Has Pakistan missed its “Arab Spring” moment?

After a young man sets himself on fire to protest living conditions, the nation's response is muted

Topics: GlobalPost, Pakistan, Arab Spring,

Has Pakistan missed its "Arab Spring" moment? Pakistan's opposition lawmakers rally outside the parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Oct, 6. 2011 (Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

HAJI SAINDAD RIND, Pakistan — It could have been an Arab Spring moment. Taking an apparent cue from the young Tunisian who, tired of the poverty in which he lived, set himself on fire and launched a protest movement around the world, Raja Khan, 23, went to Pakistan’s parliament late last month and did the same.

Global Post

But in a country where poverty and unemployment is more a norm than an exception, the reaction has been muted.

Police in Islamabad said Khan left a note to say he couldn’t bear to live in such condition anymore. On the day of his burial, his 20-year-old wife, Najma, gave birth to their third son.

“He said, ‘I am taking fuel with me and I’m going to set myself on fire.’ I said, ‘please, don’t do this, for the sake of your children.’ I begged him, ‘don’t do this for the sake of God. Think of me. Who will take care of me if you are gone?’ But he didn’t listen,” Najma said, sitting outside her simple brick house, while her brothers wiped away her tears.

The number of Pakistanis that commit suicide because of poverty is on the rise, said I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, though exact figures are not available.

Rehman received 1,580 reports of suicides in the first nine months of this year, compared to 1,668 cases in all of 2009. Human rights activists said that Pakistanis often avoid reporting suicide because under Pakistani law, survivors can face a jail sentence and fine. It is also considered a sin in Islam.

“There is an increase because more and more people are falling below the poverty line. Secondly, we also know that the unemployment rate is increasing,” he said.

Poverty can also fuel militancy, according to Feriha Peracha, the director of Sabaoon, a boarding school that aims to de-radicalize former Taliban members.

“Your needs are not met. You don’t want to go to school because you have to earn a living. Otherwise, how do you feed yourself that day? So they drop out and they’re picked up [by the Taliban],” she said.

But Rehman warns that the link between poverty and militancy is often exaggerated.

“It’s not poverty only. Not all militants are very poor. This view is supported by a survey conducted in 2009 among 6,000 Pakistanis. They found that poor Pakistanis disliked militants about two times more than middle class Pakistanis.

According to government figures, unemployment in July this year was 6 percent, compared to 5.6 percent last year. But the study counts anyone who worked at least one hour in the week before the survey was taken as employed; so many think the number could actually be much higher.

Same goes for the number of Pakistanis that live below the poverty line. Officially it is one third of the population, but in reality it is much higher, said Zaffar Moeen Nasir, chief of research at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

Pakistan suffers from inflation and foreign investors stay away because of an unstable political, security and infrastructural environment. The energy crisis is the most striking example. At least three days a week Pakistan’s main industry, the textile sector, comes to a standstill, because gas cannot be supplied, according to industry officials.

“People cannot work in the factories full time anymore or are laid off. So there is a decline in production, which means a decline in the earnings of workers,” Rehman said.

Even with normal working hours, however, many Pakistanis are unable to earn enough to support their families, and are driven to suicide as a result, said Khalid Mehmood, director of the Labor Education Foundation.

Khan desperately hunted for jobs for years, his relatives said. He left school when he was 15-years old. As the eldest son he became responsible for the income of his family. His father no longer works, one brother is sick and the other is unemployed. When he married Najma and had two sons, now 5- and 3-years old, the pressure to provide a proper income increased. The only work he found was as a day laborer on the agricultural fields for about 20 cents a day, when there was work to be had.

When in 2008 national elections brought the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power, Khan, whose family is an avid supporter of the party, was convinced he would finally land a job. He asked provincial lawmakers and party officials in Islamabad for a job and even went on a hunger strike. Last February, a PPP-leader in the capital gave him a letter requesting a provincial minister to induct Khan’s wife into the police force. It all resulted in nothing.

And so, at the end of October, Khan went to Pakistan’s national parliament, the only place where he knew people would be more influential than those he had already contacted. Before he left he asked Ali Jan, a 24-year-old cousin, for advice.

“I told him, ‘don’t go to Islamabad because your efforts will be in vain.’ But Khan said, ‘no, I’m poor, I’m worried and I have to go.’” Khan didn’t meet any lawmakers, Jan said. “He only met with security officials at the gate of the parliament.”

Khan is from a dusty village, a 7-hour drive from Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi. Villagers here say most people can read and write, but they work in the fields on the land of a feudal landlord. Many of Khan’s cousins have finished at least part of their high school education.

Khan’s mother, father, brothers, wife and children stay in a room in a compound shared by other relatives. In the courtyard are goats and buffalo the family says are rented against half the milk they produce. Water pumps in the houses provide for clean drinking water, which Khan’s family calls “the only gift from God.” There is a television, washing machine and fans on the ceiling. Some of the residents carry mobile phones. Electricity runs for about 12 hours a day.

In Pakistan, Khan’s family is considered lower middle class. And it is among this group of people where the most suicides occur, Rehman said.

“Poverty is a matter of feeling also. One may be poor and conscious of it. This consciousness comes from a certain level of education and exposure to urban life. Raja Khan knew of the parliament. An ordinary villager would not even know of Islamabad nor have the means to travel there. For him, the state is the local police and the economic benefactor is the landlord.”

Najma finds it hard to reconcile the idea that just one job could have saved her husband.

“If the government had given him a job, even in the lowest grade possible, I would not have become a widow,” she said.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>