Naureen Aqueel

Archive for the ‘The Express Tribune’ Category

An edited version of this article was published in The Express Tribune Sunday Magazine, October 9, 2011.

While harried moms in her neighbourhood rush to pack off their kids to school every morning, Sadaf Farooqi’s day starts on a relaxed tone. Her six year old daughter A’isha Irfan rises early, makes her own breakfast and starts her day unleashing her creativity using pencils, colours, water colours, scissors and paper. Her four year old brother Abdullah Irfan joins her after a while.

A’isha later switches to reading one of the books from her curriculum set, going to her mother for questions whenever she feels the need. Her younger brother pores over her work, scribbles with pencils and colours randomly on sheets of paper, experiments with lego and paper and returns to his mother with numerous questions throughout the day.

A’isha and Abdullah do not go to school. For them, home is their school – a place where they are free to learn at will in a natural setting. Sadaf, a freelance writer and blogger who has been homeschooling her kids for over a year now, prefers a lack of structure without fixed learning slots for different subjects while educating her children. She does follow the official Oxford University Press curriculum with books for Maths, English, Urdu, Social Studies, General Science and Islamiat along with daily Quran lessons, but prefers to let her children choose when they want to study what. She feels this lack of force helps hone the children’s natural inclination to learn.

The Irfans are part of a community of like-minded parents who are opting out of the mainstream choice of formally schooling their kids. Instead, these highly educated parents who have been through the conventional schooling system themselves are choosing to educate their children at home where they say, the curriculum is flexible and the efforts rewarding.

In a society where the educational rat race is so intense that parents begin registering their kids in the best primary schools even before birth, this group of parents has made the radical choice of going against the norm, deflecting doubts and criticism to do what they find is best for their children.

Sadaf says she always disliked the whole school routine which involves “ironing the uniforms, laying out the clothes, shoes and socks at night; packing the bag according to the timetable; forcing the child to finish off her homework; making and packing the lunch in the mornings, forcing a few mouthfuls down a reluctant mouth, then sending off a sometimes mildly sick, or screaming toddler with a tear-ridden face, to school with a heavy heart and a shackled mind that never ‘dared’ to question the necessity of this so-called ‘must-have’ system of education”. She didn’t seriously consider homeschooling until she met a few mothers who were educating their children at home in Karachi.

Homeschooling is not a new concept. Traditionally, before the advent of compulsory schooling systems, children were educated at home or within the community. In modern parlance, however, homeschooling has come to refer to the method of alternative education that is practiced across the world outside mainstream schools. The approach has been around in the UK and USA for several decades taking the shape of a complete movement that propelled reforms in the laws that once held the practice of not sending children to school to be illegal. Prestigious universities in the West like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford and MIT are now granting admissions and scholarships to homeschooled candidates.

The philosophy behind the concept is rooted in the works of educationist and social scientist John Holt who coined the term “unschooling” or “deschooling” and pioneered the early homeschooling movement with his works ‘How children learn’ and ‘How children fail’. His books advocating the approach of removing children from school and educating them at home through a method of natural learning based on learning-on-demand, provoked a national controversy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The concept, though relatively new in Pakistan, is gaining popularity among families who are dissatisfied with the traditional schooling system and prefer being more involved in their children’s education. Parents like the Irfans got together and formed the Pakistan Home Education group which consists of an online community with approximately 150 members comprising homeschooling parents and those interested in home education. They also launched a quarterly magazine focusing on their activities and various issues related to home education. The group, comprising roughly 20 homeschooling families, also holds regular social events where moms and children get together for combined social activities and support. Mums and Tots is held every second Monday of the month at someone’s home where kids play with each other and moms discuss problems and solutions, and Bookworm’s Book Club is held weekly and consists of interesting story-telling followed by craft activities and snacks, explains Laila Brence, pioneer of the Pakistan Home Education group and a Latvian revert to Islam residing in Karachi.

Homeschooling families can be categorised into several different types based on the factors that drove them towards home education. Many parents are dissatisfied with the standard of education in local schools, the exorbitant fees and the social environment that schools have to offer (objections like bullying, misbehavior and peer pressure are prime among them). Some have religious objections to the moral framework of what is taught and what generally defines school life, others have ideological objections to the teaching methodologies used and the psychological effects they have on children. Mostly all who opt for homeschooling believe they can provide a better education to their kids by educating them at home.

“I feel that I am more in control of what is going on in the lives of my kids than I would be by sending them to school,” says Laila, a former teacher herself who is currently in her seventh year of homeschooling two kids with a third baby in line. “Even from the time I myself went to school till nowadays, the schooling experience of children has greatly changed. Today kids don’t have time to be kids any more. Society puts so much pressure on them for becoming high-achievers that their own life gets lost somewhere in this rat race of school-homework-sleep routine. And not only their own life – the life of the entire family gets set according to the schooling needs of children: fathers have the headache of high-fees, mothers have the perpetual rush of sending kids off in the morning, getting them to do the homework in the evenings and packing them off to bed early. I am glad my kids are getting plenty of time for themselves to do the things they want to do and enjoy doing. Even boredom is a great opportunity for creativity and spontaneity – they always invent new games to play and come up with endless art projects of their own.”

Homeschooling does not come without its fair share of critics. From the incredulous stares that these parents get every time they say their children are being educated at home to the reasonable arguments in favour of formal schooling, homeschooling families seem to be up against a storm.

Critics fault the system for isolating children, reducing confidence levels and limiting their interaction to only like-minded people and groups.

“Homeschooling does not set them apart from the real world – schools do,” rebuts Laila. “In schools, kids are grouped into unnatural age-wise segregated situations, which never occur in the real world. They are made to sit, listen and follow directions for extended periods of time, which never occurs like that in real world. Rarely are they allowed to express their own opinions. And they get the chance to interact with peers only for short minutes between the lessons. I think schools handicap children, especially young children, much more in social life than homeschooling. Homeschooled kids live in the reality of this world – they deal with their family members, household issues, relatives and friends of different ages. And, of course, as kids grow older, we will look for opportunities for them to do more things outside of home – sports activities, workshops, etc. I see it as an advantage for my kids that I can choose the people they interact with. In the formative years, it is of utmost importance to have good role models around, which would help to strengthen their forming values. When they will get older, I don’t mind that they face difficult situations and people on their own – I hope by that time their own internal values will be developed enough to withstand peer-pressure, bullying and other negatives of our society.”

Atefa Jamal, the mother of seven kids of the Pirani family – the oldest 13 years old and the youngest one and a half – says her kids also get a fair share of interactions with the outside world. The four boys are attending Taekwondo classes thrice a week. The elder two also participate in scrabble competitions. During the summers, the kids get to choose from a wide variety of summer camp activities. This summer, they chose to take Arabic classes and swimming classes. “I also send my older kids out to buy groceries,” says Atefa. “They meet a lot of different people and learn to deal with different relations like the baker, the butcher, the driver or the man down the street who comes for groceries at the same time. It’s a misconception that you are isolating them, that you will choose their friends. That doesn’t happen, you can’t control your kids’ lives. My kids go out to bike and play in the park, they are attending swimming, Quran and Taekwondo classes. I think they actually end up meeting more real people in everyday roles and interact more realistically.”

The Pakistan Home Education group has also made attempts to have combined social and educational activities and trips like picnics and a field trip to the organic store Necos, in addition to the book club.

But what about the absence of a formal curriculum? Do institutes not know what they are doing when they invest great amounts of money and time in designing a curriculum? And are parents skilled in all subjects that are required to be taught?

There are various methods that are adopted by families while homeschooling. While some may prefer following a strict curriculum like conventional schools, others may prefer the method of unschooling or natural learning that lets children decide what they want to learn. For parents who choose to follow a curriculum like school or feel they are inexperienced to teach a particular subject, tuitions are always an option, says Atefa.

“There is a misconception that homeschooling means you have to do it all by yourself and that you have to do it at home,” says Atefa. “There so many books available, tuitions are also an option. It’s not that everything has to be done by the parents all the time but it just means that parents are more actively involved. If you feel you can’t do something you can always try to learn yourself and search on the internet or you can get tuitions for your child for a particular subject. It’s just that parents give the cues, they guide the process. The beauty of homeschooling is that children can do what they like. That way it’s genuine. We try not to push the kids to do the things they choose to do.”

Every few days, Atefa sits down and tries to make a plan of what she and her husband want to achieve with the children. They try to keep a time framework without imposing anything on them. Atefa is quick to say that the learning is flexible and there isn’t any fixed schedule. “The learning is more need and situation-based,” she says. “For example, when we got a kitten, we researched how to take care of it. When the kitten died which was a traumatic experience for the kids, we discussed death and souls and the Hereafter.”

At an older age, some parents prefer making the routine more structured with fixed slots for studying different subjects as done in school. Zahra Omer, who is currently in the second year of her textile design degree at Indus Valley, has passed successfully through a homeschooling experience and is in no way behind her peers. Zahra, along her with her two brothers, was homeschooled till grade 6 after which she enrolled in a mainstream school. During her homeschooling years, Zahra developed a reading habit that kept her well ahead of her peers. She ended up with seven As and three Bs in her O levels and straight As in her A levels. Asked if she had any problem adjusting with conventional schooling when she joined in grade seven, Zahra says “I didn’t have a problem adjusting. Everyone was very nice and cooperative. In fact, when I went to school it was a step back from the level I was at. Even when I gave the entrance test I faced no problem. I never felt my base was weak in any subject except for Urdu which we weren’t taught at home regularly. But I was given extra attention at school for Urdu and I caught up by the next grade. The only difference I encountered at school was the competition among students. At home, there was no competition.”

Homeschoolers say home education believes in nurturing the natural genius and prefers passion over requirement. Children aren’t forced to study subjects they have no interest in, nor are they made to feel dumb if they can’t achieve certain targets.

Maintaining discipline may be a challenge at times, but parents like Sadaf view the naughty “pranks” as disguised learning through “experimentation” with different materials. “I do not have a TV at home and I do not live in a joint family, so I have no problem in “controlling” the amount of television viewing or distractions my kids get into. Our home is crawling with children’s books, paper, materials, and toys and having neither a TV in it nor any other relatives with traditional schooling ideas to scold them (or demonize them by telling them for example that they don’t study enough, or write enough, or read enough), means that my children get to unleash their creativity with great abandon.”

Anila Omer, the mother of Zahra Omer, however, says she never had a problem maintaining discipline at home despite having a television. “I would choose which movies or cartoons to show to my children and we would watch those,” she says. “Since they were homeschooled from the beginning, there was no outside influence that would make them disobedient or naughty. They learned what I taught them.”

However, the idea of homeschooling is still unfathomable to a majority of parents. Kamila, mother of four year old Orhan and a teacher of Art and Music herself, expressed surprise when told that families were opting to home educate their children in Pakistan. “I wouldn’t choose to homeschool my child, not in this country,” she says. “Schools offer children a routine and exposure that they don’t get at home. You can’t keep your kids in a bubble. I want my kid to get the kind of exposure that school gives because life isn’t easy. When you are at school, you get different perspectives through different teachers. When you are studying from only one person your mind is stuck in a rut. I don’t want that for my child.”

Many parents that send their children to conventional schools also say they like the fact that the child goes out and that it gives them a break. Homeschooling parents say having the children at home means you have more helpers in the household chores.

Although mothers are more involved in homeschooling their kids (with many moms having given up full time careers to homeschool their children), support from fathers is considered a necessity. Atefa’s husband Azeem Pirani says his focus is to give time to his children whom he calls his “team”. The time is utilised in discussions about current affairs at meal times, regular visits to the swimming pool with them, involvement in matters relating to vacations, events etc, guidance and coaching in academic matters requiring further support and being part of the audience or judges for any presentations they may be working on.

Azeem feels the fact that homeschooling is less expensive too allows the family to spend on more beneficial things like family vacations, getting books or materials from abroad and getting memberships for clubs allowing better access to sports facilities etc. “The educational value of visiting new places is many times greater than sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher who is there just because she needs a job and not due to any desire to impart knowledge to our children,” he says.

Azeem feels the decision to homeschool his seven children has been a very positive move. “We have been able to interact more as a family.  The children are able to have their lives revolve around their family rather than around their schools.  This in and of itself means a strong and close knit unit.”

However, homeschooling is not for every family, warns Laila. “Schools are very much necessary for families that for various reasons cannot homeschool. I always advise new families not to take this step, unless they are sure they are ready for it. Excitement over the advantages of homeschooling may push families to go for it when they are not ready – this way, they may end up in disappointment. Reading about home education and evaluating the situation of your family is necessary before taking this step. It is also important that both spouses agree on this mission – if only one is for it, the tasks may prove to be very difficult. The support of the extended family is great to have. But even if it’s not there initially, once the family starts homeschooling and the extended family sees it working well and producing good results, they may change their views.”

Homeschooling families in Pakistan say their kids will be able to get the required certifications of O and A levels or matriculation by appearing for the exams as private candidates after which they will choose college for formal degrees.

If all parents homeschooling their kids in the country possess the same spirit and vision, we might just be witnessing the underpinnings of a new movement in education in Pakistan.


Published in The Express Tribune – city, June 11, 2011.

Tech enthusiasts, Google fans and development workers gathered at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) city campus computer lab on Friday to learn how to use Google maps to map their neighbourhood and city.

Led by Google country representative Badar Khushnood and a trio who are the most active map makers of Pakistan, the workshop enlightened around 40 participants about the importance of having a complete mapping interface for the country, guiding them through the process of mapping out their city and neighbouhood online.

Khushnood related how Google maps, in addition to its commercial uses and benefits, has been used for disaster management and relief work. He cited the example of the Attabad lake disaster and last year’s floods to emphasise the need to have a well-developed map interface to mobilise and expedite humanitarian initiatives.

Khushnood narrated the incident of a local resident who had helped map various points of disaster and mark needs at the time of the Attabad lake flooding by text messaging updates to Faraz Ahmed, one of the active map makers, who would then plot them. Another website,, launched by the trio of Faraz Ahmed, Omer Sheikh and Gibran Rafique used the Google interface to map out and speed up relief work during the 2010 floods and create a cloud cover layer on the map which could forecast where the rain and subsequent floods would come next.

Faraz, Gibran and Omer are among the 50 top mappers on Google Map Maker in the world and they have collectively contributed around 700 points of interest on the maps. What is interesting is that both Gibran and Faraz are not even based in Pakistan but continue to contribute to its Google maps from abroad.

“A major benefit of the internet is that it provides a level playing field for everyone,” said Khushnood.

At the time of the launch of Google maps in 2008, Pakistan was nowhere on the world map interface. But only a year into the launch, Pakistan had topped the Google Maps experiment. Pakistani web users were able to post more localised content to the maps than any of the 160 countries simultaneously taking part in the global search leader’s experiment.

“We started from four people and we have now increased to 40 to 50 people,” said Faraz Ahmed.

Map data is often available for download for non-profit use and is often used by organisations to produce helpful resources for humanitarian purposes. Saeed Ghani, the associate dean at the Faculty of Computer Sciences at IBA, spoke about how he and a group of students used the Google map interface to set up a separate Sindh Maps website to help with disaster management and relief and development activities throughout the province.

Map data is also available as satellite imagery set to possible real-time coordinates and is based on data provided by external organisations such as Nasa. Street views however, said Khushnood, would take some time to come to Pakistan. Currently, the process of map making and the speed with which the update is added to the map after moderation by other users also takes some time due to the requirement of each edit having to be approved by another user. Anybody can add an edit to a map and plot points of interest by logging in through their Gmail account. The edit is then approved or rejected by another user and then by Google before it goes up live. Google Map Maker however, does not allow users to add personal data.

The need for such community initiatives was voiced by the participants as well. “I work in the development sector and after I worked for flood relief I realised the importance of having this kind of interface where you can coordinate such humanitarian activities,” said Zahra Khan, a participant. “I therefore felt the need to come and learn how to use Google map maker.” Omer Sheikh added, quite aptly, “The idea is to get the participants started in the hope that they will continue mapping in the future.” It seems like there’s no stopping them now.

How to make a map on Google Map Maker

1. Sign in through your Gmail log-in and log on to <;

2. Select an area where you want to plot a point of interest.

3. Select satellite view and zoom in on the area.

4. Click on add a point in the tabs on the left of the map. Select a preferred language, a category (restaurant, café, shopping centre or university etc), add in street address, contact information and description. You can also link a photo by adding a photo URL.

5. Save edit and wait for approval by other users.

6. You can also draw a road, railway, river, flyover etc by marking point A and B for the beginning and the end and adding details like the name and attributes of the road.

7. There are different forums where Pakistani map makers can also discu

ss issues and problems faced when making maps for example <; and <;

Published in The Express Tribune – city, May 29, 2011.

The whiff of putrid sea air that hits you as you near the entrance of the highly anticipated Port Grand Food and Entertainment Complex is forgotten once you step inside the metal gate. The newest addition to Karachi’s nightlife promises to offer visitors a world of its own in an enclosed area cut off from the craziness of city life.


“A lot of people thought this was going to be another Burns Road, but this is a different cup of tea all together,” said Managing Director Shahid Firoz of Grand Leisure Corporation. “We hope this project will lend a bit of positivism to this city and country.”


Port Grand formally opened on Saturday in a festive mood with Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad as the chief guest.


Port Grand expects to attract 4,000 to 5,000 people daily. Currently, 40 outlets are up and running and more are expected to open soon. The first thing you notice once inside is the shopping mall that houses a number of brands, including shops for gifts, clothes and accessories and books.


Towards the left of the mall was the much-talked about Napier’s Tavern. With its historic architecture and fine dining, the lodge is expected to serve as a setting for the city’s corporate crowd. The lodge was built right under a one-hundred-year-old banyan tree where Charles Napier is believed to have built a tavern. The builders used the same stones and wood extracted from the demolished bridge to salvage the heritage.


Further left, stretches the food enclave for a kilometre. Men, women and children were strolling about the concrete path along the 19th century Native Jetty bridge that connects the Karachi Port Trust to Keamari. Live cartoon characters were waiting to start their act to entertain the young visitors and loud music blared across the food street as organisers, waiters and construction workers added some of the finishing touches to the outlets and stalls — that offered a wide array from fast food and desi food to Thai cusine. Unfortunately, many of them were still being set up. The organisers announced that the complex would open for the public from Sunday evening.


The food enclave runs along the port where you can view the sea while sitting on green benches lined across the fresh green turf. The three spaced-apart metal barriers from the water could, however, be tempting for adventurous children. You can even see the cargo being loaded and unloaded from the ships that arrive from all over the world. The food street ends close to a point where you can see ships harboured at the KPT Boat Wharf.  The land for the project was leased by the KPT for 30 years on a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement. Work on the billion-rupee project started in 2005 and it was expected that it would be completed by 2009. However, Grand Leisure Corporation claimed that the delay was caused by the need to completely revamp the Native Jetty bridge which was in bad shape. This caused expenses to shoot up. “Better late than never,” said Firoz. “If we wish to do things the right way there might be a delay but the end product will be something positive.”


KPT has provided double fencing around the complex for security and privacy and KPT guards also patrol the bridge. Entry has been made secure and security personnel have been put in place from the PNC building. KPT Acting Chairman Iqbal Umer said that the corporation was providing for most of the security itself.


“We have provided state of the art security,” said Nazneed Shahid, Firoz’s daughter, who has been involved in the project. “The area is no more unsafe than any other place like Boat Basin, for instance.”


Phase two includes a food court with more traditional foods like paani puri, bhel puri, shawarma, etc. “We hope to make this place a cultural hub,” said Nazneen.


Published in The Express Tribune – blog, May 20, 2011.

I remember the general reaction in the newsroom the day the news of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden broke. There was relief, felicitations of ‘Mubarak ho!’ and the excitement of covering what was perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year.

Throughout the day, and the days following the incident, I noted people’s reactions. While some openly celebrated the news, others quietly welcomed the news with relief, adding however that it was against their principles to celebrate death.

Sure, there was shock and anger against the political and military leadership and condemnation about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but I did not come across a single person who hailed Bin Laden as a ‘hero.’

Sure, there were some who questioned the media’s account and said that if the media’s portrayal and reporting about this terrorist figure were true, then it was indeed good news, but no one I met or spoke to supported the al Qaeda kingpin’s ideology or praised his actions which led to the killing of thousands of innocent people.

Sure, there were conspiracy theories questioning whether Bin Laden was really dead, but there was no one who vowed to become another Bin Laden and avenge his death.

Interestingly however, when the international media tried to find out how Pakistanis were reacting to the news, the world saw an entirely different picture from what was just related above.

There were reports of “scores of people” taking to the streets to pay homage to the al Qaeda chief and calling for war against America.

There were pictures of enraged people shouting anti-American slogans and burning down US flags.

There were quotations from children calling Osama their hero and wishing to grow up to be like him.

Many of us were baffled by the coverage of reactions to the killing – they were completely misrepresenting the general viewpoint of Pakistanis. Pakistani newspapers welcomed the death in Op-eds and editorials, but news reports showed that the general population was idolising Bin Laden and were angered by his death. The same reports barely mentioned the other side of the story. There were no quotes from people who had welcomed the news or more so, were indifferent to it. The media seemed to be giving the impression as if all of Pakistan was supporting Bin Laden barring a few “intellectual elite” who were celebrating his death.

The incident taught us something about balanced reporting and media agenda setting that often tends to ignore this. Most media organisations (and wires services specifically) often have conventional patterns of reporting that they operate under, consciously or subconsciously. The dominant narrative and the underlying motive to have a “juicy” story that “sells” lead them to focus on a small pocket of people who support that narrative.

Why did no reporter speak to people who cared less whether Bin Laden was dead or alive because it made no difference to their daily lives?

Why did no reporter speak to the victims of terrorism whose lives have been ruined by terrorists supporting al Qaeda’s ideology?

Why did no reporter speak to investors and businessmen whose interests are hurt every time there is a terrorist attack in the country?

One wonders if there really is any such thing as objective journalism.

Published in The Express Tribune – Life & Style, May 16, 2011.

If you are the type that prefers personalised gift items over those that though heavy on the wallet say very little, chances are you have come smack in the face of a dead end in the local market. There are very few options for the Pakistani gift shopper.

Varah Musavvir, an enterprising young textile design student at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture (IVSAA), realised this gap in the market and set out to launch Firefly — a home-based business that one of her customers described as the “Hallmark” of Pakistan.

One year since its launch, Firefly has grown to heights Musavvir says she had never imagined before. The project started randomly in March 2010 when she was doodling habitually and came up with a design and idea for a wallet card. A few sifts through the pages of her prized journal after which her brand is named and a few doodles later, Musavvir had come up with the character Sue that adorns some of her designs and cards along with taglines and quotes she had written in her journal herself. The next step was to post pictures on Facebook and tag her friends and voila — orders started coming in.

Firefly offers a variety of products ranging from wallet cards on PVC (a concept unique to Pakistan), key chains on PVC, notebooks, bookmarks, digital CD printing, laptop skins, scrap books and other papercraft.

“I like coming up with my own messages and taglines on my products,” says Musavvir. “I have seen what is already available and I didn’t want to just take that. I wanted Firefly to be my own. It’s funny that people can automatically relate to a lot of what I write and make. They see that it is heartfelt because they see that it is coming from someone who has probably gone through or seen it all. They can click with it, so they usually don’t ask me to change it.”

But when people do want customisations, Musavvir is ready to make them at an added price. Sometimes people ask for personalised messages and text or a personalised look to the characters or a different colour. And part of the reason behind her success is that Musavvir can cater to all of these requests.

Musavvir does not have a creative department or an operations director. She runs the business alone with a little help from her younger brother and manages to balance it along with her studies. Orders are received via email, sent out and picked up in batches from her trusted printer twice a week and subsequently picked up from her college where the gatekeeper helps handout the orders.

“When I started, it was just friends, then it was friends of friends and then friends of friends of friends and then I just lost track,” she says. Firefly’s Facebook page now  has over 1,500 fans. “Till now, it has been solely marketed through Facebook. I did have invitations to school melas etc, so that was a bit of added publicity but most of it has been marketed online. I have also had bulk orders when friends ordered stuff for their organisations or for fundraising. Firefly goes like hotcakes for fundraising because people can put their logos on them or their personalised messages on them.”

Customers often come up with their own innovative ideas for customisations or ways of presenting the gifts. Firefly has also seen orders from abroad — from the United States and United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

In the future, when she has more time, Musavvir plans on expanding Firefly into textiles. She envisions Firefly to become a complete collection of gift items.

“Firefly is not just a business, it’s not just a brand,” she says. “It’s something that is spontaneous and part of my journal. It’s just what I like doing. Like a firefly, it glows wherever it goes. It is about spreading smiles.”

Like its slogan (The forecast is whimsical, with a chance of rainbows), Firefly is an attempt to add the essential dose of optimism we often find missing in our lives.


Items available at Firefly

Wallet cards

Key chains


Book marks


CD prints

Laptop skins


Published in The Express Tribune – city, April 15, 2011

When you hear calls for a revolution from the most humanitarian of philanthropists in the country, you know for sure that the revolution narrative has seeped deep into the public psyche. Abdul Sattar Edhi, who was introduced by the host as a “welfare state in and of himself”, stressed the need for a bloody revolution to set things right in the country.

Edhi, the founder of Pakistan’s largest welfare foundation, was speaking on Thursday at the Aga Khan University in a special lecture series on emergency management during disasters. When probed about his statement, however, he said the government should be allowed to complete its term and that any revolution would last longer if it came from the people.

“We are tax thieves. We are Zakat thieves,” he said. “Our politicians are also thieves.”

But he was still positive and hopeful. “People ask me whether Pakistan will live and I tell them it will indeed live and it will live forever.”

Answering a question about how to deal with disillusionment, Edhi advised that a life of simplicity, honesty and hard work was the key.

Around 700 men and women from different walks of life attended the lecture and most of them were eager to speak to and take pictures with the elderly philanthropist after the event ended.

“I am not a maulana,” Edhi pointed out after the host introduced him as Maulana Abdul Sattar Edhi. “I do not have any formal education… what use is education when we do not become human beings [after being educated]? My school is the welfare of humanity.”

Edhi’s jibes at medical students who “thought they became doctors by earning degrees and wearing good clothes” drew giggles from across the auditorium.

“In reality, we have gone very far from becoming humane. We have lost our identity,” he said.

“The greatest religion is to love humanity,” he said, earning a round of loud applause.

“I am a Muslim. I believe in Allah and I offer my obligations as a Muslim,” he said. “When your intention is good, God helps you too. I rarely make appeals but even without that, people come forward to help in many ways. Allah keeps creating ways and helps you when you intend to help someone.”

Edhi described how he had always found Pakistanis helpful, adding that he only made appeals for donations to Pakistanis and that he often found all he needed here.

The philanthropist spoke about the difficulties and criticism he and his family had faced, but said he had never let that stop him because allegations are always made against people who set out to do good.

Advising young students on how to play their role, Edhi said they should develop a humanitarian approach from the beginning. When asked how one should deal with the menace of beggary and reports of mafia being behind it, Edhi said, “if your intentions are good, you should help them. Allah will look at your intentions.”

Edhi said his unparalleled network of welfare work is now being managed by his children and that he only provides them with advice when needed.

Published in The Express Tribune – Techeye, March 6, 2011.

Many of us cannot imagine our lives without the digital identities that we have built around ourselves. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, Gmail, Flickr, YouTube — all have come to play an essential role in the person we define ourselves to be. But how many of us can imagine our digital identities living on after we have left this world?

Thanks to the World Wide Web and social media, it is now easier to live on in more than just people’s memories. Social forums like Facebook and Twitter serve as a much more tangible and accessible legacy than anything out there in the real world.

Hundreds of photos, thousands of tweets and status updates, hundreds of blogs and YouTube videos — these are just some of the things we leave off in the digital trail, like public virtual scrapbooks. They may provide solace to family and friends of the deceased who like living over memories of their loved ones. For others, they may just be painful reminders that keep popping up as they make their way around cyberspace.

And it is these divergent reactions that have helped social networking websites and service providers develop policies to deal with their dead. Let’s take a look at how different websites deal with a person’s digital assets after they die:


After complaints of deceased people showing up on Facebook’s automatically generated suggestions section of people to “reconnect” with, the social-networking giant set out its policy of dealing with dead users. Heirs of a user can request that an account be deleted or “memorialised”. Memorialising a profile entails that the wall of the user will be open for family and friends to pay their respects, while future attempts to log-in will be sealed. Heirs can contact Facebook to delete or memorialise an account by notifying the company and showing a death certificate or news article indicating the user’s death.


Twitter followed the footsteps of Facebook by adopting a policy for the dead whereby relatives and friends of a user can request the deletion of the profile or the back-up of the user’s public tweets. Twitter too asks heirs of the deceased user to submit a link to an obituary, along with information about their relationship, before the account is deleted or backed up. Twitter, however, does not allow relatives access to an account nor does it disclose other non-public information regarding it.


Yahoo, which owns Flickr, does not allow any right of survivorship in its terms and conditions and is non-transferable. Upon receipt of a death certificate, the company terminates a user’s account and all contents therein are deleted.


Gmail allows heirs to access deceased users e-mail accounts in some cases. It provides a list of instructions in its help documents outlining the procedure that allows a heir to gain access to a deceased user’s account which includes proof of death and proof that the person in question is a lawful representative of the deceased’s estate, among other documentation.


YouTube also allows for transfer of account after a person’s death upon the provision of documentation which includes a copy of the death certificate of the user and of a document that gives one Power of Attorney over the YouTube account.

Dealing with digital legacy

Realising the need to have a proper method of dealing with a person’s digital legacies after death, a number of companies and advisors have cropped up that help users plan what happens to their online content after they die. Considering that a lot of our most important communication happens online and many a times, our financial and property information is also stored online, advisors like those who manage the website emphasise on having a digital executioner or a proper plan to handle one’s digital belongings after death.


Three-year-old Rayan needs a bone-marrow donor match in two weeks. A South Asian person is more likely to have it. PHOTO COURTESY THE SHER FAMILY

Published in The Express Tribune – city, February 19, 2011.

A Pakistani family from New York has two weeks to search for a bone marrow donor for their three-year-old son Rayan who has been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a form of blood cancer which causes damage and death by crowding out normal cells in the bone marrow.

The Shers have come all the way to Karachi because people of South Asian genetic backgrounds are underrepresented in the US Bone Marrow Donor Registry. An appeal was launched across the US to encourage South Asian people to take a bone marrow compatibility test. The family was lucky to have hundreds of volunteers get together to organise drives to find a match in different towns and cities across the US and Pakistan.

Rayan, who his uncle Rizwan Sher describes as the perfect “picture of health” prior to the diagnosis, is now in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant. As time is not on their side, doctors are pressuring the family to find a donor as soon as possible.

“Farhan and Sarah (Rayan’s parents) are busy 24/7, taking care of Rayan who has been getting intensive chemo dosage to force him into remission, a pre-requisite for a marrow transplant,” explains uncle Rizwan.

The drive began in Pakistan almost two weeks ago and the team, consisting of Rayan’s relatives and many other volunteers, has carried out drives in Karachi and Lahore. In the US, over 4,000 potential donors signed up.

“We aim to find 6,000 potential donors in Pakistan,” says Farrya Sher, Rayan’s paternal aunt.

Drives have been held in at the homes of relatives and at The Second Floor café. In the two drives held at their Defence residence, the team was able to get 480 potential donors to test for compatibility, says Farrya, adding that the number should have been higher.

The team will also be present at a blood donation camp at the Pearl Continental Hotel on Saturday and plans to hold drives across colleges in Karachi, including Nixor College and Szabist.

The process of testing is fairly simple and painless. It involves taking a cheek swab or a spit sample which is sent back to the US to be analysed for tissue typing in two weeks. Once a match is found, the donor will be required to donate their peripheral stem cells through a process known as Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation which is a non-surgical procedure involving the extraction of stem cells. The process does not have any long-term side effects and is perfectly safe.

The team has set up a website ( and an active Facebook page with over 4,000 followers. Drives have been coordinated online and have drawn an overwhelming response from people. In an emotional thank you note to all those who have been helping them, Rayan’s parents wrote:

“And what else gives us hope is when friends and family work selflessly and tirelessly to try to find that one person from millions who will bring the gift of life to our life. When complete strangers send us messages that they want to help and get tested and organise drives and that they have Rayan in their prayers and they want to give cord bloods of their own precious babies, that gives us hope.”

Children engrossed in a book during the story telling session, ‘Khail Khail Mein’. PHOTO: NEFER SEGHAL/EXPRESS

Published in The Express Tribune – city, February 7, 2011.

Visitors, young and old alike, to the ‘Khail Khail Mein’ story-telling session held at the Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday got a dose of nostalgia as the now near-extinct grandmother’s storytime was enacted.

Little children between the ages of four to 14 sat enthralled, some cross-legged and others on their shins, on the carpet in front of the stage as three prominent children’s writers read out their stories. Other children chose to sit on the chairs with their parents or squirmed out of their grip to play a quick game of tag or hide and seek before being reprimanded to sit quietly and “listen!”

There was one group of children in uniform that had come to attend the session as a school trip on a Sunday.

Although the session began a few minutes late, parents kept streaming in with excited children in colourful t-shirts and cute bubblegumer shoes. At the end of the session, a few parents who had gathered up to meet the writers complained that they had really wanted to attend the session but had run late.

The session started with Mahnaz Malik’s talk on her book ‘Mo ka Tara’ which is the translated version by Fahmida Riaz of Malik’s famed ‘Mo’s Star’. Malik had brought a stuffed replica of Mo, the penguin protagonist. This part of the session was kept interactive as Malik asked the children questions about penguins and Antarctica, where the story plays out. Malik went on to explain how Mo spots a star which he wants to reach. “So how does Mo go to the star?” she asked.

Tiny hands shot up from the audience. “He can fly!” cried out one child.

When Malik said Mo could not fly, another child yelled, “He can go to a tall mountan!”

“He can call the star down!” said another one, causing ripples of laughter.

The next talk was by Saman Shamsie who read out parts from her book ‘The Adventures of the Slothful Slough-Off’, a story about a blue snake and its quest to make friends with other animals. This session too was interactive as Shamsie kept asking questions about the story and about the snake’s behaviour. The issue of trust that helps the snake make friends was also discussed by the author.

The last session was by far the most lively of all. Writer Zara Mumtaz, a true grandmother-like figure, kept the audience mesmerised by her story ‘Kawa aur Maina ke bachay’ as she mimicked the birds.

The children were also drawn into the story as they tried to interpret the actions of the crow and the myna and guessed what would happen next. Some children also shared the personal experiences they have had with such birds.

Mumtaz urged the children to chant the crow’s words with her each time they were repeated in the story. The principle line of the book was repeated many times by an enthusiastic Mumtaz and the excited children: “Khao chirri ki chochlay matkao ucha!”

Mumtaz was reading a story that is a part of her forthcoming bookAnna Buwa ki Kahaniyan, a collection of ten stories that she calls part of the oral tradition of our society. “The aim is to bring the old stories back again and to make them known to children,” she told The Express Tribune. “This is the oral tradition that has been passed on to us, but it will be lost if not preserved.”

Parents and teachers flocked around Mumtaz after the session, asking her if she could conduct a story-telling session at their home and school. “Do you charge if you come to schools?” asked a teacher of a private school in Karachi.

“No, I do not charge,” said Mumtaz who has been writing and reading for children since 1965. “My reward is the happiness of the children who I see.”

Mumtaz’s books come with audio CDs and she is eager to see her next book published by the Oxford University Press.

Appreciation for the effort echoed among parents and children. “It was an excellent session,” said Ambreen Ashar, who had come with her two children. “The way she was explaining and giving a lively performance reminded you of the old times when grandmothers would tell stories. Sadly, that rarely happens now. It was especially good since it taught children good morals.”

When asked what morals they had learned, her daughter 12-year-old Eraj said, “We should not be greedy.” Nine-year-old Arsalan said, “We should not take others’ things.”

“I think the opportunity children got to interact and discuss was a wonderful experience,” said Maliha Hassan who had come with her two daughters. “I feel such events should be held on a regular basis.”

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, January 4, 2011.

A look through the timeline of bomb blasts and terrorist attacksindicate that a majority of attacks in Pakistan are carried out by young men – some wearing vests, others using cars laden with explosives. I believe this spells out a legitimate case to ban young men, vests and cars from public places. After all, in a country like ours which is always on high alert for terrorist attacks, we can’t allow such security risks to roam about freely, can we?

If you find my logic ludicrous, you might want to take a look at the recent debate on banning the burqa or niqab due to security concerns. In an article in The Express Tribune titled “A mark of separation,” Mr George Fulton makes an interesting case for banning the burqa or niqab in Pakistan based on one case of a female burqa-clad suicide bomber killing 47 people and injuring over 100 in an attack on the World Food Programme distribution point in Bajaur.

As unjust as focusing on one incident against the dozens of other attacks carried out by young men may be, what is more astonishing is the sweeping generalisations Mr Fulton makes to depict the veil as a symbol of suppression because in his view “there is little proof that women actively decide to adopt the veil” and he finds it difficult to find any woman of substance who wears the burqa or niqab.

I am amazed at these views. Why is it so difficult for our so-called progressive class which claims to espouse the values of freedom, liberty, tolerance and personal choice to understand that there are perfectly normal, educated and ‘enlightened’ people out there whochoose to follow their religion? That there are women who have the freedom to fling off their covers and be fashionably under-dressed, yet they choose not to? That there are men and women who have the liberty to disassociate themselves from religion, yet they choose not to?

It has become fashionable nowadays for our ‘intellectual elite’ to pen an article or two reminiscing about the more secular days when religion was a private affair – when there were no beards, no hijabs, no burqas and no preachers on television. Excuse me for my flawed memory, but is it really true that there was no religiosity a decade ago or is it just that having let our religion be hijacked by militants today, we are now more bothered by its physical manifestations in the public sphere?

And for that matter, why has our so-called open-minded progressive class forgotten the values of tolerance that they themselves preached? Do I smell intolerant fanaticism here?

If there is one attitude that marks this age it is extremism – and that extremism is present not only in the religious class, but in the so-called ‘liberals’ as well. Until we all step into each other’s shoes and understand the other person’s perspective, there is no hope for ending the violence we see plaguing our society.

Making a case to ban what many consider a religious practice (and even if we assume it is a cultural practice, there are still no grounds to ban it) only breeds intolerance. Restricting women from wearing the veil is as much a violation of their rights as forcing them to wear one. We must understand that in the case of the burqa bombing in Bajaur and many others, the issue was not the item of clothing, but the lax in security. Where there are legitimate needs for identification, appropriate measures can be taken to satisfy the requirement by asking the woman to take off the veil in private.

The burqa or niqab has as much potential of being misused as say cars, cellphones and the Internet. What is needed is a proper strategy to prevent this misuse rather than banning these things altogether.

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