As I sit in a buzzing restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in Karachi, I see an artificial conifer tree near the entrance. It is draped with fairy lights and decorated with Christmas decorations with artificial presents around it. This time of the year, in the largest metropolis of Pakistan, this sight is more prevalent than the amount of Christians in the country. Most restaurants, malls, and even storefronts tap into the holiday spirit by investing in some festive decorations. I find this extremely amusing; not because Pakistan’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim; not even because this level of enthusiasm is not granted to another major minority (Hindus and their festivals who also make up 1.6% of the country’s population), but because this paints a falsely progressive portrait of our society.
In a country that was built upon the basis of religion, Islam, and its basis is upheld as ardently as ever, the symbolic inclusivity of Christmas is impressive. Yet it is also a deceptive veneer masking the grotesque truth about religious persecution. Just this year, the International Christian Concern (ICC) documented about 80 cases of persecution in the country, ranging from discrimination, sexual assaults, abductions, forced conversions, blasphemy accusations, and murder.
In this same year, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja was abducted and subjected to forced conversion and marriage to a 45-year-old Muslim man, who initially tried to prove that she was 18 and consented to the marriage. While the incident caused an uproar on social media, the authorities were slow to take action, prioritizing the investigation of her actual age through a medical board. Though horrifying, Arzoo Raja’s story was by no means rare. According to a study conducted by Birmingham University, about 1000 girls each year are “abducted, forcibly converted, and married off to their abductors.”
While such perverse instances make headlines, the religious discrimination of the Christian community is common in most spheres of Pakistani life. They are also relegated to the peripheries of the economy and the workforce: due to bleak employment opportunities owing to lack of education and financial privilege. Thus many Christian women specialize as nursing staff or as beauty workers in salons. Growing up, the fact that the majority of salon workers were Christian, with few to none Muslims was a source of intrigue for me. But when I learned that Christians make up to 80% to 90% of Pakistan’s sanitation workforce, I understood it was a mix of discriminatory hiring practices and the idea of hygiene and caste (which is also prevalent in the Hindu caste system where there exists a sweeper class). Ironically, many of Pakistan’s Christians actually descended from low caste Hindus who converted in order to escape the caste system. But at the same time, in my years of visiting salons, I have also witnessed seemingly enlightened, privileged women walk in and request only Muslim girls do their services. I later discovered that as a result, many salon workers had adopted more Muslim sounding pseudonyms: a Maria was actually Mary.
On my last trip to the salon, I decided to ask a worker how it felt to be on the receiving end of such discrimination. I have been a regular client for this particular person and she’s otherwise quite cheerful and talkative. When I asked about her experience as a Christian in an Islamic state and the rights and liberties granted over Christmas, she was quiet and awkward. But her reticence gave me an answer that echoed loudly, the trauma of silence that her community has had to endure. Unaware of the full repercussions of the state’s blasphemy laws, I had asked a very personal question. The stringent blasphemy laws and their misuse, which in part sought to homogenize the populace of Pakistan into Muslim affiliation, have permanently robbed many of the right to freedom of speech. It was then that I realized that her reluctance to answer stemmed from her insecurity and vulnerability and my privilege as a Muslim in this country. I could record her for slander and blasphemy and have her charged just like many hardliners in my country historically had. Rather ashamed, I apologized for my momentary ignorance.
Two years ago, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman was finally acquitted after spending nearly a decade in prison under false blasphemy charges. But on her way of leaving the country, Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a group of hardliners, broke out into violent protests. She was accused of blasphemy after an argument with some coworkers in 2009. A year later, a local judge meted out the death sentence to her and this verdict was upheld by the High Court of the region. Shahbaz Bhatti (then Minorities Minister) and Salman Taseer (then Governor of Punjab) were both assassinated for advocating for her and criticizing the blasphemy laws. Her family went into hiding and there was a bounty awarded to anyone who could kill her. Ultimately public outrage combined with humanitarian efforts had her acquitted.
Even now, while the world has been battling with a pandemic, Pakistan also has to curtail its very own epidemic of religious discrimination. The ICC also reported that Christians were deliberately left out of many food distribution efforts that happened in the wake of Covid-19. In a village in Kasur, about 100 families were denied food aid because of their “Christian surnames”. The organization also expressed concern over efforts using food aid as bait to convert vulnerable Christians and other religious minorities.
Truth be told, I don’t know why Muslims in Pakistan celebrate Christmas. Of course, the holiday coincides with the birth of Quaid-e-Azam, the nation’s founding father, which is already a Federal holiday. Maybe it is something we have picked up from television. Maybe the quaint and vintage vibe appeals to us. Maybe it is our lingering colonial complex that makes us want to appear more Eurocentric. Maybe we want to partake in the biggest consumerist frenzy of the year. Whatever the case is, the events of this year have revealed it is certainly not because we respect other traditions, cultures, or religions. The harrowing history of prejudice and discrimination leaves a stark reminder that we are only able to demonstrate tolerance and hospitality to a Christmas tree and decorations, not actual human beings.
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