Karachi, on guard

Ayesha Salman grew up listening to tales of her parents’ childhood – of them cycling to the nearest shops to get baked goodies and playing cricket on the streets with the neighbourhood kids. Her parents grew up at a time when words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘suicide blasts’ were not in one’s daily dictionary. But a great deal has changed since then, and Ayesha is well aware of the harsh reality that her life and that of her children could never be the same.

Karachi, which was labelled as the world’s most dangerous mega city by a US magazine Foreign Policy for its high rate of homicide, may pose extraordinary challenges to its citizens looking for security, but from self-defence training to installing safety checks, it’s also fast coming up with ways to address them. However, one thing’s for sure complacency has long stopped being the answer.

Life in the country’s financial hub now has transitioned to employing private guards, installing security systems and coping desperately with rising inflation just to make ends meet. How did we end up in such a situation?

“It starts from recurring news reports of street crimes – you hear of a relative or of a friend whose mobile was snatched and you get scared. As the frequency of the stories increase, you begin to flinch each time someone on a motorbike passes by your vehicle,” says Ayesha Salman, a resident of Defence Phase VIII.

Sadly, citizens of Karachi have lost the sense of security they were accustomed to till a decade ago. The small things people took for granted, such as walking down the street without fearing for one’s life or valuables is now a distant memory.

“It is a growing fear that something might happen to you if you don’t take necessary precautions,” Ayesha adds.

Dressed in uniform or plain shalwar kameezchowkidars stand on duty at many houses in Karachi. Earning anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs20,000 the presence of a chowkidar is expected to serve as a deterrent to possible break-ins.

In many cases the chowkidars are none other than the relatives of housemaids or are drivers who are given the additional responsibility of serving as guards. Meanwhile, there are others who prefer hiring private guards but some people remain sceptical of their usefulness.

“Employing guards certainly gives one some peace of mind but stories of crimes committed by armed guards continue to haunt as well,” Ayesha says. “In such cases, it also becomes necessary to stay vigilant about the people you employ for security.”

Chief executive officer of Aftershock CEM, a freelance security consultancy, Naveed Khan agrees with the need for people to be vigilant about their safety. While people are spending, and in some cases significant amounts of money, on security they are not going about in the right manner, Khan warns.

Khan, who has assisted various multinational organisations with a crisis management programme, says he has yet to meet a trained security guard for a private or corporate security firm.

“If people were serious about safety checks, they should inquire about prior training and experience of a security guard before employing him but that doesn’t happen,” he says.

“Even corporate clients who pay as much as Rs18,000 to Rs 25,000 don’t make an effort to find out if the guards have had ample training. They just want to get the guy as long as he is in uniform and has a weapon,” Khan explains. After a brief pause he adds, “If he (security guard) looks scary, that’s a bonus.”

However, Khan may be a bit simplistic in his definition as security officer at Aqsa Security Guards Mohammad Asghar explains. “There are procedures in place before recruiting guards such as verifying their CNIC details,” he says adding, “Their information is corroborated by two witnesses and someone physically visits the address they provide to make sure everything checks out.

Speaking about guards’ training he says, “They are trained to handle a weapon once they are employed and most of their other training revolves around tackling various situations depending on whether they arise at home or on the street.” At this point Aqsa Security Guards does not provide their employed guards any training on first aid.

According to Khan, security in Pakistan is a ‘numbers game’. Security companies are ranked not by the services they provide but by the amount of manpower they employ, he claims. “Basically a company that employs more guards will be ranked higher,” he says.

Additionally basic life security and lifesaving skills are also found lacking. These include first aid, victim transportation, patrolling, reporting, conflict management and resolution and marksmanship.

Another popular precaution taken by individuals and businesses is setting up security systems. Installing panic buttons, motion detectors and round-the-clock monitoring by security firms are among the most common services.

When deciding between employing a guard or installing a security system what do people prefer? Ayesha relies on both a home security system, as well as the services of an unarmed guard and says, “Installing a home security system sometimes is much cheaper than employing guards and also allows you to feel more secure.”

Meanwhile, the Farooqi family residing in North Nazimabad feel that though a security system sounds more reliable they prefer hiring the services of a guard.

“People residing in houses instead of apartments might be prone to install a security system. But in our apartment building families prefer to hire a guard to oversee the neighbourhood and we collectively pay the guard’s salary,” says Ahsan Farooqi.

Residing in Soldier Bazaar, Zeeshan Ali feels differently. “Seeing guards everywhere is terrorising in itself. I prefer installing a security system which is less frightening and more efficient.”

Meanwhile, there are also some companies who exclusively deal with ‘security fencing’. While there is debate on this service being more effective, home owners and small businesses continue to largely rely on the services of security guards.

Saad Amanullah Khan owns a fast food joint, Big Thick Burgerz (BTB), in Defence says, “There is no proper way to handle the security challenges that exist today.” He strongly believes the only permanent solution is for the government to address the security concerns of the city and take concrete remedial measures.

Small business owners can mitigate some precautionary measures but all these efforts can be easily compromised, Saad Khan explains. Further, even if they do prove effective they end up significantly increasing the over heads.

“The cost of doing business in Pakistan is going up by the day,” Saad Khan says. “It is worse for SMEs and start up business owners, as they are already working with limited resources.” The opportunity cost for businesses remains high as the deteriorating security situation affects them from various directions. People avoid going out now and delivery staff are often robbed, on the other hand during strikes businesses shut down early or for an entire day which also disrupts the supply chain.

While a fool proof method to ensure security is yet to be devised, some organisations are offering self-defence classes. Specialised classes for women to deal with gender-based crimes such as sexual harassment are also available.

Published in Dawn on February 5, 2013.


Bareeze Man and The Wrong Sword

Bareeze Man woke up on the wrong side of the world.

Let me ask you something. How many times have you passed by a billboard and said to yourself “Wow, that’s exactly what happens in real life.” The answer for most is almost second to none. And then you pass by one of these while humming to a tune in your car and your mind is jolted out of sleepiness so that not only do you turn your head back to ogle at what our ingenious brands have cooked up to advertise this time but you are also left questioning your rational self.

Basically, you’re just asking. “Wait, what’s that?”

As rewarding as that kind of attention can be for most brands and most of the time, that kind of reaction is exactly what they are going for, what I fail to understand is so many things that I pretty much put this article in danger of sounding like one of those feminist rants. God forbid, right?

However, my two cents on this brand new piece of advertising go something like this: Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Right when gender stereotypes of men being this aggressive and an embodiment of hulk-like physical strength are being questioned and rightly so, advertisements like this continue to reinforce the status-quo in place since the Stone Ages.

While a number of people are calling this advertisement apt, claiming that it’s in line with that time of the year when goats are sacrificed, there are a handful of people who look at this and for unknown reasons think of it as representing the “real man”.

In times like today, when having an idea is like being armed with a sword, do we really need people to be found carrying the wrong sword?


Why So Festive?

With people mistaking you for their daughters to aunties trying to get into your head, Eid in my family has become infamous for setting off a ticking time bomb that explodes ever so often. In the end, you are just left to seek refuge – sometimes from your own home which just a second ago might have appeared to be a welcome abode but is now swarming with hungry pest-like relatives who would like nothing better than to rip your life stories apart, dine and leave.

Some of them would throw a tantrum. Few would just make an extraordinary request (“Can all the lights in the drawing room be switched off?” ) while others would stick to leaving chewed gums in between those tiny spaces in a sofa that you think no body would ever notice but then they haven’t met my mom.

This bi-annual ritual of annoying the shit out of your family is probably what this public holiday has become with many a time me losing my head over my possible choices of escape – all of which have been pretty much futile in the face of a tiny flicker of hope that maybe this time won’t be so bad.

And you know it’s bad when you run.

Once, even literally.

You Probably Can’t

It doesn’t take an IQ of a genius to know that killing a 14 year old is wrong. It doesn’t even take education or a belief in God. Humans don’t kill humans. Period.
Pakistan is not ruled by savages. Which is why 50 ulemas gave fatwas against the attempted killing. Which is why the locals of the concerned province want to distance themselves from the attack. Which is why the mainstream and the social media is abuzz with cries and pleas of all shapes and sizes. Which is why people are beginning to find an affinity for Malala.
Pakistan isn’t ruled by savages. It just doesn’t know what to do with the ones that it has. How do you reason with a person who doesn’t see the wrong in killing a 14 year old? You probably can’t.

Women on Women Action

Lately, I have kept away from writing about things that make me angry. Apparently, a lot of whining has been going over the social media and I think that pretty much exceeds the daily whine tolerance level of the readers. However, it also makes me think if I am just trying to avoid what I’m feeling to get out there. After recently attending a film screening called Miss Representation at T2F one fine evening, I was confronted with what I have earlier hold on to as a personal belief.

Essentially revolving around the topic of women in media and how the way they are represented in the media allows the discrimination in a society to persist, the film interviewed a host of respondents – from film makers to high school students. While publications and literature on the subject has pretty much led everyone, including feminists to believe that it is essentially men who are to blame for their misfortune, before going to the film I was secretly hoping it would take a slightly different angle. After all, it did promise that it would change perspectives.

The film screening, though insightful left me questioning a lot of things. Aren’t women themselves partially to blame, if not more for the way they are perceived in a society?

Before anyone decides to go bonkers or state that I’m a misogynist (there seems to be a lot of that going around), I would like to mention real life examples where I have come across how that may be so.

Enter a social gathering, an Eid party, a wedding, or just a get-together and one of the many discussions that seem to be going on revolve around how the women in the party are dressed, what shoes are they wearing, whether the dress they wearing is a common one and etc. Ten to one, these discussions are mostly instigated by the women already present in the party. Going with this, isn’t it possible that by doing so we not only support but reinstate the statement that there’s nothing more to a woman than how she looks?

While a number of people continue to point out how men continue to prefer people with more beauty than brains, aren’t women also playing a part in floating around the idea that if a woman isn’t fashionably dressed, she isn’t worth talking to?

Scene 2: Just look around to find how a working woman is perceived by some members of your family. Not only will there be people who would make much ado about her “questionable character”, there will definitely be women who would be on the lookout to catch a glimpse of even the slightest of loopholes in her housewifery, only to blame her day job for it.

“Didn’t you hear she gets her children those ready made meals from the shops. What a shame!”

As far as I know, working or not, most households are opting for quick fixes to meals so this just sounds like one of those excuses people are looking for to blame the women who are trying to have a life.

Scene 3: I recently came across a mom of a friend who vehemently insisted that the true place of a woman is in the kitchen and she isn’t supposed to complain even if her work in the kitchen and around the house gives her blisters. Well, excuse me. While I’m completely okay with the fact that women may want to pursue the less ambitious lifestyle of being a housewife, the idea that mothers from a very early time train their daughters to think along the lines that they are supposed to give up their ambitions and desires simply because they are not supposed to or worse, are incapable of pursuing them is quite abhorrent. Every mature, rational, educated individual has the right to decide what they want to be themselves.

Sure, there are men who have been discriminating, have violated and carried out crimes against women but blaming the entire “mankind” for the plight of women isn’t a smart thing to do, considering by doing so we not only alienate half of the population from the cause but also allow the discriminating women to get away with their antics scott free. The search for the impossibly perfect daughter-in-law and the seemingly harmless gossip about how women dress, talk and behave are all examples of practices where women are discriminated against by women.

While we are talking about education, tolerance and open-mindedness, let’s also rethink our dearly held notions about feminism, shall we?

The Botal Gali Intervention

The Botal Gali Intervention

Motor-cycling to Botal Gali

Motorcycles and men astride it seem to feel at home in Botal Gali. Zooming by the narrow street or standing stationary in front of the situated shops, the public place pretty much seems to be about two things: Bottles and bikes. Having found ourselves with sufficient time to explore, our group’s walk about the area proved to be less challenging than I assumed. For one, there was a marked difference in the presence of beggars than one would expect. We were harassed by hardly any, except for a woman who seemed to be talking to herself more than asking for charity.

The scent of a street

The Gali was alive with activity. People, mainly men and children moved about from shop to shop looking for their choice of scents while some, simply moved about just to get from Point A to Point B. Often, a rickshaw would also come jostling down the street, driving away pedestrians to either of the street’s sides but mostly, Botal Gali was crowded with bikes and people walking by.

Parked at Botal Gali

What stood in direct contrast were the shopkeepers who kept looking ahead listlessly, as if nothing about the area could surprise them or shock them into activity. Even though the passer by would occasionally exchange a few words or share a quick snack, the shopkeepers kept to themselves.

Our group half expected to be met with stares and inquisition considering we had gone with almost the same mission in mind, but weren’t. We weren’t asked to give a reason for us being there (at least, in not so many words). We weren’t asked to move when we stood there in the street observing and we definitely weren’t asked to give away our cell phones when we took them out to take a few photos. Therein lies the beauty of Botal Gali as a public space. Not only does it allow the shopkeepers and the frequent buyers to carry out their trade freely or the school children and the passengers aboard the rickshaws to pass through but it also extends its arms to the occasional nosy bloggers who with their busy notepads and active cameras, make no effort to blend in. Without much ado, it gives everyone the space to be.

(This blog is written as part of a course called Mediated Cities)

Enter Botal Gali

Enter Botal Gali

The closed entrance to Botal Gali

Botal Gali is not very welcoming on a Sunday night, or on any other nights of the week for that matter. For one, the feel of the place is quite foreboding at best what with all the shops in the narrow street all shut down and your mind wreaking havoc thinking about all the Mary Janes who could get abducted here. In fact, given the state of the said territory, one may even find themselves briefly worried for the cosmopolitan’s Peter Parkers, what with all the bikers swarming about the completely shut place like it’s nobody’s business.

My brief patrolling visit to the place allowed me to identify how the place has totally gone down from being one of the busiest places in the area where one could find all sorts of bottles to a place where the most likely visitors tend to be people looking for a quiet spot away from all the hustle bustle in Saddar. For anyone who wants to throw in the “choice of time” arguement to defend how Botal Gali is still a happening place should be told that the rest of the area, in stark contrast was found giving too hoots about how late it was in the night or was going to be, for it was only 9:30 P.M.

Botal Gali on a Sunday night

The popular opinion blames the surge in plastic bottle usage for the dismal state of the place since it has supposedly diverted the demand for bottles away from the gali. Even though, it’s kind of disheartening to find an addition to one’s “things that used to be better before” list, one can’t help but notice that there is more opportunity to explore now that the street is untainted by the market-place commotion.

While the more popular streets were alight with a frenzy that only food streets seem to bring out in Karachiites, Botal Gali appeared to go quieter by the minute making my presence feel unwelcome as the seconds in my imaginary wristwatch ticked by. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought it was one of those crime scenes they show on TV  that get closed for public while the police investigates.

Common sense dictates that one be wary of how one moves about in the area, yet the unforeseen fate of the place calls on the travellers to stop and get to know the now no-longer famous, Botal Gali. For chances are, no one else will.