The Other Half:Absurd Tales Print E-mail
Dear Ones,
Read on for Kalpana Sharma's moving tribute to the late Saneeya Hussain,and the word she created: absurdistan". In her feature, Kalpana cites recent absurdities in Pakistan and India, but as we are sadly aware the Absurdistans of the globe are not restricted to South Asia, and their victims are universally and overwhelmingly women and children.

Note too the photograph indicating that a female police officer assaulted Asma Jahangir via her neck and throat during the fundamentalist disruption of the May 14 "mixed marathon". Outrageous and highly dangerous! - Lynette

The Hindu Sunday Magazine - May 29 2005

Absurd tales
By Kalpana Sharma

The image of Saneeya Hussain constantly comes to mind when one reads about recent developments in Pakistan.

OBSTACLE RACE: Police stop a mini-marathon in Lahore. Asma Jehangir is second from left. PHOTO: REUTERS

A PAKISTANI friend recently suggested that her country's name should be changed to "Absurdistan". She was commenting on the state of affairs in Pakistan where women are being stopped from participating in a marathon. We have seen photographs in our papers of that feisty human rights campaigner, Asma Jehangir, defying the police and the mullahs by organising and participating in a symbolic protest marathon in Lahore.

The friend who made that comment is not around to see this absurd reaction of the Pakistani authorities to a public race and a peaceful protest. She died on April 20 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Saneeya Hussain was the kind of Pakistani woman who defied established norms but also set a standard that is an inspiration for people of any nationality. It is rare these days to find people who rise above national identities and are concerned about issues that are universal. It is even more unusual to come across people who have the courage of their convictions to take risks, go for new challenges at an age when most people expect them to "settle" down. Saneeya was just such a person. She stepped out of mainstream journalism at a point in her career where she would have made it to the top. She opted instead to join an organisation that trained and encouraged journalists to write on environmental issues. If there is a solid crop of good environmental journalists in Pakistan today, the credit for that goes largely to Saneeya Hussain.

Many accomplishments
This was only one of her many accomplishments. Saneeya worked with the communications team of the World Commission on Dams that surveyed the ecological and social challenges posed by large dams based in Cape Town, South Africa. From there she again moved to unfamiliar shores when she married Brazilian environmentalist Luis Ferraz and moved to Sao Paolo. Before she could settle in, she was lured into taking the job of executive director of Panos South Asia in Kathmandu, an organisation that works with the media on developmental issues, an area close to Saneeya's heart.

Asthma finally forced her leave Kathmandu and Nepal. Last year, Saneeya moved back to Brazil. She followed events in South Asia closely, hence her comment in March to a friend about Pakistan. But on April 7, the asthma that she had battled all her life finally got the better of her. After an unexpected and severe attack, she slipped into deep coma and on April 20 she slipped away. Her passing has revealed an extraordinary network of friends across the world who knew this remarkable woman for various periods of time and who had all been infected by her zest and commitment.

The image of this striking, tall woman, with flowing hair constantly comes to mind when one reads these recent developments in her country. Why should the State react in this extreme way to a peaceful protest by women and men to do something that is by no measure of the imagination illegal? The recent clash in Lahore was a fallout of the events that followed the decision of the Sports Board of Punjab to organise marathons in different cities of the State in anticipation of the Lahore Marathon scheduled for January 2006. What should have been a routine event, turned into a major battleground between clerics, who insist that women should not run on the streets, and people who thought this was their right. In Gujranwala, the marathon armed vigilantes hurled petrol bombs and attacked the participants. Although some of the miscreants were arrested, they were later released without being charged.

As a protest against this disruption, Asma Jehangir, former chair of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, and the Joint Action Committee for People's Rights decided to hold a symbolic marathon in Lahore on May 15. The distance that they planned to run was less than a kilometre. What followed defies all logic. The Punjab police first tried to stop the race from starting. Then they locked the gates of the stadium from where people were planning to run. They went further and surrounded the office of Asma Jehangir where many of the participants had gathered. When the women and men found another way out, the police, according to an eye-witness, "used batons/lathis, hit out, abused, dragged women by the hair, tore clothes (including Asma's saying they were assigned to do just that) and flung people into the standing police vans."

On May 21, the same group ran another marathon, once again defying the police. One salutes the courage of these women and men and their determination not to accept such brutal behaviour by the state.

In India
There are so many "absurdistans" in this country, too. In Mumbai, the manner in which the police disrupted a peaceful demonstration by thousands of dishoused slum dwellers last month is almost a carbon copy of what happened in Lahore. The demonstrators, rendered homeless by the State government's ruthless demolition drive at the end of last year, sat down on the road when they found they could not enter Azad Maidan, the designated place for all such demonstrations. Instead of finding a way to steer the crowd into the maidan, the police resorted to a brutal lathi charge in which dozens were injured, including a child who later died. When such force is used to suppress peaceful protest, is it not absurd?

Thank you, Saneeya, for giving us a word ­ "absurdistan" ­ that most aptly describes the state in both our countries.