March 25, 2011 7:36 pm

The Diary: Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto

To India, where I’m on a panel with Germaine Greer. We have been invited to the India Today Conclave to discuss whether or not burkas and bikinis can co-exist. I’m afraid I’ve been selected to represent Team Burka (being Pakistani and, therefore, automatically assumed to be a fundamentalist of some magnitude).

I ring up a friend who teaches gender studies at a Karachi college (see, we are not all fundos) and ask to borrow some books. She photocopies some hardcore Muslim feminist writing for me and attaches a note: “Of course, the burka and bikini can co-exist, have these people not heard of the burkini?” Quite. (The burkini, in case of reader confusion, is a swimming costume designed especially for the most orthodox Muslim women.)

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It does seem strange that no one who wears a burka seems to be involved in the panel discussion. But perhaps I’m wrong and that’s going to be the big reveal – or not, if you see what I mean.

It turns out, once the battle of the burkas-and-bikinis starts, that’s there’s not going to be any fashionable Muslim-bashing going on. Indeed, Greer speaks about the oppressiveness of the bikini: “Last time I checked, no one’s bum looked big in a burka,” she says, and rejects the idea that anyone can impose their version of liberty on women.

A woman in the audience stands to ask me a question, barely containing her rage. “It’s so nice you can go to France and wear a hijab but can you tell me where in the Muslim world I can wear a bikini?”

Yes of course, I say, watching her turn a curious shade of puce: Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey ...

Karachi’s Sunday Bazaar, a weekly flea market, is packed with treasures, from fabrics to Afghan embroidered cushions and costume jewellery. The highlight, though, is the city’s best used book stalls. This week I picked up Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men. “It’s about Libya, very timely,” the vendor whispered. I also bought a monstrously large book on Venezuelan butterflies.

At the moment I’ve got the new book by Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian commentator and human rights activist, BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, on my “to read” list. I have also been carrying around the beautifully written and heartbreaking Oblivion: A Memoir by Colombian author Héctor Abad, about his father’s politically transformative life and murder. I’ve read and re-read it, bought it for friends and refused to retire it, three reads later. I carry the book around the house, reading sections out loud to my mother and brother, or whoever will listen to me, stopping only to cry.

Raymond Davis is the CIA contractor who in January shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore – a third man was run over by a US vehicle that came to help Davis. Davis’s release this month surprised no one in Pakistan. His charge sheet was gruesome: in possession of illegal firearms, he was indicted for double murder and, though he did not benefit from diplomatic immunity, he basically got it anyway. Davis flew home to the US this month after the dead men’s families signed papers forgiving him. Blood money was paid to the families of the deceased, to the tune of $2.3m. (The FT reported that the settlement was a result of the combined efforts of the government, Punjab police and Pakistan intelligence services to “persuade the family members to accept the financial compensation”.)

It was eventually revealed that the Pakistani government (not the US) paid Davis’s “get out of jail free” money.

This story gets more and more sinister: outrage spreads on Twitter (I haven’t watched television news in months) that the initial US embassy press statement on Davis’s release was dated six days before he was let out of jail. The embassy tweeted that the original press release was dated incorrectly – but the notion that embassy suits might even draft a statement before it was announced to the public irks those who don’t particularly need any more irking at the moment.

Davis’s case could only have happened in a country where there is a total lack of justice. According to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, more than 8,000 Pakistanis have been languishing on death row for the past 20 years, serving what amount to life sentences without possibility of clemency.

Reprieve, the organisation set up by Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer, assists inmates on death row and prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. It also does investigative legal aid work across Britain and the US, and has a tiny office in Islamabad, run by one courageous woman. It’s amazing that there aren’t more organisations working on legal aid schemes and pro bono representation in Pakistan – a country where you can’t move for lawyers.

This month I am doing a fair amount of public speaking. I travel to Paris to speak to a foreign affairs think-tank. I notice that former speakers have included the Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen and former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. I feel nervous. And then I see that the former Republican politician (now talk show host) Mike Huckabee and past Pakistani prime minister Shaukat Aziz have also spoken. Miraculously, my anxiety dissipates. The guests at the talk are all thorough, the questions challenging and the moderator well versed in matters Pakistani. Afterwards, I think that they must have eaten Huckabee alive: the once-presidential hopeful is against universal healthcare, mini-skirts and homosexuals, just to name a few of his causes célèbres.

But my Paris trip is not all think-tanking. I visit the atelier of the video and installation artist Cyril de Commarque, whose art deals in diverse and radical themes – eco-politics and sustainability, Europe’s violent past, and the evolution and destruction of utopian modern cities, to name a few.

 

Faiza Butt and Sana Arjumand are two of my favourites. I don’t own any of their work (yet) but I interviewed Arjumand for an article I wrote on women artists in Pakistan. Butt attended a talk I gave at my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and I think I frightened her off. I was signing books and one was handed over to me to be dedicated to Faiza Butt.

I am an art neophyte but have been slowly learning more. My education started at Canvas Gallery in Karachi, a gallery run by Sameera Raja, who patiently answers my questions and directs me to subversive women artists.

“For the artist?” I asked. The moment I heard, “Yes,” I shrieked and jumped out of my chair. I like to think I played it cool – zen fan – but I gave Butt my e-mail and have never heard from her since. Hmmmm.

Fatima Bhutto’s memoir, ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’, is published in paperback on April 7 (Vintage). Twitter: @fbhutto

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