NEC approves Vision 2025

Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif chairing meeting of National Economic Council at PM Office. — Photo by Online

ISLAMABAD: The National Economic Council (NEC) approved on Thursday an ambitious 10-year plan called Vision 2025, envisaging Pakistan to be among top 25 world economies, universal primary education with 100 per cent enrolment, an increase in annual exports by six times to $150 billion and double power generation to 45,000MW by 2025.

Presided over by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attended by all provincial and regional chief executives, a meeting of the NEC authorised the planning commission for regular monitoring of progress on implementation of the long-term development strategy through a performance delivery unit against key performance indicators.

The meeting approved a framework for the 11th five-year plan in line with broad outline of the Vision 2025 and directed the ministries, provinces, special areas and public sector agencies to make concerted efforts in coordination with the planning commission for effective implementation of the vision.

Based on seven key pillars are drivers of growth to transform Pakistan into a vibrant and prosperous nation by 2025 through a shared vision, political stability, peace and security, rule of law and social justice.

The vision has positioned human resource development at the top of national agenda by capitalising on existing social capital, strengthening it and improving the human skill base of the population to optimally contribute to and effectively benefit from economic growth. For this, the country has to make significant leap forward in areas like education, health and social development to take full advantage of its youth bulge.

NEC approves Vision 2025

Under pillar one it promises that a larger share of the GDP, at least 4pc to education and at least 3pc to health, would have to be allotted to achieve universal primary education with 100pc net primary enrolment, increase higher education coverage from 7pc to 12pc and increase proportion of population with access to improved sanitation from 38pc to 90pc.

Under pillar two for sustained, indigenous and inclusive growth, the plan promises to make every Pakistani better off by 2025 by removing a lot of existing horizontal and vertical, intra- and inter-provincial, as well as rural and urban inequalities.

The key goals in this case include a modern performance driven public sector, transforming Pakistan into one of the 25 largest economies in the world, leading to upper-middle income country status and increasing annual exports from $25bn to $150bn.

Under pillar three for a responsive, inclusive and transparent system of governance at all levels, from federal to provincial and district levels, will ensure an efficient and transparent government operating under the rule of law and providing security of life and property to its people.

It strives to develop a skilled, motivated and “results-focused” civil service, an effective regulatory framework and an infrastructure that leverages supporting technology and global best practices.

The goal here is to get a place in the top 50th percentile for political stability (bottom 1 percentile), no violence and terrorism (bottom 1 percentile), and control of corruption (bottom 13th percentile) as measured by the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators.

Pillar four promises sufficient energy, water and food security for sustainable economic growth and development. It plans to double power generation to 45,000MW and provide uninterrupted, affordable and clean ‘energy to all’. It also seeks to increase storage capacity and improve efficiency of usage in agriculture by 20pc and reduce food insecure population from 60pc to 30pc by 2025.

The pillar five – private sector led growth and entre-preneurship – aims to make Pakistan a highly attractive destination for private sector investment, with conditions that allow private investors to successfully participate in its development.

The target is to rank Pakistan in the top 50 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Rankings and increase diaspora investment (via remittances) in private sector to $40bn.

Pillar six seeks to increase competitive knowledge and value-addition to utilise resources in a productive manner – based on merit, quality and innovation, instead of unproductive rent seeking behaviours. Key targets would be to quadruple contribution of total factor productivity to growth and improve Pakistan’s score on the World Bank Institute’s Knowledge Economy Index from 2.2 to 4.0.

Pillar seven seeks modernisation of transportation infrastructure, greater regional connectivity. Key related targets are to ensure reduction in transportation costs, safety in mobility, effective connectivity between rural areas and markets and urban centres, inter-provincial high-speed connectivity through road and rail networks including China-Pak Economic Corridor to make Pakistan a regional hub of trade and commerce and increase road density from 32km/100km2 to 64km/100km2, and share of rail from 4pc to 20pc of freight handling in the country.

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2014




The Quran is replete with clear messages about ethics.

“…Why is the Muslim world, then, among the most corrupt and depraved, demonstrating all the sins that the Quran has warned against? The answer lies perhaps in its collective failure to use intellect and reasoning, learn from mistakes, ponder over the message of the Quran and abstain from living in the fantasies of past glory….”

Ethics in Islam

Updated a day ago

WITH Western countries at the top of those considered most ethical, it is tempting to generalise and claim that the best political and economic practices prevail in places that are affluent, secure and free from conflict. A state in constant war, suffering from extreme poverty, military dictatorship and lack of social and economic development will obviously curtail ethical values in the public domain, and may begin to erode them even in the home.

The principles of ethics are often discussed with respect to gains and benefits to society at large. What is good or bad is supposedly determined by the rule of the majority, with little attention given to the principles of morality. Islamic ethics differ from the Western concept as these are derived from God, directly from the Quran, and from the practices of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It is therefore a set of beliefs and actions that is divine and transcends the limitations of time, place and tradition.

Unlike the commonly held belief that man is evil by nature, Islam holds that man is born with a morally good nature that responds to faith and ethical values. Over time, it may get corrupted due to temptations and man’s inability to exercise control over his desires. According to Islam, there is universal equality among mankind, with the single exception of moral goodness and strength of character or taqwa.

For man’s conduct to be ethical as per Islam, there are two conditions which must be fulfilled: his intention must be good and his action must be according to what God has instructed. If either is corrupt, his behaviour is unlikely to meet ethical standards. For example, if a wrong deed was done with good intentions that ultimately produced a good outcome, it cannot be termed ethical. If the intentions were wrong to begin with, and the outcome was accidentally good, there is no question of ethical behaviour. Good intentions and good deeds must go hand in hand.

There are three very important and interrelated ways in which ethical principles in Islam differ from those that are understood and practised in the West. The first is the concept of individual freedom and independence. In Islam, one’s freedom ends where another’s physical and moral space begins. Indeed, alongside freedom of expression and liberty for individuals, society also has moral rights. Thus, how one individual behaves morally must be guided by how that behaviour impinges upon and influences the behaviour of those around him.

The Quran is replete with clear messages about ethics.

Secondly, Islamic teachings expand outwards with the family as the unit of society, not the individual. Islam believes in collectivism, not individualism. There is, therefore, no concept of being responsible for the self alone.

And thirdly, ethical principles, by virtue of their divine source, are not determined by the vote of the majority. If the majority in a society votes that speculation on the stock market is ethical, Islamic ethics will not accept this decision.

Corruption and bribery may very well be the order of the day, and so could the consumption of drugs, and they may be declared legal. But they could never be morally right in Islam. Obviously, this also points to the fact that what may be the law in a country may not be necessarily ethical.

The Quran is replete with clear messages pertaining to ethics (akhlaq), the standards of behaviour that God expects mankind to adopt because He has sent him to this world as His vicegerent. These cover all aspects of truthfulness, honesty, kindness, integrity (that includes being consistent in word and deed), meeting commitments and sincerity. The best example of ethics is in the life of the Prophet himself. When Hazrat Aisha was once asked about the personality of her husband, she had replied: “he was a reflection of the Quran itself”.

Islamic ethics is a code of conduct that calls for mankind to undertake a continuous process of self-purification, in thought, feelings and emotions (tazkya nafs); in social interactions through intentions and deeds that benefit other human beings as well as other creations of God; in using the resources that God has given him in a wise manner; and in bringing him closer to the ideal as described by the Prophet: “the best amongst you are those who are the owners of the best morality.”

Why is the Muslim world, then, among the most corrupt and depraved, demonstrating all the sins that the Quran has warned against? The answer lies perhaps in its collective failure to use intellect and reasoning, learn from mistakes, ponder over the message of the Quran and abstain from living in the fantasies of past glory.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2014






Taliban ready to Destroy Balouch Education

Parents, students and residents of Panjgur protest against threats to schools. — Photo by author

Wearing her traditional Balochi dress, Rabia stood tall with great poise and confidence, in a hall filled with teachers and students, at a local high school in Richmond, Virginia.

This was her twelfth presentation in one week and, by now, she was visibly confident in speaking to a foreign audience in her Balochi-accented English.

Rabia spoke about her hometown of Turbat and the culture and life of the people of Balochistan. Sixteen-year old Rabia is an exchange student in the US. In just one year, Rabia has made a mark for herself and her country; she has been on the honour roll twice already.

Zeenat is a 19 year old female student. After returning from a one-year high school exchange program in the US, she is now working towards bringing change in the lives of young girls like her in her hometown of Gwadar, Balochistan.

An excellent writer, who blogs regularly, Zeenat dreams of becoming a lawyer. In addition to working towards her undergraduate degree, Zeenat is also helping the women in her community learn the English language and gain some basic computer skills.

Parents, students and residents of Panjgur protest against threats to schools. — Photo by author.

Both, Rabia and Zeenat, can credit their achievements to their early schooling experience in Makran.

While the government wholly ignored the education sector, there were many young, often self-driven and educated, individuals from the region that moved forward to fill-in the gap.

The youth of the area has remained actively involved in community service and, most impressively, established an indigenous network of private schools and English language centers.

Although these schools are run on nominal fees, they provide the youth with their only life-changing opportunity to acquire basic education, computer and modern language skills.

Panjgur, a district of Makran bordering Iran, is home to beautiful palm trees and is an exporter of the largest variety of dates found in the region. Panjgur has a reasonably large network of small private schools imparting education to girls and boys.

The entire private education network is run by local teachers and administrators. The schools generally cater to both girls and boys, although in some schools the genders are taught separately in two shifts.

With the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa affronted by militant attacks on girl’s education facilities, Balochistan, until now, had been spared the senseless violence that has engulfed educational facilities in the north.

Balochistan’s education-based hardships have traditionally been confined to a lack of government support, access and quality issues.

While the region of Panjgur has remained at the center of the Baloch nationalist insurgency and serves as the battleground for military offensives, girls’ education system and allied facilities have never been targeted by any group.

Tragically, it seems, all of that is about to change forever.

Terror in a letter

Recently, all the private schools of Panjgur received a letter from a previously unheard extremist group called Tanzeem-ul-Islami-ul-Furqan.

The letter, addressed to the owners and administrators of all private schools, accuses them of corrupting the minds of young girls by exposing them to a ‘western education’.

It goes on to state that ‘all private schools must immediately disallow girls from seeking an education regardless of them being at a co-education or an all-girls facility.’

It also includes a message for van and taxi drivers in the area, ‘warning them of dire consequences if they continue to transport girls to schools’.

The note goes onto warn parents as well. It asks them to keep their daughters away from English language centers and schools.

Not surprisingly, their threat warns that ‘the mujahedeen of Al-Furqan are ready to brace martyrdom to stop the spread of vulgar, western, education in Balochistan’.

The letter ends with a list featuring names of all prominent owners of private schools in Panjgur.

To assert their writ and spread fear, the group carried an attack on a school immediately after sending out the letters.

Schools in Panjgur remained closed for several days. Soon after their reopening, unidentified gunmen set a school van, transporting female students and teachers, on fire on 14 May 2014.

Although there were no major casualties, the gunmen, belonging to this newly claimed extremist group, ensured the owner of the private school received their message loud and clear.

The owner in this instance was driving the van at the time of the attack. According to eye witnesses, to spread fear and panic, the gunmen fired multiple gunshots in the air – just meters away from a nearby stationed Frontiers Corps (FC) convoy that simply chose to ignore the proceedings.

Unidentified gunmen set a school van, transporting female students and teachers, on fire on 14 May 2014. — File photo by author

Interestingly enough, the entire Makran region, particularly Panjgur, is a heavily guarded and militarily-fortified area. Convoys and check-posts of the FC can be seen placed at all district entry and exit points and on every major road and intersection across the locality.

The security forces, who carry with them an abysmal human rights record (they have been accused by local and international human rights organisations of regularly attacking political activists, journalists and student workers), have yet to arrest any individual from an extremist group or a banned organisation.

It is also worth noting that just recently Atta Shad Degree College in Turbat was raided by FC personnel during a book fair. Masterpieces, like the autobiographies of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Che Guevera, were brandished by the FC in front of the media – the works were labelled as ‘anti-state’ literature.

Surprisingly, the activities of many religious madrassas, suspected to be recruiting centers and training grounds for extremist forces, have never been disturbed let alone investigated.

With religious intolerance and sectarian violence – an unheard of phenomenon for the secular Baloch populace – now mysteriously at an all-time high, it is alleged that the state is playing that dangerous game of curbing nationalism by stoking religious fanaticism once again. And in doing so, re-asserting its historic (and myopic) doctrine of ‘strategic depth’ – by providing tacit support to non-state actors for short-term strategic gains.

The alleged strategy, or rather the folly, has already wreaked havoc in Kashmir and KPK and resulted in Pakistan’s increased international isolation and condemnation.

Madrassas, madrassas everywhere

While it is becoming increasingly difficult for private schools to function in Balochistan (government schools are either non-existent or non-functional in most parts), the numbers of madrassas continue to increase exponentially.

According to the latest figures there are 2,500 registered and 10,000 unregistered madrassas in Balochistan.

It is pertinent to ask, if the national economy is still nudging at a sluggish rate and abject poverty haunting the average man, then where exactly are these funds coming from?

Housed in impressively built fortress-like structures and ably providing lodging and boarding facilities to hundreds of thousands of students, how exactly are these Madrassas sustaining themselves financially?

Where are the funds that are leading to their mushroom growth across Balochistan (a historically secular and pluralist society) flowing from?

These are some mysterious, not to mention uncomfortable, questions – the answers to which the government and the establishment both appear unwilling to divulge.

The Balochistan public education scenario reflects a grim picture and the future outlook, worryingly, remains equally bleak. Years of administrative negligence, insufficient funding, systemic corruption, dysfunctional curricula and poor teaching conditions have resulted in a collapsed provincial education system.

According to the latest figures, the current literacy rate in the province stands at 56 percent, this also includes people who can barely write their names.

The female literacy rate, at 23 percent, is one of the lowest in the world.

According to the British Council Pakistan’s Education Emergency Report, ‘with the existing pace of growth, Balochistan will not be able to reach the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals for Education in even the next one-hundred years’.

It was just last year in June when the Sardar Bahadur Khan University was attacked by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi killing 14 female students.

With the culprits still at large, and rising suspicion amongst the local populace of the state’s complicity in those attacks, the people’s confidence in the government’s ability to deliver at any level stands shattered.

Since the recent warning by Tanzeem-ul-Islami-ul-Furqan, parents of female students in Panjgur have decided they have had enough. They have marched onto the streets and expressed solidarity with the schools and their owners, urging the local administration to take immediate action against the militants.

The district teachers association has also asked the provincial and federal government to intervene in the matter. But for now, it looks like female education is not really on the priority list of the provincial or federal government.

The prime minister, since taking charge of his office, has been busy signing deals with China on siphoning Balochistan’s natural resources to the rest of the country and beyond. His government’s grand designs include a $12 billion economic corridor extending from the Gwadar deep seaport in Balochistan to the southern-belt of China and parts of Central Asia through spanking new road, rail, air and fibre links.

Local development in Balochistan, especially in Gwadar, is heavily assisted and influenced by the security forces. It almost always excludes locals under the pretext of security concerns and instead utilizes labor and expertise from other parts of the country.

The Baloch people and their welfare is seldom discussed, let alone ever addressed. The functioning private education system, one of the last straws of hope for the girls of Makran, now also stands to be plucked and destroyed by extremist forces and their benefactors.

In the center, former Oasis School student and teacher, recipient of prestigious fellowship who would be attending Harvard Kennedy School this fall.

With little trust in the government or the law-enforcement agencies to protect their lives and property, the local private schools association in the area has decided to shut down schools for an indefinite period.

If this current downward spiral in women’s education continues across Balochistan, disenfranchised and impoverished districts like Makran will not be able to see anymore Rabias and Zeenats in the coming future.

That would not only be a loss for Makran but, more importantly, for the province’s human development and socio-economic progress.

With not much having gone in its way, the last thing Balochistan needs is to have its girls forced to sit at home instead of the classroom.

Note: Names of the female students have been changed to protect their identity.

The writer is a former 2012-13 Hubert Humphrey Fellow who has completed her professional affiliation with The Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education in Washington DC. She is an avid political and social commentator and can be reached at She tweets @hinabaloch.






The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation

In 2006, while in Indonesia and six months pregnant, Abigail Haworth became one of the few journalists ever to see young girls being ‘circumcised’. Until now she has been unable to tell this shocking story
female circumcision
Midwives wait for the next girl to be brought in for circumcision in Bandung, Indonesia. Photograph: Stephanie Sinclair / VII

It’s 9.30am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.

Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.

During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.


It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”

I have not written about the 2006 mass ceremony until now. I went there with an Indonesian activist organisation that worked within communities to eradicate FGM. Their job was difficult and highly sensitive. Afterwards, in fraught exchanges with the organisation’s staff, it emerged that it was impossible for me to write a journalistic account of the event for the western media without compromising their efforts. It would destroy the trust they had forged with local leaders, the activists argued, and jeopardise their access to the people they needed to reach. I shelved my article; to sabotage the people working on the ground to stop the abuse would defeat the purpose of whatever I wrote. Such is the tricky partnership of journalism and activism at times.

Yet far from scaling down, the problem of FGM in Indonesia has escalated sharply. The mass ceremonies in Bandung have grown bigger and more popular every year. This year, the gathering took place in February. Hundreds of girls were cut. The Assalaam foundation’s website described it as “a celebration”. Anti-FGM campaigners have proved ineffective against a rising tide of conservatism. Today, the issue is more that I can’t not write about that day.

By geopolitical standards, modern Indonesia is an Asian superstar. The world’s fourth-largest country and most populous Muslim nation of 240 million people, it is beloved by foreign investors for its buoyant economy and stable democracy. It is feted as a model of tolerant Islam. Last month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited London to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen in recognition of Indonesia’s “remarkable transformation”. Yet, as befitting an archipelago of 17,000 islands, it’s a complicated place, too. Corruption and superstition often rule by stealth. Patriarchy runs deep. Abortion is illegal, and hardline edicts controlling what women wear and do are steadily creeping into local by-laws.

Although Indonesia is not a country where FGM is widely reported, the practice is endemic. Two nationwide studies carried out by population researchers in 2003 and 2010 found that between 86 and 100% of households surveyed subjected their daughters to genital cutting, usually before the age of five. More than 90% of adults said they wanted the practice to continue.

In late 2006, a breakthrough towards ending FGM in Indonesia occurred when the Ministry of Health banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”. The authorities, however, did not enforce the ruling. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, often as part of discount birth packages that also included vaccinations and ear piercing. In the countryside, it was performed mainly by traditional midwives – women thought to have shamanic healing skills known as dukun– as it had been for centuries. The Indonesian method commonly involves cutting off part of the hood and/or tip of the clitoris with scissors, a blade or a piece of sharpened bamboo.

Last year, the situation regressed further. In early 2011, Indonesia’s parliament effectively reversed the ban on FGM by approving guidelines for trained doctors on how to perform it. The rationale was that, since the ban had failed, issuing guidelines would “safeguard the female reproductive system”, officials said. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, also issued an edict telling its 30 million followers that it approved of female genital cutting, but that doctors “should not cut too much”.

The combined effect was to legitimise the practice all over again.

It is impossible to second-guess what kind of place holds mass ceremonies to mutilate girl children, with the aim of forever curbing their sexual pleasure. Bandung is Indonesia’s third largest city, 180km east of the capital Jakarta. I had been there twice before my visit in 2006. It was like any provincial hub in booming southeast Asia: a cheerful, frenzied collision of homespun commerce and cut-price globalisation. Cheap jeans and T-shirts spilled out of shops. On the roof of a factory outlet there was a giant model of Spider-Man doing the splits.

Bandung’s rampant commercialism had also reinvigorated its moral extremists. While most of Indonesia’s 214 million Muslims are moderate, the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime had seen the resurgence of radical strains of Islam. Local clerics were condemning the city’s “western-style spiritual pollution”. Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline vigilante group, were smashing up nightclubs and harassing unmarried couples.

The stricter moral climate had a devastating effect on efforts to eradicate FGM. The Qur’an does not mention the practice, and it is outlawed in most Islamic countries. Yet leading Indonesian clerics were growing ever more insistent that it was a sacred duty.

A week before I attended the Assalaam foundation’s khitanan massal or mass circumcision ceremony, the chairman of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the nation’s most powerful council of Islamic leaders, issued this statement: “Circumcision is a requirement for every Muslim woman,” said Amidhan, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. “It not only cleans the filth from her genitals, it also contributes to a girl’s growth.”

It was early, before 8am, when we arrived at a school painted hospital green in a Bandung suburb on the day of the ceremony. Women and girls clad in long tunics were lining up outside to register. It was a female-only affair (men and boys had their own circumcision gathering upstairs), and the mood was relaxed and sisterly. From their sun-lined faces and battered sandals, some of the mothers looked quite poor – poor enough, possibly, to make the foundation’s 80,000 rupiah cash handout as much of an enticement as the promise of spiritual purity.

Inside, I was greeted by Hdjella, 57, a teacher and midwife who would supervise the cutting. She was wearing a pink floral apron with a frilly pocket. She had been a traditional midwife for 32 years, she said, although, like most dukun, she had no formal training.

“Boy or girl?” she asked me, brightly. I was almost six months pregnant at the time.

“Boy,” I told her.

“Praise Allah.”

Hdjella insisted that the form of FGM they practised is “helpful to girls’ health”. She explained that they clean the genitals and then use sterilised scissors to cut off part of the hood, or prepuce, and the tip of the clitoris.

“How is this helpful to girls’ health?” I asked. “It balances their emotions so they don’t get sexually over-stimulated,” she said, enunciating in schoolmistress fashion. “It also helps them to urinate more easily and reduces the bad smell.”

Any other benefits? “Oh yes,” she said, with a tinkling laugh. “My grandmother always said that circumcised women cook more delicious rice.”

FGM in Indonesia is laden with superstition and confusion. A common myth is that it is largely “symbolic”, involving no genital damage. A study published in 2010 by Yarsi University in Jakarta found this is true only rarely, in a few animist communities where the ritual involves rubbing the clitoris with turmeric or bamboo. While Indonesia doesn’t practise the severest forms of mutilation found in parts of Africa and the Middle East, such as infibulation (removing the clitoris and labia and sewing up the genital area) or complete clitoral excision, the study found the Indonesian procedure “involves pain and actual cutting of the clitoris” in more than 80% of cases.

Hdjella took me to the classroom where the cutting would soon begin. The curtains were closed. Desks had been covered in sheets and towels to form about eight beds. Around each one, three middle-aged women wearing headscarves waited in readiness. Their faces were lit from underneath by cheap desk lamps, giving them a ghoulish glow. There were children’s drawings and multiplication tables on the walls.

The room filled up with noise and people. Girls started to cry and protest as soon as their mothers hustled them inside. Rapidly, the mood turned business-like. “We have many girls to circumcise this morning, about 300,” Hdjella shouted above the escalating din. As children were hoisted on to desks I realised with a jolt: this is an assembly line.

Hdjella led me to a four-year-old girl who was lying down. As the girl squirmed, two midwives put their faces close to hers. They smiled at her, making soft noises, but their hands took an arm and a leg each in a claw-like grip. “Look, look,” Hdjella commanded, as a third woman leant in and steadily snipped off part of the girl’s clitoris with what looked like a pair of nail scissors. “It’s nothing, you see? There is not much blood. All done!” The girl’s scream was a long guttural rattle, which got louder as the midwife dabbed at her genitals with antiseptic.

In the dingy, crowded room, her cries merged with the sobs and screeches of other girls lying on desks, the grating sing-song clucking of the midwives, the surreally casual conversational hum of waiting mothers. There was no air.

Outside in the courtyard, the festive atmosphere grew as girls and their mothers emerged from the classroom. There were snacks and music, and later, prayers.

Ety, 40, was elated. She had brought her two daughters, aged seven and three, to be cut. “I want them to be teachers. Being circumcised will bring them good luck,” she said. Ety was a farmer who came from a village outside Bandung. “Daughters should be pure and obey their parents.”

Neng Apip, 28, was smiling radiantly. She said she was happy her newly cut daughter Rima would now grow up into “a good Muslim girl”. Rima, whose enormous brown eyes were oozing tears, was nine months old. Apip kissed her and gave her a rice cracker to suck. “Shh, shh, all better now,” she cooed.

Tradition is usually about remembering. In the case of FGM in Indonesia it seems to be a cycle of forgetting. The act of cutting is a hidden business perpetrated by mothers and midwives, nearly all of whom underwent FGM themselves as young children. The women I met had little memory of being cut, so they had few qualms about subjecting their daughters to the same fate. “It’s just what we do,” I heard over and over again.

When the pain subsides, it is far from all better. The girls in the classroom don’t know that removing part of their clitoris not only endangers their health but reflects deep-rooted attitudes that women do not have the right to control their own sexuality. The physical risks alone include infection, haemorrhage, scarring, urinary and reproductive problems, and death. When Yarsi University researchers interviewed girls aged 15-18 for their 2010 study, they found many were traumatised when they learned their genitals had been cut during childhood. They experienced problems such as depression, self-loathing, loss of interest in sex and a compulsive need to urinate.

I saw my interpreter, Widiana, speaking to Suminah, the 12-year-old who was the oldest girl there, and went to join them. Suminah said she didn’t want to come. “I was shaking and crying last night. I was so scared I couldn’t sleep.” It was a “very bad, sharp pain” when she was cut, she said, and she still felt sore and angry. Widiana asked what she planned to do in the evening. “We will have a special meal at home and then read the Qur’an,” said Suminah. “Then I will listen to my Britney Spears CD.”

Back in Jakarta, an Indonesian friend, Rino, agreed to help me find out about the newborn-girl “package deals” at city hospitals. Rino phoned around Jakarta’s hospitals. They told him he must see a doctor to discuss the matter. So we decided that is what we would do: since I was visibly pregnant, we’d visit the hospitals as husband and wife expecting our first baby. (“It’s not necessary to bring your wife,” Rino was told repeatedly when he rang back to book the appointments.)

We visited seven hospitals chosen at random. Only one, Hermina, a specialist maternity hospital, said it did not perform sunat perempuan. The other six all gave package prices, varying from 300,000 rupiah to 550,000 rupiah (£20-£36), for infant vaccinations, ear piercing and genital cutting within two months of birth.

Interestingly, the only doctor who argued against the procedure was a female gynaecologist from the largest Islamic government hospital, the Rumah Sakit Islam Jakarta. “You can have it done here if you wish,” the doctor said with a sigh. “But I don’t recommend it. It’s not mandatory in Islam. It’s painful and it’s a great pity for girls.”

Last month I spoke to Andy Yentriyani, a commissioner at Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women. Yentriyani told me the problem is now worse than ever. Since the government’s guidelines on FGM came into effect last year, more hospitals have started offering the procedure.

“Doctors see the guidelines as a licence to make money,” she says. “Hospitals are even offering female circumcision in parts of Sumatra where there has never been a strong tradition of cutting girls.”

“They are creating new demand purely for profit?”

“Yes. They’re including it in birth packages. People don’t really understand what they’re signing up for.” Nor do some medical staff, she adds. The new guidelines say doctors should “make a small cut on the frontal part of the clitoris, without harming the clitoris”. But Yentriyani says that most doctors are trained only in male circumcision, so they follow the same principle of slicing off flesh.

Moreover, according to The Jakarta Post, the guidelines were rushed through partly in response to the deaths of several infant girls from botched FGM procedures at hospitals.

Likewise, Yentriyani says, the recent endorsement of FGM by some Islamic leaders has vindicated those carrying out mass cutting ceremonies, such as the Assalaam foundation. “Women are caught in a power struggle between religion and state as Indonesia finds a new identity,” the activist explains. “Clamping down on morality, enforcing chastity, returning to so-called traditions such as female circumcision – these things help religious leaders to win hearts and minds.”

Yentriyani and other Indonesian supporters of women’s rights believe FGM can never be justified as a religious or cultural tradition. “Our government and religious leaders must condemn it outright as an act of violence, otherwise it will never end,” she says. Her view is supported by organisations such as Amnesty International, which has called on Indonesia to repeal its guidelines allowing FGM. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also weighed in, saying in February this year that, although many cultural traditions must be respected, female genital cutting is not one of them. “It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation,” Clinton declared.

Suminah will be 18 now; a grown woman. She could well be married, or at least betrothed. Soon enough she will probably have her own kids. I hope she’s forgotten her pain, but held on to her rage.

Islamic seats of learning as Deoband, Qom and Al Azhar must unite

In fact, such Islamic seats of learning as Deoband, Qom and Al Azhar must unite in expressing their abhorrence of the atrocity in Nigeria. Silence will mean the Muslim world’s tacit approval of Boko Haram’s misogynist brigandage.

Muslim world’s silence

Updated May 07, 2014 06:19am

THE news from Nigeria is blood-curdling. Shrouded initially in mystery, the kidnapping of almost 300 Nigerian girls last month has now been owned by Boko Haram, with its chief threatening ‘by Allah’ to sell those girls in slave markets. In a chilling demonstration of his intentions, in the name of Islam, Boko Haram chief Abubakr Shekau released an hour-long video that showed his hooded acolytes raising rifles and shouting ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ as Shekau flaunted his criminality to the Nigerian people by declaring, “I abducted your girls”. Describing the girls as “slaves”, he had no qualms about saying he would repeat his actions. Over 50 of the girls have managed to flee, two have died of snakebite, many have been forced to marry and some have been forcibly converted — all in the name of Islam.

Last week, two explosions killed or injured more than 100 people, and police believe Boko Haram wanted to demonstrate its destructive power as Nigeria prepared to host the World Economic Forum. So far acts of terror by the Boko Haram militants and security crackdowns have led to over 1,500 deaths this year alone. But there is no indication yet that the Nigerian government has the political will to purposefully take on the extremists who have chosen murder and abduction as a strategy to advance their political aims for which they claim religious sanction. The Nigerian government has come under intense criticism at home for focusing all security measures on the WEF delegates and for ignoring the urgent task of recovering the girls.

However, the issue doesn’t concern Nigeria alone. Seen against the background of religious militancy that has rocked Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) countries from Indonesia to Morocco, Boko Haram’s latest act of crime against humanity poses a question or two to the entire Muslim world, especially its intellectuals and ulema. Will the Muslim world stay quiet over this debasement of their religion and look away from the Nigerian people’s trauma? Girls are abducted from schools because Boko Haram says it opposes ‘Western’ education. That an education can be ‘Western or Eastern’ is a debatable issue, but even if ‘Western education’ is all that devilish, was the mass kidnapping of the girls the best way to register protest? The Muslim world now must speak up. Those who accuse the Western media of tarring all Muslims with the same brush now have an excellent chance of correcting this erroneous perception by denouncing Boko Haram’s evil deed in unequivocal terms and by dissociating the international Islamic community from such fiendish crimes. In fact, such Islamic seats of learning as Deoband, Qom and Al Azhar must unite in expressing their abhorrence of the atrocity in Nigeria. Silence will mean the Muslim world’s tacit approval of Boko Haram’s misogynist brigandage.