Bare palms this Eid as pandemic dampens Pakistan’s henna obsession

Pakistani women offer special prayers on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan at the historic Badshahi Mosque in Lahore on May 13, 2021. (AFP photo)
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Updated 13 May 2021

Bare palms this Eid as pandemic dampens Pakistan’s henna obsession

  • Mehndi applied to hands has long been a traditional celebration marking Eid and weddings across cultures
  • Apart from the business side, the joy of socializing during henna application has been lost

RAWALPINDI: As another Eid Al-Fitr arrives under the shadow of the pandemic, celebrations are dampened around the world. In Pakistan, the government has advised citizens to celebrate simply, and among the many festive practices compromised on, is the art of henna, or mehndi. 

Mehndi is produced from the leaves of henna plants and has played a significant role in expressions of celebration in South Asia for hundreds of years.

The night before Eid, henna artists are invited to private homes where groups of family members gather to get their palms made up. In bazaars, long queues of people wait for busy artists speedily creating designs on hundreds of women a day-- sometimes well into the early hours of the morning.

But since last year, henna artists say nothing is the same.

“The pandemic has really badly affected my work. I’m still better off than many others, but because the majority of my work was traveling for bridal bookings, I took a hit,” Sara Vazir, a henna artist, told Arab News.

Vazir, 33, has been working with henna since she was 11 and has built an international clientele for her business, ‘Sara’s Henna.’

Sara Vazir shares her henna designs with over 80,000 followers on Instagram, on December 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy: Sara's Henna)

“As for Eid, that [business] has completely stopped since the pandemic began ... a year and a half now. I have two small kids and I do not want to take the risk; I don’t want to go to people’s houses or call them over,” she said.

Vazir’s designs are inspired by mehndi from around the world. 

Moroccan style henna art has fast become one of the most popular, with geometric designs featuring dot work and diamond shapes that borrow from the Afro-Arab country’s architectural styles. 

Pakistani fashion brand Ethnic borrows Moroccan henna designs for their Ramadan 2021 collection. (Photo courtesy: Ethnic)

Even Islamic imagery like domes and symmetrical arches are common in popular henna design. In recent years, simpler designs have become trendy. 

Some brands like Dastaangoi and Kolachi mehndi in Pakistan have encouraged people to DIY their mehndi at home, and have released mehndi design kits featuring designs rooted in different henna traditions.

Storytelling platform Dastaangoi and organic henna brand Kolachi Mehndi collaborate for an at-home Eid mehndi kit featuring style inspirations across cultures. Photo shared on May 4, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Kolachi Mehndi)

But apart from the business of henna design, it’s the socializing aspect-- the part that creates happy memories-- that has been hurt.

“When I work on clients now, it’s not the same fun of a group getting together and sharing in something joyful because we have to be careful,” Karachi-based henna artist Shahtaj A. Khan told Arab News.

“It’s sad that this traditional happy moment is disappearing.”

Some mehndi artists like Khan are continuing to see clients under strict SOP’s, wearing masks, shields and working outside in the open.

A girl gets her hand decorated with henna paste at a marketplace during the holy month of Ramadan ahead of Eid Al-Fitr in Karachi on May 8, 2021. (AFP)

During weddings in Pakistan and India, the hands of the bride and her closest women friends and family are filled with intricate details bordered with thick lines, motifs of flora, peacocks, paisleys, and checkered patterns. There is an entire wedding occasion dedicated to the ritual of this application, called simply, the ‘mehndi.’
Umme Kulsoom Huzaifa Lathi, who has decorated hands around the nation including for Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari on her wedding, told Arab News that these days, being careful was paramount.

Pakistani henna artist Umme Kulsoom Huzaifa Lathi shares a photo with Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari whose hands she has decorated for during a mehndi bridal session on January 29, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Kulsooms Henna)

“Since last Eid, business has picked up, but everything is done extremely carefully,” Lathi told Arab News over the phone from Karachi.

“We follow all the guidelines because we want things to get back to normal... and hopefully artists like me can see their businesses get back to normal too.”

Sindh government mulls complete lockdown over 'abnormal' surge in COVID-19 infections in Karachi

Updated 28 July 2021

Sindh government mulls complete lockdown over 'abnormal' surge in COVID-19 infections in Karachi

  • Provincial parliamentary secretary on health says decision to impose a two-week lockdown could be taken on Friday
  • Pakistan’s DG health Dr Safdar says federal pandemic response closely working with Sindh administration to curb virus spread

KARACHI: The provincial administration of Sindh could announce a two-week lockdown in Karachi on Friday if coronavirus cases continue to increase, a senior health official said on Wednesday.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said on Tuesday his province was witnessing an “abnormal” surge in COVID-19 cases, saying the situation was particularly “alarming and critical” since the positivity ratio in the city had shot past 26 percent.

The infection rate in Karachi has consistently remained high, with 8,513 coronavirus cases recorded during the last week and an average daily positivity rate of 21.73 percent.

“We are increasing the capacity of government and private hospitals, but this is obviously not a solution [to the pandemic],” Qasim Soomro, parliamentary secretary on health in Sindh, told Arab News. “We will have to enforce the lockdown to address the situation if the infection rate does not drop by Friday.”

Soomro also said the Sindh administration was trying to increase hospital capacity and had held a meeting with the management of private medical facilities.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Sindh chief minister said the Sindh government had decided to add more ventilators, and oxygen beds to the health system. Currently, government hospitals in Karachi have 398 ventilators , 906 HDU (high-dependency unit) beds and 293 oxygen beds for coronavirus patients.

Around 32 ventilators, 110 HDU beds and 40 oxygen beds will also be added to coronavirus wards in hospitals in Karachi, it was announced.

“We are increasing the number of beds and ventilators in government hospitals,” Soomro said. “Yesterday, a meeting was held with the management of private hospitals in this connection. However, their unanimous demand was to impose a lockdown.”

Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Qaiser Sajjad, general secretary of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), emphasized strict enforcement of virus restrictions, saying negligence could lead to “a situation like India” in the country.

“The cases have reached record high level as the delta variant of the virus is fast spreading,” he said. “There is no alternative except to impose a complete lockdown if the government cannot implement the SOPs [standard operating procedures].”

“Currently, 980 critical patients of COVID-19 are admitted in various hospitals in the city, which is a record high since the outbreak of the virus last year, and this is really dangerous,” Sajjad said, while adding that 90 percent of these critical patients were unvaccinated.

“Vaccination is the only way to acquire normalcy in business and life,” the PMA general secretary added. “No one is following the prescribed health guidelines and the situation has reached a level where major hospitals of the city are refusing to treat patients [due to limited capacity].”

Pakistan’s director general health, Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, told Arab News the National Command and Operations Center (NCOC), which oversees the country’s pandemic response, was closely working with the Sindh administration to stop the spread of the virus.

“The NCOC is working closely with the Sindh government to support the NPI [non-pharmacological interventions] implementation, vaccination ramp up and upbuilding hospital capacity,” Safdar said while pointing out that Karachi had witnessed a consistently high transmission rate.

To bring down the rising infection rate in Karachi, the chief minister of Sindh has constituted a four-member committee to meet with transporters and members of trade associations to ensure strict implementation of the officially prescribed health guidelines in public.

“If these SOPs are not followed — and they have not been properly followed until now — the situation will force us to go for a complete lockdown,” Soomro said. “The final decision in this regard will be taken in Friday’s meeting of the provincial coronavirus task force. We will have to take strong and strict decisions to protect the lives of the people.”

Saudi FM, Pakistan army chief discuss strengthening security cooperation

Updated 28 July 2021

Saudi FM, Pakistan army chief discuss strengthening security cooperation

  • Prince Faisal assures Gen. Bajwa of ‘unflinching support,’ appreciates Pakistan’s efforts for regional peace — ISPR 
  • Saudi foreign minister was in Islamabad to review progress in various fields of bilateral cooperation

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, has discussed strengthening security cooperation with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday.

Prince Faisal arrived in Islamabad on Tuesday for a day-long visit to review with Pakistani officials progress in various fields of bilateral cooperation. 

It was the Saudi minister’s second state visit to Pakistan in a year. He was last in Islamabad in December 2020.
He met Bajwa at the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
“They reviewed bilateral relations between the two brotherly countries, and the meeting dealt with strengthening joint cooperation to maintain security and stability,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a series of tweets.

The Pakistani military’s media wing, ISPR, said in a statement after the visit that Gen. Bajwa and Prince Faisal had also discussed the regional security situation, including the Afghan peace process.

“Matters of bilateral interest, evolving security situation of the region, including Afghanistan Peace Process and collaboration for regional peace and connectivity were discussed during the meeting,” the ISPR said, adding that the Saudi FM had assured Pakistan of Saudi Arabia’s “unflinching support” and “appreciated sincere efforts and role Pakistan played for promoting peace and stability in the region.”

Pakistani opposition leader Maryam Nawaz tests positive for coronavirus

Updated 28 July 2021

Pakistani opposition leader Maryam Nawaz tests positive for coronavirus

  • Country recently crossed the grim milestone of one million COVID-19 cases since the emergence of the pandemic in February 2020
  • Health officials warned last week’s Eid Al-Adha holiday and elections in Azad Kashmir on July 25 could prove to be super spreader events

ISLAMABAD: The vice president of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party, Maryam Nawaz, has tested positive for the coronavirus, PMLN spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb said on Wednesday. 
Health officials have recently warned that last week’s Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha and elections in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir on July 25 — for which Nawaz and other politicians actively campaigned and held large public gatherings — could prove to be super spreader events.
“PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s coronavirus test returned positive after which she has quarantined herself,” her spokesperson said on Twitter. 

Pakistan on Wednesday reported 4,119 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, the highest single day increase in two months, while its positivity rate shot up to 6.32 percent.
The country recently crossed the grim milestone of one million COVID-19 cases since the emergence of the pandemic in February 2020. Cases had shown a steady decline since May but have recently started to increase once more, with top officials warning of a looming fourth wave of the pandemic. 

In southern Pakistan, a cemetery for ‘condemned’ women killed in the name of honor

Updated 28 July 2021

In southern Pakistan, a cemetery for ‘condemned’ women killed in the name of honor

  • 'Kariyon ka Qabristan' has around 400 graves, all belong to women killed in so called ‘honor killings’, graveyard caretaker says
  • Deputy commissioner Gotkhi denies graveyard reserved for ‘condemned women,’ government to seek explanation from local administration

DAHARKI, Sindh: In Fattu Shah, a small village in Ghotki district on the border of the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab, a cemetery is reserved for women. But not just any women, the graveyard’s caretaker and local villagers say, but ‘condemned women,’ or karis, killed over perceived damage to “honor.”
Hundreds of women are murdered each year in Pakistan, mostly by family members, in so-called ‘honor killings’ that punish women for eloping, fraternizing with men or other infractions considered in defiance of conservative values that govern women’s modesty in the South Asian nation.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 430 cases of honor killing were reported in 2020, involving 148 male and 363 female victims. Of these cases, 215 victims, 136 of them girls and women, belonged to the southern Sindh province. 
Though laws around the country forbid honor killings, rights experts say enforcement of justice is often lax in such cases, with proceedings at times being drawn out while accused killers are freed on bail and cases fade away.
Kariyon ka Qabristan, or cemetery for condemned women, as the graveyard is called, is a testament to the continuing practice. 
At least half a dozen villagers interviewed by Arab News said they knew of women who had been killed in the name of honor and buried in the graveyard in Fattu Shah. 
Ali Nawaz, the 67-year-old caretaker of the four-decade-old cemetery, said there were at least 400 graves there, all of whom belonged to women killed in the name of honor. 
“Burials have decreased over the last few years, but women are still being killed in the name of honor,” he told Arab News. 
Among the ‘condemned women’ is Naseeran Chanesar, the aunt of 21-year-old shepherd Ilah Bux, who said he was ten when his mother’s sister ‘disappeared’ from her village home in 2013. 
For days, Bux kept asking his mother where Chanesar was, he told Arab News: “It was on the third day that a villager whispered in my ears that she had been buried in Kariyon ka Qabristan.”
Bux said he did not know which grave in the cemetery was his aunt’s: “The only person I could ask is my mother, but she also doesn’t know the exact grave.”
Nawaz the caretaker said no visitors came to the graveyard even on religious holidays such as the Eid festivals, or in the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims visit the graves of their family members and friends. 
“Many graves have decayed over the years and are no longer visible,” he said, “and if someone even tries to come here, they cannot identify their loved ones.”
Another lost grave is of Gul Bano who was killed by her elder brother in 2014, Bano’s cousin Murad Mehar said. 
“On every Shab-e-Barat [major event in the Islamic calendar] when people go to graveyards to offer fateha [prayers] at the graves of their loved ones, we see Bano’s mother weeping in a corner of her house, remembering the daughter she can’t visit,” Mehar told Arab News. 
While nearly all villagers spoke on condition of anonymity, Zarka Shar, an activist from Beruth, another village in Ghotki, said a graveyard had been reserved for victims of honor killings “because even after death, these ‘karis’ are not considered worthy to be buried in normal graveyards.”
“No rituals are performed for those killed and they are buried without being bathed,” she added. “This graveyard was built to spread fear.”
Shar said though the number of honor killings and subsequent burials in the graveyard had declined after the media had shone a spotlight on the practice in recent years, “there is still fear.”
“Even now if someone is buried, no one reveals it,” Shar said. “The administration ... does not take any action on this lawlessness. People are afraid to talk. The women are helpless. If one is a victim, others are silent mourners.”
But Usman Abdullah, the deputy commissioner of Gotkhi, denied that the graveyard in question was reserved for karis. 
Murtaza Wahab, a spokesperson for the Sindh government, acknowledged that incidents of honor killing occurred in the province but said he was not aware of a graveyard specifically for karis. 
“I will summon a report from the local administration,” he added. 
But Mehnaz Rehman, executive director at Aurat foundation, told Arab News the graveyard existed and she had visited it several years ago as part of a fact-finding mission.
“There are painful stories,” she said. “We saw the grave of a mother who we were told was killed and buried there because she had dared to challenge customs.”

Pakistan planning first real estate investment trust in six years

Updated 28 July 2021

Pakistan planning first real estate investment trust in six years

  • REIT set up by Arif Habib Dolmen REIT Management Limited, which launched similar initiative in 2015
  • Approval process expected to take less than year, top official says REIT to be introduced in market within 12 to 18 months

KARACHI: Pakistan has created its first Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) after a span of six years, as the country tries to improve its regulatory environment and provide incentives to the domestic construction industry.
The REIT was set up by Arif Habib Dolmen REIT Management Limited, which launched a similar initiative in Pakistan in 2015.
“We have created the Silk Islamic Development REIT last month,” Muhammad Ejaz, chief executive officer of the company, told Arab News over the phone from Toronto, Canada. “The process for the creation of Silk World Islamic REIT is also underway.”
The company is planning to raise about Rs8 billion ($50 million) through private placements in both REITs for housing projects in Karachi’s Surjani area where about 146 acres of land will be developed into commercial and residential units.
“As far as our planning is concerned, we are surveying the market to identify the right product time and the optimal product mix. Once that is done, we will engage our product designer,” Ejaz said. 
The company is hoping to offer the two REITs for sales within 18 months, following the completion of regulatory approvals, property transfers, market study and environment impact assessment.
“The whole process of approval, including the NOCs [No Objection Certificates] and environmental impact studies, is expected to take around nine to 10 months. We are confident to introduce this in the market within 12 to 18 months,” he said.
Asked about the expected returns on investment, Ejaz said the company was targeting between 18 and 25 percent of internal rate of return (IRR).
The existing Arif Habib Dolmen City REIT, which owns Karachi’s prominent Dolmen Mall and office tower, has announced a dividend yield of Rs1.24 per unit or 12.4 percent for the year that ended June 30, 2021, according to a company announcement.
Pakistan is currently facing an overall housing backlog of 10-12 million units. To fill the widening gap, Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to construct five million houses and offer various incentives to the construction sector to achieve the target.
These incentives were announced in April 2020 and included a tax amnesty scheme for the construction sector that barred the authorities from questioning investors, builders and buyers about their sources of income if they put cash in the real estate business.
Ejaz said the government had substantially encouraged development activities in the country which had invited huge interest from investors.
“There are three major factors behind our decision to launch these REIT: The first is the facilitation of the central bank that has made it easier for other banks to participate in the real estate sector; the second is the amended regulatory framework by the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan which has created a conducive business environment; and the third is the Federal Board of Revenue’s decision to reduce the disadvantage of REIT as compared to the other informal construction sector,” Ejaz said. 
Analysts say REITs offer huge investment opportunities to those who find it difficult to benefit from the real estate sector due to high prices.
“REITs are transparent and documented investment instruments that are made available in capital markets which encourage commoners to invest amid astronomically high real estate values,” Samiullah Tariq, director research at the Pakistan-Kuwait Investment, told Arab News on Monday, adding that it was important to rationalize the country’s tax structure to make REITs more attractive.