Journalist uses art for change

Pakistani journalist and playwright Imran Aslam visited campus Monday to share his experiences of creating art under the rule of what he called a strict and violent government.

Aslam came to UH through a partnership of the American Institute of Pakistani Studies and Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a non-profit organization dedicated to inciting social justice through art.

VBB founding director Sehba Sarwar said creating art and inciting social change went hand in hand.

ìWe don’t make a line between art and activism. … It’s our responsibility to speak out about social issues,îù Sarwar said.

Aslam began as a journalist and editor in Karachi, Pakistan, at newspapers The Star and then The News.

Aslam said he saw the importance of journalism in speaking out against injustice.

ìOur writing is shaped by the forces that go on around us,îù Aslam said.ìWhen you read our work, the subtext is that of protest.îù

His major foray into social activism came when he discovered the Gripps Theatre in Germany.

ìThey were doing political plays for children,îù Aslam said.ìConsidering the authoritarian figures that children confront in terms of their parents and teachers, this was a way of telling them they had a right to smile and mean it.îù

Aslam said he decided to bring this type of theater to Pakistan.

ìWe decided to try it in Pakistan, but we didn’t know if it would be successful,îù Aslam said.ìWe knew it would have to be an exercise in staying away from the government censors, but if you put certain things in the mouths of babes, the government will ignore it.îù

The plays became widely popular in Pakistan, but not without opposition.

ìAt one point we were performing a play outside in a roundabout,îù Aslam said.ìWhen a wise guy decided to switch off the street lights, so we performed in the dark, until a wiser guy drove his car up and switched on his headlights and we once again performed in the light.îù

Aslam is the president of GEO television, a network free of being under the rule of Pakistani government.

ìWhen we started there was only Pakistani television and there was no credibility in terms of the news,îù Alsam said.ìWe started interviewing people who never thought they’d have their voices heard. At first when we came up to them with a microphone in the street, they were scared and thought we might be from the government, but within three or four months the entire country of Pakistan began confessing. It was like we were Oprah Winfrey.îù

GEO meansìliveîù in the Pakistani language Urdu. Aslam said GEO television does its part fighting social injustices.

ìThe channel has fought numerous battles,îù Aslam said.ìThere was a case where in Pakistan we had what was supposed to be the religious Islamic Hudood Ordinance that equated a rape victim with someone who had committed adultery for which the punishment was the same.

ìA large number of women had gone to prison, so we decided to tackle the subject. Instead of interviewing one of the women charged under the ordinance, we went to the Mullah (Muslim priest) and on camera, 14 of us said the law was unjust and should be changed. As a result, the law that was in place for more than 35 years was repealed, and 2,500 women were released from prison.îù

At Aslam’s Q-and-A session Monday, VBB member S.S. Newalz asked what the media could do to bring Pakistan to justice for what he called crimes against humanity.

ìWe need to learn from mistakes,îù Newalz said.ìPakistan has a very inglorious chapter in history because of the fact that they have killed 3 million people in a very systematic way. What can the media in Pakistan do to bring these crimes against humanity into the public view?îù

Aslam said such dialogue was needed in the healing of the region.

ìIt’s a chapter we should be ashamed of and apologize for,îù Aslam said.ìThere should be trials on both sides. We should take them to court, get it done. I think the people want closure and they should get closure.îù

Aslam said he thinks journalists should have the role of answering questions in addition to asking them.

ìI think every journalist should take a position in an individual capacity. Sometimes they must adhere to the ideology of the paper they’re writing for, but I think the individuality of the journalist should always come through.îù

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