Amid a season of protests and sit-ins in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, we left for New York City. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI – Pakistan Movement for Justice) and their supporters were dreaming of a new Pakistan while at the same time Pakistan Awami Tehreek (Pakistan People’s Movement) had set up a revolution factory wanting to change the face of Pakistan. Both parties were in Islamabad and both were demanding reforms in the electoral process and a change in the way the country was being run. Imran Khan claimed that the elected government had come to power as a result of electoral rigging.
These two leaders had converted huge freight containers into their mobile homes and stages for rallies. As a citizen of Pakistan and a mere spectator to the spectacle, I wondered what change these two leaders were seeking. Would all citizens be treated equally in the country? What would happen with the second amendment of the Constitution that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslim? What about article 295-C, the blasphemy law, which is the biggest tool of persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan? I wondered if in this new Pakistan Hindu girls would be allowed to marry a Muslim boy or would Muslim girls be accorded the right to marry non-Muslims? Would Christians get equal opportunities in the new Pakistan or would they hold a monopoly on the street sweeping sector? What would become of the minority sects – would they continue to be judged on the grounds of their faith and ethnicity as has been the case for the past two decades? I carried all of these questions and many more in my head when I landed in New York—a city that never sleeps; a city whose bright lights never fade away; a city that never stops.
When my fourteen new ELP friends and I arrived in New York, the cool evening breeze touched my cheeks, almost as if saying to me “welcome and stay cool.” My heart was filled with excitement. There I was, in the strongest country of the world. The skylines were proudly waiting for us. In the bustling streets of New York you can see people from all corners of the world and yet no one asks you where you are from or what faith you carry in your heart. No one cares if you are covered in a Bedouin burqa or hardly covered at all. On the first evening in the city of skylines, one of my colleagues asks “Do you know what happened in Pakistan?”
“No!” I reply, “What happened?”
“A Christian couple was burnt alive by a lynch mob in Punjab on the accusation of blasphemy.”.My eyes welled up and my mind stopped working for a minute. “What happened to Imran Khan’s sit-in?”
“That is still going on,” he says. Perhaps the struggle may take some more time I thought and became sadder.
Beyond hopes and promises, equality of human rights in Pakistan has yet to see the dawn of reality. And there we were, in a country which is the World’s Ssuperpower and blows the trumpet of defending human rights past its own territorial borders.
Midterm elections were happening in New York and our hosts had arranged for us to visit a polling station. On our way to the station, I was eager to compare the election process in a first world country with that of a developing country. Before reaching the polling station, I wondered whether it would be covered with big banners and posters of the candidates, with election officers crawling all over the place, the way they do in Pakistan. It was quite a shock to see what I saw once we arrived. I thought we were at a library because of the silence, calmness, and civil attitude of the people.
By the entrance there were some volunteers sitting behind desks. They represented various ethnic backgrounds. They were there to serve as interpreters and help people who wanted to cast their vote in their own language. It was here that I learned the true value of democratically fair elections. It was here that I came to know why and how democracy works in first world countries. Moving ahead, we met the head organizer of the polling station who welcomed us and provided us with a brief overview of the US electoral process and as well as the history of democracy. She was a middle-aged lady who had been volunteering for the past twenty-five years. She told us that her father was a big supporter of democracy through ballot boxes and dedicated his life to political activism. “After my father’s death I took on the duty,” she told us, “just to strengthen my country even further.”Her eyes filled with tears while telling us about her father’s services for his country..
“What do you receive in return?” we asked.
“Equal rights, freedom, and justice,” she replied. She showed us a booth where disabled people come and exercise their right to vote. This was one of the most interesting learnings of our visit. I turned to my colleague and said, “hamaray mulk me to sehatmand logon ko bhi yeh haq nahin milta (in our country even those who are physically fit do not have access to a free and fair vote).”
“At least they are also responsible citizens of our country,” she replied.
We were told that they have different devices available to help disabled people cast their vote and take part in the electoral process. Within a few minutes of arriving at the polling station, I had learned so many things. I had learned how nations rise, how education is imperative as a civic right, how each citizen is valued in a country, and how their rights are respected.
When I returned to Islamabad three weeks later, the sit in at D-chowk still continued. What I had seen in the US was way beyond my imagination and expectations. I knew people were free but the trip made me see what freedom means: when you are not discriminated on the grounds of your race, religion, or class: when you are not judged on the grounds of your gender. When they say “we the people of the United States,” it does not mean a Catholic or Protestant or a white person or a Texan or New Yorker. It means every citizen of the country and everyone who lives in it. There were no checkpoints to stop at. No one asked for my identity card or asked why my name contains Haider. My Hazara features did not translate as a death warrant.
Prior to my trip, I did have a biased view of the US but all that vanished within just one month.It is also true that all is not well in US. It is also true that there is poverty, homeless people, crime, and disorder but still it’s not so bad after all.
I am writing this blog a few days after the Shikarpur incident where 57 innocent people were murdered in a suicide attack by Lashkar e Jhangvi (an Islamic militant terrorist group). It has also been two months since the 141 innocent children were killed in Peshawar just because they were attending an army school. I am writing one month after international disability day, when police in Lahore tortured disabled people simply because they were protesting for their rights. Yes, election rigging allegations ended with Imran Khan’s wedding. Yes, we cannot be like Americans because they have been a democracy for 200 years but we can try to follow them. The least we can do is value each other’s right to life, can’t we?