By Kahar Zalmay
January 17, 2012
When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. (African proverb)
Down with America. America is conspiring against our nuclear programme. America wants to disintegrate Pakistan. America is aligned with our mortal enemies, India and Israel, and wants to weaken us resulting in the weakness of the Islamic world. This is what you hear everywhere in Pakistan, from public rallies of politico-religious parties to talk shows on cable TV networks and newspaper headlines. But very deep down, the feeling is different.
Hamida Bibi, Nasim Javed and Tahira Sultana live in Kalabagh, a town located on the western bank of the Indus River in Mianwali district in the Punjab province. They have learned tailoring and embroidery work in a project run by USAID in partnership with AHAN, an initiative of the Punjab government that provides support to poor artisans.
“What we want is moral and financial support to be productive citizens of this country. But look who came to our help when we needed it, who changed our life, who gave us exposure to the outside world, who extended help and took us out from the well where we had been languishing like frogs; not some politicians, not some mullahs, not some military generals, but USAID; with the tax money of American people,” Tahira Sultana, 26, with an average height, but the smartest and wittiest of the three, said in an emotional tone looking me into my eyes.
“Pakistan cannot afford that half of its population is dependent on the other half. The project has given us hope and strength that we can change our lives and contribute to our families. What we want from our government and donors is to give us tailoring machines and access to our products in the bigger lucrative markets of Pakistan,” said Nasim Javed, 32, and the mother of three, who seemed very excited about her work and the future prospects.
The USAID project is helping micro-entrepreneurs develop better products, learn new skills, and access more lucrative markets. The project provides emergency grants to people affected by conflict and natural disasters, especially if they are women or women-headed households. The project is linking 75,000, mostly women micro-entrepreneurs in embellished fabric, dairy, honey, and medicinal and aromatic plants industries, to more profitable markets nationwide.
The funding for the project goes through the people-to-people diplomacy under the Kerry-Lugar bill, which was voted into law in 2009. The $550 million in funding goes to government-conducted projects, as well as NGOs and the private sector. The bill allocates $1.5bn a year over five years in aid money to Pakistan. The opponents of the bill, especially the army, played politics behind and took a different view as it believed that some of its clauses posed a threat to Pakistan’s security and expressed its reservations through the media.
Recent political-cum-emotional outbursts of PML-N leadership about cutting US aid, while totally ignoring its practical complexities is impacting common people’s lives. “They want to play politics in everything. They don’t care about us but to please their middle class cable TV debates viewers,” said Nasim Javid, 32, a mother of three.
But only 17% of Pakistanis have a positive view of the US, according to different polls, despite over $18 billion in aid given to Pakistan since 9/11, I said. “Well the simple reason is that much of the money has been given to the military and little has reached to the common people,” said Tahira Sultana, whose favourite politician is Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Hamida, 25, the sole bread earner of her family after the demise of her father was a quiet person and spoke very little. When I asked her how had the project changed her life, she said that though she was earning a meager amount from the tailoring and embroidery work, but she feels very valuable and productive. She thinks if they were given machines for sewing, they would be able to make more dresses and thus more money for their families.
We are living in a tribal society in Kalabagh. The birth of a female child is considered a curse for the family and is not even felicitated. There is nothing for us, no entertainment, no parks, and our only luxury is that we wait for a marriage ceremony to meet our relatives and dance. Our work is kind of an entertainment for us as it gives us an opportunity to come out of our houses and meet our friends. We love to watch Indian soap operas, but when our men come, they switch to news channels irrespective of our choice, but one thing we are happy about is that mullahs are banned to deliver their sermons on loudspeaker as the sermons are mostly against women, laughed Tahira joined by Nasim Javed. Both of them could not study beyond intermediate for want of resources.
But what about your men, what they think about America, I asked. They possess anti-America and anti-India sentiments because they watch talk shows on TV. The hatred for the two countries could be found only in the news and talk shows, or in the rallies of politico-religious parties, they said seeming unanimous on this point.
To them, the political class of Pakistan is a hopeless mess. But what about Imran Khan who belongs to the same district and who is considered a harbinger of change, I asked. “He is a beardless mullah and his message of change is mere fiery political rhetoric,” said Sultana.
Like many people in Pakistan, the three ladies also looked convinced that our intelligence agencies promote anti-American sentiments. “Our agencies want to use our shoulders to bargain for their own interests. We are poor people and we need money wherever it comes from to feed our families,” adds Tahira Sultana, whose considerable political awareness was impressive.
You have seen our town and the nauseating poverty there. I am not saying that the meager amount we make preparing the dresses has changed our world, but we feel proud that we were selected for the project. We have around 20 women in the group and all are very happy. But have you come across any antagonistic elements while working on the project, I asked. As my friend said earlier, the poor people want help and they don’t want to indulge in any form of politics, Nasim said.
We want improvement in national curriculum and the hate material should be expunged from it. We love our religion but it does not mean it should be made part of everything, even mathematical studies. The message in our course books should be of love and respect and the state needs not teach people who to hate and otherwise, said Nasim Javed, who looked concerned about her children’s education.
What you would say to President Obama if he were sitting here in my place in Kalabagh, I asked. We have three different messages for the American President Barack Obama: First that we are common people like the majority of your people, having the same aspirations and dreams like them, and we appreciate that with the tax money of the American people, the lives of many have been transformed in Pakistan, second, the common people in Pakistan should experience American assistance on the ground, third, the Americans should leave us alone and pull its forces from Afghanistan, as their presence is causing us troubles in terms of law and order in Pakistan, they said.
If we could understand this reality, why not the over-educated TV talk show hosts and people in the urban centers that America is not our enemy, we are our own worst enemy. We are at war with ourselves. It’s high time for introspection, said Tahira Sultana.
Source: The Daily Times, Lahore