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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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.

Muslim women don’t need your approval, but you can make yourself useful in our cause

What do you have against sheperds?
What do you have against sheperds?

Time to confess something to you: I’m more than a little disturbed by some of the responses to my post on the Pakistani Taliban’s threats to maim women with acid.

Talk about missing the point! I’ve received emails from seething white supremacists who want to annihilate all Muslims, angry feminists demanding that I remove my headscarf (funny, shouldn’t feminists be fighting for choice?! As a feminist, I fight for theirs!), not to mention verbose comments about “sheparding cultures breeding terrorists” – (wait, wasn’t Jesus “the good sheperd”?), etc etc etc. I even got a message from someone who felt the need to let me know how hideous he thinks I am. Thanks for the pointers, buddy. Now stop looking through my album before you get sick.

I’ll tell you right now – my gut reaction is not just shock at how people can completely overlook the point of something like this – not to mention how anyone can feel absolutely no mercy when it comes to the suffering of others. I’m also choking down a desire to tell individuals to quit wasting our collective time, save their herding commentaries and hit-lists for their own diaries and get back to us when they’ve decided how to help the world in a constructive way. A good many of us have work to do – take your hate and get out of our way. (And a tip for the would-be lynchers: your emails are traceable. D’OH!)

At the same time, I encourage open dialogue. So, other than some downright undigestable hate language, I let most comments go up over the weekend. I’m glad I did, because some positivity did come of it: I received notes from several of you looking for more ways to help Pakistan’s women. I also heard from contacts at the International Campaign Against Honour Killings that they experienced an increase in requests to join their mailing list. This is great news. I encourage more of you to support the work of the ICAHK. This is not a partisan issue. This is something all people of conscience must address.

Some contributors made excellent points:

* A writer from Malaysia reminded readers that Muslims are not the monolithic entity many would have us be;

* Several men decried violence against women, including one who wrote:

I, RJ as a man, personally condemn these horrible/terrible attacks on women for whatever purpose they have been done for, for whatever period of time these crimes will be carried out or have been carried out, whereever in this planet/realm they have been carried out, are being carried out or are being planned for the future. I respect the rights of women and their dignity not to conform to violent views of their sexual practices, morality ( including outlawing and punishing having sexual intercourse before marriage, having multiple partners and etc..), or other manufactured perceptions of their clothing, style and ethics. I personally use all my power and will to stop violence and lack of understanding that is used as a sword against women and their rights. And I from all of my hearts do call upon those in the know, those who lead the banks who support religious terrorism and extremism of whatever kind and also my very distant bloodline relatives, who like to think of themselves as in the minority to do something to stop this – since my example might not be enough. I was not picked by the Divine before I was even born to rule over others and to say to them what to do, but clearly I am not a peasant who will stand by the sidelines and watch one of the few pure sources of joy in my personal life be abused. Since harming women is harming me as a man.”

* Someone named Daoud brought a meaningful defense of Islam to the table – while also calling on Muslim leaders to take action. What do I mean? He didn’t just cite Qur’an and hadith, then stomp away indignantly. He also said:

“It is the role and responsibility of imams, shaykhs, scholars, and political and government figures to lead and give relevant advice to those they are responsible for for the time and situations we are living in. If they will not do this, then they are betrayers of their trust the consequences of which we see meted out to such as these poor women.

If people are genuinely concerned about these atrocities then they should be demanding that the appropriate authorities take appropriate action against the perpetrators – they often know which of the birarderi elders sanctioned these attacks. How about putting them in prison? How about putting the person who actually threw the acid in prison for a very long time? This would be quite acceptable under the Shariah, although the classical punishment would have been even more severe.

There is no tribalism in Islam (”la ‘asabiyyah fi-l Islam” ;) is a well-known hadith. “The best of you are the best of you to your womenfolk…” (akhyarukum akhyarukum li nisa’ikum… ;) is another.

* When confronted with hate, a Muslim woman wrote:

“Well, here’s the thing: there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. If we were all terrorists, the world would have imploded years ago. The truth is that the majority of us are kind, normal people. The radicals, like the Taliban, Hamas, Al-Qaida etc etc are the ones doing all of the speaking through their actions.

I have said for a long time that it is time for moderate, peaceful believers in Islam to *speak up for ourselves* and say NOT in the name of Allah, of OUR God do you do these heinous things.”

Music to my ears.

* The post has been picked up by Impunity Watch. See their mention of it here, in an article by Managing Editor Lindsey Brady. The mission of Impunity Watch – housed at Syracuse University College of Law – is to “monitor and address horrific human rights abuses.”

* Someone else provided this link, to Pakistan’s Acid Survivor’s Foundation. They help survivors and work to end acid attacks. Their site also contains a list of actual ways you can help. Now that’s a useful contribution to the conversation. 

Finally, I received an email containing the story of Imrana, a survivor of sexual assault in India. When local authorities failed to produce a humane verdict in her case, Imrana, a Muslim, took her story elsewhere. Women’s groups mobilized to assist in her cause, and she’s inspired the formation of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. Spread over 13 states in India, with over 2,000 members, these women don’t need the approval of clerics (or racist wingnuts on the internet) to go after their God-given rights. They know that Islam gives them these freedoms. You go, sisters.

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 “The most perfect man of religion is he who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.”

The Prophet Muhammad, as narrated by Al-Tirmidhi

Pakistani Taliban: wear hijab, or be disfigured

Good news: Congratulations to The Hijab Blog and Hijab Style on their feature story in the Toronto Star. I’m excited about the additional coverage being given to women who are pushing the envelope. In challenging expectations about Muslim women, they’re not only educating the West – but also empowering Muslim women worldwide.

Think their work is all superficial? You’d be wrong. Many women – including a hefty number of Western feminists – refuse to openly condemn human rights abuses that have some sort of “cultural” underpinning. Even if the excuse of culture is obviously rubbish. Many of them don’t have the guts. Imaan of The Hijab Blog does. She is “infuriated” about what I’m about to share with you – and I am too. 

Very, very bad news: Yesterday, the Pakistani unit of the Taliban announced not only that it demands “unislamic” businesses to close (CD shops, cable service providers and internet cafes) – they also warned women that they have 15 days to start wearing hijab – or have their faces maimed with acid. These guys claim to be out to destroy the “traitors of Allah” – while they go against every Qur’anic command to respect human rights.

Disfiguring women’s faces with acid has a long, scary history. See this story about women being burned in Kashmir, this account of acid burning in Pakistan, not to mention Bangladesh, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, the UK, Turkey, Colombia, Thailand, and the United States.

In some cases, like this one in London, acid is used to destroy DNA evidence after a woman has already been brutalized by rape.

While acid attacks do happen most frequently in Muslim-majority countries, this crisis doesn’t plague Muslims alone. It is vitally important to understand just how widespread these kinds of attacks are.

These acts can do much more than maim someone’s physical appearance. Blindness, loss of speech and even death can result. Many, after losing significant amounts of skin, are unable to survive the infections that ravage their bodies after an acid attack.

UNICEF once reported a story about a baby girl whose father poured acid into her mouth because she was not the boy he wanted his wife to bring into the world. She grew up unable to speak or hear.

Receiving the threat of an acid attack is alarming – but to see the pervasiveness of this horror is petrifying.

Now, an acid-maiming campaign is being launched – openly – against Pakistani women. Unlike when communities have been taken by surprise, the Pakistani Taliban has stated their gruesome, disgusting mission publicly. We cannot claim shock this time around.

BBC)
Kamilat Mehdi, Ethiopia (photo: BBC)

What can you do?

* Get involved with groups like the International Campaign Against Honour Killings. Acid attacks are often used in instances where a woman is seen has having “dishonored” her family, community, or religion. The ICAHK works against this brutality.

* Learn more from Amnesty International, and join their campaign to protect women’s rights.

* Educate yourself and take action. Start by watching videos like this in their entirety, and learn about the organizations you can become involved with. An example is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which releases yearly reports on violence against women.

We cannot claim ignorance or justify inaction.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Asha, India (photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghanistan: the latest

                     

A friend recently wrote to me on the subject of Afghanistan. She wondered if, given all of the attention being given to other situations worldwide – Afghanistan has slipped many people’s radar screens. She elaborated: people are still suffering there. Civilians and military forces are still losing their lives. Yet, it seems that people are talking about the situation less and less. 

We can’t forget about Afghanistan. And we’ve just been issued a serious reminder.

Last week, Taliban insurgents (did you think Bush got ’em all? Sorry to disappoint) invaded the region just north of Kandahar – taking over 7 to 18 villages.

The Taliban may be making a comeback. That is, if you believe they were successfully suppressed to begin with.

See also: Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the potential risk of conflict with Pakistan. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned.

More to come, but for now: let us not lose sight of this devastating situation. And let us not forget those who are still suffering.