Before Sanna Marin came Benazir Bhutto

On December 10, Finland’s left-wing Social Democrats, who lead a five-party coalition government, picked 34-year-old Minister of Transport and Communications Sanna Marin as the country’s new prime minister.

The decision made the relatively unknown politician an international celebrity overnight – after all it is not every day that a woman as young as Marin gets the chance to lead a country. Countless articles and news reports published and broadcast across the world celebrated her sudden rise to power as a “feminist victory” and praised Finland for its “progressiveness”.

Marin’s premiership has clearly been perceived by many in Finland and beyond as a manifestation of Nordic gender equality. But is Finland really that unique for having a young, female leader? And more importantly, is having a woman leader definitive proof that a country reached gender equality?

According to this measure, Pakistan, a country often branded “deeply conservative” and “patriarchal” and even considered one of the most dangerous in the world for women, for example, was seemingly as progressive as Finland over 30 years ago when Pakistanis elected a 35-year-old woman, Benazir Bhutto, as their prime minister.

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The Reluctant Propagandist

It’s 7 a.m. in Kabul. As usual, hundreds of thousands of cars are stuck in traffic jams around the city, where police checkpoints, Humvees, and blast walls congest the perilous streets. Taxi drivers in faded yellow Corollas roll up their windows and try to shoo off street children blowing heady incense — meant to ward off evil spirits — inside their cars. Policemen yell “boro, boro” (move) through the loudspeakers of their dark-green pickups. Fruit sellers calmly navigate the madness, pushing heavy carts laden with dark-red pomegranates, juicy grapes, and Pakistani mangoes while dust lingers in the air behind them.

Here, nothing is ever certain: Any minute, a bomb could go off, destroying families, livelihoods, and hopes.

But in this chaos, one thing is a constant: the energetic voice of Massood Sanjer, one of the hosts of a popular morning show called Safay Shaher (or “Cleaning Up the City”) on Arman FM, the country’s first private radio channel. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, his show is undoubtedly one of the most widely listened-to in Afghanistan.

“If you walk on the street between seven to eight, you just open a car’s door and you can listen to it,” Sanjer says.

Almost everyone tunes in while commuting to work, getting through their morning chores, or standing in line in front of a bakery.

Over the past decade, Sanjer has become a celebrity in Afghan media. His ability to find humor in serious matters brings relief to Afghans who have suffered from war for four long decades now — starting with the Soviet invasion in the late ’70s, civil war and Taliban rule in the ’90s, and the past 18 years of increasingly worsening conflict between terrorist groups and Western-supported Afghan government forces. But more importantly, the fact that the show holds the country’s leaders to account for their incompetencies and apathy has given a sense of power to regular people in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Every day, people from all over the country call in with their complaints about the security situation, lack of electricity, or any other issue they might be facing. Sanjer then calls the responsible authorities and questions them live on-air.

He is not even afraid to make fun of the Taliban:

“The Taliban had blown up the electricity [line] that brings it to Kabul. So we said, ‘Who paid you? Was it someone from outside of the border?’ Stuff like this. It’s very sensitive for Afghans if you make fun of them,” Sanjer says, sitting in his office.

The callers also join the fun, but sometimes they can get a bit carried away, which is why there is a 40-second delay in place. “Someone called a spokesperson a shit-talker,” he laughs.

This didn’t make it on-air.

In Afghanistan, radio is still widely listened to, and especially in rural areas it is the main source of news. Arman FM, whose name is Persian for “hope,” was launched in 2003, two years after the end of Taliban rule, and it is now one of the most popular stations, particularly in the country’s cities.

“We are the last door that people can knock,” Sanjer says with a relaxed smile on his face.

He is a voice for the powerless who would otherwise have little hope in getting their complaints across to the authorities.

But as famous as he is today, not everyone is aware of Sanjer’s past, of a time when he used to lend his voice to none other than the most deadly enemies of freedom of speech in Afghanistan today: the Taliban.

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Pashtun pop is giving hope to Pakistan’s largest minority

Late at night at an overbooked venue in the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan, a young audience dances wildly to the beat of a Peshawar-based instrumental band. Some seem to have fallen into a trance while others clap and whistle enthusiastically. On stage, guitarist Aamer Shafiq spins his head as the song keeps picking up its pace. If it wasn’t for the Western attire of the audience, the concert could almost resemble an ecstatic Sufi ceremony. The band Khumariyaan’s music is a combination of the rubab, a traditional lute-like instrument indigenous to Central Asia, and guitars, creating an intoxicating, fast-paced fusion of the East and the West.

Not too long ago, all of this would have been unimaginable Peshawar. The Pashto language music scene in the city was almost nonexistent, and the Taliban had banned music for  many areas, forcing traditional musicians to flee the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The rest of the country listened to mostly Bollywood and Urdu language songs, showing little interest in this region.

Enter Khumariyaan. Their blend of contemporary music with traditional Pashtun influences has taken Pakistan by storm in recent months, giving hope to the youth from the country’s marginalised and militancy-hit northwest.

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In Pakistan, attacks on polio workers stop vaccination drive

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — It is early morning in the month of Ramadan, and Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital in Pakistan is packed with patients. Rainaz has come back here with her mother-in-law and 1.5-year-old son Muhammad Ali, who she believes is still suffering from adverse effects of a polio vaccine he received weeks ago.

“As soon as he was vaccinated, the diarrhea started,” said the mother of three, who withheld her full name for safety reasons.

Muhammad Ali was one of the over 25,000 children brought into hospitals all over the conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on April 22, as mass panic spread following rumors on local news channels that children had fallen ill after receiving polio drops. Like the other children, he was sent home because the condition wasn’t serious and couldn’t be linked to the vaccine.

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‘China is after us’: Uighurs in Pakistan report intimidation

Rawalpindi, Pakistan – On a cold winter evening, Mohammad Hassan Abdul Hameed, 34, walks towards his restaurant, past silk stores in the busy China Market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. 

He, like many others here, belongs to the persecuted Uighur community from the Xinjiang province ofChina. 

Abdul Hameed’s father arrived in Rawalpindi 50 years ago to work in a pilgrims’ guesthouse intended for Uighurs heading to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj. 

Today, the guesthouse sits abandoned in the market, not far from Abdul Hameed’s restaurant. 

According to members of the community, it was closed down at the request of China in 2006.

Uighurs have been migrating to Pakistan since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some to work as traders and others escaping communist persecution. 

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Today, China’s brutal crackdown on the community has made headlines around the world as up to three million Uighurs are believed to be held in so-called “re-education camps” where they are made to renounce Islam.

How a rugby union is helping young women get jobs and gain self-confidence

At a rugby ground in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, a group of young women dressed in green shirts that read “Pakistan rugby” are practicing tackling. They tumble to the ground, not afraid of getting hurt. These are not just any players: They belong to the national women’s rugby team of Pakistan, and recently they returned from Brunei, where they played in the Asian Sevens tournament.

Women in Pakistan are still often judged by society when they choose to take up sports. This is especially true when it comes to rugby, a contact sport that’s considered manly, even though it remains largely unknown in Pakistan, where cricket and hockey rule. But the sport is gaining more visibility after these young women received a great deal of media attention in 2017, when they represented Pakistan internationally for the first time.

What most people don’t know is that the majority of these young women are from low-income families, and their sports careers have transformed their lives.

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In Pakistan’s emerging MMA scene, a woman among men rises

Just four months ago, Anita Karim, 22, stepped into a fighting ring for the first time in her life in Singapore. She is all of 5 feet tall and 114 pounds. She stood across from a female opponent from New Zealand who was far more experienced than her. Because of her nervousness, she says, she lost the match. But just the fact that she took part in a tournament at international level is a tremendous achievement for Anita — she is Pakistan’s first and only professional female Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter.

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In Pakistan, she sees the value in children who ‘are never seen or heard’

On the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, there is a neighborhood a world away from the luxury cars, private schools, and orderly streets in the capital. Here, around a Sufi shrine called Bari Imam, mud-brick houses line the dirt roads, little boys with dirty faces offer to wash cars for less than a dollar, and girls in torn dupattas, long scarves, try to sell flowers to people who come to pray at the shrine.

But not far from the shrine is a school that provides education and solace to these street children, who otherwise would face abuse by gangs that operate in the area. Zeba Husain, the founder of Mashal School, is greeted enthusiastically by the students as she walks in the gates with a smile. There is a never-ending flow of people to her office – mothers, volunteers from the country’s top colleges, and private donors with their checkbooks.

Ms. Husain is clearly loved in the community. And yet her life has been an uphill struggle. Getting her initiative to where it is today – with close to 1,000 students, four branches around the capital, and 790 former students mainstreamed into the government school system – has not been easy. “I started with just two children 10 years ago,” says Husain, who is in her 50s now.

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Kulsoom Nawaz: first lady who navigated Pakistan’s political dramas with three-times PM Nawaz Sharif

Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, was an exceptional first lady by any yardstick. Highly educated, she exerted a formidable influence on her husband and his party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was elected for three non-consecutive terms.

In the last few months of her life, however, Nawaz, who was mostly unconscious in hospital in London, was left wondering where her husband and daughter Maryam were.

The former first lady of Pakistan did not know that since July they had been in Pakistan, having been served 11-year and eight-year jail terms respectively on corruption charges – sentences that were suspended shortly after her death.

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Pinkit rikšat ovat Pakistanin naisille menopeli itsenäisyyteen: ”Köyhät naiset muuttuvat teiden sotureiksi”

Monsuunisateet ovat saaneet Pakistanin toiseksi suurimman kaupungin Lahoren kadut tulvimaan, mutta edes pieni vedenpaisumus ei saa kaoottisia katuja hiljenemään. Päinvastoin: autojen tyyttäily, myyjien huudot ja liikenteen melu saavat aikaan huumaavan mekkalan, jossa heikompia alkaa hirvittää. Rautatiesillan alla parturi on pystyttänyt keskelle liikennettä tuolin ja sutii partavaahtoa miesten kuontaloihin niin kuin ympärillä ei tapahtuisi mitään. Mutta pian eriskummallinen näky saa kaikki jähmettymään hetkeksi.

Ansa Noreen, 40, viilettää tottuneesti huivi päässään hämmästyneiden miesten ohi vaaleanpunaisessa autorikšassa nuori naismatkustaja kyydissä. Miehet eivät ilmeisesti ole koskaan ennen nähneet naista rikšan puikoissa.

Värikkäät kolmipyöräiset rikšat, jotka Kaakkois-Aasiassa tunnetaan nimellä tuktuk, ovat tuttu näky yli kuuden miljoonan asukkaan kaupungin kaduilla, mutta niitä ovat viime vuosiin asti kuljettaneet ainoastaan miehet.

Naisten on usein hankala käyttää kulkuvälineitä vielä suurilta osin vanhoillisessa Pakistanissa. Häirinnän pelko vaikeuttaa heidän töissä käyntiään: busseissa on miehiä ja pysäkeiltä joutuu kävelemään yksin kotiin. Taksit ovat liian kalliita päivittäiseen käyttöön köyhemmälle luokalle – ja niissäkin on melkein aina mieskuskeja.

Tästä Zar Aslam, Pinkin Rikšan perustaja, sai idean.

Lue koko juttu täältä.