami Tehreek and/or Idara e Minhaj ul Quran breathing verbal hellfire and brimstone is presenting a total either/or and with us or against us scenario with very little room for negotiations or manoeuvering.

With these two ‘personalities’ set in formaldehyde, and their band of followers with an equally rigid mindset, it will take some going to resolve the current impasse, even if one puts blinkers on and ignores a khaki shadow, coupled with the extremely myopic, and almost panic stricken response of the Government, which was a case of too little too late.

Oh, and while it may disturb the flow of the words, I must of course mention here that we have a little case of a full scale war, given the title of #ZarbeAzb, going on just hours away from where the street show is taking place. Relevant? Maybe!

However, this is not about a comparison of performance. This is more about planning. No matter how dissatisfied I am with the performance of the government in power, how can I ever think of throwing my lot with people who cannot even look up a weather map before planning the biggest disruption to civic life in two major cities at a time.

This is August. The season, despite #ClimateChange and shifting monsoonal pattern, is still a rainy season. If the ‘planners’ within Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s camp do not trust their own country’s Met department, there are plenty of weather sites that would have told them well in advance that these days would be rainy days. If they had extrapolate the data of the past few years, the result would have been the same.

So if the March Hare and Mad Hatter cannot get this basic information before putting the biggest open air show together, inconveniencing thousands (no, it didn’t turn out to be a Million Man March after all) of citizens of Lahore and Islamabad and all the places in between, then please, you can’t expect me to entrust them with my fate!

Written by afiasalam

August 17, 2014 at 11:18 am

Girls drink Milk too

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Girls drink milk too

Positive messaging is what advertisers should be doing, instead of heedlessly reinforcing gender stereotypes, writes Afia Salam.


Is this a rant? Well, sort of, although I usually restrict my rants to social media forums. But lately I have been a bigger ‘consumer’ of the media than ever before. Working from home, I usually have the television on, and what is beamed by way of advertising is, well, not very palatable.

The debate on the commodification of women has been done to death. We are seeing a lesser number of women pushing ‘men only’ products.

As for the issue of culturally inappropriate imagery, it may resurface along with the swirls of lawn now that summer is here. This is not what this rant is about.

Neither is it about the offensive ‘skin whitening’ creams promising a happily ever after. Or wedded bliss and acceptance by the in-laws by conjuring up the right kind of fragrance in cooked rice (Maggie Umda) and laundered clothes (Sunlight). I live in hope that these will eventually fade, or at least become reflective of another breed of women, who march ahead, notching up successes in fields as diverse as mountain climbing, flying planes, performing complicated surgery or teaching difficult subjects in remote parts of Pakistan; every one of them completely unmindful of the effect these activities may have on their complexion. Or culinary skills!

But I digress. This is about the gender bias in the advertising of products which lay claim to improving health, growth, well being and which reinforce dangerous stereotypes that have far reaching effects on society. And please don’t anyone fling the line at me that “it is just advertising; it has no effect.” Everyone associated with this industry knows the purpose of advertising is to have an effect on those it is targeted at – en route to the bottom line.

The problem I have with the advertising by some leading brands is their extreme gender imbalance, nay exclusion. Be it a brand of milk, (Nestlé Milk, Nido)… better still, of a fortified kind, or a food supplement (Horlicks), the talent shown in the commercial is that of a boy – never a girl! Boys are shown guzzling glasses of milk and adding IQ points, smearing butter and margarine on parathas and grabbing cups in sporting meets, adding nutrition supplements to their food and inches to their height.



As I mentioned earlier, I usually rant on social media. I did on this issue too, and while there was some support for my point of view, it was the justification given for the gender exclusive trend that had me stumped! ‘Mothers prefer boys’.

Yes, a cultural truth, but not one that needs to be perpetuated. Advertising is target market oriented, so since there is a tilt in favour of the male child, it has to cater to that niche… true again. But isn’t advertising about creating a demand to lead to a sale?

How will the addition of a girl in products not meet any marketing and advertising goals? The kind of products I have mentioned and the market they target has a profile of mothers who are usually without such biases. And if these biases are inherent, they can be nudged away with the right kind of messaging. Sometimes all it needs is for someone to realise that their biases are baseless.

The segment of children depicted in these commercials is not one where girls would be made to wait until their male sibling has eaten so that they can be given the leftovers. These too are the harsh realities of our patriarchal landscape, but the households shown in these ads are not from there.

milk3Also, judging by the monumental failure of our family planning programme, this single male child family may be a latent aspiration, but is far removed from reality. Wouldn’t a mother (or father) pouring two glasses of milk or stirring in spoonfuls of food supplements or ‘buttering up’ toast and parathas and then handing them over to a son and a daughter be more believable?

Surely brands with millions to spend on promotion in order to gain billions can afford the addition of a girl in the same concept? Even the film directors will not be too hard pressed to fit them in the same frame as their male sibling.

The social costs of the visual exclusion are far greater, especially in Pakistan, which ranks abysmally low on the nutrition index – 97 out of 125! It also scores a shameful 19.3 out of 100 on the Global Hunger Index. Scratch the surface, and you will see a clear tilt in this imbalance, negatively impacting women in general, and girls in particular.

When existing cultural biases are entrenched deep into the psyche, positive messaging, which need not even be a hard sell, can play a role in chipping away the stereotypes. It has been done elsewhere with success and the advertising industry across the world in general and in Pakistan in particular, has been putting forth some brilliant public service messages. There is no dearth of creativity here. Some of the current advertising, slice of life as well as fantasy, have engaging concepts, humour and great execution.

Advertising is usually taken to be an extended arm of marketing and the sales department of a brand. Try rocking the boat a bit; go beyond the market surveys and insights and rely on gut feel. Even if keeping an eye on the numbers is the objective, there is no harm in suggesting that the client attempt to broaden the customer base.

I still remember a brand of children’s biscuits – Choco Chum – which had no competitor in the market and enjoyed healthy growth. The agency urged, cajoled, and finally convinced the brand into doing an ad campaign and sales skyrocketed. They pushed the market envelope and the brand reaped the benefits.

So advertising does make a difference. Gender insensitive brand messaging neither makes good business sense, nor is it socially responsible. Maybe the advertising industry, which has the money and the clout could launch an affirmative action plan and weed out such practices.

How about kick-starting the brainstorming process by putting on a proxy and watching (on YouTube) the excellent advocacy animation developed by UNICEF called ‘Meena kee kahani’ addressing just this issue.

After all, we too have many Meenas in our midst. Let us not allow them to slip off the radar!

Afia Salam is a freelance journalist and has worked as a creative head at three agencies.

First published in the May-June 2014 issue.

Written by afiasalam

June 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬: We learn from history, that we NEVER learn from history

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The story developed like a gathering storm. First there was news of a security breach when some armed men cut through the fence from the “Fokker gate’ near the Ispahani Hanger, close to the Pehelwah Goth area which had already been cited as a security risk many times.

Ispahani hanger

Ispahani wide-body aircraft maintenance hangar at Karachi Airport in early 1980s. In late 1970s, PIA spent more than 17 million US Dollars for construction of a new hangar capable of housing two wide-bodied aircraft. The construction of hangar and related workshop was completed and commissioned in 1980. The hangar has been named after Mirza Ahmad Ispahani who was the longest serving chairman of PIA from 1955 to 1962.

Television audience was just trying to catch its breath over the horror unfolding in Taftan, on the Pak-Iran border where over 22 Shia Zaireen lost their lives to a suicide attack, in a manner that has such a familiar, horrible ring to it.

As if that breaking news was not heartbreaking enough, news about the security breach at the Karachi Airport wherein ASF check post was attacked splashed across the screens.

First it was that the ASF personnel had been injured and the intruders had come in. Then the entire incident snowballed wherein they not only killed the ASF personnel, but a PIA employee in the Cargo terminal, as they moved rapidly deeper into the Karachi airport.

The fire fights broke out, Rangers moved in to assist the ASF personnel, sounds of blasts and heavy weaponry rent the night air, and then there was news of the terrorists moving towards an international airliner on the runway, ready to depart, and stiff resistance in which they were able to hit an oil depot, sending out leaping flames billowing smoke.

Karachi Airport Attack

The media rushed into this chaotic scene, and added to the confusion by throwing in unconfirmed, unattributed, very speculative news, including that of aircraft on fire.

That there can NEVER be any short cuts to experience was very clearly visible on a couple of channels who rushed their senior reporters. That is where some voices of sanity could be heard. The rest were proving prime examples of irresponsible journalism, which showed that the back-end support from the newsrooms was just as lacking in experiencing and ability to deal with such crisis.

Troops movement were shown, until better sense prevailed, Names of the fallen personnel were being aired, when protocol as well as sensitivity demands that the family be notified before the names are revealed. Bodies were shown, their condition graphically described, location of the mortuary as well as injured personnel was revealed too. This is all against the agreed media norms.

When will the media learn?  Despite being involved in media trainings, it is at times like these I feel it is a losing battle. Pakistan is supposed to be a ‘happening place’.. not for all the right reasons, but even then, these happenings provide ample opportunity for the media to learn and improve itself, for practise is supposed to make you perfect, instead of being repetitively imperfect!

However, that is whole different discourse. Let us talk about the ‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬. How is history repeated? Why was the name of the Mehran and Kamra airbase bandied about? And why has a huge sigh of relief been heaved simply because in the final analysis, the ‘assets’ remained safe.. despite the loss of 16 precious lives.

Is it because, as reports during this crisis indicated, prior warning had been received of an imminent attack on the Karachi Airport, and yet it happened? just like in the case of Mehran and Kamra bases? If that warning had been given a week ago, what extra security measures had been taken? was the alert level raised to match the threat level? Apparently not.

The ‘jungle’ that is being mentioned across the perimeter fence from where one group of these terrorists intruded is not a Redwood forest.. those are just bushes which in any case should not have been obscuring the view of any person on watch, if there was one.

The area adjoining Pehelwan Goth should have extra security not just because of its proximity to a populated area, but because of the presence of the operational installations of the airport, like the RADAR, which are located there. They are much too easily accessible.

Also, even after the end of the operation, the other entry point has not been mentioned, despite acknowledgement of the fact that the terrorists came from two different points.

However, what bothers me, and takes me back to another incident at the Karachi Airport, way back in the mid 80’s.. in September 1986 to be precise when the PanAm Flight 01 was stormed by terrorists, who has entered the airport effortlessly, because they were wearing ASF uniforms, and were in a van with ASF markings.

They were just saluted in, and went right up to the aircraft, and boarded it, making the passengers hostage. The crew, following protocols, escaped from the cockpit so the terrorists were not able to get the plane to fly to a destination of their choice. The saga lasted for over two days, and had a violent and bloody end with over 20 people killed when Pakistani commandos stormed the plane, killed most of the hijackers, but not without loss of life to the passengers either.

So is being in a uniform enough of a right of passage to even high security areas? Is this attitude that is the Achilles heal of our security set up? Why hasn’t the protocol of  questioning persons of one’s own force trickled down through the forces that are manning the entry points. There MUST NOT be any exceptions to the rule… be they women, children, people in uniform, specially those wearing your own uniform.

It is these lapses that have cost us dearly in the past, but we never seem to learn from them. These people entered not only wearing uniforms, which are not really all that hard to acquire, but came in with heavy weaponry. Irrespective of the origin of those weapons, which again is the subject of another debate, the fact that so much armament cross the security parameter of the largest civilian airport of the country is scary prospect.

One doesn’t want to take anything away from the round of congratulations taking place at the ‘end’ of the operation in which ASF, Rangers, Sindh Police and the Zarrar Force of the Pakistan Army ‘cleared’ it of the terrorists within 5 hours.

3 of the intruders blew themselves up, 7 were taken down.. none survived so the who, when, what, why of the incident will need some other modes of answers. 16 others lost their lives, ASF, Police, Rangers, PIA and CAA staffers. 22 have suffered injuries of varying degrees and severity. Aircraft remained safe and just the cargo building suffered damage.

But isn’t there another damage we need to assess amidst all the thumping of the chest and backslapping? The damage to an already fragile image of the efficacy of intelligence and security apparatus which is supposed to pre-empt, and prevent these incidents. Damage control and fire fighting takes the shine off the remarks about the ‘ability to deal with all manifestations of terrorism’ etc.

Or is it this very question that is damaging?

Written by afiasalam

June 9, 2014 at 3:24 am


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