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Women like Qandeel Baloch must not die in vain

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Qandeel Baloch. Source: Facebook
Qandeel Baloch. Source: Facebook
 

Originally published for Sedaa on July 18, 2016

Yet another woman’s life has prematurely been taken in an ‘honour killing’.

Pakistani internet sensation Qandeel Baloch was strangled by her brother on Friday night while at her family home in Multan, Punjab.

After going on the run, her brother Waseem was later arrested. In his confession video, he expressed no regret. “I am proud of what I did. I drugged her first, then I killed her,” said Waseem.”She was bringing dishonor to our family.”

Qandeel’s posts were considered to be controversial in Pakistan. She rose to fame due to the sassy, and increasingly political, videos she posted on Facebook.

Her brother Waseem claims that having his friends share her pictures and video clips was “too much” for him and killing his sister was a better alternative than killing himself.

Qandeel’s brother Waseem, who has now been arrested.

Both adored and reviled, Qandeel, who was buried on Sunday, referred to herself as a “modern day feminist” and had nearly 750,000 followers on Facebook.

Funny how the media is now fawning over her, the same media that provided outrage porn for its Pakistani citizens, inviting them to get worked up over her ‘lewd’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

It has brought out all the hypocrites. Mourning the loss of a woman they had probably thought of as a whore or disgrace to her family hours before her murder.

“They could have disowned her”, wrote one person under an article about her death. But even that is a problem. Don’t murder a women, for goodness sake. Just disown her and ostracise her for life. Much better, eh?

As for those telling me not to call it an ‘honour killing’. Yes I know there is no honour in killing. But this type of murder is carried out in the name of honour.

On the list of 145 countries featured in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Gender Gap Report, Pakistan is second to last with regards to gender disparity.  According to the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, violence against women is rampant, with as many as 212 women being killed in the name of ‘honour’ in the first five months of 2016.

When I heard the news I wept all day long, because I am all too familiar with this concept of ‘honour’ that robbed Qandeel of her life.

Just read some of the comments on this piece. There’s no justification for murder, they start by saying. BUT. There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there?

I remember worrying for her safety after hearing the news that she had posted a video with Mufti Abdul Qavi in a hotel room. I wondered, how is this woman still alive in Pakistan doing what she does?

Where is that mufti now? He claimed that Qandeel’s death is a sobering lesson for those who mock clerics. Yet it is perfectly fine for these clerics to meet women alone in a hotel room and offer to marry them. Qandeel also claimed that he tried to hug and kiss her. Police have announced that Mufti Qavi would be included in her murder investigation. But I don’t see any women rounding up to kill him in the name of honour.

Whatever you think of Qandeel, at least she didn’t pretend to be someone she was not. Our societies have raised us to be liars and hypocrites. We can’t do what we want openly so we do it secretly. The worst culprits are religious men such as Mufti Qavi.

Pakistani men (and indeed men from many societies around the world) constantly police women’s minds and bodies. They are terrified of what might happen if women start thinking for themselves and behaving how they want to.

For Qandeel was not just murdered by her brother. She was murdered by them all; her society and nation.

And unfortunately there are women who propagate these beliefs and practices, defending Qandeel’s murder.

Qandeel tweet reactions

 

 

This woman clearly does not realise the irony of her words. She is against honour killings but against ‘bey-ghairat’ (shameless), yet ghairat (shame) is the name in which this type of brutality occurs. Shaming Qandeel’s lifestyle choices are exactly what led to her murder.

They say she deserved it because she was provocative. But let us not forget that women can be killed for things that we would deem almost trivial here in the West — going out at night with friends, having a boyfriend, marrying someone whom you love, wearing what you want.

We are constantly watched, monitored and regulated. If we step out of the line we pay the price.

We can’t dress a certain way because it’s ‘disrespectful’ or ‘unIslamic’.

We can’t go out late because that’s not what ‘good girls’ do. We’re not like those  gori (white) women who have no honour. We have to say where we’re going, with whom, why we’re going out and what time we’ll return.

Our male counterparts get to do whatever the hell they want with barely any repercussions. When was the last time you heard of a man being killed by his sister, mother or wife in the name of honour?

And this problem is not just restricted to the east. Even here in the west, though we are free in theory the reality is different.

Very few people understand just what it’s like to live a life where, every time you step out of the house, you are worried that someone, somewhere, will see you. And they will, believe me. Your family has eyes and ears everywhere.

Even women who seem free on the surface are suffering. They might have careers and they could even be financially well off, but they’re controlled in other ways.

I’m sick of this. Yet we accept it or tolerate it quietly because, well, that’s what women have to do. For how much longer? For how long must we continue to suffer mentally, emotionally and physically, simply because we’re women and it’s seen as ok?

How do you stand your ground when the odds are stacked against you. You’re standing up to your parents, extended family, the ‘community’ and wider society. Then there’s us. On our own.

We have one life and it’s being wasted away. Be good, they tell us, and we’ll get our reward in the afterlife. A clever way of ensuring we stay in line because, let’s face it, crossing your family is one thing but crossing the Almighty? No thanks. So we continue to suffer in silence.

It’s always women like Qandeel who apparently are a disgrace to their families or their country, but never the men who leer at them or murder them.

We’re labelled whores, goris, beghairat (shameless), coconuts. A man is not a whore — he’s just a man, exercising his rights.

“Men can go out and have shit on their faces but still sit at the dinner table,” one Pakistani woman told me. “But you’re a girl, it’s different.”

Our family honour rests on our bodies; it is a terrible burden to bear.

Despite reports that she was scared for her life, Qandeel wrote that she was a fighter.

“I will bounce back,” she said, adding that she wanted to inspire women who have been “treated badly and dominated by society.”

Sadly she did not and paid with her life. But all over social media, people are speaking up, condemning this murder.

I implore everyone out there, both men and women, please don’t let Qandeel Baloch die in vain.

Because one day the ‘honour brigade’ might come for you too. And there will be no one left to speak up.

Written by Iram Ramzan

July 25, 2016 at 11:58 am

Murdered by my father: A review

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Murdered by my father. Source: BBC

Originally published for Sedaa on April 4, 2016

 

“Someone’s always watching. Trust me.”

These are the words uttered by college student Salma in the BBC 3 drama Murdered By My Father, as she warns her boyfriend to stay away before someone finds out that they are dating.

We have all been there, have we not ladies? Most of us, from South Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds, where the notions of honour and shame are so important, have always been — and always will be — on our guards whenever we leave the house. Because no matter what you are doing, someone, somewhere, is always bound to catch you out and report you to your parents. Even when you least expect it. Even when what you are doing is entirely innocent it does not matter. Once word gets out it can blemish a reputation you must keep clean. Women will sometimes pay for this transgression with their lives.

Written by Vinay Patel, Murdered By My Father is a harrowing drama based on testimonials from survivors of ‘honour’ abuse. It tells the story of Salma (played fantastically by Kiran Sonia Sarwar), a young woman who lives on an estate with her widower father Shahzad (Adeel Akhtar) and younger brother Hassan (Reiss Jeram).

Like many girls of her age, Salma has a boyfriend, Imi (Mawaan Rizwan), except she has to keep it all a secret from her family and the wider community or else there will be hell to pay. Unfortunately for Salma, she is already promised to someone in marriage — the bland and unremarkable Haroon (Salman Akhtar). It is a painful reminder that her life is not hers, but simply on lease until the time comes for her family members, her community, to reclaim what was never hers. We belong to our fathers, brothers, husbands and the wider community. We are not individuals.

There is a scene in which Shahzad sees his daughter’s pink bra in the bathroom, a symbol that she is no longer a girl, but a woman, a sexual being who is a potential threat to his honour — that bullshit word that is a noose around most women’s necks.

“You carry all of us,” Shahzad explains to his daughter. “I get scared because when they look at you, they see me. You fail, I fail. When you’re safe, I’m safe. When you get married then I can die happy.” This type of emotional blackmail is often deployed as a tactic to ensure females toe the line. Shahzad is not portrayed as a monster, but a man who is trying to do right by both his family and the community. But the latter always wins in the end. It is important that we see this side of Shahzad first to show that these people can switch from loving parents to monsters who will take their children’s lives.

We see Salma and Imi meeting up secretly throughout the drama, savouring their moments of happiness because you know — as we all know painfully too well — that they can be snatched away from you in next to no time. On the day of her engagement, Salma is seen by her fiancé, kissing her boyfriend goodbye. The family and guests are allowed to enjoy their food, unaware of the storm that is about to be unleashed upon them.

 

 

And, inevitably, Salma is shamed and dishonoured. The ‘shame’ is also on Shahzad. He has no honour left because he failed to keep his “slag” of a daughter in check. “Take care of your filth!” Haroon spits at the man who will no longer be his father-in-law.

Salma’s younger brother is caught in the middle, wanting to do right by both his father and his big sister, the same sister who doubled as a mother-figure. Younger siblings are routinely put in the cruel position of spying on their siblings, to make sure they’re not up to no good.

Shahzad locks his daughter in a room and we see him fingering a blade, an ominous sign of what will happen. Salma manages to escape to her boyfriend’s house and they make plans to run away together, but she bravely decides to go back home the day after, to make mends, to apologise to her dad. She has nothing to actually apologise for — her only ‘crime’ was to have fallen in love, for wanting to live a life on her own terms and not dictated to by centuries-old honour codes.

Don’t go back, you plead to her. But you remember the title of the drama and you almost wish it weren’t a prediction. Poor Hassan is sent to the shop by his father to buy some sweets, not realising it’s the last time he will see his loving big sister alive.

She naively assumes it will all be okay if she apologises. After all, isn’t that what parents are supposed to do — forgive their children when they make a mistake? But not this time. There will be no forgiveness.

“I did everything for you,” Shahzad shouts at her. “I never asked for anything in return — only that you listen to me in one thing.”

She replies: “You asked me for loads. You just don’t know that you’re doing it.”

In the end it’s not the blade, but her father’s own hands that take away her life. The hands that had once fed her, clothed her, and even embraced her, are the very hands that take away the life he helped create. Shahzad then tries to take his own life, perhaps repulsed by his actions or, more likely, unable to face the community again after ‘losing face’ over this ‘shame’.

What I loved about Salma’s character is that she continued to fight until the very end. She could easily have been portrayed as meek and submissive, and given in to her father’s demands by marrying someone whom she did not love — just for the sake of her ‘honour’. Others will not have had that choice.

I am not ashamed to admit that it made me cry for hours afterwards. I wept for the many, many girls and women whose lives are taken for the sake of ‘honour’. I wept for the girls who were forced to choose between their family or controlling their own destiny. I wept for those girls who could no longer fight back and submitted to the family pressure.

And I wept because I knew that Salma could easily have been me.

Murdered by My Father is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Nirbhaya – fearless women break the silence

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IMG_20150602_083149A shorter, amended version of this review was first published in the Oldham Chronicle on June 2

When a young woman was brutally gang-raped in the Indian capital Delhi on December 16, 2012, and subsequently died 13 days later, there was a  worldwide outcry.

What followed was even more harrowing, that being the countless women who broke the silence to tell us that this was not the exception, but the norm.

Nirbhaya marries real-life testimonies with a dramatised recreation of what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old student whom the media dubbed “Nirbhaya”, or fearless.

Internationally acclaimed playwright and director Yael Farber brings a blistering evocation of that terrible night and the ripples of change it set in motion. Presented by the Southbank Centre, the play came to Oldham’s Grange Theatre as part of the Alchemy Festival 2015.

Priyanka Bose, Poorna Jagannathan, Sneha Jawale and Pamela Sinha describe their bodies as no longer being their own, as we witness the daily harassment and groping in the bustling streets of a city littered with the relics of lost empires, a city now described as “hell on earth for women”.

                                                      Poorna Jaggannathan

The play uses the rape and death of Jyoti as a catalyst to break the silence around sexual violence. The women, too, are fearless, as each tells her account of being sexually violated one by one. In a culture where the fear of shame can be overpowering, breaking the silence is a courageous act.

Ankur Vikal darts in and out of every male role, a bystander, an abuser, a father, brother, and even Pandey’s friend, Awindra Pandey.

Farber’s language, interwoven with the real stories, is violent, angry and poetic. “I want to pull my tongue from my mouth like a tree. I want to pull out its roots,” Bose says.

Jyoti herself does not speak but sings eerily throughout the play, a ghost who cannot tell her own story but has it told for her. She is now forever mythologised, a symbol of everything that is wrong in Indian society.

A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. According to the country’s National Crime Record Bureau, crimes against women have increased by 7.1 percent since 2010. The number of rapes reported has also risen.Nearly a third of rape victims in India are under the age of 18. One in 10 are under 14.

Too often women are told that they should stay at home, where they would be much safer. What was she doing out of the house in the first place, is a question directed at these women. What, then, would they say to Sinha, a Canadian actress of Indian heritage, who was raped in Toronto 20 years ago by a stranger who broke into her apartment? Or to Bose who was raped by several men working in her family home?

Nirbhaya is not an easy watch, and nor should it be. Prepare to be shocked, horrified, and bring plenty of tissues with you. The silence of the audience  was punctuated by sniffs and sobs. One young woman sitting nearby was wiping away tears as she listened to the story of Jawale, a dowry-bride whose family tried to kill her by setting her on fire. Her heavily scarred face streamed with tears as she mourned the loss of a son was snatched away from her by her husband.

While the men who raped and killed Jyoti Pandey were charged and convicted, the men who abused the women in the play have gotten away with their crimes, which emphasises how deep-rooted the problem is.

Nirbhaya ends with each woman standing up, saying her name and slowly raising a fist in the air. They are no longer broken women, ashamed of their bodies or what has happened to them (nor should they be). They are no longer victims, but survivors.

“Bring it the fuck on,” Jagannathan roars. They are fearless. They are Nirbhaya.

International Women’s Day – Dissenting Voices

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l-r Sandhya Sharma, Pragna Patel, Amal Farah and Gita Sahgal

l-r Sandhya Sharma, Pragna Patel, Amal Farah and Gita Sahgal

“It’s women who have to take up these issues. The left is not going to do it. The left are trying to silence us.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this statement was made quite recently. In fact, it is made by one of the women who appeared in ‘Struggle or Submission’, which documented the beginnings of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF).
WAF was set up partly in response to the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but also with the aim of challenging fundamentalism in all religions.

Human rights activist and co-founder of Southall Black Sisters Gita Sahgal made the documentary, which filmed women working and living at a women’s refuge in Brent, who wanted the choice to practice, or not practice, the faith which they were born into. Many of the Muslim women wanted to follow their own interpretations of Islam without any interference from male clerics – a debate that still continues to this very day. Some of those women could not understand how young women were taking up the veil after decades of fighting for the right to remove it.

The documentary was shown as part of an International Women’s Day talk at Central Library in Manchester, titledWomen Against Fundamentalism – Stories of Dissent and Solidarity’. It showed a group of women from all backgrounds marching in support of Rushdie as part of their own right to religious control, at a time when race made way for religion in identity politics. They were attacked by both the religious fundamentalists and the fascists simultaneously.

The three speakers were co-founders of SBS, Pragna Patel and Gita Sahgal, and Amal Farah, an ex-Muslim from Somalia. Sandhya Sharma, a Manchester-based activist, chaired the discussion.

How fitting that these women were talking about their challenges against both religious fundamentalists and racists alike while an EDL march was taking place in the city centre.

Pragna said that WAF predicted the rise of religious fundamentalism.

“We don’t take pleasure in the fact that we were right in our predictions,” she explained. “Everything we will say has already been said 25 years ago.”

Pragna Patel

Pragna Patel

This was echoed by Gita Sahgal, who added: “The things we talked about have remained valid.”

SBS was described as the “rebellious child of Thatcherism”, which “challenged the myth of the community”. Even today, we find that look at communities through the prism of faith, which means that we either ignore voices of dissent or deliberately shut them down. Dissenters were told repeatedly (and shamefully) by the left that “now is not the time to raise these issues”.

“The only tools we have are our voices of dissent,” Pragna said. “Suppression of dissent for women is literally a matter of life and death.

Amal’s family fled war-torn Somalian to Canada before settling in Britain. Her mother then started practicing a more austere version of Islam, swapping her Somali dirac – a kaftan-like garment – to the Islamic jilbab which covers women from head to toe.

To be Somali is to be Muslim, Amal explained. She describes having her first period as an end to what few freedoms she had had as a child and told of her secret passion for football, a sport which she was never allowed to play because a male could, by chance, walk past and see the females behaving ‘immodestly’.

“I was never a religious person, I just happened to be born into [Islam]”, she said. She came “out” as an ex-Muslim in 2004, much to her mother’s horror who then moved her siblings to Dubai and then back to Somalia.

Amal Farah

Amal Farah

Amal’s story is not that uncommon. More and more ex-Muslims are “coming out” and sharing their stories, though often they must do so secretly, for fear of reprisal. In fact, Amal was so scared of what could happen that she was not listed as a speaker at the event. Understandable perhaps in a Muslim-majority country, but in Britain in 2015? A travesty.

It is not the other, as Gita explained, but killing the other within. Minorities within minorities, who dare to speak out and challenge the status quo. Shamefully, such voices have been stifled by even our governments who willingly worked with “non-violent extremists” who were known to have “run death squads” abroad.

“Non-violent extremists – what a dangerous and ridiculous oxymoron”, Gita said. “The government knew what they were doing.”

She also expressed frustration at the fact that young people were joining ISIS and getting into trouble with the authorities while extremist leaders, such as Anjem Choudary, are able to roam free.

I asked the panel if they believe the media and the government have finally woken up to these problems. After all, the pseudo-human rights group CAGE has lost its funding from the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, after its research director Asim Qureshi claimed that the security services helped “radicalise” Mohammed Emwzi aka ‘Jihadi John’. Will we be having the same discussion in another 25 years’ time?

Gita replied: “Things have shifted. People say the tide is turning. At most we’re like pebbles on the beach being swept away. It’s a long struggle.”

Gita Sahgal

Gita Sahgal

It is hard for one not to feel disheartened when realising that what the likes of Sahgal and Patel are saying now has been said before and will continue to be said and no matter how hard activists drum home this message, some continue not to pay attention.

A good demonstration of this was when an Indian lady said she could not support SBS’ stance on the Charlie Hebdo killings, describing the magazine as ‘racist’. Pragna challenged this myth superbly and explained that “the victims of fundamentalists are also alienated and disenfranchised.

If the likes of Gita, Pragna and Amal are just pebbles on the beach, they are an important collection of pebbles. We may very well be having this discussion for decades to come, but the difference now is that more and more voices have been added to this debate, creating a mass movement to challenge fundamentalism. We will not remain the “other within” for much longer.

Happy International Women’s Day to the brave women who continue to speak out and do important work within their communities.

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