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A policeman stands guard as female polio workers wait to administer polio vaccines to children in Lahore, Pakistan, on December 20.
In October, militants attacked a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Pakistan's Swat Valley for speaking out against their medieval practice of locking girls and women in the four walls of their houses.

The near-fatal shooting was met with nearly universal revulsion. In an unprecedented display of resentment, Pakistanis excoriated the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, and stood behind young child activist Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an education and peace activist.

This past week, a similar response has emerged from Pakistan's civil society and intelligentsia following attacks on polio-eradication teams in Peshawar and Karachi that claimed nine lives -- six women and three men.

The level of public anger has been such that virtually no one -- not even Taliban sympathizers and apologists or the so-called anti-American groups that include Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), Difa-e-Pakistan Council, or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) of Malana Fazlur Rahman -- dared to publicly challenge the outrage. (They did, however, stop short of naming the Taliban and instead issued a general condemnation of the gory incidents).

On December 20, 30 religious scholars of the Sunni Ittehad Council, a group comprising Sunni religious leaders, condemned the attacks on the polio workers and issued a fatwa emphasizing that administering polio drops and vaccines is not un-Islamic.

The head of Pakistan's Ulema Council, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, on the other hand, requested that all affiliated religious seminaries and mosques in their Friday sermons condemn the attacks and highlight the importance of a healthy life in light of the teachings of Islam.

"We've raised our voice both in [the] Rimsha Masih and Malala Yousafzai cases and once again we are leading the protest against attacks on polio workers. This barbarity [in the name of Islam] is no more acceptable and this voice will now ring from each and every mosque and madrasah," Maulana Ashrafi told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal on December 21.

So where do Pakistanis stand?

A vast majority of observers appear to believe that the reactions of Pakistani civil society, the intelligentsia, the media, and the religious right are a harbinger of change.

The unity shown by Pakistanis following the attacks on polio staff and child activist Malala are reminiscent of the mammoth gatherings and rallies once staged by Kashmir-focused religious parties to highlight Pakistan enmity toward India. A shift, as it were, away from jihadists and in favor of peace.

"Of course, this is pointing to the change and shift from the Taliban narrative," writer and analyst Khadim Hussain told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. Hussain suggests that support for the jihadist agendas of right-wing parties by previous governments coupled with deliberate efforts to influence school curricula deepened the roots of radicalism and extremism in the society.

Many Pakistanis see their country at a crossroad and expect incidents like the recent attacks on polio workers and Malala to eventually catapult the Pakistani security establishment into drastic and decisive action against the Taliban.

"The solution, as always, is to eliminate the Taliban so that their narrative, too, is destroyed," writes Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper "The Express Tribune" in a December 19 editorial.

But it is important to remember that similar expectations were expressed and suggestions forwarded following the attack on Malala, who remains in a U.K. hospital. Although Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani pointed in recent statements to landmark changes in Islamabad's policies toward, India, Afghanistan, and the Taliban, there don't appear to have been any practical steps taken in that direction.

Many of those so appalled by the attacks on the polio workers and on Malala must be hoping that the current media war is just a first step -- one that is followed by determined action.

-- Daud Khattak
A Pakistani man marks his ballot in Karachi during elections in August 2005.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Pakistani politicians, after daylong deliberations on November 28, reached a unanimous decision that cats should be thrown out of the country's marshy politics. Same for radishes, carrots, okras, bananas, and the much-despised lotas, or ewers.

Implications did not extend to the proverbial "greater national interest," as is the case with so many decisions in Pakistan. Rather it was a matter of mutual personal and party interests. And so the decision came quickly.

The election commission says there are 216 registered political parties in Pakistan, while there are so far just 171 electoral symbols available. Many independent candidates will need their own symbols.

Symbols are used in elections in many countries to help illiterate voters distinguish among parties or even individual candidates. Such images, used for years in Pakistan, accompany campaign materials and must appear alongside the names of the respective individuals or groups on the ballots.

General elections are expected in April or May, and some parties have objected to the presence of certain symbols on the ballot.
"Vote for me!"
"Vote for me!"

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the country's second-largest party and an early favorite ahead of the contest, has objected to the assignment of a cat as the symbol for any party or independent candidate. The PML-N's own symbol is a lion, and some party leaders are of the view that the resemblance between the cat and the lion might adversely affect their showing. Illiterate voters who frequently pay special attention to kinship, clans, feudalism, or khanism, their argument goes, might cast votes for the wrong cat.

Another, arguably more serious, case is that of the book. That was the symbol of the six-party religious alliance Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the 2002 general elections. But since that religious alliance disintegrated in 2007, the book was assigned to the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party for the 2008 polls.

Both in 2002 and again in 2008, leaders of nonreligious parties complained that their religious rivals were presenting the book as a Koran to attract voters in the name of Islam. So they have filed an objection with the Election Commission of Pakistan this time to remove it from the list.

There have been suggestions that the book should appear unfolded, with English letters on its pages. That would presumably prevent religious parties from propagating their election symbol as holy because, opponents suggest, even the illiterate in Pakistan know very well that the language of the Koran is Arabic and not English.

So what's left for the hard-line Jamat-e-Islami party? Since it boycotted the 2008 general elections, the image of the book was assigned to its erstwhile coalition partner, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Looking for a similarly desirable symbol, Jamat-e-Islami's leaders have applied with the election commission to be represented by a set of scales.

Scales say "justice" in many cultures.
Scales say "justice" in many cultures.
Of course, scales are widely regarded as a symbol of justice, and Pakistan is no exception. That's why the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), or Justice Party, of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan also wants its symbol to be a set of scales. Khan's electoral symbol was previously a cricket bat.

Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaaf party and Jamat-e-Islami are both known for their dharnas (sit-ins) and marches to register their displeasure. So neither can be ruled out once a decision on the symbol is made.

That brings us to the most despised symbol, the lota, or vessel. In olden days, lotas were made of clay and used mostly in mosques for ablutions. With modernity creeping into religious places, however, the clay lotas have largely been replaced with metal or plastic pitchers. Although hand and electrical pumps have now considerably reduced the use of lotas for ablutions in urban areas, they are still widely used in village purification rituals.

One might assume that as an instrument of a sacred rite, the lota might be the choice of conservative parties. But the opposite is in fact the case. No one knows precisely how or when the lota entered Pakistan's political lexicon or why it became so despised, but it has become synonymous with opportunistic politicians who change political stripes for personal gain.

WATCH: A spirited discussion of the pejorative meaning of "lota" in modern Pakistani politics (in Urdu):


So the image of the lota was removed from the list of electoral symbols (although scores of politicians sitting in or outside parliament have shifted loyalties and will continue to do so in future without so much as batting an eyelid).

But what about okra, banana, radish, and carrot? Election commission spokesman Altaf Ahmad told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that "those names were just comical." Without going into detail, he said candidates and political parties had refused to accept those symbols whenever they were assigned in the past.

Maybe he's right. So the question is: Why were those symbols included on the list again to begin with? Maybe for the same reason that the cat is being extirpated and the appearance of the book is being changed. Maybe not enough proper consideration and planning went into the process.

-- Daud Khattak

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