On March 23 — which is Pakistan Day — Pride of Performance awards are conferred upon accomplished individuals from various sectors, including artists, actors, poets, writers and musicians. This March, as the country’s officials handed out awards to sportsmen and social workers, another award ceremony took place.
Aafia Siddiqui’s family announced that they would confer the "Dr. Aafia Pride of Performance" awards on individuals and organizations, including journalist Yvonne Ridley, nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan and Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik.
While Mr. Malik "returned the [award] with thanks," Yvonne Ridley accepted the award in Karachi, where Siddiqui’s family has been campaigning for her release from a U.S. jail.
The irony — that a citizen of Pakistan who was convicted of attempted murder in the United States has a "pride of performance" award under her aegis — does not appear to be a source of consternation in Pakistan, where Aafia Siddiqui has become a symbol of national pride.
When Siddiqui was convicted this February in a New York court, Pakistan leapt into a state of uproar, outdoing its own previous attempts to make Siddiqui a national hero. Protests were held, television channels dubbed her a "daughter of Pakistan" and the ever-present resentment against the United States grew to fever-pitch levels as effigies of U.S. President Barack Obama and the American flag were burned in the streets. Politicians demanded that the case be appealed and Siddiqui be brought ‘home’, and the issue dominated the Pakistani press.
Her indictment in 2008 — which rattles off a number of crimes that had an American committed in Pakistan would have enraged Pakistanis to unfathomable levels — has not bothered her supporters. Aafia Siddiqui represents everything that people believe is wrong with the War on Terror. In a country that has been ravaged by bomb blasts, kidnappings, beheadings and public lashings at the hands of extremists, nothing has elicited as strong a response as the strange case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. (As quick background, she was convicted on two counts of attempted murder and several counts of armed assault after shooting at a U.S. Army officer who was attempting to interview her after she was arrested on suspicion of terrorist plotting in Afghanistan in the summer of 2008.)
Pakistan is a country that is easily swayed by self-righteous sentiment, enforced strongly by lurid visuals of Aafia Siddiqui’s face, her sister Fouzia Siddiqui’s impassioned speeches, and images of Siddiqui’s 13-year-old son. The rumors about Siddiqui’s alleged mistreatment at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan range from accusations that she was "molested and sexual abused by her captors" to her having "no privacy when it comes to toilet and shower facilities," according to Ridley.
The rumors — fuelled by stories repeated ad nauseam in the Pakistani press — have made Siddiqui a folk hero. They have become part of the legend that surrounds her, so much so that they are repeated as established facts by her supporters, who have helped build her iconic status as Prisoner 650, the "Grey Lady of Bagram," and now a "daughter of Pakistan." One would believe that the pride the country feels in a woman (who decided to shoot at U.S. officials and allegedly was linked to al Qaeda and hurled offensive remarks in a courtroom) is rather odd, given that there are countless other individuals and organizations that deserve the country’s support.
But the rumors about Siddiqui’s mistreatment inspire a convenient dose of anti-U.S. sentiment, the kind that political parties in the country have used for decades to channel public resentment and frustration into power at the ballot box.
Bombed schools and streets strewn with human remains don’t have quite the same impact. Years of terrorist attacks have yet to elicit the same united front that the Pakistani government and opposition parties have put up for the woman they call a "daughter" of the country. They are in illustrious company: the Afghan Taliban is an advocate for her, as was the Jordanian suicide bomber Hummam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who said:
We never forget our prisoners and we will never forget Afia Siddiqui and Sajida Rishawi and our jihad, Inshallah, will continue, until we free our prisoners and until the word of Allah prevails."
Surprisingly, yet another factor that has not drawn even half as much consternation, is how much the government of Pakistan spent on Siddiqui’s legal defense. Pakistanis are obsessed with the country’s corrupt politicians, as evidenced by the public interest in the National Reconciliation Order case, the fervent discussions online, in roadside cafes and salons about the amount of property owned by the country’s politicians, and the frequent chain e-mails one receives with photographs of property bought from government funds by politicians.
But these concerns all fall by the wayside when it comes to saving the woman who represents Pakistan’s honor: Aafia Siddiqui.
Pakistan’s priorities, at a time when thousands of citizens behind bars await trials and civic problems such as the electricity supply shortfall have made life miserable for millions, are skewed. The government reportedly allocated $2 million for Siddiqui’s defense, and announced after her conviction that they would work towards an appeal as well. That totals Rs 160m, which is an amount a supporter of Siddiqui will never see being spent on them by the government. That funding could have been used to rebuild infrastructure, for victims of the actual conflict in Pakistan, for any number of the serious issues that Pakistan faces at this moment.
But even though the casualties of the conflict in Pakistan — whether in Peshawar or Karachi — are increasingly our neighbors and family and friends, the "pride" of this country lies in the hands of a woman who, for all we know, was working to destabilize the region by working with militants. That those behind the "Dr Aafia Pride of Performance" award also plan to confer an award on the "Father of the Bomb," disgraced nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan, is just another irony in this oft-ludicrous state of affairs in Pakistan.
Saba Imtiaz works for The Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.