Mehr Tarar, a freelance columnist, is the former op-ed editor of Daily Times, a leading English daily. Tarar has one son, Musa, eighteen, whom she considers her inspiration for everything she does. She lives in Lahore.
Do We Not Bleed? Reflections of a 21st-Century Pakistani is a passionate, illuminating book about contemporary Pakistan. Comprising original profiles of diverse Pakistanis—some of whom are internationally feted and many others who are relatively unknown—as well as essays that examine the major fault lines in Pakistani society, the book offers the reader an insider’s perspective on the state of affairs in the country today.
The book is divided into five thematic sections, each corresponding to a subject that the author feels strongly about. ‘Religious Persecution and Other Discontents’ delves into the killings and oppression generated by religious discord that are now a routine feature of life in Pakistan. In this section we find stories of people like Ambreen, the girl who dared to take on the patriarchy and repressive customs and was burned to death for her defiance, and Qandeel Baloch, the self-proclaimed selfie queen, who was killed by her own brother, for daring to flaunt her sexuality and contempt for the hypocrisy that permeated the society she was part of; ‘The Pakistan You Do Not Know’ shows us little known aspects of everyday life in Pakistan; ‘Remarkable Pakistanis’ tells the story of, among others, Muniba Mazari, a quadriplegic whose inspiring story proves the resilience of the human mind and spirit and Shazia Mushtaq, the selfless educator of Yahounabad; ‘Family and Friends’ contains personal narratives about members of the author’s immediate circle; and ‘The India Connection’ crosses the border to profile aspects of India that the author cherishes, including Delhi and Amitabh Bachchan.
Written in her inimitable style, Mehr Tarar’s first book is a remarkably honest account of her beloved country. Below you can read an excerpt from Do We Not Bleed? Reflections of a 21st-Century Pakistani. Courtesy: Aleph Book Company.
Motherhood in Patriarchal Pakistan
Having a child and being the sole supervisor of his life for almost seventeen years made me take decisions and make choices that primarily had one premise: the well-being of my son, Musa. Every step that I took, every turn my life had, every sensible choice that I made, every mistake that I avoided, the lifestyle that I conditioned my urges to, the doors that I closed, the windows that I let creak open, the ties that I valued, and the values that mattered, it all came down to one thing: what was good for my son.
My former husband has remained a constant presence in my son’s life, emotionally and financially. Now, when my son is a tad taller than his father, they talk in detail about things. The long-distance father is one text, one call away, and that is one of the most stabilizing factors in the character building of Musa, in keeping him balanced and secure.
On a day-to-day basis, however, there is only one presence in Musa’s life: mine.
This November day, I pick up Musa from his school at 11 a.m. on a one-hour leave to take him to the passport office in Lahore, and en route we chat about how much he is looking forward to visiting Russia in March for a Model United Nations conference. Both of us need new passports as our old ones expire soon. What should have been a routine exercise turns into a two-hour fiasco that becomes a lesson on the status of women in a patriarchal society. Is this going to be my impassioned treatise on feminism? Hell, no. What I discover in the first five minutes in the passport office: I need court-sanctioned proof of my ‘guardianship’ of my son. Yes.
And this, more or less, is how my argument with the officer at the desk of what could be termed as the public relations/customer service department of the passport office in Garden Town, Lahore, goes:
Me: ‘Err, this is my son’s fourth passport. Why do I now need something that I didn’t even know existed?’
Passport office official: ‘This has been the law for the last few years.’
Me: ‘But why?’
Official: ‘There have been cases of children being taken out of the country without the father’s permission.’
Official: ‘In those cases, there was a great deal of noise, and people took it out on us. Ergo the law.’
Me: ‘But I have a NADRA-issued document that is a testimony to the fact that our family comprises two people: my son and me.’
Official: ‘That may be so, but for the issuance of a new passport you need a court-issued document as proof of your guardianship of your son.’
Me: ‘Do you realize that my son will be seventeen in one month, and he is going to college next year, and he is not a seven-year-old who could be “taken away” from his father—or mother —without his consent?’
Official: ‘A rule is a rule. And there will be no processing of his application until you get a certificate from court.’
After a prolonged raising of voice and a persistent refusal to move from that table, the application of the last passport issued to Musa is checked, and despite the notation that the passport was issued only in the presence of his mother—id est me—there is no alteration in the official’s refusal to accept anything I have to say in my now loudly angry voice and my argument in repudiation of their claim that I need the father’s permission endorsed by a court to get a new passport for my sixteen-year-old son.
Being a divorced woman and having my father’s name on my National Identity Card (NIC), I am required to prove that I am my son’s legal guardian. It is pointless to assert that there is no custody issue between my ex-husband and me. That we have a great relationship as parents of a child who is the bond that even divorce could not dent. That I am in constant touch with my ex-husband in one form or the other. That right from the time I had my child, from choosing his name to deciding how to raise him, all decisions have been solely mine. That despite my financial dependence on his father, everything about my son’s life is singularly my prerogative. That the only one who takes care of everything in my son’s life is me. His mother.
After I apply for my own passport, and after I leave the passport office with two DSPs who have been sent there by my cousin’s husband, a high-level police officer, to help me with some legalities, the enormity of what I went through in the last two hours hits me. Despite being divorced, if it had been my former husband who had brought our son to the passport office, he would have been able to apply for a new passport without an eyebrow being raised or a question being asked. The single father would have been able to get a new passport for his teenage son without requiring the presence of the mother, or any court putting a stamp of authenticity on his right to be the boy’s father. The law applies to both parents, but the hard reality is that mostly it is only made applicable to mothers. Mothers who have their father’s name on their NIC.
Once I am seated in my car, my son half-asleep in the back seat, one of the DSPs hands me his cell phone to talk to a lawyer who does his best to explain to me how my right of being Musa’s mother could be challenged in court. A process endorsed, sanctioned and overseen by men.
‘Ji, ji, you would have to enter a petition in court. Then you would be given a date. During your hearing, you would have to present evidence and witnesses so as to prove your guardianship of your child. And after that, there would have to be a public declaration that he is your son, and then you can apply for his passport. You see, your son is not eighteen yet, and since he is not an adult, he is a dependent. And it is up to you how you prove that in your favour in court.’
Exhausted, now I am beyond anger. I only have a strange feeling of helplessness rising from my toes, curling its way up to enclose my chest in a vice-like grip. I am not being melodramatic: it just hits me hard. It is not about the need to get a new passport for Musa right away, or about my failure to convince the passport-issuing personnel to pay heed to my justified claims of being the sole guardian of my son, or about the nuisance of going to a court to get something that should have been simply mine without having to fight for it.
Despite all my claims of being a mother for the last almost seventeen years here I am staring at the cracked screen of my iPhone; in my anger-induced absentmindedness inside the passport office, I had been leaving my bag all over, missing announcements of my name to appear at different counters and dropping things including my phone. I have been so focused on giving all of my time and attention and love and material attention to my child that I had never realized that legally, in a country that ostensibly runs on Islamic laws and does not really adhere to the real essence of Islamic injunctions, I am just a woman. A divorced woman. A single mother.
Without the name of a husband on my papers, I could give all my love to my child but I am not allowed to get a passport made for him. Without the husband’s name, I could give all I have to my son—emotionally and materially—but I may not take him out of the country. Without the name of my husband, I am not my son’s guardian. It doesn’t matter that I stay up all night for my son, ensure he has everything he needs, pick him up from school on time, wait for him outside the school for over an hour while he attends an after-school club, leave the house only when I need to do something for him, or that I buy him whatever he wants while mentally shaking my head at the many things I need to change in my room. Without the name of the man I am no longer married to, I have to prove in a court that my son is legally my responsibility.