COVID-19 crisis shatters Karachi woman's lifelong dream to perform Hajj 

Sabiha Ilyas, a resident of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood in Pakistan's port city of Karachi, talks to Arab News on July 19, 2020. Ilyas is among thousands of Pakistanis who will not be able to perform Hajj this year after Saudi Arabia cancelled the pilgrimage for international pilgrims due to the coronavirus crisis. (AN Photo) 
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Updated 03 August 2020

COVID-19 crisis shatters Karachi woman's lifelong dream to perform Hajj 

  • Ilyas had been saving up for years and had finally been shortlisted under govt. scheme 
  • Follows Saudi's cancellation of the pilgrimage this year to limit the outbreak

KARACHI: Sabiha Ilyas says March 12, 2020, will forever be etched in her memory as a reminder of the day when her lifelong dream to go on Hajj nearly came true.

Ilyas, a 54-year-old widow and resident of Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, had been saving up for years to accumulate Rs4,55,957 ($2,722), the minimum fee required to enlist for the Hajj program under the government's scheme.

Once an intending pilgrim applies, he or she can either get selected the same year or, as in the case of Ilyas, wait five years for a slot.

Sabiha Ilyas, a resident of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood in Pakistan's port city of Karachi, talks to Arab News on July 19, 2020. Ilyas is among thousands of Pakistanis who will not be able to perform Hajj this year after Saudi Arabia cancelled the pilgrimage for international pilgrims due to the coronavirus crisis. (AN Photo) 

Therefore, Ilyas says she was overjoyed when she received the call on March 12 informing her that she had been selected for the pilgrimage this year.

“When my husband passed away, I faced a lot of hardships, including financial problems. But my desire to go on Hajj kept me going. I wouldn't get new clothes stitched or buy unnecessary things. I even cut down on grocery items to save money for Hajj," Ilyas told Arab News on Sunday.

Three months later, however, her dreams came crashing down. 

With several countries across the world going into lockdown to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease, Pakistan followed suit, as did Saudi Arabia, with the latter announcing the cancellation of Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages for the year to avoid mass congregations of people.

“Saving the money is very tough and getting oneself selected is also very tiresome, but hearing that Hajj has been cancelled [after everything is done] was very painful,” Ilyas said, adding that she had been selected for the government scheme after regularly applying for five consecutive years. 

Up until last year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims had amassed in Makkah, Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage, which holds a lot of religious and spiritual significance for Muslims across the world.

This year, before the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly 179,210 Pakistanis had registered for the pilgrimage, with 107,526 out of those enlisted under the government scheme, while 71,684 pilgrims had registered with private operators.

And while Saudi's announcement on June 22 limits international pilgrims from travelling to the country, a maximum of 1,000 nationals and expatriates residing within the Kingdom will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage this year. 

It means that Ilyas is among millions of other international pilgrims who will not be able to embark on their "once-in-a-lifetime" journey.

“That’s the place where everyone wants to go and never wants to return from. I have a great desire to visit. I'm heartbroken because I had made full preparations.”

After losing her husband five years ago and with no kids, parents or siblings for company, Ilyas says she desired to "visit the home of God and mausoleum of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)" in Madinah, Saudi Arabia that kept her going and had become her life's aim.

“Even if I'm alive next year, I won’t be able to manage it as the government continues to increase it [fee] by Rs50,000,” she said, before urging Pakistani authorities not to increase the fee next year and "give priority to those who couldn’t perform Hajj this year".

She added that while she respected the Kingdom's anti-virus measures, she wished Saudi "could have allowed at least a few foreigners to perform Hajj with precautions and after testing for COVID-19".

“We are at an age where we don’t know if we will live to perform Hajj next year or not. God forbid if the government increases the fee next year, how will I manage it? I wish I could fly and go there,” she said before picking a framed photo of Masjid-e-Nabvi and kissing it.

In Pakistan, timely help could save vision of 85% blind women

Updated 05 March 2021

In Pakistan, timely help could save vision of 85% blind women

  • Nearly 1 percent of Pakistan's 220 million population lives with blindness
  • Shaniera Akram says treating eye disease is directly related to women's empowerment in Pakistan

RAWALPINDI: For many Pakistani women, eye disease ensures a life of deepening destitution and dependency, while in 85 percent of cases timely help could prevent it, experts and activists say.

Nearly 1 percent of Pakistan's 220 million population lives with blindness, last year's survey National Committee for Prevention of Blindness (NCPB) shows. The majority of the cases are of preventable blindness, in which detection of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, or cataract.

Treatment, according to recent studies by NCPB's partner, Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF), could have saved the eyesight of over 85 percent of those who lost it, especially women. Having lost sight, they become a burden on their families, making eye disease a generational scourge among those who are often already vulnerable of the poor.

But as first symptoms occur, women rarely seek treatment due to dependency that tightens the more their vision is affected.

"They have to rely on husbands, fathers, children, a brother to move to any other place, whether it is a shopping area, or it is a clinic or a hospital," NCPB national coordinator Prof. Asad Aslam Khan told Arab News on Thursday.

A young girl gets a free exam provided by the Fred Hollows Foundation in Punjab, Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: FHF)

"Most of the time they are deprived of getting to facilities at the proper time leading to a delay in detection and management of diseases. This unnecessary delay turns avoidable curable blindness into permanent blindness."

To address the situation, the NCPB has been establishing ophthalmologist facilities at district hospitals outside major cities and with the help of FHF providing surgery to those whose vision can be restored. 

Much work, however, is a matter of changing the mindset to make women seek medical treatment. 

Fred Hollows Foundation ambassador Shaniera Akram embraces a woman whose sight was restored following corrective surgery at Chichawatni hospital in Punjab, Pakistan on October 30, 2019. (Photo courtesy: FHF)

Shaniera Akram, the Pakistan ambassador of the Australian NGO and wife of cricket superstar Wasim Akram, believes that fighting blindness is directly related to women's empowerment in Pakistan.

"We are trying to hit the gender gap, and close it to help bring women back into the workforce, to school, into their community, and back into their families," Akram told Arab News.

"By restoring a woman sight, who is also almost shunned from her family or community because of the fact that she's unhelpful to them, by giving that back, you’re empowering that woman to be able to live a full life."

Election commission rejects PM Khan's accusations of partisanship

Updated 2 min 56 sec ago

Election commission rejects PM Khan's accusations of partisanship

  • The commission issued a hard-hitting statement after Prime Minister Imran Khan criticized it for ‘damaging democracy’ in Pakistan
  • The government calls the commission’s response ‘inappropriate’ while the opposition slams the PM for putting the ECP under pressure

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday responded to the criticism leveled against it by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the wake of the recent Senate elections, saying it could not overlook the legal and constitutional requirements of the country while holding elections “to please anyone.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan had blamed the ECP on Thursday for “damaging democracy in the country” by holding Senate elections through secret ballot after one of his party candidates was defeated by an opposition alliance in a crucial contest on a general seat in Islamabad.
The outcome of the election was followed by demands for prime minister’s resignation since the opposition claimed that his administration had lost its majority in the National Assembly of Pakistan.
In an official statement issued on Friday, the ECP said it was an independent institution that always used legal and constitutional benchmarks while performing its duties.
“The election commission listens to everyone,” said the statement, “but fulfills its responsibilities within the legal and constitutional framework. It acts independently and takes decisions without getting under pressure to promote democracy among the people of Pakistan.”
The ECP criticized the government for only accepting favorable election outcomes while pointing out that “every individual and political party should have the ability to accept defeat.”
“Let us do our job,” added the statement, “and do not indulge in mudslinging against state institutions.”
Discussing the ECP’s statement in news conference, Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry called the election commission’s “rebuttal” to the prime minister’s speech “inappropriate,” saying “it will be criticized.”
Chaudhry said that the government respected all institutions of the state and was willing to support them, but they should display “freedom and impartiality through their actions, not press releases.”
He reiterated the prime minister’s claim that the ECP could not hold fair and transparent Senate elections due to its refusal to make ballot papers traceable.
Khan had slammed the election commission for refusing to hold the Senate polls through open ballot during a Supreme Court hearing ahead of the elections.
The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Vice President Maryam Sharif, however, defended the ECP during a media briefing, saying that the election commission was not presenting its personal stance on the matter in front of the court but explaining its constitutional position.
“The ECP’s position was also upheld by the apex court,” she noted
The PML-N leader condemned Prime Minister Imran Khan for “targeting” the election commission in his address to the nation, claiming that the PTI administration was trying to put it under pressure by making it “politically controversial.”

COVID-19 cases surge in Pakistan after restrictions relaxed

Updated 05 March 2021

COVID-19 cases surge in Pakistan after restrictions relaxed

  • National Command and Operation Center on Feb. 24 relaxed most of coronavirus-related restrictions 
  • Pakistan Super League cricket series postponed after a number of players tested positive for COVID-19

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday recorded the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases in over a month, only days after it has relaxed a number of coronavirus restrictions.
Pakistan recorded 1,579 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Friday. The total number of infections rose to 587,014, with 13,128 deaths.
The increase comes after the National Command and Operation Center, which oversees Pakistan’s coronavirus response, on Feb. 24 eased most of the restrictions, allowing commercial activities to resume with no time limits and offices and other workplaces to function at full strength, without the 50 percent work-from-home condition.
Regular five-day classes restarted at schools from March 1.
The NCOC also allowed Pakistan Super League pool matches with 50 percent spectators. On Thursday, however, the tournament was postponed after a number of players tested positive for the coronavirus.

Election commission 'damaged' democracy by allowing secret ballot, says PM Khan

Updated 05 March 2021

Election commission 'damaged' democracy by allowing secret ballot, says PM Khan

  • The prime minister blames the regulatory body for providing space to 'criminals' by not making votes traceable during the Senate polls
  • Khan made the statement while addressing the nation after his preferred candidate lost a general seat to an opposition politician in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan bitterly criticized the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) during his address to the nation on Thursday, accusing it of "damaging democracy in the country" by holding Senate elections through secret ballot.

Khan and his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party believe that lawmakers in national and provincial assemblies sold their votes ahead of the Senate polls on Wednesday.

While the PTI managed to win 25 seats in the upper house of parliament, it lost a major contest in Islamabad where Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh was defeated by the joint candidate of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance.

The outcome of the election was followed by demand for the prime minister's resignation since the opposition claimed that his administration had lost its majority in the assembly.

After the government's announcement that Khan would seek vote of confidence on Saturday, he decided to address the nation in which he reminded the election commission that its foremost duty was to hold free and fair elections.

"I could not understand why you went to the [apex] court and said that Senate polls should be held through secret ballot," he said while referring to recent Supreme Court proceedings focusing on the mode of Senate elections in response to a presidential reference.

In response to the commission's argument in front of the court that it was not possible to allow open ballot under the constitution, Khan asked: "Tell me, does any constitution permits anyone to steal or bribe which has been happening [in Pakistan] for the past 30 years?"

He said that the Supreme Court had allowed the ECP to continue with secret balloting but make all votes traceable to prevent corrupt practices.

"I kept saying before the election that people were putting themselves up for sale," Khan continued. "Why couldn't you barcode 1500 ballot papers even after getting the opportunity from the Supreme Court? You gave full opportunity [to politicians] to discredit democracy in the country."

"You protected criminals through secret balloting," he added. "You have damaged our democracy. Tell me, what kind of a democracy is this where people become senators by using money?"

The prime minister also accused the ECP of "damaging the morality of the country."

Khan also told his party members that he recognized their right to say no to his leadership during the vote of confidence on Saturday, saying he would respect their decision and "sit in the opposition."

Pakistan welcomes talks with India on all issues including Kashmir — foreign office

Updated 05 March 2021

Pakistan welcomes talks with India on all issues including Kashmir — foreign office

  • The recent communication between the two countries over a military hotline was in line with Pakistan’s desire for peace, says the foreign ministry
  • Foreign policy experts believe 'third party mediation' is necessary for dialogue between Pakistan and India

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has always believed in dialogue and diplomacy, the foreign office maintained on Thursday, adding it was imperative for the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbors to address their differences through peaceful negotiations.

"Pakistan has always welcomed the idea of talks with India," Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, the ministry's spokesperson, told a weekly press briefing in Islamabad. "We believe that all issues, including the Kashmir dispute, must be resolved through dialogue."

Chaudhri added the recent communication between the Indian and Pakistani director generals of military operations over a hotline "should be seen in the same context."

In rare development last week, India and Pakistan agreed on "strict observance" of all ceasefire agreements and understandings along the Line of Control separating the two sides of the disputed Kashmir region, the military's public relations wing, ISPR, said in a statement.

"The principle of negotiations states that anyone who runs away has a weak position on the negotiating table," the foreign office spokesperson said. "The way we have been articulating our position shows that we have a position of strength."

Pakistan's former high commissioner to India Abdul Basit said that "third party mediation" was important for any meaningful dialogue between the two countries. 

"Pakistan is always willing to resolve this longstanding dispute [of Kashmir] through dialogue and one hopes that India would realize that its actions [on August 5, 2019] were unconstitutional and would never be acceptable to Pakistan or the people of Kashmir," he told Arab News, adding that It was now up to India to reach out to Pakistan and amicably address all outstanding problems.

"The government has taken a position that it will not restore diplomatic relations with India until the administration in New Delhi revokes its illegal actions of August 5, 2019,” he continued. “For this, I feel that third party mediation is absolutely necessarily since there is no mutual trust between the two countries even at a very low level."