By Faraz Talat
The adoption of a resolution in the National Assembly proposing public holidays on Diwali, Easter, and Holi in Pakistan has been met with much enthusiasm among our progressive citizens.
In a country, where even symbolic gestures of goodwill towards the minorities are fought tooth and nail by the political right, these small victories are dearly cherished.
One hopes not to dampen our spirits too much, but among a list of concerns about the well-being of minorities in Pakistan, how significant is the need for public holidays on Holi and Easter?
To say that you want minorities to have their rights, but not a secular structure is to say that you want minorities to have their equal treatment as long as they don’t get in the way of your first-class citizenship.
2016 has been a good year for Pakistan:
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won another Oscar, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif officially addressed the problem of honor killings, and the need for action against it.
Shahbaz Taseer was recovered.
The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act was passed.
This was followed by the resolution to declare special public holidays for minorities’ festivals. Note that the government has not yet issued a notification concerning the actual declaration of these holidays, although Sindh has taken the liberty to declare March 24 a public holiday anyway.
The backlash to these events is nothing to sneeze at.
“Enemies want the country to become a secular and liberal state,” said Hafiz Saeed, as 35 religious parties gathered in Mansoora to not only protest the Protection of Women Act, but issue an official deadline of March 27 for it to be withdrawn.
However, these moves have found strange defenders across the aisle.
In an episode of NewsEye with Meher Bukhari, scholar and televangelist Aamir Liaquat sarcastically said:
We say that there’s democracy in Pakistan. Then a bill is presented in the Assembly, which is passed in a democratic manner. And then they (the coalition of religious parties) threaten the institution with a deadline (for amendment), saying we’ll do this and that if you don’t listen to us. Okay, fine! Hand everything over to them! Make Pakistan a theocratic state! Let’s end this debate once and for all.
Nationalist social media icon Hamza Ali Abbasi approved public holidays on Holi, Easter and Diwali, but did so by assuring his followers that the move had nothing to do with secularism.
Mr Abbasi often calls for the protection of minority rights, while simultaneously criticizing secular reforms.
Mr Aamir Liaquat’s remarks are fascinating, in the way that they inadvertently defend secular democratic liberties — which we don’t have.
Meanwhile, political commentators like Abbasi don’t seem to recognize how essential secular reforms are to the cause of equal rights for minorities.
The argument that an Islamic system ensures rights to women and minorities may well be true, but that’s not the point.
The point is the political entitlement of the Muslim majority, particularly men, over all other groups.
To say that you want minorities to have their rights, but not a secular structure is to say that you want minorities to have their equal treatment as long as they don’t get in the way of your ideological preferences, and your first-class citizenship.
It is to say you may have your rights and security, but my group still gets to be the one in total control of that decision. My race, religion, caste, or gender gets to stay on the pedestal and yours doesn’t. This country is basically ours, but not to worry — you’ll find us to be quite hospitable!
To counter this mindset of entitlement we need systemic reforms to put us on the path of equality for marginalized communities.
Winning social liberal skirmishes is great, but they must not distract us from the mountain we are meant to climb and a larger egalitarian movement we’re hoping to energize.
A bill to give a woman a right to wear mascara bears little relevance in a system where women are denied reproductive rights, equal wages and career safety.
It is a state system adorned with laws that target religious minorities and deny them marriage licenses; a country where the deck is stacked against the non-Muslim minorities and their religious preferences, in the legislature; a country where an entire Christian community has to flee Mehrabadi in terror when a single person is accused of blasphemy; a state where forced conversions and denial of job opportunities on the basis of religion, are commonplace.
In such a system, a public holiday to squirt colored water at one another is, at best, a humble consolation prize.