Ayesha Omer is an artist and educator based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work addresses issues of public formation, social marginalization and art activism. Recently Misadventures connected with Ayesha, who shared perspectives on arts, education, politics, terrorism, feminism, and religion in Pakistan.
S: Ayesha, great to catch up with you. Could you share a bit about what you’ve been up to recently?
A: Sure. I teach cultural studies and arts politics to undergraduate arts students at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Cultural studies is like an introductory level course, basically introducing tools to study culture. Arts politics is a lot more complicated. It’s something that I learned of course when I was at NYU [Ayesha studied Art and Public Policy at NYU Tisch School of the Arts]. The course is really about looking at arts systems, so looking at the art world critically, institutions within the art world, and analyzing what role those institutional policies and values play in the art-making process…not just art-making but also art distribution and art reception, and understanding how artists can influence, challenge, or question those systems or subvert those systems. That’s what the overall course is designed to explore. It’s a lot of fun for me to teach because it’s so…badass, you know? But it’s also very theoretical. The most interesting part about the course is that students go out and they do political arts, so they do graffiti or they do performances at the sea, or they have online cultural campaigns. That’s something that typically art schools don’t emphasize–these alternative art practices, and I find that my role at this institution is one that brings the alternative art practices into mainstream discussions and deliberations on art in Pakistan.
S: Do you see a transformation in your students’ engagement with larger civil society or with politics through art?
A: Yeah, I do. The thing is, the students are also artists. So on some level they’ve already made the decision that art is important in society and art is important to them. But often art institutions are typically structured in ways that focus on producing products that are commercially viable, so often even if an art institution claims to uphold values of social responsibility and social engagement, within their teaching or curriculum, those values are not practically implemented. I think when the students go through my course, not because of me but because of the course, they find it interesting. And some of them feel that it is very challenging because it goes against what they’ve been taught for 3 or 4 years that they’ve been at the institution. I do often get them thinking, which is the most I think one can hope for. I love teaching and connecting with young people, helping them discover their stories and their journeys, and also simultaneously discovering mine. It’s such an exchange.
S: Do young people have a real sense of enthusiasm about social movements and social change?
A: They do. In fact, last year we had elections in Pakistan, and about 60% of the people came out to vote, which is a historic figure. A lot of that voter turnout was due to the increasingly mobilized, politically-mobilized youth of Pakistan. A lot of young people have a lot of hope. I think consequently they’ve been upset and disappointed because of the lack of deliverance from politicians, even though they came out to vote for those people in power. I think that the problem with artists, especially young artists, is how do you navigate this very tricky world system, where you have to sell in order to make money. And our practices that I teach are not geared towards selling products or selling art, but more geared towards engaging social issues and having a direct relationship with them, a very personal, embodied relationship with those social issues. I think art can do that. Art is incredibly suited to intimately explore, and in some ways embody, issues of social injustice and marginalization. I think that’s special to the arts.
S: Could you tell me about your latest writing and research?
A: So, I researched these protests against these terrorist attacks that took place in Quetta, Pakistan early last year in January 2013. Quetta belongs to a region of Pakistan which borders Iran. The region is called Belochistan, and there’s an insurgency movement happening there. So, in Quetta, there’s also this small Hazara community that actually immigrated from Afghanistan. They’ve basically had two to three generations of Hazaras, so the first Hazaras came to Pakistan in the early 40s, when it was still India, before it was partitioned. The Hazaras are Shia. Over the last 10 years there’s been a wave of targeted killings by Sunni extremist groups that initially had links to the Afghan Taliban and later the Pakistani Taliban. So last year, the 10th of January 2013, there were two twin bomb blasts in Quetta, and more than one hundred Hazaras were killed in those bomb blasts. What their families did is they refused to bury their dead. They said, we will not bury these bodies. We’re sick of burying so many bodies for several years. So they sat out with the dead bodies in protest, with freezing temperatures. The protests were started by women, and what happened was that in solidarity, in other parts of Pakistan, people stayed similarly occupied in protest. They occupied street squares, major traffic junctions, spaces in front of politicians’ houses, various spaces. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, all the major roads were blocked because there were so many protests. One couldn’t actually get out, and couldn’t travel across Pakistan because of these protests. Consequently, there were similar solidarity protests in 22 major cities around the world. What started off in this really impoverished neighborhood in Quetta, Belochistan became an international solidarity movement. It went on for four days, until leaders of the protest negotiated with the government. The gov’t met most of the demands of the protestors, and then they buried their dead. So last year I was here in Karachi, and when the protests were going on, I participated in some. But I became really moved by this form of protesting…what would drive somebody to not restore the natural order, which is, somebody dies and you bury them or you cremate them, or whatever it is. The point is that dead bodies are never present in the alive world.
So I started researching this form of protest, and I went to Quetta later on, and when I was there, there was a bomb scare, and I thought I was going to die, you know. But I was interviewing all these women and men, and in their stories I realized that often when you talk about terrorism, or when political scientists or cultural anthropologists talk about terrorism, they never talk about what terrorism does to the people who live with those memories of the dead. When I was talking to these women and children, and husbands and wives, I realized that a lot of scholarship is just disembodied. They think of it as in geopolitics, but they don’t think of terrorism through a study of the body. The fact is that people found their loved ones in horrible states. I don’t want to gross you out or give you all these gory details, but nothing really prepares you for it…the kind of dismemberment of the body. What happens in bomb blasts…nobody talks about the visuals, right? For instance, there was one story where no body was found because it was too close to the center of the bomb blast. All they found was one shoe, and that’s what’s in the grave. So these stories, when I heard them, I was completely unable to talk for two weeks after. It was just…unbearable, and extremely difficult to process. But then I started writing, and I realized that that’s what I want to do. I want to explore issues of terrorism, violence, and social resistance, because a lot of these people I interviewed were protestors, they started the protests. They sat there with the dead bodies. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever sat next to a dead body, but it’s difficult to keep sitting. If that’s your loved one, and they’re dead, you don’t want to see them…it’s excruciating, and it’s an incredible act of tolerance, and love, and patience to keep sitting and protest, because so much of you wonders, Why? Why did this happen? How is it that they’re not…you can’t even recognize them. Some of them weren’t even allowed to see their loved ones because they were in such bad condition. I think that these stories need to be studied because they hold questions and answers to issues of terrorism that are never explored in theoretical scholarship. So the paper that I’ve written is an attempt to explain my experience of the protest, and my analysis of those stories.
Ayesha Omer, ‘Sit-ins with the Dead: Hazara protests in Pakistan’ in Indus: A Journal of Art, Culture & Design. Edited by Framji Minwala & Gemma Sharpe, (Forthcoming February 2014).
“In the words of the art student from Quetta Sketch Club, an ethno-sectarian genocide is an ‘abnormal condition’, whereby the dominant religious, socio-political discourses that regulate the performance of everyday lived experience are rendered insignificant. When Hazaras refused to bury their dead and appealed for the protection of their (Shia) identity—and by extension the same Shariah that calls for an immediate burial of the deceased body—they felt no dissonance between action and doctrine. In fact, their action (contrary to the doctrine) was aimed at restoring the everyday lived experience, upon which doctrine would resume application. Radical protest was a way of reinstating stability—perhaps the only way left. The body had to be staged in disruptive ways, against normative behavioral and religious conditions, only to normalize the very conditions that produced its abnormality. This defiance of the normative and enactment of its alternative, demonstrates an agency that takes its occasion from the violent decimation of the body. In other words, the body subjected to violence is also the site of an emergent agency with potential to resist its violence.” (page 7)
S: Wow. I feel like for most Westerners, we’re completely disconnected from the embodied experience of terrorism, the reality that so many people live with every day and the incredible resilience they have.
S: What about the state of women in the country? The most widespread thing we’ve probably heard in the news is about Malala Yousufzai, her quest to put a spotlight on girls’ education, but what else should we all know about?
A: It’s interesting because there are so many ways of looking at this. I’ve actually come across third world feminist theory, which talks about how a lot of feminism has its roots in a very Western context, so when you apply it to the East, in some ways it will obviously not fit. Because in the Eastern context, even “Eastern” is strange because the East is made up of so many regions and histories, but the fact is that Western ideals of feminism are not always complementary towards non-Western traditions and women’s experiences. And initially I came back to Pakistan, and in the art school where I teach, 70% of the students are girls, and each one has a different sense of agency, and a different mission, and a different agenda or motivation for why they’re doing art, and what it means for them to be a woman in this society. What I’ve discovered is that a lot of the feminist movement here in Pakistan is classist; it emerges from a particular elite class, and often it serves the interests of the elite class. So there is that critique of feminism in Pakistan. The stories that you hear or that are perpetuated in global media are particularly framed in the context of these oppressed, poor women who need men to save themselves or, incidentally, global actors to save them, and that’s not true. If anything, women, especially women who belong to lower class or lower-middle or middle class, are extremely hard-working. Even in contexts where they don’t have power, they exercise their agency in ways that they’re able to still get what they want. Even if a woman experiences domestic abuse, she also has moments in her marriage or in her domestic experience where she is in control or in power, and those moments are never spoken about.
There are so many women’s stories that are coming to my mind, but in Karachi, I’m going to give you a statistic, I’m not going to give you stories because there are so many. There are about 50% more women in schools right now than there were ten years ago in Karachi. What that means is that these women have chosen higher education, so they’ve also chosen to either delay their marriage, or, if they get married, then they’ve chosen that they will fight their way to get educated. But what that means is, statistically speaking, in the next twenty years there will be more women who are in blue collar jobs, and they will be marrying later, and in some cases they will be looking for equally educated men to marry. So it’s going to shift, the fact that there are 50% more women in higher education in Karachi, that’s going to shift the way children are going to be born, and it’s going to change gender dynamics, of this city particularly. The women who are also in rural areas are working very hard. The problem is that the domestic domain is the woman’s domain, historically and culturally speaking. The non-domestic domain, which is the workspace and, in some ways, communal spaces, that’s man’s domain. And I think that the domestic domain is very important, simply because it produces the next generation, it’s where income is brought…there are all these things that a woman has control over, and that control is never really spoken to in a context or in theories that are Western. There are women who are entering sports, most of the engineering and medical students in Pakistan are women now. It’s dramatically shifted the way higher education and jobs in professional fields will be filled up. So things are actually shifting very rapidly in Pakistan in terms of women’s issues. In terms of girls’ schools, Malala is right, there are about 50% fewer schools for girls than for boys. That’s a huge disadvantage for girls’ literacy and girls’ education. But I believe things are changing, as well. More and more children are going to school, and more and more girls are going to school, as well. That doesn’t mean that things are all bright and looking up.
The only other thing I would say is that in terms of poverty, because the economy has basically crashed in Pakistan, most of the fallout on that is always on women. It is a patriarchal society, so nourishment of boys and men is given more attention, and often the woman gets less, gets the least of those resources. Something that a lot of womens’ rights activists have been working towards is enabling at-risk communities of women to get micro-finance or other income opportunities. The fact is that a failing economy doesn’t really help women’s rights, even though there are more girls in schools and more women being educated.
S: I’m curious about the religious complexity and its involvement in social change…
A: So let’s talk about women’s issues from that perspective–the really interesting thing that’s happened is that there has been this Islamo-feminist movement, which is bizarre, if you think about it, because there are these women who are in their in burkas and they feel like they have every right to practice their religion the way they want to practice it, and whether a man agrees or not, they can get a divorce if they need to in order to practice their religion, because that is the most important thing. So there are these reformist, modernist, or post-modern reformist women’s movements in Islam. I was actually involved with one of them for a brief few months, and the really interesting thing for me was, here’s this group of women, and there’s a certain class of women that are a part of this, it’s the upper class mostly or the English-speaking, university or degree holders who are a part of it. Their Western education has given them these ideals of equality and independent, critical thinking that they can now use to pursue God in a way that their cultural, social, and gender norms don’t really conform to. In a social norm, a women would be looked down upon if she took a divorce from her husband, but in the context of this movement, it’s perfectly ok if you take a divorce if your husband is not letting you practice religion the way you want. It’s also perfectly normal for a woman in this movement to take out time that they need in order to pursue Islamic education. Whereas the social norm would say something like, well, yeah you don’t need to get Islamic education, you need to take care of your children first, and once they’re grown up you can pursue Islamic education, but that should not be your priority. That’s what really interesting: there’s been this modernist, feminist movement within Islam. I actually got out of it because it’s so centered on a particular kind of Islamic discourse that I don’t particularly agree with. This movement, which started as an elitist movement, is now trying to develop grassroots operations, so a lot of middle class women are also now exposed to this ideology. I think it’s going to be interesting how modernist Islamist influences on gender relations will pan out in the next twenty years or so in Pakistan.
Recently I discovered that there about a hundred or a few hundred women who have now been trained as suicide bombers. You don’t expect women who are oppressed to…you might expect them to be submissive and never participate, but this is ridiculous in some ways, because….Why is it that so many women are so militant? They’ve been militarized and radicalized to blow themselves up. That is something that is a different kind of agency and taking over your beliefs to an extent that you would end your life and hundreds of other lives with you.
[sirens in the background…]
You can probably hear all kind of background noises…it’s just, do you know Karachi is the world’s fastest growing city? The second fastest growing city is Mexico City, and Karachi is growing at a rate double that of Mexico. Yeah, it’s ridiculous.
S: What’s causing it to grow so fast?
A: A lot of people are moving here because there’s income, there’s money to be made. Urbanization is really what’s happening. There are a lot of people…the Afghan refugees, the refugees from Swat, from Malala’s area…the war refugees, first from the Soviet-Afghan war, and the second wave has been from the current War on Terror, so there have been lots of refugees that have come in, lots of migrants from other parts of Pakistan. There has been tremendous documentation of human rights abuses of refugees, particularly of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Karachi is actually divided according to ethnic populations, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen in Karachi, because that means there are all these territories that are now marked according to ethnic population. And Pakistan, for those who don’t know, is extremely diverse ethnically. What’s happened is that these populations have been divided ethnically, and in the absence of good governance, within each ethnic population there is some kind of participation in mafias or gangs. There are lots of gangs in Karachi that actually have affiliation with the political parties in the city. So that means that they get away with everything. There has been a recent wave of violence in Karachi. What’s happened additionally now is that the Taliban have come in. Previously they were up north, and now in the twelve or so years since 9/11, they’ve moved south to Karachi, and they’ve actually now started occupying, and by occupying I mean they’re killing people and making them run away from those areas, and occupying the outskirts of the city. And that’s extremely dangerous because first of all, they have all these weapons and a lot of money. They’re very systematic and strategic in terms of their occupation. And second, if they occupy the outskirts it’s one way of getting into the city–you control everything that comes in and out, and that’s very dangerous. So the dynamics of the city are also changing rapidly, and now there is dialogue happening with the Taliban. I don’t really know whether I agree with that or not, because I’ve always been like, “Yeah, dialogue is the best way forward.” But my research in Quetta, and then recently a lot of my colleagues have lost friends in those parts of the city, so with the recent experience of violence, I feel very nervous about thinking that dialogue can happen with such an organization.
…I think that despite the ominous signs, there’s also some really interesting work happening in terms of art projects, civil society work, and activism. Then you think of these protests that happened here, and for the first time so many people came out, whether Sunni or Shia or Hindu or Christian, they came out and they participated, and it was remarkable. It was a remarkable act of solidarity. So there’s a lot of hope, as well, despite signs of a looming threat of more violence. There are Pakistanis who are very active on social media, there’s lots of activism, there’s a lot of hope from young people. I know growing up before 9/11, and there are children who are just now growing up and that’s all they’ve seen. But I hope they will see something beyond 9/11, too. Although the repercussions of the War on Terror are going to haunt everybody, all over the world perhaps, for several years to come. And my biggest critique when people talk about terrorism is that they don’t talk about what terrorism means in terms of these localized, organized terrorist groups, these outfits that have mushroomed over the last five years. You have around 50 types of Taliban in Pakistan. It’s a ridiculous number. And they all have their ideological differences. They’re ideological, organized, strategic, funded organizations. They’re not a bunch of guerrillas running around with guns. Extremely organized. And I think that a lot of these formations of terrorism are never really considered or talked about. They just think about the U.S. in Afghanistan, and drone strikes as the War on Terror, but it isn’t. It means so many more things to people.
S: In the U.S. there has been growing opposition to drone strikes…what is the sense in Pakistan?
A: The thing with drone strikes is that people are actually very divided about it. Lots of people say, Yes, Pakistan’s sovereignty is threatened. It takes innocent lives. It radicalizes people, makes them turn to the Taliban. That’s the majority sentiment: anti-drone strikes. But there’s also a growing number of people who support them, who say, these people need to be taken out, and the Taliban needs to be taken out. It seems like drone strikes work. Although, there is debate and evidence. A report released by NYU and Stanford studied whether they are actually effective in terms of containing terrorism, and they found that drone strikes are counter-effective. But I think the people are becoming increasingly frustrated with the Taliban. So many people have seen so much. If you have a terrorist bomb blast every day, it becomes part of your everyday experience. You see images from there, you have the same kind of panic, it becomes your social psyche. So I think there’s been a lot of need for this to end, in some ways a desperation. I think the government acknowledges this and they realize it’s very difficult to control this mushrooming of these radical terrorist groups. They believe that a dialogue would change things. But yeah, I’m not pro-drone strikes but I’m also not in favor of the dialogue. I don’t know what it will achieve, what the parameters are, what’s being discussed, if weapons, geopolitics, Saudi Arabia and Iran are discussed.
Because Saudi Arabia has sent in all this money for these schools and books to be delivered, and it’s extremely messy what they’ve done to Pakistan, these religious madrassas they’re funding. The money started coming in in the early ‘80s, soon after the Arab-Israeli War. The money started coming in before the Afghan-Soviet war. It’s been two to three decades now, and a particular branch of Islam called Wahhabi Islam, which is extremist, is being taught. The Saudis have also been really involved in the politics in this country. Incidentally, the Saudis started giving money at the time when Khameini became the Supreme Ayatollah in Iran. At that time, the Shias in Iran were sending their scholars and opening up Shia madrassas in Pakistan. Saudis were sending their money to open up Wahhabi madrassas in Pakistan, so it’s complicated.
S: Is there hope that more moderate Islamic groups might interact in a way that’s helpful with more extremist groups? Interreligious dialogue?
A: There isn’t much. In fact, the problem is that within these groups, especially with these women’s groups, their agenda is simply to grow and recruit more members and sustain themselves. Prior to the British taking over India, there wasn’t really any kind of religious classification…nobody was really called a Hindu. That term actually came in when the British wanted to identify this group of people that seemed to belong to the same faith. What’s really interesting is that still in Pakistan today you have these alternative religious taxonomies, these alternative classifications of religious practices, where Hindus and Muslims and Christians practice the same religious ritual. You have these subcultures, for example these Sufi shrines where Hindus and Christians and Muslims and Shias and Sunni, they all come, and the women are in the same area as men, and they’re all worshipping. Even in a country as tormented by religious extremism as Pakistan, you have the existence of these incredible alternative religious taxonomies and practices, where groups of people worship and share the same religious practice. I guess one of the reasons why there has been such a strong Saudi or Shia motivation to produce this particular kind of Muslim population in Pakistan is, first, geopolitics: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni leader vs. the Shia leader in the Muslim world, but also because so much of Pakistan practices a kind of Islam that is extremely tolerant. Still there are remnants of an incredible interreligious social experience that does not conform to the Saudi-inspired or Irani-inspired religious doctrine.