Leyla Hussein, champion against FGM and for women and girls

Remember 17-year old Fahma Mohamed, mentioned here, who has organized some 100 youth to fight FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in the UK through rap and education?

 

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Leyla Hussein (photo: Washington Post)

Also hailing from the UK is Leyla Hussein, who is spearheading efforts to raise awareness about the practice and work against it in the United Kingdom. Another amazing hero of our time. Learn more about Leyla’s work here.

“FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, usually with a knife or razor blade and often without anaesthetic. In its most severe form — Type 3 — the vaginal opening is sewn almost entirely shut. In addition to the psychological trauma, women can experience urinary infections, menstrual problems, infertility and even death.”

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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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Islam’s new kartinis

Dear readers,

My apologies for such an extended absence.  While I’m gone, I’m going to keep up with a project I hope you’ll enjoy.

Last year, I was asked to write a column about “incremental positive change” in the Muslim world. In thinking about this idea, I couldn’t help but think of the many Muslims who make positive change every day – but who are never heard or seen by the mainstream (or even independent!) media. Much of the time, these individuals are women.

For the next year or so, I will be highlighting the work of Muslim women who, over the past decade, have worked for positive change in their communities in beyond. Please click here to see the introduction to the series, and enjoy.

PS:

* Following the situation in Malaysia? Please see this touching and important piece about the oneness of God’s name here.

* Not seeing coverage in the media about Muslims who are against terrorism? Check out these guys in Canada, and these protestors in Detroit.

Afghanistan: another brutal series of reminders

In a previous post, I reminded readers that the situation in Afghanistan has far from resolved.

If there is still any doubt lingering in your mind that the people of Afghanistan are not free from being terrorized, brutalized and dehumanized – there’s plenty in the news to set you straight. If the news is this awful, imagine what is going unreported.

Read this story of a twelve-year old girl – a survivor of gang rape. Her family has said that they will commit suicide if justice is not served.

Before you jump to conclusions: the family is not talking about persecution of their daughter for “honor”. They’re talking about wanting real justice for their precious, traumatized child – and their family.

Rape is becoming more and more of a problem in Afghanistan. Only recently, a three year old girl was kidnapped and raped. The assailants of countless women, girls and boys are roaming the country without punishment.

The infrastructure necessary for effective implementation of the law simply isn’t there.
Human rights workers are calling this the result of the war that’s been ravaging Afghanistan. Ironically and disgustingly, one of the justifications for war has been to “save Afghanistan’s women.”

Nice work. Not. I didn’t buy it in 2001, and don’t begin to buy it now. Especially not now. Not when mass violation is par for the course and death is called an “accident”.

I could go on – for this story has had me unable to focus on much all day. However, once again the important thing is to take action. Here’s what you can do to help:

* Educate yourself: Human Rights Watch covers the situation in Afghanistan regularly. For example, see this letter, in which Human Rights Watch urges the international community to put human rights at the forefront of conversations with Afghanistan’s government. 

* See this list of non-governmental organizations needing your support. This page is asking you to donate to the organizations, but I’m urging you to do what YOU can, even if you simply read more to stay informed. You can also sign up for mailing lists and blog about the work these organizations are doing.

* I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth reposting regularly: Al-Azhar University’s paper on how women and children must be protected under Islam. For those who don’t know, Al-Azhar is one of the oldest operating universities in the world, and the epicenter of Islamic scholarship.

(Feel free to forward this paper to George W. Bush and Hamid Karzai. If you’re going to be an Islamic republic or you’re just prone to bombing them, consider the inherent rights you’re going to either uphold or brutally violate, eh?)

* Spend some time searching for information about and work being done in Afghanistan. You’ll find things like RAWA and the Afghan Women’s Mission.

“None but a noble man treats women in an honorable manner. And none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully.”

The Prophet Muhammad (At-Tirmithy)

Mona Eltahawy: “When did Egyptian women become candy, and when did Egyptian men turn into flies?”

In Egypt, a billboard reads "a veil to protect or eyes will molest"
In Egypt, a billboard reads "a veil to protect or eyes will molest"

Please see this article by Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy. I’m including an excerpt, but the entire piece is worth your attention. I thank her for her honesty – it’s voices like hers that will one day break the shackles of shame.

Excerpt:

“When did Egyptian women become candy and when did Egyptian men turn into flies?

There is no law criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt, and police often refuse to report women’s complaints. And when it is the police themselves who are harassing women, then clearly women’s safety is far from a priority in Egypt.

The State itself taught Egyptians a most spectacular lesson in institutionalized patriarchy when security forces and government-hired thugs sexually assaulted demonstrators, especially women, during an anti-regime protest in 2005, giving a green light to harassers.

So there was little surprise that during a religious festival in 2006, a mob of men went on a rampage in downtown Cairo, sexually assaulting any woman they came across as police watched and did nothing.

It was only when bloggers broke the news that the media reported the assaults. Still, the Egyptian regime has never acknowledged it happened. At a demonstration against sexual harassment that I attended in Cairo a few days later, there were nearly more riot police than protestors.

My sister Nora was 20 at the time, and she, with several of her friends, joined the protest. She had never been to a demonstration before but was incensed when she heard the State was denying something that had happened to her many times. We swapped our sexual harassment stories like veterans comparing war wounds, and we unraveled a taboo which shelters the real criminals of sexual harassment and has kept us hiding in shame.

And that is why I began here with my own stories — to free myself of the tentacles of that shame.”

The full article can be read by clicking here, and you can see Ms. Eltahawy’s blog here.

Banning headscarves = democracy?

Aksine, I say. (That’s Turkish for “on the contrary“).

                                    

This week, Turkey’s parliament revived its ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses.

The hijab ban is nothing new. Shortly after a military coup in 1980, the hijab was banned in public buildings, universities, schools and government buildings.

The reasoning for banning the hijab is simple. Some factions of the secularist movement feel that public wearing of the hijab undermines the separation of religion and state. Some secularists fear that a visibile symbol of religiosity could lead to a rise in fundamentalism.

In February of this year, the ban on the hijab was lifted . The event was met with both celebration and protest. Only three months later, however, and the ban has been reinstated.

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. It is also a democracy. Restricting freedom of religious observation and expression, then, seems wrong – doesn’t it? After all, hijab-wearing women aren’t demanding that public institutions stop activity during the five daily prayers (though interestingly, the call to prayer is still heard throughout the country) or asking that all women wear the headscarf.

Some of the ban’s supporters make an argument I’d like to find valid. They assert that for women otherwise forced to wear the hijab by their families or husbands, the ban provides a space – be it on the workforce or in the university – where they will be not just able, but required, to go without a headscarf. In short, women who don’t want to wear the hijab would be protected by the law.

In theory, this makes some sense. However, to believe that legislation like this would protect women from unreasonable family members is, I believe, profoundly naïve. 

Do the ban’s supporters really think that a woman returning home to an illogical family or spouse will be well received without her hijab? Do truly oppressive, dogmatic families care that the law requires the women in their lives to violate what they view to be a religious obligation? Certainly not. The very nature of such mentalities is that they are beyond reason. I’m not endorsing the behavior of those who would mistreat the women in their lives. I’m simply acknowledging that they exist. I’m being realistic in a way that I wish the ban’s supporters would be. Women must follow this law – and thus it is women who will be directly impacted by the reactions it sturs.

I’d argue that women aren’t at all protected here. In fact, legislating women’s self-presentation is the oldest and most repressive game in history. Women’s bodies have always been used as a measure of a community or nation’s purity – be it racial, cultural, religious or secular. Rather than protecting women, then, the state sacrifices them to protect itself. It is women who will have to live with the spiritual, familial and other struggles of this legislation.

If Turkey is serious about democracy, and serious about the separation of religion and state, it would not restrict the choices women can make about their self-presentation and religious expression.

Turkey has good reason to be concerned about fundamentalism. The country must work to protect its democratic system. However, it needn’t borrow from fundamentalists by telling women how to dress.

A much more democratic approach would be to enhance education and vocational training for women – in a way that would reach both more conservative and more secular communities. It would also challenge those men (and women!) who would mistreat a non-hijabi woman. Further, resisting censorship (did you know that all of WordPress is banned in Turkey? All in an effort to silence a secular-minded Muslim!) doesn’t send the message  of democracy. Reforming the Muslim mindset – including focusing on the education of both male and female children – establishes a robust, dynamic society.  Legislating what women put on or take off, however, is the same tactic used by the enemies of democracy.

Why must women prove Turkey’s democratic success with their bodies rather than with their minds and their votes? Ultimately, the hijab ban tells us that the government can’t prove its own legitimacy as a democracy that protects women, their voices, and their bodies.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States presents Muslim women with more opportunities to express “traditional” Islam than a country that is, in fact, 98% Muslim?

Faith and reason – let me know what you think

 “Faith is more than my guiding light. It is my kinetic energy.”

  – Helen Keller

 I recently attended an event and panel discussion on Islam. All panelists were people active in movements for human rights.

Something about the panel struck me immediately: there were no women on it who identified as practicing Muslims. In fact, there was only one woman on the panel at all. She certainly had valuable things to say, and I appreciated her perspective.

Unfortunately, though, no effort was made (that I know of) to include the voices of believing women on the panel. While the event was enlightening and positive overall, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what I felt to be a conspicuous void in the conversation. While the men on the panel represented various levels of belief, there was no diversity when it came to women’s voices.

The implications of situations like these are, I think, grave. The fact of the matter is this: the panel was worthwhile, the sponsoring organization sincere in their mission, and the participants all passionate and intelligent people. However, what is the unspoken message when believing women are excluded from conversations about human rights, reason, and justice within Islam?

I trust you’ll all tell me if I’ve just gotten too caught up in the “politics of representing”. However, to me, the unspoken message – unintentional as it may have been – was that Muslim women aren’t inclined – or outspoken enough – to engage in public dialogues about human rights and our faith. Even when progressive viewpoints are presented, the silencing of the female Muslim voice reinforces the stereotype that women of faith are passive and not engaged with the relevant issues of our time.

I know this stereotype to be false; and I’m almost positive that the panel’s organizers would agree with me.

If it weren’t for my faith, I know I could not maintain my resolve through the trials of daily life. I know the same is true for countless Muslim women.

So, my question is this: how do Muslim women ensure that our voices are front and center in conversations like the one I attended? How do we demand that we are not ignored, even by those who claim to be interested in working for our rights?

“If anyone says, `Why have you included Rabia [often called Islam’s first female saint] in the rank of men?’, my answer is that the Prophet himself said: `God does not regard your outward forms’. The root of the matter is not form, but intention, as the Prophet said.” – Farid-ud-Din Attar, Tazkirat al-Auliya