Posts Tagged ‘CBC’

Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Even before I watched this recent documentary, aired on CBC Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye on March 30th, by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy I knew it was going to be hard to watch. And I was right.

The film, entitled Pakistan’s Taliban Generation, follows Obaid-Chinoy as she tries to find how strong and influential the Taliban really are in Pakistan. In recent days Pakistan has experienced a great deal of terrorist violence, including in the relatively peaceful and safe city of Lahore. In her quest Obaid-Chinoy spends most of the time in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where Pakistan’s Taliban are located.  She talks to Pashtun teenage boys and young girls, as well as Pashtun families to find out how they are dealing with the increasing power of the Taliban in their region.

Before watching the film I did not know what to expect except that I knew it would renew my own worries about the country which gives me a part of my own identity. I am of Pakistani origin and, although I identify as Punjabi, I also have some roots in the NWFP. It is a culture with which I am familiar, for better or for worse. And perhaps it is this familiarity with not only the culture of the NWFP, but also with the relatively progressive one of Punjab, the heart of South Asian Sufism, that makes me so furious at the Taliban. And the film did indeed increase that fury.

Let me make this clear. I despise the Taliban. Their interpretation of Islam offends me, their violent intimidation of other Muslims disgusts me, and their oppression of women horrifies me. However, I am also not naive enough to assume that the Taliban, as they are, occurred in a vacuum. I know they did not come about on their own, but rather had help from many outside forces, including Western ones. Obaid-Chinoy did not address this in her film. I realize that time is limited in a documentary, however I feel that it is time now to move beyond the simple vilification of the Taliban. They’re bad, we get it. But why are they so bad? It is time now that we discuss the causes and motivations of the Taliban along with their current actions. If we are truly wanting to curb their power and authority then we need to know why they are the way they are and take away their reason for being this way.

A few of these reasons, however, were highlighted in the documentary, though not explored in any detail. When speaking with some young Pashtun men Obaid-Chinoy discovered a level of resentment among many. Most were resentful of the US and NATO’s  “war on terror” tactics in  Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent months American military action has entered onto Pakistani soil, resulting in the deaths of Pakistani nationals. This increasing American military presence in Pakistan which is resulting in the deaths of Pakistani people, many of them innocent,  is increasing resentment and anger toward the US and other complicit Western nations. One way in which these young men have found to deal with their anger is to join the Taliban and fight the foreign invaders, as they seem them. Additionally, the Pakistani government’s own actions in the region have led to the displacement of many from places like Bajaur in the NWFP and this has added fuel to the fire of resentment. I’d be resentful too if I was forced to leave my home by my own government and then live in a refugee camp.The consequence of all this is an increase in Taliban recruits and thus in their power and influence. Hence, Pakistan’s Taliban generation.

Obaid-Chinoy does reveal the religious angle of the Taliban as well. She speaks with a young man whose views on women in Islam are conservative to say the least. The Taliban are infamous for their mistreatment of women. This is no secret. However, where have they learned this interpretation of Islam? Why do they believe the things they do when so many Muslims all around the world do not? What is it about the Taliban that makes them treat women the way they do? Why is it that, in one country, one can see the Taliban oppress women the way they do, and at the same time, see women in positions of power in government, medicine, law, and such? I wish the documentary had delved into this issue further.

Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary did not further investigate these causes. The focus appeared to be on the detrimental and devastating consequences of Taliban rule and power in the region. Instead of focusing on what has caused the Taliban to grow and why they exist, there was more of a focus on what this growth has meant for innocent Pakistanis caught in this political turmoil. Although, I do feel that the actions of the Taliban need to be challenged and the Taliban’s criminal actions do need to be exposed, again, if the focus in this documentary was to examine the rise of the Taliban, I felt this documentary just missed the mark. It left me wanting more information. We already know the Taliban are bad. We know they mistreat women. However, too many are unaware of their creation story and the origins of their ideology. Such information would have brought something new to the table in this documentary. Along with highlighting the Taliban’s actions in Pakistan (which are important as well), an in-depth look into the roots of the issue would have given the documentary an insightful edge.


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Image via CBC

Image via CBC

We all know the stereotype. Muslims can’t laugh at themselves. We don’t have a sense of humour. Well, this Muslim definitely does have a sense of humour and she is enjoying the progression of Monsoon House. With humour and jokes Monsoon House is addressing not only the stereotypes and misinformation surrounding Muslims, but also some of the realities of being a Muslim. Monsoon House is tackling issues of terrorism and fear of Muslims in a comical way.

In this episode, the most notable twist was the consistently annoying Milton’s becoming a Muslim. Milton is the irritating and supposedly talentless poet whose poems have offended the local Muslim community. See here and here for background and context. Well, in this episode we find out that, in an effort to appease the angered Muslim community, Milton decided to “kill off” the part of himself which angered the Muslim community. Therefore, he goes to the mosque and there he finds the people to be “really nice” and end up enjoying himself. As a result, he decides to become Muslim, partly I suspect, to please the local Muslim community.

The interaction between a skeptical Kesh and an excited Milton in which Milton explains his new found religion is quite humourous and amusing as well as surprisingly educational about Islam. It also provides a comical view of someone coming to Islam. Personally, I was born a Muslim therefore I cannot speak for the experiences of coming to Islam. However, Milton’s experience probably parallels at least a few people. His explanation parallels the excitement of someone who has made a new discovery about him/herself or who has is looking forward to new experiences in life.

First off, Milton is supposedly dressed as a mufti and has changed his name to Muhammad Islam, perhaps the most “Islamic” name ever, demonstrating his zealousness about the change in his life. Muhammad and Islam and wearing a thobe I’m assuming. Although completely unnecessary I have seen many who come to Islam become just as zealous. Of course, if this is the way they choose to express their new found faith its not at all problematic. However, I would hate for anyone to think that this is a necessary part of becoming a Muslim. One can keep their birth name, wear whatever they feel comfortable and modest in, and maintain many if not most aspects of their pre-Islam life.  I am hoping that Kesh’s critical responses and irritation will translate into a message that there is no need to make the drastic changes Milton has.

Next Milton explains how he took the shahada (explaining it in English). He then mentions how Arabic is the “official” language of Islam. Now, although the Qur’an is in Arabic and Arabic is indeed central to Islamic scholarship, “official” is probably not the word I would have used to describe it. But that’s just me.

Milton then speaks of the concepts of halal (allowed) and haram (prohibited) and reveals how he has found it difficult, or rather a struggle, to adhere to some of the rules. A jihad as he calls it. Yes, he refers to his struggle as a jihad explaining how “struggle” is the actual meaning of the word. Thank you Monsoon House. I’ve come to realize that Muslims can say it as much as we want, but it will be opportunities such as the ones in this show, that will begin to clarify commonly held mis-beliefs about Muslims and Islam.

So what is the jihad Milton speaks of? He is having trouble doing all his five prayers, not drinking and avoiding porn. But then eating goat is halal and that has also been a struggle for Milton.  The discussion on what is halal and haram brought up a really interesting point – negotiating what is or isn’t haram and trying to figure it all out. I couldn’t help but laugh at Milton’s confusion as well as irritation with how “hard” it was to follow all the rules. On the one hand I interpreted this struggle as an indication of how much Milton enjoyed things like alcohol and porn, to a comical level in fact. On the other hand this seemed like a realistic reflection of the struggles many Muslims do face in adhering to certain aspects of their religion, especially when they embrace Islam and may be required to let go of certain aspects of their life. (And I’m not talking just about Milton’s indulgences.) Every religion has aspects of it which can seem difficult to follow. I believe its fine for us to acknowledge this and laugh at it.

Kesh is able to though, at some point, take advantage of Milton’s confusion over halal and haram by telling him, that the Family Guy giant doll he just won in a carnival game is haram, because Family Guy is haram, just so that he can give the toy to his son Russell, who loves Family Guy.

Milton also complains about how being a Muslim is “really, really boring” as well. More boring than Catholic mass in fact. Its true actually. Being a Muslim is not about burning flags, sending death threats, stoning women, hearing our imams tell us to kill people, or all those other “exciting” things the media and fear-mongers assume we do in our free time. It is actually quite mundane and boring stuff. However, if Milton was referring to the no-alcohol, no-porn rules being boring, well, then I guess they can be if much of the fun one had was from those sources.

Overall, an entertaining episode which does appear to be aiding in the process of normalizing Muslims in Canada.

Additional points:

Russell notes how since he has written a $50,000 cheque to, what he thought, was a Islamic charity which has now been implicated in a terrorist plot, CSIS is keeping an eye on him. However, we find out later in the show that it wasn’t an Islamic charity nor was he funding a terrorist organization by accident. The money was given to B.P. Patel, Kesh’s nemesis, who then gave it to a money laundering ring, which Patel describes as just like the Swiss bank but less sleazy, in Pakistan which funds people all the way from the mob to Bollywood. That the terrorist plot was uncovered was simply a coincidence and has nothing to do with Russell’s money.

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CBC TV recently played a four part documentary on India called India Reborn. The series was well done and diverse demonstrating India to be a paradox of a country. From filthy, filthy rich people to the dirt poor, India is a country of all colours, figuratively and literally. India also has the second largest Muslim population in the world, with the largest being Indonesia. Yet, Muslims are still a relatively small minority in the country. That is why I was quite interested in seeing how the documentary presented the Muslims of the country, if they did at all. With news in recent years of rising anti-Muslim sentiment and actions, it made sense when the documentary did indeed address the issue of communal violence and tensions.

The relations between Hindus and Muslims are eluded to many times throughout the series. In the first episode, entitled Might and Myth, we hear the very popular and whimsical politician Lalu Prasad Yadav, mentioning to reporters that as the current month is a holy month in which worship takes place both Hindus and Muslims will be participating. A sign of the beauty of India he says. Being South Asian myself and having been exposed to Indian media, I’ve heard this mantra of love and brotherhood often. I have always felt that it hinted at a struggle within India itself and among the various religious communities. A struggle to keep the fragile relationship between Hindus and Muslims peaceful and respectful. This message seems not only a statement about the realities of peace between Muslims and Hindus in many parts of India, as I know many do live in peace and harmony and as demonstrated in the documentary with Hindus and Muslims partaking in the predominantly Hindu garba dancing, but also a hopeful self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts in those areas that are not so peaceful. A sort of “if we say it enough times it will become true.”

Sharifa Cheeba. Image via CBC

Sharifa Cheeba. Image via CBC

In the first part we are introduced to Sharifa Cheeba, a Gujrati Muslim woman, who has experienced the ugliness of Hindu-Muslim violence and hate. A woman who grew up with Hindu neighbours who were like family now expresses her anguish about not being able to live in that same environment. Sharifa tells of how during the Gujrat riots of 2002 her Hindu neighbours, with whom they were previously close, told her and her family to get out of the neighbourhood and robbed their home. They were told that Muslims did not belong in the neighbourhood. In her recounting of what happened Sharifa’s pain and sadness if clear. Her longing for the days of peace can be heard in her voice.  And in this sad story Sharifa brings up an important and disturbing point – the impact on the children. The children, she says, have been left feeling as if India is not for them, as if being Muslim is a sin. She also notes that India is her home and her birth place. This despite Gujrat having the largest Muslim ghetto in India. However, Sharifa’s story demonstrates a sad and devastating reality of India – that of being a marginalized minority. Not only does her experience show the fear and vulnerability that many minorities, specifically Muslims, live in, but also the constant negotiation of identity. Despite being in India for centuries many Muslims are often forced to question their Indian-ness. Their loyalty to the country is questioned and their authenticity is doubted. This leaves, as Sharifa notes, confusion in the minds of Muslims growing up in India. Are they really Indians? And if not, then what else are they? They know no other home. To be made to feel like an alien in one’s own home can lead to feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, and loss. Something one has known as familiar has now become foreign.

To add insult to injury, and adding to my own sense of growing unease, we are next introduced to the Hindu nationalist group, the RSS, gathering in a field for what seems to be a rally and militaristic training. All are dressed in one uniform listening to the hate filled speeches of their leaders. The volunteers of the RSS, as well as onlookers, listen while Muslims are called demons and monsters who are an evil threat to Hindus. Referred to, by the narrator, as one of “the most powerful forces in India today” the men desire India to go from a secular country as it is, to a strictly Hindu one.  No Muslims allowed. Such is their power that even on Eid in Ahmedabad, Gujrat’s major city, the mosques require police protection.

One particular member, Babu Bajrangi, a participant in the Gujrat riots, was caught on video in 2007, talking about his part in the riots, and it is chilling. As a Muslim I felt goosebumps as I listened to his boasting about killing Muslims.

We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire. We set them on fire and killed them…I can’t tell you what a good time it was.


They shouldn’t be allowed to breed. I say that even today.  Nothing to be done with them but cut them down.

As the backdrop for his words, India Reborn presents images of burn victims, children and adults, lying in hospital beds, the victims of Bajrangi and his kind’s “good time.” It’s enough to make one sick. But the horror is that this Hindu nationalist group holds political power in Gujrat, a state with many Muslims, and the fear is always there, as the narrator tells us, of renewed violence and killing. With the RSS’s call to arms against the Muslim enemy, such fears seem valid.

Farooq Jafri. Image via CBC.

Farooq Jafri. Image via CBC.

But of course, as India is a diverse country, there will be the good with the bad. And in the episode entitled Manufacturing Dreams we meet, in the small, predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon located close to Mumbai, Farooq Jafri, a poor and struggling writer and actor with hopes of making it big in Bollywood. With the help of his friend Sheikh Nasir they film social issue films for the entertainment as well as education of local people. Although the focus is on his films and dreams, the tensions between Hindus and Muslims are brought up here too. Except here we see different consequences. After a bomb ripped through a local mosque 3 years ago killing many mosque goers, there was no retaliation nor further violence. As Sheikh Nasir puts it, Hindus and Muslims joined together to denounce the violence. He sees this as an example of the love between Hindus and Muslims. And like a true filmmaker Nasir expresses his desire to make a film about the unity of Hindus and Muslims by using the local looms, owned by Muslims who sell their goods to Hindus, as a metaphor, therefore demonstrating their interdependence.

This interdependence hangs in stark contrast to the Hindu nationalist party in Gujrat, thus demonstrating the diversity of a country like India. On the one hand people live in constant fear of their safety, and in another they have aspirations to show the world how well Hindus and Muslims get along. Both appear to be realities in today’s India and depict an aspect of the paradox. From the documentary it was clear that along with many other struggles, the Hindu-Muslim tension is an ever present one.  Appearing as a theme in two episodes one gets a sense that it is on the minds of many Muslims in India. Despite the examples of peace and harmony, the fact that Muslims are a marginalized minority appeared obvious in the documentary. Such findings match previous ones. The Council on Foreign Relations states:

The Muslim literacy rate ranks well below the national average and Muslim poverty rates are only slightly higher than low-caste Hindus, according to a November 2006 government report (PDF). Muslims—mostly Sunnis—make up 13.4 percent of India’s population, yet hold fewer than 5 percent of government posts and make up only 4 percent of the undergraduate student body in India’s elite universities. The report also found that Muslims fall behind other groups in terms of access to credit, despite the fact that Muslims are self-employed at a far higher rate than other groups.

And BBC reported:

Indian Muslims are also largely illiterate and poor.

At just under 60%, the community’s literacy rate if lower than the national average of 65%. Only half of Muslim women can read and write. As many as a quarter of Muslim children in the age-group 6-14 have either never attended school or dropped out.

They are also poor – 31% of Muslims are below the country’s poverty line, just a notch above the lowest castes and tribes who remain the poorest of the poor.

And indeed that Muslims were poor and disadvantaged also became apparent. Whether this was an oversight of the filmmakers or a reflection of reality, this absence was not lost on me.

The tensions between Hindus and Muslims were documented in the film. Of course, the history behind the tensions was not provided but the fact that the tensions remain, and in some cases are worsening, is worrisome in and of itself regardless of history. One may accuse the documentary of exaggerating the issues, but considering other sources can corroborate the information I was glad to see this reality. In a country that is trying to reinvent itself it seems that it is not including certain segments of its population in this makeover. Such neglect can only further marginalize. And although some may see this as airing India’s dirty laundry in public, the reality is that no country has a good record regarding marginalized populations, but India, in all its re-branding needs to pay attention to this segment of the population they are trying to sell to the world.

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The following was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch. As this documentary was just recently aired on Canadian television it has been edited for Muslim Lookout.

Saira Khan. Image via BBC Two.

Saira Khan. Image via BBC Two.

CBC Newsworld documentary program The Passionate Eye aired the British documentary Forced to Marry on March 23rd. I found the film which aired originally on BBC Two on December 1st, 2008 fascinating, frustrating, disturbing, chilling, sad, and, at times, hopeful and heartening.

The film, which was filmed, produced, and directed by Ruhi Hamid and narrated and presented by Saira Khan, begins with the dire statistics that each year thousands of girls from Britain are taken abroad and are forced to marry, many of them in Pakistan. In fact, Khan notes that more British people are forced into marriage in Pakistan than in any other country. In the documentary, Khan follows staff members Albert David, Neelam Farooq (both Pakistanis), and Theepan Salvaratnam (British Vice Consul) of a unit set up in Pakistan by the British Foreign Office which finds and rescues British girls in Pakistan who have been forced into marriages, in hopes of finding out why young British Pakistanis are being forced to marry.

In the documentary, we are presented with the cases of four British Pakistani girls – Tanya, Aaliyah, Zara, and Rubina (all aliases) – who the unit tries to rescue. With each rescue attempt, I found myself getting nervous and tense. The unit confronts those involved (without showing their faces on camera) and the chance of confrontations becoming tense and dangerous always seem high. However, each confrontation is resolved in some way or another, as the unit is intent on keeping tensions and altercations of any kind at a far distance.

The documentary is eye-opening as it tells the stories of the girls in order to to explain this particular, and seemingly increasing (a 40-45% increase in just one year), problem the U.K. and Pakistan face. When telling such stories, one has to perform a sensitive balancing act: expose the problem without stigmatizing a marginalized community. This documentary does this well. First, the documentary ensures to clarify the difference between forced and arranged marriages, the latter of which are still very common in South Asian cultures. The documentary also mentions numerous times that such forced marriages are un-Islamic.

At one point this distinction becomes bittersweet when Khan speaks with young British Pakistani girls about the issue and they state that it is not Islam but rather the culture. So in defending religion, they implicate culture. I was not sure how to feel about this. I cannot deny that the issues of family honour and “parents know best” are not a part of South Asian culture, but such expressions (i.e., forced marriages) are extreme. Yet, working as a double edged sword, this same depiction of culture as the culprit portrays the parents of the girls as victims of the culture, bound by traditions of honour and having to fall to the pressures of families and bradries (brotherhoods, or castes). This, because it is obvious that the young girls profiled in the film are torn and conflicted. They want to leave Pakistan, they do not want to be forced, but at the same time they love their parents and do not want to hurt them, despite their parents forcing them into marriages. By depicting the parents as victims just as much as victimizers, one sees the complexity of the issue as well as the inner struggles of the girls being rescued.

The film ends back in the U.K., with Khan speaking with British Pakistani writer and broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar who has written books on British Asians. He calls for a reform of laws criminalizing forced marriages. A law which has since become reality. He accurately points out that the attempt of the parents to create closer ties with family in Pakistan by forcing to marriage their children to family in Pakistan has actually ended up tearing families apart.

The film left me feeling sad for the young girls who although portrayed as victims in some ways, were also the ones who instigated the rescues. They were always given the choice of leaving or staying. The unit was just a means for them to escape. And the unit, although a British initiative, was made up mainly of Pakistanis rescuing British girls. However, I wondered, as did Khan, about the many girls the unit was not able to help.

The film left me feeling angry at the parents who force their children to marry to uphold traditions that they may hold dear but which are detrimental for the children involved. The film left me feeling frustrated at the loyalty some of the girls felt to either their parents or in-laws. However, being South Asian myself, I understand that sense of loyalty, honour, and respect. I also understand my own privilege for having parents who would never force me to do anything, thus making my adherence to such cultural practices easy. The film also left me feeling hopeful that there are resources for these young girls (and apparently boys as well). Finally, I felt sad for the Pakistani girls who are forced into marriages, who do not have the Pakistani government to come to their rescue. The issue of forced marriages in Pakistan, of both Pakistani nationals as well as British (and others perhaps), is obviously a problem which must be highlighted and thus such documentaries are a necessity.

You can watch parts 2-6 of the documentary on YouTube here. The first part has been removed. I highly recommend watching it.

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