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Afghanistan’s Rigid Cultural Norms; A Serious Challenge for Girls’ Education

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Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

The Afghan government, headed by Hamid Karzai, the first elected president of Afghanistan after the collapse of Taliban’s government in 2001 and its international donors with millions of dollars and other resources embarked a new era in Afghanistan. Since then the governmental and non-governmental organizations funded by international donors built many schools, recruited and educated teachers and instructors, and families started sending their progenies including girls to school. There is not an accurate statistic regarding the number of girls who went to schools during this period, but there is a widespread consensus that, since 2001, millions of girls who were deprived ofgaining education during the Taliban’s rule, found access to education.

Now that almost eighteen years have passed since the collapse of the Taliban’s regime, the status of education particularly girls’ education is not as good as it was expected. Roughly two-thirds of Afghan girls do not go to school according to the recent report published by the USAID. As the security situation worsens in Afghanistan, the progress that has been made towards girls’ education may result in a reversal. Despite the infusion of millions of dollars by foreign countries and other international independent institutions, the Afghan government could not fight with rampant challenges especially rigid cultural norms that ban girls’ education in Afghanistan. Girls are often kept at home because of harmful gender measures and these issues impede their education. Even on the basis of highly optimistic figures about the participation of girls in education, there are millions of girls in the country who have never been to school, and many more have just gone to school for a short time.When it comes to obstacles to girls’ education in Afghanistan, the government and other relevant institutions often mention insecurity the main reasons for the exclusion of girls from schools. They rarely touch the issue of cultural norms that deprive girls from education more than insecurity.

When the Taliban government collapsed in late 2001, the new Afghan government and its supporters, the countries that participated in the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan, faced with two major challenges: how to re-establish the educational system for half of the school-age population in a country with a high poverty rate and how to help girls who were excluded from education during the Taliban’s era to go back to school.To achieve this goal, the Afghan government, international donors, and foreign countries invested hugely in girl’s education in Afghanistan.They taught that by building schools, providing educational materials such as textbooks and other educational resources would help Afghan girls obtain education. There is no doubt that these aids paved the way for Afghan girls to find access to their basic rights – education. But unfortunately, neither the Afghan government nor the international organizations working on developing educational programs paid serious attention to one of the key challenges to girl’s education – the prevailing rigid cultural norms among the communities and families that ban hundreds and thousands of girls from going to school in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, there are still a large number of tribes and communities who assume women as home keepers and believe that they don’t’ have any kind of responsibilities outside the home. Given that they are not interested too much in sending their daughters to school. They still consider some of the common social norms as taboos such as schooling girls. Regardless of the fact that housekeeping and home affairs should be done well and appropriately, girls need to gain education. Some communities in Afghanistan think that schooling girls are a disgrace and for justifying their reasons, they refer to religion that actually, there is not any religious justification for halting girls from obtaining education. Among the number of Afghans who consider girls’ education as taboo and forbidden, it is believed that women should raise their children and not spend their time in school. Being ignorant of the fact that raising children can be done better if a mother acquires education. However, these and dozens of other traditional beliefs in Afghanistan have caused a large number of girls to be deprived of going to school.

To fight with the abovementioned challenges, the Islamic Republic Government of Afghanistan passed the Law on the Prohibition of Violence Against Women in August 2009. This law for the first time in Afghanistan considers child marriage, forced marriage, compulsory self-immolation and other 19 types of violence against women, including rape as a crime, and for those who commit imposed a penalty.Although the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women is an essential step in the eradication of violence against women and girls, it does not help girls have access to education. In other words, the above law does not help girls and women in the fight against the rigid traditional norms and values that ban them from gaining education.

According to the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, education is the right of all citizens and is provided free of charge by the state.To this end, the government is required to design and implement effective programs in order to promote the balanced distribution of education throughout Afghanistan, to provide compulsory secondary education. This constitutional principle stipulates the need for access to quality and balanced education services for all citizens of the country, regardless of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, gender and physical status. Article 44 of the 2004 Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan specifically deals with the education of women. According to this principle, the government is obligated to plan and implement effective programs for the balancing and development of women’s education. Another part of the government’s obligation is to comply with a number of international treaties. These treaties include Third Millennium Development Goals and Education for All. Under the two treaties, the Afghan government is required to provide all children with access to primary education.

The Prevailing Challenges towards Girls’ Education

Early and Child Marriage:More than half of the girls in Afghanistan aregetting married before reaching the age of 19, of which 40% are between the ages of 10 and 13, 32% at age 14 and 27% at the age of 15. The United Nations holds that seven million and 300,000 girls are getting married before reaching the legal age around the world every year, of which 12 percent are Afghan girls.According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the main reasons for the rise of forced and underage marriages in Afghanistan are poverty, unfair socialization, insecurity, and the continuing impunity culture. But researchers argue that illiteracy is the main reason for child marriage in Afghanistan.So, as girls get married, they do not continue their education. When they are kept ill treated as their parents, their daughters encounter the same fate as they faced after getting married.

In a country where a third of the girls marry before age 18, the marriage of children leaves many girls out of education. The minimum age for marriage for girls is in accordance with Afghanistan’s Constitutional Law is 16. In practice, the law is less enforced, which is why most girls are married before the age stipulated in the law. The consequences of marriage for children are very detrimental and lead to the exclusion from education. Other losses due to child marriage include serious health hazards, including the deaths of girls and their children due to early pregnancy. Girls who are married at an early age may also be more likely to be victims of domestic violence than girls who are married at a later age.

Resistance anti-Teaching Girls by Male Instructors: In Afghanistan, many families are not willing to accept male teachers for their daughters. When the first girl school in Kabul was established in the early twentieth century, it was faced with a shortage of female teachers, and the government inevitably appointed male teachers to teach at girl schools, and this is still a problem for girl’s education in Afghanistan. With increasing female students, girls encountered more problems. In Afghanistan, in the remote areas still, families disagree with the presence of male teachers in girl schools. Despite this traditional belief, in many regions of Afghanistan, male teachers teach at girl schools. But, generally, a shortage of female teachers prohibits girls from going to schools. This problem gets more serious and severe, when girls grow older because traditional families in Afghanistan don’t let their daughters continue their education in presence of male teachers.

Unfortunately, there are not enough schools for girls in Afghanistan. Girls have two options either go to boy schools which are far away from their vicinity or leave education. Hence, some families prevent their daughters from traveling to another area for long periods of time. On the other hand, in some provinces of Afghanistan due to lack of facilities, girls and boys are allowed to study in the co-ed classroom, which is not acceptable for many families due to the dominant traditions and the culture governing in Afghanistan. Thus, many Afghan girls are left out of school in areas where the government cannot provide separate classrooms for boys and girls and schools don’t have adequate educational resources such as instructors, classrooms, and other supporting materials for teaching. And, families are not allowing their daughters to study together with boys in the one class.

Resistance against girls being taught by male instructors is not the same in every province of Afghanistan. This problem has been solved in the areas where the cultural barriers to girls’ education have been reduced, where households, school administrators and community elders have supported girls to complete their schooling even with male teachers. Those girls who are completing their schooling either with female teachers or male ones can enter higher education institutions and will be hired as teachers in girl schools after graduation. This has led to a minimization of female teachers in girl schools in some regions of Afghanistan particularly in the central provinces of Afghanistan. This achievement has strengthened both the presence of women in the community and the cultural sensitivity of preventing girls from entering school and university. This cultural and public awareness provides the ground for a new tradition in which families try to encourage their daughters to complete their education to become teachers to support other girls in their communities.

This change in attitudes towards the education of girls is more rampant in the central regions of Afghanistan such Ghazni, Bamiyan, and Daykundi provinces. Also, this attitude to helping girls go to school as boys have been developed in some ways in Badakhshan Province and some northern provinces of the country. But in other provinces, with the exception of the cities of the country, girls continue to be educated with serious cultural limitations. Even with educational facilities, families do not allow their daughters to go to school and families that allow their girls to go to primary school but ban them from going to secondary school.

Exclusion of Sexual Abused Girls from School: Besides war and conflicts that lead to girls’ exclusion from education, girls on their way to school also face unwanted crimes and abusive practices, including abduction and sexual harassment in Afghanistan. There are many reports of kidnapping of girls on the ways to schools by criminal gangs. Abduction is similar to acid attacks that have widespread effects on girls’ deprivation of gaining education. Kidnapping and sexual harassment cause many Afghan families in their communities to keep their children, especially girls, at home because sexual harassment and kidnapping can harm the honor of a family. So, it can have devastating consequences for girls ‘reputation and personality in their communities. That is why it is difficult for parents to bear it. Therefore, sexual harassment and kidnapping is also a key obstacle toward girls’ education.

The stigmatization and social taboos related to rape lead to many girls being abandoned by their families. Victims are penalized doubly over: they become social outcasts, whereas their violators go free. Several of these victims are schoolgirls. The weakening effects of sexual violence among the communities and families inevitably spill over into education systems. Girls subjected to rape typically experience grave physical injury – with long consequences for school attendance. The psychological effects, together with depression, trauma, shame, and withdrawal, have devastating consequences for girls’ education. Many girls drop out of school after rape pregnancy. Moreover, concern and terror of sexual attacks will lead families to prevent their daughters from going to schools. Fear of social stigmatization from sexual abuses is an important factor in household decisions on whether to send their children to school or not.

The question is here that Afghan families instead of fighting with stigmatization sexual harassment and kidnapping, they succumb to it. And most importantly, girls who been sexually abused are both the victim of sexual harassment and social stigmatization that it carries thereafter. Again, this social stigmatization depends that how families and communities interpret the consequences of sexual harassment and abuses. Since many families and communities still are in this believe that girls who have been abused sexually should be kept at home, and leave pursuing their education, hundreds and thousands of Afghan girls are deprived of education, as a result. This approach of families toward sexually abused girls that they should not go to school is rooted in the rigid cultural norms among communities. While studies indicate that one of the best ways to help the victims of child sexual abuse is providing education.

Gender Stereotype and Cultural Discrimination Against Girls’ Education: Gender stereotypingis the practice of ascribing to an individual woman or man specific attributes, characteristics, or roles by reason only of her or his membership in the social group of women or men. A gender stereotype is, at its core, that belief may cause its holder to make assumptions about members of the subject group, women and/or men.But a large body of literature demonstrates that stereotyping often results in violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals.An example of this can be the incapability of the justice system to hold perpetrator of sexual violence accountable on the basis of stereotypical views about women’s appropriate sexual behaviour.

Cultural discrimination against women includes those differences of treatment that exist because of stereotypical expectations, attitudes, and behaviors towards women. The findings of the Special Rapporteur demonstrate that stereotype about women’s role within the family leads to a division of labor within households that often result in poverty for women and lower levels of education. A stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s capacity to enhance their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make decisions about their lives. The view that rearing children is women’s responsibility, is a negative gender stereotype among the families and communities. Likewise, in Afghanistan, because of the predominant cultural and gender norms among the families and communities, boys’ education in the majority of families is given priority to girls’ education, or girls’ education is not generally of interest or is acceptable merely for a limited period.

Women in Afghanistan are discriminated because of dominant beliefs of patriarchy from childhood, even before birth. And part of the reason that Afghan girls are experiencing severe gender discrimination is pertaining to the dominant discriminatory cultural norms among the communities in Afghanistan. They are born with discrimination and die with discrimination. Lack of public awareness of human rights standards, low levels of literacy, poverty, incorrect traditions, lack of laws that support the presence and participation of women in society are among the factors that increase discrimination and, as a result, deprive women of their rights and freedoms.According to Kristensen (2016), 70 % of the women whom the author interviewed said that they experienced discrimination in different manners.Many of the women whom the author interviewed had unique stories about their lives – how their brother was free to choose the education he wanted, while they were not permitted, either for economic reasons or because they had to get married instead.One of the stories that Kristensen cites from her interviewees is extremely shocking – “When I was little my parents had a bad financial situation. So, they just sent my brother to school, said you’re a girl. Girls do not need to go to school, because, finally they do marry, and they don’t need to learn.”In a traditional country like Afghanistan, women and girls are suffering from gender discriminations against them that are mainly rooted in the cultural norms of their communities and the gender stereotypes of men toward women.

Girls’ Education and the Dominated Patriarchal Codes: Social scientists define patriarchy as the power of man over women. They argue that patriarchy refers to males’ ideology, privileges, and other principles are perceived for subjugating the females’ roles and functions in the societies. Patriarchal societies are known for marginalizing the feminine.They typically ignore or trivialize what is concerned with feminine characteristics.

Given the above definition, a country like Afghanistan that has a strong patriarchal attitude toward womanhood. In Afghanistan, because of the predominance of patriarchal attitudes and behaviour in families and communities, the power of patriarchy regulates all relationships by means of education, and it serves the interests of the patriarchal society. Therefore, equal opportunities for women and men are not provided in the social, political, economic, and educational spheres. Men can easily implement their projects in different areas, but women will face a lot of problems in the same arena. In the patriarchal society like Afghanistan, the cultural norms do not provide women with equal opportunities for gaining education and working outside the home. Thus, women are left marginalized.

Since education as an important tool in the relationship of power, it can be the root stone of gender inequality in traditional society, and women are the main victims of this gender inequality. Afghanistan, as the country with the most patriotic power in the political, economic and social spheres, some prevents and communities either by cultural means or on the basis of the patriarchal principles deprive girls from their basic human right – gaining education. Additionally, women are not counted as members of society as their men counterparts, and it has been embodied in some communities due to the control of education by patriarchal society. So, as education is an important tool that can question the values ​​and norms of patriarchal society over the long term, communities’ elders and family’s decision makers (males) knowingly ignore girl’s education.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Cultural barriers are one of the main obstacles to the growth and spread of girls’ education in Afghanistan. A large part of these cultural norms is learned through the process of socialization that shapes our lives. In this context, one of the most important ways of development and transformation in each society is to challenge and ignore the norms that for various reasons are no longer responsive and meaningful for a group or stratum. Without breaking the norms of the old, the divine, the one-sided, the unequal and the incompatible with the style and the modern conditions of life in the contemporary world, the society is dying and ruining. The key to the dynamism and transformation of a society and culture is based on the critical and challenging approach toward the value systems and norms of that society. This process starts with the breakdown of the norm and ends with the transformation of values.

Studies and researches demonstrate that educating people can play a significant role in the transformation of cultural norms and rigid cultural values.Since in Afghanistan mostly girls are the victims of these rigid cultural norms, educating them can be one of the best and most effective ways to eliminate discrimination and gender inequalities. Because when girls gain education, skills, and, the capabilities required for their presence in the society, they can fight with the political, economic, social, gender, and educational inequalities in their living communities. The Afghan Ministry of Education as a responsible entity in providing education should pay close attention to the education and training of girls and women and provide special programs in this regard. These actions require that certain mechanisms should be created by the Ministry of Education and other relevant entities for fighting with the predominant rigid cultural norms that impede girls from gaining education. In addition to government responsible entities, educating girls is one of the best investments that families and communities themselves can make it happen because educated girls, for example, marry later, will have healthier children, earn more money that they invest back into their families and communities, and play more active roles in leading their communities and families.

All in all, the findings of the current research indicate that preventing girls from going to school on the basis of cultural norms prevailing in communities, been a major cause of child marriage, violence against women, discrimination against women and girls, and gender inequality in Afghanistan. Therefore, I would argue that Afghan families instead of halting their girls from going to school and keeping them at home, should fight with the predominant cultural norms that underlie their interpretation of girl’s education. They should help their daughters obtain education so that they can help the other girls who may encounter the same fate in the future. Escaping from the problems either social problems, cultural problems, or economic is not a rational solution, instead, facing and fighting with them can help the entire communities to secure their well-being and development in the societies. Therefore, families should help their daughters gain education and provide them with equal opportunities as their sons.

Hamidullah Bamik is a Fulbright Scholar, education policy analyst, and a social development researcher. His research focus is on girl’s education and women empowerment, gender equality, good governance, and socio-economic development in South Asia but particularly Afghanistan. He has worked with World Bank Capacity Building Projectsat Supreme Audit Office of Afghanistan from 2013 to 2018 as a capacity building consultant. Currently, he is working as a social development researcher at Asia Culture House, a non-profit cultural and art organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Additionally, he is a frequent contributor on sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and social developmentissuesto Outlook and Etilaatroz, the two leading Newspapers in Afghanistan, and Modern Diplomacy, a leading European opinion-maker with far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

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The World Biggest COVID-19 Crisis: Failure of India’s Vaccine Diplomacy

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

As over 100 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and the world’s daily count of new cases is falling, India faces healthcare system collapse as a second coronavirus wave is devastating. In accordance with the recent statistics of the WHO, in the past week approximately 2 million new confirmed cases were reported worldwide – almost half were from India. Interestingly, India is one of the main producers and exporters of coronavirus vaccines in the world and since mid-January, the federal government has approved a British-made Oxford-AstraZeneca, and a locally developed– a national pride Covaxin (both are being produced in India) for the massive immunization drive that has set the ambitious goal of fully immunizing 300 million people, particularly healthcare workers by the end of summer. Meanwhile, India had initially been planning to set the world record for mass vaccination but they ended up with the world record coronavirus cases, surpassing 400.000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time.

The development and deployment of an effective and safe vaccine against the coronavirus was a key pillar in the authority’s current strategy to break down the chain of transmission. However, despite a promising start of a vaccination campaign at the beginning of this year, one of the largest immunization programs across the globe, it turns out there is not a sufficient amount of vaccine supplies in a number of states across the country. As cases continue to surge, many across the country have rushed to register for shots but most states are running out of doses and a large number of vaccination centers across India turned away people due to chronic shortages or complete lack of availability of jabs. While India is one of the major producers of COVID-19 vaccines with a monthly capacity of 70 million doses, now forced to import jabs, as local manufacturing facilities are facing challenges to meet growing demand. As India’s expansion of its immunization campaign has been failing badly, it makes a disastrous situation even worse. On the other hand, the current devastation leads to a depression in global vaccine supply and consequently, it hits the low and middle-income countries, as they rely on the Indian pharmaceutical industry.

The second devastating wave was hitting the country since mid-April and apparently, India’s poorly funded public healthcare system is not capable enough to overcome the world’s largest surge in COVID cases. Health facilities overwhelmed as infection rates explode; therefore, many hospitals in the large cities already suspended admitting even the critically ill coronavirus patients as all beds were full and medical equipment, particularly oxygen concentrators, ICU beds, test kits, PPEs and ventilators in short supply, while corpses pile up at morgues and crematoriums. As a death toll rises sharply, additional crematoriums are being built in order to deal with the grim situation, especially in the hardest-hit cities and states. Furthermore, in the midst of a big surge Indian government also launched a vaccination drive for anyone over the age of 18 starting 1st of May.  Ironically, along with China and Russia, India was a country that had begun exporting home-grownCOVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries, but only less than 3% of its population has been fully vaccinated so far. During a global pandemic, thanks to its massive production capacity, India actively donated locally produced Coronavirus vaccines to the Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and African low and middle-income nations under the “Vaccine Friendship” program. The initiative was launched in early 2021 and it sought to promote cooperation and cement ties by distributing a dozen of jabs through the Vaccine Diplomacy. In reality, in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world, India shipped millions of doses to poorer countries before managing to secure an adequate amount of vaccines for its own people.

India’s infections keep surging due to the unavailability of medical resources and thus the crisis also affecting the global vaccine and medical supply chains, as over 40 countries, including Russia, European Union, China and the United States and numerous international charities are proactively providing a range of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance.

Many events marking religious festivals and cultural events across the world have been banned because of Coronavirus; on the contrary, despite the high risks of infection several crowded religious festivals and gatherings have been taking place in India’s various holy sites and places of worship with a thousand of unmasked pilgrims and devotees. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s total23campaign rallies that brought tens of thousands of incautious supporters together caused the spike in coronavirus cases. Hence, the federal government acted reluctantly to impose major restrictions for containing the virus by relying on local authorities to take action.

Indeed, India is the third country with over130 million doses administrated in the world, the highest figure just behind the United States and China respectively, but even the large-scale vaccination process was insufficient to prevent the second wave for a population of more than 1.3 billion people. Although international flights are being suspended to and from India by many governments, a more transmissible India COVID variant, formally known as B.1.617has already been detected in multiple countries and territories worldwide. India’s COVID -19 crisis warns that the risk of infection remains high and many countries could face a strong resurgence of COVID-19similar to India. Health experts concern that a new and more contagious strain spreads more easily and it could even evade vaccines. The current outbreak shows that every country remains vulnerable and could find itself in dire straits unless the adaptation and implementation of strict anti-pandemic measures and policies. However, strengthening the public health system, enhancing safety protocols and sanitary measures, ensuring transparency and accountability, and initiating a successful immunization campaign will be seemingly crucial to combat the pandemic, otherwise, a similar crisis could soon become a common tragedy for the entire world in the foreseeable future.

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Pakistan desires dialogue and cooperation with the EU

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Renew Europe, a liberal, pro-European political group of the European Parliament, presented a resolution and was passed by the EU by an overwhelming majority of 681 votes against six only. Extremist, racist groups influence the EU. No doubt, the whole world is suffering from intolerance and extremism. There are many racist movements in America and Europe too.

Pakistan being an open and democratic country, enjoys total freedom of expression to its citizen. There must be diverse voices within Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan is a parliamentary system. All matters are discussed in the parliament, which is responsible for building consensus on all crucial issues and addressing the concerns of all groups, factions, parties, minorities, etc.

Historically, Pakistan was a very tolerant and peace-loving, balanced society, but during the 1980s war in Afghanistan, Pakistan was radicalized by design. The western world deliberately promoted intolerance, religious extremist, and terrorism. Almost all intelligence agencies of the leading Western World were engaged in Pakistan for arming, training, and inspiring youth for Jihad in Afghanistan. These international intelligence agencies collected radical individuals from all over the world and concentrated them in Pakistan to launch Jihad in Afghanistan; Many terrorist organizations were created by them in the whole Muslim world, was either, Mujahideen, Taliban, Daesh, Al-Qaida, or ISIS, Boko-Haram, or any other militant group, was the creation of Western World and used for particular objectives. After achieving their goals, they banned them and kept their distance from them. And she was now blaming them for terrorism, Unfortunate!

 Pakistan was a close ally of the US, NATO, and Europe (Western World), an essential front-line state in the Afghan war, and a non-NATO ally in the war on terror.  Pakistan suffered extremism, intolerance, terrorism, gun culture, and drug culture, promoted by the Western world. Pakistan is a victim state. 

The visionary leadership in Pakistan is very much clear about the situation and determined to establish the rit of government while staying within the democratic values of our system. The recent unrest in Pakistan was a domestic issue, just like in many parts of Europe and America. The incident of Capitol Hill, Killing of Gorge Floyd, and followed continued protests and demonstrations in America; agitations, demonstrations in many parts of Europe are witnessed often, it is believed that all governments are trying to resolve their domestic issues within their Constitution. There was no external pressure on either of these governments. It is expected that let Pakistan overcome its domestic crisis, and the capable Government of PM Imran Khan has already resolved the issue amicably.

Under this scenario, the adoption of a resolution by the EU is not appreciated and, in fact, has hurt the feeling of ordinary Pakistani. It reflects the bias of EU only. A resolution presented by the extremist group should not be the voice of the whole EU. Trust, there must be many reasonable, moderate, and unbiased members in the  EU parliament who think logically and rationally. The adoption of such a resolution is totally irrational, irresponsible, and against the globalization spirit.

While Pakistan is engaged to clear the mess created by Western World and almost near to succeed entirely, there is a dire need for International support, and coercion may not be fruitful at this critical moment. It is hoped that the EU may re-consider the resolution and revert it immediately. All peace-loving parliamentarians in the EU are appealed to think rationally and logically to promote international cooperation and understanding to defeat intolerance, bais, extremist, terrorism and turn the whole world into a better place to live and gift our next generation peace, stability, harmony, and prosperity.

However, Islamophobia is an international phenomenon in recent decades all over the Western World. The Prime Minister of Pakistan mentioned it in his speech at the United Nations General assembly (UNGA) last year. A similar resolution was also passed in the OIC. The whole Muslim World is worried and unhappy over blasphemy in the few western countries. There were protests and demonstrations by Muslims all over the world, with various intensities. At the same time, Muslims respect other religions and deserve to reciprocate respect for Islam.

The federal government in Pakistan has decided to address the European Parliament’s reservations after the body had called for an appraisal of Pakistan’s GSP Plus status. The development came after Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting involving senior ministers of the cabinet. It was called in response to a resolution approved by the European Parliament a few days ago, calling for an assessment of Pakistan’s GSP Plus status. The premier stressed the government would not compromise on the laws about the finality of the Prophethood. The participants, during the meeting, decided to address the reservations of the European Union. It was also unanimously agreed that the protection of minorities in the country would be ensured. The participants believed the GSP Plus trade agreement has nothing to with blasphemy laws.

In response to the European Parliament’s resolution, the Foreign Office had expressed disappointment over the development.”The discourse in the European Parliament reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated religious sensitivities in Pakistan – and the wider Muslim world. The unwarranted commentary about Pakistan’s judicial system and domestic laws are regrettable,” read a statement by the FO.

“Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy with a vibrant civil society, free media, and independent judiciary, which remains fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights for all its citizens without discrimination,” the Foreign Office had added.

The FO had emphasized that Pakistan is proud of its minorities who enjoy equal rights and complete protection of fundamental freedoms as enshrined in the Constitution. Judicial and administrative mechanisms and remedies are in place to guard against any human rights violations.

“Pakistan has played an active role in promoting freedom of religion or belief, tolerance, and inter-faith harmony. At a time of rising Islamophobia and populism, the international community must exhibit a common resolve to fight xenophobia, intolerance, and incitement to violence based on religion or belief and work together to strengthen peaceful co-existence.”

There exist multiple mechanisms in place between Pakistan and the EU to discuss the all-inclusive spectrum of bilateral relations, including a devoted Dialogue on Democracy, Rule of Law, Governance, and Human Rights. Pakistan would continue to remain definitely engaged with the EU on all issues of mutual interest. Pakistan believes in dialogue under the charter of the UN. Pakistan desires an early dialogue and settlement of all differences amicably. Any unilateral decision may not be fruitful to either side. It is time to strengthen our ties and mutual support. Only by collective efforts may we turn this universe into a better place to live for humankind. Pakistan assures its best possible cooperation at all times and awaits reciprocity from the EU.

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Religion Freedom Index of Bangladesh: Current Developments and Government Responses

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Pope Francis joins in prayers led by a Rohingya Muslim man at an inter-religious conference at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on December 1, 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently published its annual Religious Freedom in the World 2021 Report (RFR) that scrutinizes the situation for all major religion groups in 196 countries across the world. The report found that, over the past two years, oppression against susceptible faith communities has augmented in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey’s worst (‘red’) category. Bangladesh is that only country whose position on the red list of religious persecution remains unchanged.

The annual report says that religious freedom is being undermined in one out of every three countries in the world which composed two-thirds of the world population. 62 countries out of a total of 196 face severe violations of religious freedom. The situation of minorities in India and Pakistan is deteriorating further. The situation in China and Myanmar is the worst. According to the report, the situation is worse in 95 percent of the 26 countries where persecution is taking place. Nine new countries have been included in this list- seven from Africa and two from Asia.

The report on Bangladesh says that the torture of minorities has not increased in recent years but the influence of Islamic groups is increasing in the politics of Bangladesh. However, the government has been successful in subdue the influence and maintaining religious freedom. For instance, after the rise of Islam-fabric politicization leading by “Hefazat-e-Islam”, the top leaders and at least 375 people nabbed for their recent violent activities. The strict position of law enforcement agencies against the rampage of the group denotes the zero-tolerance of Bangladesh government in ensuring religious freedom and upholding “secularism” which is one of the state principals of its constitution. The argument can be evident with the recent report of the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) titled, “Bangladesh and Pakistan: acting against extremism versus making a show of acting against extremism”. Highlighting the activities of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HIB) in Bangladesh and the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) in Pakistan, the report comments that Bangladesh government has been making “noticeable progress in dealing with the radical Islamist HIB whereas Pakistan has floundered dramatically in its inconsistent, ill-considered and ill-implemented attempts to pacify the TLP”. Besides, the initiatives of the Bangladesh government in protecting the minority rights are so much praiseworthy.

According to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom of US Department of State, to advocate the minority rights and to foster religious tolerance, Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives such as-

•Providing guidance to imams throughout the country to prevent militancy and monitoring mosques for “provocative messaging”.

•Deploying law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considering potential violence. The Economic Times reported that 30,000 and 31,272Durga Pujas were organized across the country in 2017 and 2018 respectively without any security issue.

•Zero-tolerance to Islamic militancy. For instance, Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants who were accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka.

•Offering stipends to students from the minority groups in the primary and secondary level; and

•Providing funds for minority rituals and social activities.

Most importantly, Bangladesh ensures a level playing field in the employment sectors and a viable people-to-people contact. ‘Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utsob Shobar,’ (Religion for own, but festivals for all” is a testimony of its secular values and communal harmony. The ACN report itself showed, in Bangladesh, where due to fear of infection, minority faith groups were incapable of offering the last rites to family members, an Islamic charity buried not only Muslim but also Hindu and Christian victims of COVID-19. Besides, reliefs were equally provided to every sector of the society regardless of their race or religion.

To conclude, Bangladesh always believes in fraternity beyond ethno-religious affiliations and practiced secularism in daily life throughout the history. But at present, due to the rise of right-wing populist politics both at regional and global level and rise of fundamentalism, religious harmony in Bangladesh is also affected. However, comparatively, Bangladesh is doing better than many regional states and the country is destined to overcome the challenges in near future due to the pro-active role of the government in this regard.

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