When news about the Boston Marathon attack hit social media and the web, Harvard was immediately swept up in a wave of frantic calls, tweets, texts and posts. We searched for people we knew who were at the Marathon, friends participating, anyone who could have been in Boston at the time. Within the first fifteen minutes of the breaking news, I got three text messages, 2 Facebook messages and a phone call, asking where I was and if I was alright. I thought I was fine, and most of my friends had emerged unscathed from this tragedy.
But we were not fine. Boston will never be the same after this and in our hearts we were bracing ourselves for the change. After a tragic, senseless act of violence takes human life, we try to make sense of it when there is no sense to be made. Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet wrote about the same incident from a different time and place:
A good time to meet a new
Love is the same time
Good for placing a bomb.
At the juncture
Of season and season,
In blue absent-mindedness,
A slight confusion in the changing of guards,
At the seam.
Someone else, somewhere else, also thought it was a good time. At the finish line, between a moment where you are tested to the limits of endurance and the relief of victory, completion and relaxation. A moment in time that should have been of exultation, is also the perfect moment to attack you at your weakest. A moment where you are vulnerable because you trust in the goodwill of those around you to celebrate with you, not to attack you. Someone, somewhere saw fit to use a moment of love and our absent-mindedness to attack us at the seam. Where we were the weakest.
I have seen glass from buildings, lying on the streets after blasts hit my home town. I have felt fear when my parents were at the scene of an attack and their cell phones were not working. I have woken up to text messages from home, telling me about another attack where 20, 30, 40 people were killed, mere minutes from my house. I have felt that irreplaceable sense of loss when another part of your home is torn away from you and innocence is no more.
Which is why Boston is in my heart and in my prayers, because like homegrown Bostonians, I too feel like I lost something today. And I am relieved when without question, my friends will hug me and each other in the dining hall, because they too want to make up for what is gone forever. By holding each other, we can remind ourselves of the humanity that remains intact. We can say that any time in the world, is a good time to meet a new love, a new friend, regardless of the vulnerabilities from exposing ourselves. I can always derive comfort from that. If you see me today, come up to me and hug me, because I am looking for some love as well.
She had many names. Until recently she was Damini, “Lightning”, an icon of hope for women everywhere. She was named Nirbhaya, Hindi for “the fearless one” and Amanat the Urdu word for “treasure.” For a few months, she was an anonymous woman, who became a symbol for a long overdue movement. A movement that has been simmering for decades below the surface in modern day India, and for that matter the entire subcontinent. Now she has a face. Jyoti Singh Pandey is the face of the movement fighting for gender equality in the wake of the tragic rape incident that has rocked Delhi and most of India in the past few months.
Jyoti, Damini, Nirbhaya or Amanat is the latest victim of a long-standing history of violence in the subcontinent. Rape is prevalent everywhere in the world and is considered one of the worst violations of a human body and soul. It has been used as a weapon of war for centuries in countless battlefields. But in 20th century South Asia, rape resulted in entire generations of victims and survivors. They carried their own stories of war, stories that remained discarded to this day. Even in the wake of this tragedy these stories are not accounted for in the national discourse. Damini is the latest example of an act that has had many implications on the narrative surrounding gender violence in the subcontinent.
On February 20, 2013, from 4-5:30 p.m. in CGIS South S -020 the South Asia Institute in conjunction with The Harvard College Women’s Center and other on campus student groups are sponsoring a discussion on the many faces of rape and gender violence in the subcontinent. Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Director of Research at the Francois Bagnoud Xavier Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and the University Adviser on Human Rights Education to the Provost at Harvard University will be facilitating this discussion. We hope to address lessons learned from this incident and ways to move forward, to build an action plan that allows us to battle this issue head on. In order to do that, we have to take many steps back and look at rape collectively, keeping the statistics as well as the individual stories in mind.
The Partition of 1947 is an incident that is gradually fading from memory. Through scholars like Veena Das who worked directly with partition survivors in Punjab, we know that women bore the brunt of the violence of those times. Countless rape survivors ended up in brothels post-partition, after suffering violent assaults and being subsequently discarded by their families. The voices of women were lost in the post partition narrative that focused on nationalist pride, extolling the virtues of the new nations and the departure of the colonizers, while vilifying the existence of the “other.” Violating the body of the Muslim or Hindu or Sikh woman was likened to violating the honor of a community. Women in the subcontinent, while traditionally subservient, were extolled for their virtue, their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and assaulted women were a mark of shame for their entire community—they became outcasts or silent sufferers, forced to carry their stories but never speak of it to anyone.
Bangladesh in 1971 was no exception, even after the bloodshed had abated and the government made a concerted effort to rehabilitate rape survivors and children born out of rape. Here, it must be stressed that the Pakistani army and the Bangladeshi fighters raped Muslim, Hindu, Bengali and Pakistani women primarily because it was less apparent who the enemy was and who was collateral damage. Once Bangladesh was born, rape survivors were given their own symbolic title by the Bangladeshi government, birangona, the “brave women” or “heroines” and became subjects of a new national pride. They would be rehabilitated through their liberator, the Bangladeshi male, who was given land and government benefits for marrying a birangona. Yet through this naming, they were marked and vilified by their communities. A woman named birangona was seen as damaged, ruined and impure. Yasmin Saikia, a professor of History interviewed countless Bangladeshi women who survived the war and looked at the government policies at the time. In her book “Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh” she describes a government mandated abortion program to rid the country of the “bastard Pakistanis” born out of rape. Women who wanted inclusion into their communities were compelled to participate in these programs. Saikia from her research and interviews concluded: “Ideals of purity and impurity, belonging and inclusion, were worked out and physically enacted on the body of women—the site of alleged national dishonor, and the site where men could display their power to control the imagining of a new “liberated” nation.”
A rape in a New Delhi resonates in South Asia because it marks those countless rapes that took place over history, downplayed by governments wishing to maintain the South Asian woman’s role as a symbol of sanctity and honor. These rapes were interwoven with historical change as it happened in the founding of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and institutions overlook even today. We need only observe the countless incidents of rape in Kashmir at the hands of Indian military forces to realize that our discussion on rape cannot be limited to this particular instance.
Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Diane Rosenfeld, Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at Harvard Law School and Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, will head this group. Their principal task this semester is to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee. The committee in a bold move, points out the need to reassess the military powers that are allowed to operate with impunity in conflict zones. Part of our discussion will focus on real reparations and support for survivors of sexual violence, in a manner that allows them to function as integrated members of their communities.
Arundhati Roy in her observations on this incident alluded to the dangers of restricting and focusing attention on certain incidents of rape. The attention being given now needs to have a holistic perspective on the nature of a woman’s body and how it is used and abused over centuries of conflict. The conflict seems to have shifted to the cities and onto the image of a young urbanite, and has thus been given necessary attention. We need to widen this attention and attach names, stories and memories to the countless birangona, Daminis, Nibhayas and Amanats who have been left behind in our bid to hide the bloody nature of the subcontinent’s history.
This post is originally featured on the Harvard College Women’s Center blog.
Having faith in any leader is tough, especially in Pakistan where failed promises, the old corrupt guard and army interference are staple parts of our diet. With every Supreme Court decision marking the supposed “turning point” for the country and “Breaking News” unveiling the next political scandal that threatens to upturn the very fabric of the corrupt culture we belong to its no surprise that people have reacted to the change this newcomer Mr. Qadri brings, with suspicion and disbelief. During Qadri’s speech yesterday, the Supreme Court called for the arrest of PM Raja Ashraf on a case which has been pending while he was selected as Prime Minister by Zardari last year.
The news on arresting “Raja Rental” (1) came at such an opportune moment that immediately the media started speculating on whether or not there was a connection. From the rooftops people were shouting “Conspiracy!” Conspiracy to derail democracy and bring the army in, some “international establishment” conspiracy was afoot and in more troubling news, Musharaff lauded Mr. Qadri and a news anchor jokingly asked him on air, “Will we be seeing you back here soon, Mr. Musharaff?”
These days conspiracy theories abound. And there may even be some truth to them, I don’t know for certain.
But lets pause for a second and look at what Mr. Qadri is actually saying. For anyone who has seen his 3 hour long speech today there is little disagreement that he wants what everyone else has been thinking. He wants elections to take place, but with a new caretaker government that can ensure they are free and fair. He wants a better election commission. He asks for justice against the corrupt politicians, justice for the hundreds of Hazaras and Shias who were affected in the massacres these past two days, and asks people to come out to the streets and fight peacefully for a new, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. His presence on this stage and his message of change reminds me of an old man I met two summers ago.
The women in my family are real believers in the power of prayer. When my uncle’s health was failing, I accompanied my mother and aunt to a mosque, where a religious man would write out prayers for people who wanted their problems solved. A woman wanted her child to stop crying so much, another wanted a way to heal her ailing mother. These people were gathered around him and one by one asked him to give them a prayer. He would write a few letters and numbers on a piece of paper, fold it up and direct his companion to stitch it into a leather pouch with string. This ta’aweez served as protection and carried the answer to all the people’s problems. My mother wanted one and I was naturally skeptical of the point of such an process. He recommended that we read a verse from the Quran a certain number of times a day. When people wanted their prayers answered in villages, they would run to their peer who would in return for his prayers and blessings, ask for money, favors and other things that would invariably put the people in his debt. In most villages, the peeri system has tremendous influence to the extent that it becomes exploitative. This sounded similar.
But upon arrival, I noticed that the process was very simple. The man asked for no money from his visitors, people donated as much as they wanted. These donations were placed in a box and every evening the money was used to buy food that was laid out in the mosque for people of the community. All they asked for was the power of his prayer to solve their problems and he gave it to them. And my mother believed firmly that if a man can pray sincerely for another, why shouldn’t it be taken into account? A man of faith has a stronger prayer than the rest of us more selfish folk.
I am not saying Qadri’s prayer will work more than anyone else’s. He does however, not ask for anything from the people of Pakistan. He does not aspire for elected office (he can’t, he has a dual nationality with Canada and that is another point for the naysayers), he does not want to be part of this caretaker government he proposes and he claims that the army (his supposed backer) will never come into power again. Then what does he want? There has to be a catch somewhere right? And he isn’t an angelic hero sent to save Pakistan either, the man has made some outlandish claims, stating in an interview last year that he saw the Prophet Muhammad’s caravan travel past him on the road to Islamabad.
He is however, someone who regardless of his background and motives expresses what the rest of us have been too cowardly, jaded and unable to articulate. He has managed to bring together a set of demands and thrown down the gauntlet. The people have spoken and now the ball is in the government’s court. Never in the history of Pakistan, except during the judicial crisis, have people united outside of a political party affiliation and protested. Today, inspired by the actions of the Hazaras in Quetta, people began to protest in Peshawar, bringing the bodies of their loved ones who had been killed in terrorist attacks with them. In moments of crisis, we are defined by how the powerful treat the common man and so far, the government has failed. Now the people have to define the rules and through Tahir ul Qadri they have found a voice with which to do it.
The old man in the mosque is not an image of Qadri. Qadri is an image that eludes the liberal elites and the Wahabi right wingers. He is a man who symbolizes modern Pakistan, a country that has shifted firmly right but stubbornly sticks to the belief that in this religious state, survive the very secular principles of democracy. Without them, and without the elections this year, we can’t get out of this mess we’re in.
(1) As he is affectionately referred to by our media, having received kickbacks from government funded power stations, losing the country millions of rupees while failing to improve the electricity situation.
And why I feel the need to explain myself
Last year, I took part in a fashion show. One of the segments involved me pulling off a loose shirt to reveal a white t-shirt underneath, emblazoned with “This is what a Feminist Looks Like.” Reactions to this shirt were mixed when I posted a picture of me wearing it on Facebook. A friend joked underneath, “Feminist? Do you know what they are?” while my brother wrote, “Don’t ever talk to me!” while another friend wrote “Lies! You look hot though.” Some people found it funny while others asked me “What’s gotten into you?” My parents told me not to turn into “a crazy woman” and others joked I would never find a man now and die an old maid surrounded by my millions of pet cats.
In all honesty, I would rather die surrounded by cute dogs. Interestingly, the majority of humorous and negative reactions came from my friends and family back home.
The past few years, my family has been seeing me as “militant” and aggressive compared to the relatively docile girl who left Lahore in 2009. I explode easily at things that weren’t considered as problematic before, and I don’t have the same tempered tone that my parents prided themselves in inculcating in me. They think it is a result of my exposure to the politically correct, overtly sensitive liberal American environment.
I agree with them, but for different reasons. Yes, political correctness is an important part of our interactions here (with the exception of a few friends with whom I tend to have no internal filter) but there is a good reason for it. Harvard and Cambridge, MA is one of the most heterogenous communities in the United States. People bask in intellectual discussions and generally tend to be more thoughtful and sensitive to issues that impact America. Indeed conversations get heated and oftentimes end in a stalemate. Here, there is an awareness that we are all equal, but in the real world some of us are “more equal than others.” Here, my black friends remain aware that no matter where they come from there continues to exist the preconceived notions others have of the color of their skin. In the same vein many white friends recognize that no matter what their economic situation, simply by virtue of being white, they inherit privilege.
I never developed that sensitivity in Lahore, thinking only in terms of economic inequalities. Growing up in a homogenous, all Muslim, well off and relatively cocooned environment, I was only vaguely aware of the larger concerns facing minorities and the subtleties of group interactions until I came to college where there was no overwhelming majority group. The dominant white male paradigm still exists but with many exceptions and challenges in place, especially in an environment like Harvard where everyone is aware of this paradigm.
But back to my explanation about feminism. Feminism for me, simply became an articulation of all the beliefs I had held all my life. I just needed a way to label them, because I believed and still do that these kinds of beliefs require an organized movement to support them. Feminism is that movement.
There is no real formula to describe the meaning of feminism. I believe it is the struggle for equal rights for all genders, not just men and women. I expand the original definition from “equal rights for women” to all genders because I believe that feminist history places a responsibility on the term to embrace genders that were (and still are) considered historically and structurally inferior or in the minority. There are many strands of feminism around the world starting with Western feminism (Europe and the United States, but primarily the United States) falling into three waves. I won’t go into the many forms of feminism but a good overview can be found here.
There are many elements of feminism that were criticized, that I personally disagreed with and that are still being readjusted according to the times and circumstances. Most of the women involved in feminism tended to homogenize experiences across countries, cultures and contexts, tending to describe women outside the Western sphere as the “Third World woman”. Feminism even tended to alienate its more spiritual and religious minded sisters after attempting to separate itself from the patriarchal structures perpetuated by different religions.
For example, today, I still see an unnecessary divide between women who choose to cover their heads and women who see this as an affront to feminism. One woman’s chains are another’s form of freedom. One woman wears it for purely religious reasons, as is her right, while another calls it her political statement. In Egypt, Mubarak banned newscasters from wearing the hijab on television, another affront to a woman’s right to choose. These cases evoke most significantly the idea of Islamic feminism, radical to some today but significant for a time when Islam was new. In 2006, Margot Badran, a senior fellow at the Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown wrote that when Islam entered the scene of medieval Arabia, the notion of gender equality was radical. In a way, patriarchal structures remain resistant to the very Quranic notion of equality, much like pre-Islamic Arabia. So Islamic feminism is part of a war that continues to be fought around the world. She also points out that there is no divide between Islamic feminism and the West. Islamic feminism exists anywhere within the ummah and marks the groundwork for an equal and pluralistic society in the West. There is a lot more to this argument and I encourage everyone to read “Islamic Feminism Revisited” by Margot Badran.
Back to the original question on why I am a feminist. To answer my loved ones more directly (the people reading this since thus far only my near and dear are interested in this tumblr!) I will say the following. I am a feminist because when war happens, it happens over women’s bodies. Women were raped in 1947, 1971 and countless times in history because to defile a woman’s body is to besmirch the enemy’s honor. And while we honor the countless brave soldiers with war memorials and medals who defend our country, we forget the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters who are left behind and whose bodies are the battleground for most conflicts.
I am a feminist because I like putting on eye liner, lipstick and wearing jeans in the market. But that does not give a man the right to stare at my legs and whistle while thinking about all the things he would do to me in bed. If this cannot be changed then I am a feminist because one day women should have the option to do the same and make that man feel as uncomfortable.
I am a feminist because one day I want to be paid the same salary as my male coworker. I am a feminist because I want to be able to have children and a job and expect my husband to take on an equal share of the parenting. I am a feminist because of the women in my life who choose to give up their careers to become wonderful mothers.
I am a feminist because of my mother who was probably the smartest woman in her college and who started out her married life as the main breadwinner for quite a while. Then she gave it up and decided to raise me and my brother. I am a feminist because she chose this and taught me to stick to my principles as a woman and as a human being.
Finally, I am a feminist because I want to explain to people who try to deny their inner feminist exists, that its cool to be a feminist. All you’re trying to do is label yourself as someone who consciously promotes equality, world peace and all that jazz in their everyday interactions, whether by telling someone to stop using the words “bitch” or “slut” because it is demeaning or by telling yourself to do the same.
This is why I am a feminist.
Drew Gilpin Faust, 10/12/2007. First female President of Harvard in her Inaugural Address.
On the occasion of my uncle’s first death anniversary
This week, Halloween celebrations are in full swing. Bright orange leaves are littered everywhere. I can hear each leaf as it is crushed by hundreds of feet until it sinks into the mud and merges only to be replaced by another and another until the trees have no more to spare.
Last night I accompanied a friend to a Latin American celebration in remembrance of family and friends that they have lost.Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” is connected to the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Attending the event were Mexicans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Peruvians. We ate delicious chicken covered in salty chocolate sauce(It makes no sense but it was surprisingly good!), bread pudding and watched a Mariachi band, dances and children performing skits. This was followed by an Aztec dance around the altar decorated with skulls, pictures of the Virgin Mary (Except her face is a skull and her arms are bones) and everyone sings for their loved ones. Traditionally, families go to cemeteries to pray for their dead and some of them believe they bring the spirits of their loved ones home with them for dinner so they can feast and celebrate their lives with them present.
On this day it seems the dead walk freely among us. And at the end of the celebrations we leave a small memento by the altar for them. My Mexican friend told me that they always left a bit of tequila at her grandfather’s grave because he loved a good drink! We walked around the altar to place flowers and contemplated. Around me people were weeping, laughing while the center in which the celebrations were held exuded light and color. Paper flags and lanterns decorated the ceiling, fairy lights and skulls hung on every wall, mixing morbidity with joy.
A lady walked around the altar and asked us to let go. This year, she said is 2012, which the Mayan calendar marks as the end of a cycle and beginning of a new period of life. In 70 days we will be rejuvenated, cleansed, recharged and reinvigorated. With the passing of the year we will also pass on and leave behind our burdens, fears and worries. We are now moving into the rebirth stage of everyone’s life, young or old. She asked us to cry as much as we wanted and after we cry we celebrate and march on into the next year. She asked us to remember that the dead walk among us all the time and we have the power to bring them back as we celebrate them. She said the spirits of our ancestors guide every decision we make, they are our lights and they help define our future.
Last night, through the singing and dancing, I too felt close to the dead even though I was not a part of this community. We are literally moving forward with our lives even as we cling to the past. But lets remember and celebrate those who have moved into the next world. Halloween and Day of the Dead are departures from our daily lives to connect with the otherworldly, the fantasies that we never experience in real life but we imagine all the time. They are moments of sadness and joy, fear and courage, celebration and reflection.
We too can celebrate this day, for it reminds us about those we have lost. Dia de los Muertos keeps them alive, and for as long as we are breathing, they are walking among us and watching over us.