Eradicating Polio: Saving Lives Drop by Drop (by Tooba Masood for The Express Tribune)

We do not hear enough about those individuals, especially women, who do all they can to help others despite the fact that their work puts them at great personal risk. Thus, I thought it worthwhile to share this story about Farzana Begum, who works to vaccinate children against polio in Pakistan. She and other women are part of a crucial, if dangerous, effort to eradicate polio in the country.

“According to Farzana, there are times when the responsibilities of being a lady health worker scare her. There are times she has come home to find that one of her colleagues was threatened, or worse attacked and in the hospital.  ‘It is scary but what can we do?’ she said. ‘You have to gather some strength and start all over again because you know your work is still not done.'”

Read the full story here.

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Farzana Begum (photo: Muhammad Iqbal)
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Islam’s new Kartinis – March: Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chair, Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan

Dear readers,

Welcome to the “Islam’s new Kartinis” series! As explained in my last post, this column – originally published at MarcGopin.com – will focus on Muslim women from around the world who work to bring positive incremental change to their communities and beyond. This month, we’re featuring Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.

Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence
Valerie Khan Yusufzai speaks publicly about acid violence

 Raquel: Have you always been interested in human rights work?

Valerie:  I grew up in a family where the ideas of freedom, thoughtfulness and fighting for what you believe is right were very much present. My great-grandparents resisted against the Germans in the First World War. My great-grandfather even received the Legion D’Honneur for excellent military conduct. This is the highest distinction for a French soldier. My grandfather, at age 19, joined the clandestine French forces to fight the Nazis during the Second World War.  His legacy is a gift to me – a reminder of the absolute necessity of fighting for human rights and enlightened values in the face of tyranny.

Since my youth, I not only understood but felt that we all had a role to play in producing a better society. A few of the first books that I remember as a child – given to me by my mother – were books about the religions of the world, a cartoon book about French history with the declaration of human rights as a preamble, and a book explaining the miracle of human reproduction.  I was also taught the value of human rights through enlightened French philosophers of the 18th century like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  I think I gained a deep respect for human beings through all of these readings.

Later, when I joined a Catholic private school at the age of 12, I discovered the simple happiness of providing help and support. I started my “social work” as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.

Raquel:  What brought you to work with acid attack survivors in particular? 

Valerie:  I was blessed with a passionate but occasionally very difficult life. I have never forgotten those who have been there to support me through life’s challenges. I also remember the rare moments when I was not as well supported.  Those difficult times further motivated me to always be a support for others.

I believe in the cycle and process of learning. I believe our experiences are meant to teach us how to move forward and be better to one another.  Often, society tries to dehumanize us – to make us forget the humanity of others and also abandon it in ourselves. We have to re-learn humanity: how to really see people, really listen to their problems. I think this dehumanization is one of the greatest ills we are facing.

One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was with acid survivors.  I was living in Lahore, and was a customer at a beauty parlor. At the parlor was a woman with tissue expanders (an expander is a way of developing fresh skin to be used for skin grafting. A silicone balloon is placed under the skin, which is expanded over time. As the balloon grows, the surrounding skin stretches and grows. Later, the expander is removed and the excess new skin is used for grafting.)  My seven year old son was with me, and asked: “Mummy, what happened to the lady?” I had no answer. I thought maybe she had cancer, that she had a tumor.

A few days later, I went to see the owner of the salon and asked her about the women there. This is how I learned about acid violence in Pakistan.  The owner had an NGO and said she was working to get treatment for these patients.
Subsequently, the owner contacted me and offered me the position of coordinator for her NGO. I initially told her that this was not my area of expertise. I was an educator and volunteer, but I had no experience in managing developing organizations.

She insisted.  I told her that I would think about it. For a week I had nightmares.  I realized that maybe this was my call to action. Leaving my previous job and starting to work with acid attack survivors was the biggest decision I’d ever made.

Unfortunately, three months later, I discovered that the funds for this organization were being used in a suspicious manner, and I suspected that funds were being embezzled.  I quit.

In the meantime, we were visited by Acid Survivors Trust International.  They told me that if I really wanted to help acid survivors, I should not give up. They trusted me – and advised me to create a board and register our new NGO – Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan. They had the funds and were willing to help get the initiative off the ground. 
It took my husband and me one month to decide to start this new organization.  We started it in Islamabad with a dedicated group of activists. I will never regret that decision – not when I see women transformed and living happily again. Not when I think about how much I’ve learned, and how much this hast taught me about humility.

Raquel:  Is there a common thread you’re noticing in the cases you’re seeing? 

Valerie: Yes. The commonalities include violence sourced in poverty, lack of education and feudal /tribal cultural systems.

Raquel:  What does the ASF do, and how do you reach victims of acid violence? (For example, is there a networking relationship with hospitals or communities to contact you?)

Valerie: ASF provides comprehensive rehabilitation services to acid survivors, such as medical services, psychological and social counseling, and socio-economic assistance. We also provide legal aid. These services are provided by staff and volunteers as well as pro-bono doctors, specialists and lawyers.

To reach survivors, we have developed a notification and referral system. Our field officer and volunteers are linked to journalists, social workers, hospitals, police stations, government institutions, shelters and other NGOs.  When a case has occurred, or an incident has been identified as an acid attack, the appropriate individuals and entities are notified so that the victim can begin receiving services immediately in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.

ASF also advocates for a new legal framework to be established in order to monitor and regulate the sale of acid and to punish perpetrators of acid attacks. We also seek assistance in securing rehabilitation services for survivors.

Valerie and her husband, Mohammad
Valerie and her husband, Mohammad

Raquel:  Can you tell me more about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved, and how do they add to the movement?

Valerie: Men have been present in our fight against acid attacks from day one.

To begin with, my husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO – without bribes or illegitimate practices others have used. We have male directors, male doctors and pro-bono lawyers, and a male field officer.

Salim Mahmood Salim was the secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Development at the time of our founding.  All of these men help to provide and identify support, mobilize media, assist with fundraising events (such as coordinating a fund-raising rock concert at no cost to our organization), and more. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court  officially condemned acid violence and asked the Pakistani parliament to act on it from a legislative perspective.

With men on board, supporting you at the highest level, you are better able to reach communities that follow patriarchal traditions. They do not feel threatened. Rather, they are more likely to join you in creating constructive, sustainable changes. When men reach out to other men, they feel proud rather than emasculated. If other men are active, they actually see involvement as their duty. When men support women, our empowerment will arise – naturally and peacefully.

Finally, it is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries, has a male-dominated power structure.  Engaging men on this issue ensures that we have a constructive, realistic strategy and approach to change. I also must mention that having men on board is valuable from a safety perspective.

Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center
(Above: Nazeeran and Valerie during a French cooking lesson at the rehabilitation center)

Raquel:  There is no denying that stories of acid violence are deeply troubling and the attacks themselves devastating. From what sources do you, personally, derive your hope? How does the organization as a whole maintain a forward-thinking, positive approach in this very difficult work?

Valerie: Raquel, I am a fighter. Ask anyone – that is the first adjective they’d use to describe me. I simply do not give up. At the same time, I am patient.

I believe that if you are fighting for a good cause, God does not let you down.  One must concentrate on the achievements – and use that as fuel to tackle all obstacles.

As the chairperson of the organization, it is my job and responsibility to generate positive energy. I need to be able to listen when people are down – and to motivate and mobilize them. When my colleagues need a break, they get one. Direct work with our psychotherapist is not just important for the survivors, but also for us. Clinical supervision and regular check-ins guarantee that none of us suffers from burnout.

We are dedicated to a collaborative approach, and positive feedback and team-building are very much part of our management strategy. We promote and salute both effort and results .  One person’s victory or success is a team victory. We are very much like a family, and we recognize the individual efforts of each family member. We are also all activists – and that spirit drives us.

Beyond our organizational approach, we have other reasons to remain hopeful. Every day, we see survivors getting better  – physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re rebuilding they’re lives. They’re happy and proud of their achievements. Nazeraan, for example, is blind and disfigured. She is fighting for custody of her two daughters. While she naturally feels sorrow and shares that with us, she is working at learning Braille and sewing. She wants to make a new life for herself and to become a role model.

Nazeraan shows the world that acid may burn you – but it cannot burn you entirely. Your spirit and your will still make you exist as a woman. When the survivors themselves are so full of hope, how can we not follow their example?

Raquel:  What are the greatest challenges facing the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation? The economy presents obvious obstacles. But are there especially pressing social, political or other barriers?

Valerie: The greatest barrier to our work is not just obtaining funding for lifesaving and reconstructive surgeries, but also for the rehabilitation center. Pakistani philanthropists have had to face a great deal of corruption from other NGOs, and are not sure who they should support. Additionally, the Pakistani government has other financial priorities – from the situation in Kashmir to terrorism and internally displaced persons.

Generally speaking, political instability and frequent changes in the government make collaboration with officials a bit difficult, since it is hard to get real commitments from them. High rates of illiteracy makes interaction with affected communities even more challenging.  Also, our survivors are from around the country. This geographical spread often makes it difficult for us to reach them.

Feudalism and tribalism remain a challenge, as they does not encourage development or interaction with outsiders. The more feudal or tribal an area is, the less welcoming they are likely to be of an organization like ours. Some families even refuse to have their female relatives treated for free. They fear what society might think when they see females “going away.” 

Raquel:  What would you consider to be some of the greatest victories achieved by the ASF?

Valerie: The case of Naila Farhat was important for us. For the first time, the highest jurisdiction in Pakistan heard the case of an acid attack; and justice was achieved.  This has given way to our lobbying work, which has already been cause for hope. The chief justice supports and praises our work, and has demanded that the Parliament establish a legal framework for acid sale regulation. He also supports the punishment of perpetrators and rehabilitation efforts for survivors.

Raquel:  What can be done to support the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation?

Valerie: We need awareness to be raised at an international level, both about acid violence – and about our rehabilitation center.  The center, which is still developing, is essential for survivors to rebuild their bodies and their lives. We need to increase our ability to both treat survivors and to investigate their cases. To do this, we need more sophisticated medical and forensic equipment, as well as more comprehensive systems to monitor funding and development of the Foundation.

ASF will lobby for legislative changes before the Pakistani national assembly, and continue to do its work locally, nationally and internationally. Financial and other support – like awareness-raising efforts – are key to our success.

To learn more about the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here.

To make a donation, please click here. When you open the donation window, please be sure to choose “D-ASF Pakistan” in the drop-down  menu under “additional details.” Please note: you will be able to specify your country and donate in the appropriate currency. There is a special link for donations from Canada. 

Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance
(Above: Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance)
(Photos courtesy Valerie Khan Yusufzai / ASF-P. )
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Roohi Tabassum: deportation may be her death sentence

Roohi Tassabum
Roohi Tabassum (photo: Aaron Harris / Toronto Star)

Roohi Tabassum is a 44-year old Muslim woman currently residing in Canada, slated for deportation to her native Pakistan in just 7 days.

While many deportations occur without much attention (if any) being paid to individual cases, Ms. Tabassum’s story has ignited a campaign to halt her removal from Canada.

Why? Well, Ms. Tabassum’s deportation, she claims, may very well be a death sentence. She alleges that her estranged husband, outraged by her work at a coed hair salon in Canada, is determined to slay her in an honor killing. Ms. Tabassum has already filed unsuccessfully for refugee status. A subsequent appeal has also failed.

It is unclear exactly why her application to remain in Canada has been rejected, especially considering that the threatening letters she has presented as evidence in her claim would seem to qualify her as a “person in need of protection” under Canadian immigration law. Should her husband truly intend to kill her, even the option to seek refugee status on humanitarian grounds would not be enough to save her, as she’d have to leave Canada for Pakistan while her case is reviewed.

Should her fears be legitimate, Canada would be in violation of its very principles by deporting her to imminent death. If it has been determined that her fears are unfounded, those trying to aid Ms. Tabassum should be told why. To help, please contact the following with a request to have Ms. Tabassum’s case reviewed; and in the meantime, to halt her deportation to Pakistan.

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship/Immigration/ Multiculturalism:

Minister@cic.gc.ca

The Canadian Embassy in the United States:

The Embassy of Canada
501 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC, USA 20001

Phone: 202-682-1740 or 202-682-1755
Fax: 202-682-7726 or 202-682-7738
Immigration Fax: 202-682-7689
Public Affairs Fax: 202-682-7791
http://www.canadianembassy.org

**(Not in the United States? Contact your country’s Canadian embassy by clicking here.)

Case Processing Center, Ontario:

2 Robert Speck Parkway,
Suite 1200
Mississauga, ON
L4Z 1H8
Fax: 905-803-7392

Featured video: Mona Eltahawy on “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you”

with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009
with Mona Eltahawy, April 2009

Egyptian journalist (and very cool sister) Mona Eltahawy has just released a new video commentary of her piece  “happy Muslim men and women who confuse you.” For an enlightened and even witty commentary on the coverage of Muslims in the media (no pun intended) watch Mona’s video here.

Bidding adieu to 2008 (and – inauguration day is coming!)

Change we can believe in. (Flickr / riverwatcher09)
Change we can believe in. (Flickr / riverwatcher09)

December 31, 2008 – a few hours before midnight,  I momentarily set my perpetually poor-performing laptop  down on the floor. Upon returning it to my lap, I am given nothing but the error message “operating system not found.”

Fluff post? It may sound that way.  The point is – 2008 was ending quite aptly: nothing sums it up better than “operating system not found.” In fact, technology references seem mighty appropriate for 2008 – someone get me a fire wire to rapidly send all useful data to a stable-state hard drive, please. Call in the geek squad for a full system restore.

2009 didn’t start much better. On a personal note, I began today by committing a major misfire in text-message communication.  In context, the message was innocent. Sent to the wrong person, less so.  Smooth, Saraswati. I’m blaming that snafu on the fog of sheer exhaustion I’ve been living in over the past few months.

On a global scale, we’re dealing with one of the least promising conflicts in human history. We are at a death toll of almost 400 – mainly Palestinian civilians.

Yesterday, January 1, marks the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Sarah and Amina Said. Honor killings take some 8,000+ lives per year. Read about the case of Afsaneh, a woman whose sentence – death by stoning – is being upheld despite opposition. We have seen an increase in honor killings in places like Pakistan.

Two women in Kuwait were attacked recently, allegedly for not wearing the hijab. “Morality police” in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are stepping up their offensives against women.

The Taliban is threatening to blow up girls’ schools if they don’t shut down.

I could keep going – and the ladies at Muslimah Media Watch can provide you with links to even more stories like these.

As you can see, we have a lot of work to do in 2009 – and, despite the enormous magnitude of the problems presented in the stories above, we have reason to believe that women and men can continue to make change.

See these women, who are taking action to end the conflict in Gaza. Subservient? Submissive? Not a chance.

Salima Ebrahim, a Canadian of Kenyan descent, is confronting injustice and prejudice head on. Her mission of  “dignity for everyone” is one many big-time activists claim in order to get the big bucks – but few actually make human dignity a priority. It sounds like Salima’s voice is a sincere one. Congratulations to this up-and-coming sister!

A Saudi doctor was able to save two girls – one 5 years old, the other 11 – from forced marriage. Doctors like her deserve to be commended.

I hope you’ll join me in seeing the hope these last stories can provide. I’ll need your help to make a difference. Stay tuned to the links at right for organizations and people who are with us in the struggle for dignity, equity and justice for all.  Happy new year.

Afghanistan: female students attacked with acid in Kandahar

AP Photo / CNN
AP Photo / CNN

 “Kandahar is not safe. But we can’t stay at home, we want an education.” -Atifa, 16, acid attack victim – Kandahar, Afghanistan

Kandahar: this morning, two men sprayed a group of female students with acid – blinding at least two of them. It is unclear how many of the students were injured. Government spokesman Parwaz Ayoubi called the attackers “enemies of education”, suggesting that the insurgents who attacked the pupils were objecting to the education of females.

According to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the incident, Latefeh – one of the injured students – says that this attack will not prevent her from pursuing her education or stop her from learning. The Afghan government reinforces their commitment to education, saying that attacks like these, by “unIslamic enemies of the country” will not prevent six million children from attending school.

Unfortunately, though, schoolrooms today were largely empty. Parents have held their children home for fear that they may be attacked – and children are afraid for their safety.

See BBC coverage here. (Also, Spanish speakers: check out coverage of this very blog entry here.)

To help:

* Learn about and support the work of Barakat.

* Check out some of the positive work being done by female educators and UNICEF.

* RAWA was founded by Afghan women for Afghan women. Educate yourself about their efforts here.

* Afghan-Network has a list of NGOs needing your help to support their work in Afghanistan, including Islamic Relief. Please click here to see this list and offer your support.

* Acid attacks are a pervasive problem. Learn about how women in Pakistan are fighting acid attacks, keeping their faith, and restoring hope.

* These attacks also happen in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Colombia, the UK and the United States. Here is more coverage and some tips on what you can do to help.

Pakistan: acid attack victims find beauty – in themselves

**Update: May 6, 2010**
Dear readers,
It has been brought to my attention that the Depilex Smileagain Foundation and its founder, Massarat Misbah, are being investigated for misuse of funds and other charges.
I have been in communication with activists on the ground in Pakistan for many months and am very alarmed by the information I’ve received. Please see a statement from the Italian sponsors of Depilex here.
In any event, and whatever the ultimate verdict is in this case, the stories of acid attack survivors, and the dangers against women and men in Pakistan are very real. I have left the below posting up because women like Irum Saeed and Urooj Akbar must be heard and must be helped.
To learn more about how to help survivors of acid violence, please see this post – where I introduce you to an organization I’ve worked with personally. I encourage you to support their efforts.
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MSNBC)
Irum Saeed, survivor of an acid attack (photo: MSNBC)

My post on acid attacks in Pakistan was viewed 4,000 times in less than 24 hours. No post of mine has ever gotten that much traffic so quickly. The post quickly skyrocketed to seven thousand and counting. While reactions have been mixed, many of you are taking action. Thank you.

Emails have continued to come in, asking about the welfare of Pakistan’s women. While so many accounts are bleak, I was referred to a story last night that I need to share with you.

Meet Saira Liaqat and Urooj Akbar, who work at a Lahore beauty salon founded by Massarat Misbah. They are acid attack survivors who have found new promise after experiencing the unthinkable.

Massarat Misbah is not an acid attack survivor herself. However, five years ago, she encountered a woman whose face had been maimed in an attack by her husband. The woman needed assistance, and Misbah came to her aide. She also placed an ad in a local newspaper looking for other women who needed help. Misbah learned that several of the women who had been maimed had wanted to work in beauty salons like her own.

Since then, Misbah has founded the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, which employs acid attack survivors to work in beauty salons. She has arranged for ten women take beauty courses in Italy last year. The Foundation also raises money to help women find refuge and obtain medical care.

“I’m independent now, I stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I have a job, I work, I earn. In fact, I’m living on my own … which isn’t an easy thing for a woman to do in Pakistan, for a lone woman to survive.”

– Urooj Akbar

Regular clients of these women are inspired by their resilience, and they also say that they’re more aware of the trials faced by women in their society.

Read the rest of their story here, and learn more about the Depilex Smileagain Foundation here.

***

PS: I know I owe you some Jumu’ah Dispatches! I’ll get on it as soon as I can. I also received a comment from a reader asking me some really interesting questions about human rights, liberalism, and more. Rather than answer it buried in a comments section of another post, I’ll dedicate an entry to my answer when I’ve got more time on my hands.

Iranians protest honor killings after the death of another young woman

Iran Telegraf)
Iranians demonstrate against honor killings (photo: Iran Telegraf)

On August 14th, eighteen year-old Fereshteh Nejati was murdered by her father. Forced into marriage at 14, Fereshteh was seeking a divorce.

The details of her murder are gruesome. The response to the tragedy, however, shows signs of hope for Iran’s women.

Where am I finding this hope? Well, Fereshteh’s community decided that enough is enough. Some 2000 people – men and women – gathered in the streets to demand an end to honor killings, and to claim Fereshteh’s body for a respectful burial.

See photos of the demonstration here

As always, check out the International Campaign Against Honour Killings . There, you can join communities like Fereshteh’s in their efforts.

ACTION ITEMS:

* Please remember to keep taking action for Kobra Najjar, an Iranian woman facing imminent stoning.

* Sign the anti-honor killing petition I’ve told you about here.

* Send letters to the Pakistani government demanding that they take action against honor killings.

* Work against the epidemic of rape in Afghanistan.

* Help protect women threatened with acid attacks.

Urgent appeal: five women buried alive in Pakistan

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from a remote area of Balochistan province, that five women were buried alive, allegedly by the younger brother of Mr. Sadiq Umrani, the provincial minister and a prominent leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, the ruling party. However, police have still not arrested the perpetrators after one month of the incident.

The Asian Human Rights Commission

In another “honor” related incident, five Pakistani women ages 16-45 have been buried alive as punishment for pursuing marriages of their choice.

Please see here to learn more. The site includes a sample action letter to the Pakistani government, and an automated way to send your letter straight from their site. Your letters may bounce back to you – please continue trying. If possible, also try calling and faxing official offices. Contact information is all listed here.

Remember to stay on top of cases like these by visiting the International Campaign Against Honour Killings  regularly.

Jumu’ah dispatch #2

Last week, I posted a blog for jumu’ah, and have decided to do so every week. The subject will be likely be a spiritual matter I’ve been reflecting on over the week. I also welcome your suggestions for topics. Please feel free to leave a comment or email me  your ideas.

“Sectarian bloodbaths in Iraq … suicide bombers blowing themselves up in parking lots of hotels, taking innocent lives…female madrassah students in Islamabad waving cane sticks at shopkeepers and vendors … people being turned away from Islam from the harshness of many of those deemed “religious” …

There is a loss of mercy and gentleness around. Yet we see anger and harshness abound, and one wonders what has gone wrong.

In reality, Divine guidance and Prophetic teachings are nothing but a manifestation of mercy-and any understanding of religion lacking in mercy is lacking in true understanding.”

– Faraz Rabbani

Since last Friday, I’ve blogged about some of the most grievous things one human can do to another. Women in Pakistan have been threatened with acid attacks. Kobra Najjar, an Iranian woman, is facing imminent execution by stoning after having already survived sexual slavery.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on both of the above items. Many of you – Muslims and non-Muslims – are taking positive action: writing letters to Iranian officials to support Ms. Najjar, and signing up with the non-governmental organizations working against things like acid attacks and honor killings.

By taking these positive steps, you’re exhibiting mercy. Mercy, and gentleness in judgement – are both commanded of Muslims. Those who perpetrate crimes like those above are acting in violation of some of Islam’s most fundamental precepts. That is why it is so important for the rest of us to step up to the plate.

Last night, after a meaningful email exchange about judgementalism, mercy, and values, I stumbled across this article from Islamica Magazine. In it, we are reminded that when confronted with insults – judgements – the Prophet (pbuh) insisted on responding with gentleness and mercy. He said that “Allah is gentleness, and loves gentleness in all matters.”

Not only should our actions for social justice come from mercy – so should should our daily interactions and reactions – no matter the vitriol, the tension, or even the hate we are faced with. A valuable reminder for me, and hopefully for others too.  

What does mercy mean to you? What does your faith/set of values say about judgement and mercy?