Are you Indian or Pakistani? Why it shouldn’t matter

(Published in Dawn: http://www.dawn.com/news/1256207/are-you-indian-or-pakistani-why-it-shouldnt-matter )

Born to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, I grew up in a family that embraces multiple religions and beliefs. Every Gurpurab(Sikh festival), we would go to the nearby Gurudwara to bow our heads and every Janmashtami (the birth of Hindu deity Krishna), we would go to a Hindu temple.

I wouldn’t say that we were a deeply religious family — perhaps what I grew up practising was just a function of what trickles down the familial hierarchy, spanning generations, and eventually catches up with you.

Stories of the eleven Sikh Gurus, the Mahabharata and theRamayana — that were a mandatory part of our academic curriculum right up till middle school and the idea of God and him ‘watching us’ — formed the premise of my moral upbringing and education in my formative years.

Having grown up with an amalgamated idea of God, the hard-hitting realities of different religions and religious wars that are rife today were things that eluded the conspicuousness of my daily life, like background music.

I hailed from what is today the ‘Indian Punjab’ (even though my grandparents are originally from Lahore). I didn’t have much interaction with Muslims, perhaps because there were very few to be found in my school.

It was not until I joined the University of Nottingham in England in 2007 for my post-graduate studies did I have the opportunity to befriend many Muslims, not to mention also reside in the same student halls with some of them.

Anyone studying abroad will tell you that one of the most exciting and enriching experiences is the hordes of expatriate students you get to interact with — people from all parts of the world whom you meet and live with under one roof, and ostensibly learn so much from about new cultures, traditions and lifestyles.

One of the very first people I met in my postgraduate student hall was a boy from Lahore whose sense of humour was as alarming as it was a riot.

Very quickly, he became an in-house entertainer for the entire building. Owing to the obvious overlap of culture and languages between us, we soon became fast friends and as it turned out, were also in many of the same classes.

A prankster, he would often find himself in a pickle with our house wardens who made it abundantly clear from the beginning that they were not his fans.

It made me like him even more. I would often have long chats with him and another Muslim girl who had moved in two doors down from me on my floor. We would converse on politics, Kashmir and India-Pak conflicts. Their views and sentiments, I found, were mostly aligned with my own.

He would say, “It’s the political parties and governments in power on both sides of the border that are spewing most of the trouble. My friends, family and many common people, like us, often discuss how sad it is that we harbour an unnecessary hatred towards those who are fundamentally our own.”

She would nod in agreement and then laugh and say, “Your Bollywood movies have made me fall in love with dancing around trees.”

To which I would respond,” You have Fawad Khan!”

If only these were the kind of conflicts both India and Pakistan had to spar about…

I cherish those memories even today while day dreaming at the back of a taxi in Abu Dhabi, where I live today.

I am snapped out of my reverie by my taxi driver Ajmal Khan who asks me: “Madame, you are British?” (Something I get to hear a lot here, including all those who are fair-skinned)

I smile and reply in Hindi, “Hindustani hoon. Aur aap?”

After a shocked silence, he quips: “Pakistani. Ek hi baat hai na lekin?”

This is common in Abu Dhabi. Most of the taxi drivers are from India, or Pakistan. They are also the friendliest.

An appeal for Indo-Pak peace

Recently a video has gone viral on social media, stunning everyone who has watched it into introspective silence.

In the video, a young girl named Gurmehar Kaur from Jalandhar, Punjab — who lost her father at the tender age of 2 in the Kargil War — has implored the governments of both India and Pakistan to stop bloodshed and hatred-spreading one-upmanship and resolve problems once and for all.

Through a series of placards, Kaur conveys how she hated Pakistan and Muslims whom she blamed for her father’s loss. It was her mother who made her understand that it was not Pakistan that killed her father, but war.

I’m reminded of an incident that took place at my university one busy morning in 2008.

We were in the midst of our morning routine of rushing to get ready for class when we learnt that a Muslim student at one of the campuses of our university had been arrested for using the computers on the premises to research topics relating to terrorism and extremist outfits.

The boy was put behind bars for about a week, while investigations were carried out. He was later released after it became clear that he had downloaded the manual for a thesis he was writing for his course which had no connection with terrorism.

I remember how I feared for my own two Pakistani friends, even though the incident was far removed from them. The gravity of that situation brings me spiralling back to the flawed perception rife today of how terrorism is associated with Pakistan.

In equal measure, it is immensely unfortunate how religion becomes a tool for misuse. From the Muslim beef-lynchingepisode in India to the Hindutva hue and cry rampant today to the BJP’s insistence that Indians must shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as evidence of their patriotism, it is incidents like these which give birth to societies, governments and countries that may very well be on their way to full-fledged fascism.

Instead of this overt display of nationalism and hate, why can’t we reconcile our differences?

Isn’t it time we listen to Kaur and become ambassadors of peace ourselves?

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Pink is for girls and blue is for boys: Another stereotype for the bin

(Published in SheThePeople: http://shethepeople.tv/pink-is-for-girls-and-blue-is-for-boys-another-stereotype-for-the-bin/ )

Quite literally since we were born, our minds have been conditioned to absorb the many differences and stereotypes inherent in our societies today when it comes to gender.

If its a girl the room must be painted in pink, right from the onesies to the blankets to all the dresses and toys. Similarly if little Junior is on the way, his room must be painted a baby blue and wallpapers of fire trucks and cars must line the walls. If this continues, will we ever see the return of neutral colours?

I don’t yet have kids of my own but the closest kids to us (also literally as they are down the street from us) are my sister-in-laws two girls aged 7 and 3 – fast going on 17 and 13 respectively! Contrary to most young girls at that age, it isn’t barbie dolls and frilly dresses they have any interest in but rather racing cars, cricket and the colours black, red and green alternatively. In fact, the only ‘girly’ interests they have so far is in dance – ballet and bollywood to be precise. And of course, there was no escaping the ‘Frozen’ princesses stage.

Today themed birthday parties and celebrations for children have become commonplace with no holds barred on the decor and opulence at the event and no stones being left unturned to fulfil every fairytale their own princesses dream of and their little ‘Tarzans’ demand. Even today the boys will be found in a different part of the room having their own party on the side while the girls in their frocks and magic wands parade around the pink tiered cake and follow the belle of the ball around who has even been presented with a sparkling crown to set her aside from the rest. It is because of this blatant fine-tuning etched in their minds from day one that the idea of breaking away from convention and adopting hobbies and interests designed for the opposite sex only that frequently comes under the scanner today.

According to Lise Elliot, Author and Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, these gender-specific divides have adverse effects on developmental growth and aren’t always a good idea. Limiting boys and girls to that one colour, that one hobby or toy and also particular behavior limits their thinking, purview of knowledge and eventually even ambitions. Elliot suggests an interesting counter measure – to buy toys and play things that are deemed fit for the opposite sex by society today – like Legos and building blocks for girls to enhance mathematical intellect and a pet such as a dog for boys to teach them to be more nurturing and caring like their female counterparts.

My 3-year old niece today associates smoking, alcohol, snoring and even drinking coffee with men. “Papa is having coffee because he is a boy.” Because she doesn’t see any one else in their house having coffee. Her mum has tea so tea is automatically “for girls”. They internalize everything they see and hear right from when they are toddlers.

But isn’t it time we break them away from the metaphorical moulds of pink and blue we have sculplted them into and let them choose the colours and interests they want to pursue for themselves? Yes, it is true that the ‘ pink and blue’ colour spectrum makes it easy for new parents to plan and organise their pre-natal lives in ease but why can’t the walls be painted a yellow or a green? Why not neutral? Keeping it neutral teaches a child from day one that boys can like pink too, that girls can play with blue trucks and wear trousers without being scorned or bullied in school to stay within their ‘girly limits.’

What we don’t realise is the consequences this seemingly trivial talk of colour change can have on a child’s entire developmental growth, perception of the world and behavior towards others in every stage of life. The idea of girls liking pink or only dolls and frocks gives birth to the wrongful stereotypes of women being incapable of many other tasks and skills such as excelling in math, science in school. Many teachers even today prefer to turn a blind eye to a girls contribution to an intellectually demanding subject vis a vis that of a boy. Similarly, if a boy is found playing with a doll or a pair of high heels, for example, the parents themselves will rush to pull these ‘girly’ toys away from him and thrust the G.I Joes and superhero figures towards him faster than the blink of an eye. This boy will inadvertently grow up to be scornful and condescending of girls and their ‘silly pink play things.’

Our country today hosts many such examples today of men and women and their disposition towards each other due to the very limiting fabric of the foundation on which they have been brought up. Our womensports teams – be it cricket, hockey or any other sport get barely a passing mention in tabloids and the social media chatter today whereas the colour of Virat Kohlis eyes or how quickly Dhoni coloured his salt and pepper beard becomes front page news. Why? because women aren’t supposed to play a sport. It’s not a pink barbie doll. It’s a boy’s play thing. Those who do make it to the tabloids winning accolades in their fields like Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal work that much harder to earn that bit of respect whereas flick of the wrist and the ball over the ropes gets people talking about that male cricketer for weeks. And then theres those like Mary Kom with a passion for a purely ‘male’ sport like boxing who struggled from day 1 to get anywhere near where she is and that too a filmstar had to emulate her in a movie to really bring her in the limelight that ironically, Priyanka Chopra bagged more than the real superstar herself.

The story in the common man’s household is no different – rural or urban. Men are still being showered with more affection and importance and tasked with what they perceive as tasks within the capablities of men only while women are still pushed towards household chores and frivolous duties – even education for many rural households not an effort to be wasted on them. The problem is rooted much deeper spanning generations of poverty, lack of education and misogyny.

As Eliot observes, the most wecan really do is to try and level the field for both genders from day one. Let your daughter pick up a hockey stick. Let your son play house once in a while without rushing to ‘right’ this perceived wrong. The sooner we realise that there is no wrong in what a child wants to play with and the only wrong is our own in limiting their outreach, the sooner we see them grow into individuals who believe in the idea of equality.
Pink and blue aren’t the only colours in the spectrum. Teach them the beauty of each one.