No songs of praise: Book launch turns into mock fest as activists lash out at each other

The SPDC’s book launch does not go as planned as Tahira Abdullah refuses to stick to the script.

Rabia Ali July 22, 2014

KARACHI: The Social Policy and Development Centre found themselves at the receiving end of an activist’s wrath at a book launch they had organised on Monday.

“I have been called here from Islamabad to speak for only about eight minutes,” mocked rights activist Tahira Abdullah, the sarcasm rife in her voice.  It was her turn to supposedly sing songs of praise for a book on gender development and women’s issues.

What Abdullah did next sent the audience and the organisers into shock. Instead of the usual praises and congratulations that speakers are supposed to shower at a book launch, Abdullah chose a refreshingly different line.

For the 10 minutes that she spoke, Abdullah thrashed the book titled In Search of Gendered Development: A Compendium, launched by the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) at Marriott Hotel on Monday.

Hearing her criticism of the book, her fellow speakers and organisers visibly turned pale.  The audience was left gaping at the speaker’s audacity to speak her mind. But Abdullah would not stop.

She kicked off with the cover page, “It has women and men holding hands. Why can’t women stand alone? Why do they have to hold hands?” Abdullah lamented that there was no discussion of transgender or even about disabled women in the book.

And just as the organisers thought she was done, she brought out her strongest censure. Abdullah strongly criticised the SPDC for their claims of contributing a lot towards issues of poverty and social development when there were others doing the same for years. “They should not have used the word ‘pioneering’ for themselves in the book.”

Flipping through the pages, Abdullah turned emotional and said terms such as vulnerable and victims used were incorrect. “There is no proper bibliography,” she remarked.

Abdullah was most furious about the back cover. “It says that the women’s movement failed to take up these issues. This is wrong. I don’t know who wrote this but this is not our fault that you don’t read or write.”

The women’s activist termed the data and generalisations in the book sweeping statements. Pro-women laws were passed even in 2008, she pointed out. “I am being told to end my speech. Come to Islamabad all of you,” she said, before abruptly ending her speech. The next speaker, Kishwar Naheed, another women’s rights activist and Urdu poet, was less fierce than Abdullah, but equally critical. “It seems like Kaiser Bengali has never actually met women because he would otherwise know what kind of trouble they face in buses.”

She said that when the book spoke about the floods and women affected by it, Thatta and Sujawal were mentioned but Muzafargarh and Rajanpur, where water stood for 90 days, was ignored.

“There should be talks of practicality. The book says women in Balochistan don’t work, but in Khuzdar and Turbat, they make embroidery that is sold across the seas.”

After her, the next set of speakers all defended the book as the launch turned into a battlefield for contrasting opinions.

To get back at the feminists, the vice-chairperson of the SPDC, Javed Jabbar, lashed out at women’s movements. “We have had no cohesive national women’s movement.”

Jabbar said that they respected all guests and said that the book stimulates debate.

“This book is a valuable contribution and contains studies that are simply constrained by official data.”

Economist Kaiser Bengali, who edited the book, had given the opening speech. But after the bouts of criticism, he spoke again at the end to answer his critiques.

“This type of work should not be discredited,” he appealed to his fellow speakers. He then went on to say that “micro issues had never been addressed by women movements.”

Bengali said that he had simply edited the book and had not conducted the research, adding that every table was referenced and there was no methodology framework needed in some of the studies. MPA Mehtab Rashidi and secretary-general of HRCP, IA Rehman, also supported the book, with the latter saying that he felt like congratulating the SPDC.

But no one was in the mood for congratulations. Specific details about the book were overshadowed by the events of the evening.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2014.