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Review

‘Women are Born Free, But Everywhere they are in Chains’

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Beyond the Fields

Author: Aysha Baqir

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish International, 2019

Recently, an instagram handle questioned women: “No Men for One day — What if there were no men for 24 hours?” Majority of the women replied that they would go for a walk alone. And this is the year 2020. We are living in a so called modern world where women are now freer than ever to pursue their ambitions and make a life of their own. But what does this fear of going out alone, for such a small task as an evening walk alone, tells us about our social system. If educated, independent women feel uneasy venturing out of their houses alone in advanced societies, then it isn’t difficult to imagine what women in socially and politically repressive systems go through.  

In her debut novel, Aysha Baqir steers the reader’s gaze to a small village in 1980’s Pakistan, chronicling the lives of rural women whose existence was sanctified by the written and unwritten rules of the society. It was the time of Zia-ul-Haq’s reign and much controversial Hudood Ordinances.

Baqir grew up in Pakistan. After graduation, she won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College where she studied International Relations. In 1998, she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women of rural Pakistan. Perhaps meeting those women and hearing their stories prompted Baqir to recount such stories of courage and defiance, even in the face of repression, which may become beacons of light for generations to come.

The narrative follows the life of a young Zara and her twin Tara. Poles apart in nature, they are bound by a sisterly affection for each other. Tara is the beautiful, fairer and obedient one from the duo who resigns herself readily to her mother’s desires and ideas. She is ready to get married as and when it pleases her parents. Zara, on the other hand is the rebel, who insists on studying though girls are not given education in their village. She is born in a society where more education for women is a matter of shame. If a woman reads or writes, would she be a good obedient housewife, good mother to her children? Would she be any good for the community?

Zara wishes to live her live abundantly, run amok in fields, eat Kairis from the trees, play outside, and study like her brother. It infuriates her, when more restrictions are imposed on her and Tara with the coming of age. That meant no going out alone and no playing and veiling themselves with burka even when stepping out with parents. Zara believes that she and her brother are equal, but for a life changing incident which brings her life to a halt.

It brings forth to her the reality of being a woman in her community — the brutal rape of her sister, the conduct of her parents in hiding it because it would bring shame to the family, their unwillingness to file a case because of Hudood ordinance in practice and then her subsequent marriage to someone in haste to veil the shame. When they lose contact with Tara and fear an unfortunate happening, it becomes too much for Zara, but she decides to find her sister.

This novel is the story of Zara’s grit and determination, her belief in the power of women in an unbalanced society, her conviction that she is not merely the body she inhabits but also the mind she possesses. She follows her sister to city, after convincing her parents, and plunges into the dangerous world of prostitution to bring back her sister.

Through this novel, the author attempts to bring forth the tribulations of women in such an oppressive system where it is not only the men but also women who play the agents of repression, to keep the system intact by inducing fear and shame in those who go wayward or rebel. In such systems, women are made subservient to imposed rules so much so that they accept them as code of honour even if adhering to them means hurting loved ones and acting against them.

Perhaps nothing could be more startling than the shaming of a rape victim or vilifying a woman who dares to fall in love. It is a system where the birth of a woman, in itself is a burden to family and a mother’s most important role is to suitably prepare them for marriage, to collect their dowry and start looking for prospective grooms when they come of age. Their propensity to literally dispose the girls as soon as possible, even takes over the maternal love which they only express by trying to put restrictions on their beloved daughters.

Baqir writes in a discreet manner and her narrative bears testimony to the amount of research and hard work which has gone into writing the book. For a reader from a neighbouring country, this book brings familiar sounds and smells which makes it more relatable. Local flavours are induced with the usage of Punjabi words. Word pairs are used to evoke the sense of belonging to familiar lands – playing on the concept of twins separated at birth. The ideas of women’s honour, shame and their bearing on family are comparable to that in India.  

Though changes are questioning patriarchal mindsets, women’s emancipation continues still to be a tough battle. Beyond the Fields is an effort to highlight the struggle of women and an entreaty to be on the side of humanity, to break the shackles which stifle women who are born equal to men but are made to feel inferior by the rules of society.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Slices from Life

Singapore’s Secret Recipe

By Aysha Baqir

It was an early Saturday morning when I dropped my eleven-year old for a race in northeast Singapore. My son was excited to find his friend and I was anxious to find a coffee shop and nose-dive into the novel I had started last night. The race, I had been told, would last for over an hour. As we waited on the sidewalk for the light to change, I cheered up sighting a small mall on the left. Suddenly, the clouds cover shifted to reveal a clear blue sky. In the horizon, misty clouds shimmered and spun gold.

We entered the lush grounds and my sneakers made a squelching sound. I grimaced. It must have rained last night. How were they going to run?

“Mama,” My son tugged my hand to let me now he’d spotted his friend.  And in the next instant, with a quick “Bye, will call you when it’s over,” he darted towards the long cue in front of the uniform booth. For a few moments, I stood there. My eyes followed him until he joined his friends, and I forced myself not to walk after him to demand a goodbye hug. Catching the second, “you can go away now” look from him I turned around and trudged back.

I crossed the road and headed straight for the mall already anticipating the strong aroma and the smooth taste of a cappuccino, and then stopped, stumped. The glass doors were shut. I stared through the glass doors trying to get the attention of the cleaners who mopped and vacuumed. No luck. I stepped back and caught the sign for opening and closing hours. The mall would open at 9 AM. Impossible. This was supposed to be the “me” time. I peered again into the glass doors but when it was clear I would get no attention, I turned around and debated my options. I could head back to the park and wait it out, or explore the area. Pushing away the thoughts of the page-turner in my tote, I opted for the latter. In a few minutes I had crossed a few blocks and found myself in a quaint neighbourhood.  I walked along a narrow road with colourful buildings on either side. Red and gold decorations adored many doors. Some grocery and home supplies shops were already open.

I continued to walk further, and hearing chatter, turned a corner, stopped, and stared.  It was a small hawker centre with a row of stalls and a few dozen tables. All the tables were full. Grandparents, parents, and children gathered for the morning meal. Glasses and plates clinked and clanked.

Young and old and ate together. In one corner, a mother helped her son with his homework. In another corner a man helped to feed his aged mother. Some families exited, and more entered. They knew each other and stopped to talk and share news. Two young children played a game in a corner.

I moved forward drawn by the whiff of strong black sweet coffee mixed with the aroma of fried roti paratas, and creamy coconut laksa. My eyes lingered over mounds of white rice on fresh green pandan leaves, crisp leafy vegetable heaped on steamed noodles, stacks of butter toasts, bowls of soothing ayam sotto, and moist carrot cakes.

Spicy. Savory. Salty. Sweet. Flavors and colors blended and melted together. They ate different food, but they ate together.

Food brings people together.

Had I read it somewhere or heard it from someone? I didn’t remember. But in that moment, something shifted. The easy banter, the jokes, and laughs made me pause. I saw an old Chinese man offer a bowl of noodles to his friend. I saw an Indian dad urge his daughter to finish her vegetables. I saw a little Malay boy perform magic tricks to make his grandmother smile. Frowns faded. Faces beamed. From the ease with which they interacted, I sensed they knew each other and lived close by. Had they grown up together, shared life events, and supported each other through difficult and challenging times? Their differences ceased to matter when they ate together and shared food. In that one moment in a small hawker centre, I saw Singapore, a nation of approximately 5.7 million people and diverse ethnic groups become one. Warmth and love wove around them like fairy dust.

The Uncle at the coffee stand beckoned, and I ordered a black coffee. A distant memory tugged. I had seen this in my home country once upon a time, when neighbors knew each other and looked out for each other and when they ate together. Men, women, children, all together. No more. I remembered years back when my cousin had wandered outside our gate and walked to the nearby market and the fruit vendor had brought him back. The time was gone. But it existed here in this instant, where the individuals fused into families, merged into a vibrant community, and cemented into one strong nation. When people ate together, meal after meal, day after day, year after year, they became one, one nation.

I smiled at the Uncle as he handed me my coffee and decided that my son and I would have breakfast together before we headed home. I turned knowing I walked away something special, glanced back one last time and blew a prayer. Peace. Protection. Prosperity.  

Happy National Day, Singapore.

Aysha Baqir grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals and was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. Her interviews have appeared in Ex-pat Living, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Kitaab, and The Tempest.  She is an Ashoka Fellow. www.ayshabaqir.com

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

Zohra, what if you were my daughter?

By Aysha Baqir

On May 31st 2020, Zohra Shah, an eight-year old domestic worker in Pakistan was beaten to death by her employers. Each year over one billion children across the world experience physical or sexual abuse.

Dear Zohra,

I am sorry you are not Black. I am sorry the police have not released the video of how your employers, Hassan Siddique and his wife Umme Kulsoom, caged you, abused you and beat you to death for freeing a few parrots. I am sorry that no statues fell for you. I am sorry that your murder has failed to free over eight million child workers in Pakistan or over two hundred and fifty million child workers across the world.

Zohra five days before you died, a Minneapolis policeman, Derek Chauvin pushed his knee into the neck of a 46-year-old black man for nearly nine minutes while he pleaded, “Please, I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s death sparked protests and rage across the country. Tens of thousands of protestors marched into the streets of Minneapolis. The protests spread to over a hundred cities in the United States including New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Within days, the movement Black Lives Matter transformed into a global struggle and protestors surged out in the UK, France, German, Spain and Australia. Gathering momentum, the crowds tore down statues of slave traders and white supremacists. Some of the biggest brands pledged support to the movement, Black Lives Matter. Other companies fired their CEOs and Executives for racist and insensitive remarks. Chauvin has been charged for second degree murder. Some countries, states, and cities forced police departments to ban chokeholds and neck restraints. Many cities outlawed unannounced police raids, known as “no-knock warrants”. The George Floyd’s Memorial Fund raised over 14 M for his family and his GoFundMe page is supported by over five hundred thousand contributors.

George Floyd’s crime was that he bought cigarettes with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Zohra, your crime was that you freed a few parrots. The day after you died, tweets and posts flooded social media. Many even changed profile pictures. A few days later you disappeared from news like the parrots you released.

The Ministry of Human Rights promised reform. However recent tweets hint towards tweaking the out-dated Employment of Children Act, 1991, to include Child Domestic Labour (CDL) to the list of banned occupations (applicable only to Islamabad) while overlooking excluding far more dangerous occupations such as kilns, mines, mechanic shops.  There has been no attempt to change the age of a child from a person who is younger than fourteen years to a person who is younger than eighteen years.  To date thousands of children under the age of sixteen years continue to work in hazardous occupations.

Zohra, I am sorry no media, corporate Mughal or minister took up your cause. Some renowned civil society members organized a protest but less than twelve protesters showed up. There is lesson to be learnt from the family, friends, and community of George Floyd. Are our lawmakers are purposefully silent. Can we steal their silence? What if you were my daughter? Would tears, posts, vigils have been enough then?

Zohra, when I read the news of your death, I couldn’t stop trembling. I shouted at the universe. Stop it. No more. You understand. Enough. Silence. The universe was silent. It had not answers. I had not spoken. The words were inside my head. Biting. Gnawing. And with chilling certainty I knew that the pandemic was not outside, it was within me.

It is easier and more convenient for me to look outwards and to condemn others. It absolves me. But the problem is not out there it’s within me. It is difficult and uncomfortable to look inside because I am part of the problem. I am part of complex social economic system that that perpetuates discrimination, poverty, violence and forces millions of children into forced labour. If I am part of the problem can I even be part of any solution?

Not if I continue to exclude the poor and vulnerable populations from the decision making process and appoint myself as their representative or spokesperson. Not if I continue to excuse the culprits because they are rich, powerful, my friends, friends of friends, or someone or I don’t want to offend. Not if I leave the millions of child labourers to be physically and sexually abused without taking any action. A viable, sustainable and progressive movement rests on the voices of all stakeholders committed to the cause. 

The human rights movement will never progress if the poor and vulnerable are not part of the discussions and consensus building process. Stakeholders working towards human rights must facilitate the poor and vulnerable to be included in conversations about their rights even at the risk of losing their privilege. The goal is development not dependence. The worlds doesn’t need one Iqbal Masih, it needs millions of Iqbal Masihs.  It needs us to protect the Iqbal Masihs.

Some claim that the poor and vulnerable are uneducated and illiterate and unable to contribute towards the right decisions. However, in my over twenty years of working with the poor in low-income communities in the field of development, I have found that majority of the poor are bright, determined, resilient and waiting for opportunities and initiatives to improve their lives.  The uneducated and illiterate argument is an excuse to control and manipulate vulnerable populations and is strikingly similar to the justification of the East India Company and the British Raj to colonize the Sub Continent.

Our actions have a consequence, as does our apathy. Zohra, your future was stolen away from you. But, we still have a choice that can change many futures.

Note: A note of thank you to Mr. Naeem Sadiq for his precise and updated posts of the Zohra Shah case.

Aysha Baqir grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals and was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. Her interviews have appeared in Ex-pat Living, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Kitaab, and The Tempest.  She is an Ashoka Fellow. www.ayshabaqir.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Musings

If All I Have is Now

By Aysha Baqir from Singapore

Tsunamis of viral microscopic particles surge across continents to flood our cities, streets, and bodies. I stock up on masks, sanitizers, all that is anti-viral and anti-bacterial and watch my ‘home-store’ burgeon with a manic fascination ready to protest that I am not hoarding.

 Day or night, I check the news and numbers before I sleep, when I wake up, and every hour in between with a strange obsession until the whirlpool of theories statistics pulls me down. I strike out. Fear. Anger. Grief. Shame. What should I feel and when?  I clutch onto my planner and my to-do lists like a lifeboat only to see the ink fade and paper dissolve.

I click online to grasp a burst of pictures. I devour the jokes, memes, foods, and brain teasers for a few warm minutes until a cold post floats to the surface about someone who’s lost a friend, a friend of a friend, a good person, someone’s brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, or uncle. I mourn the loss. I knew them. The news doesn’t end. The news reports the youngest, the eldest, the first, the last, from my college community, or another group.  Too many are leaving, and leaving too soon.

Being a seventy’s child, I look to the ‘old heroes’ in the West for leadership. Someone will step up and lead the way. Someone will find a free cure. Someone will save the world.  Instead, I see the nations embroiled and torn in confusion, chaos and conflict as the numbers spike. My hope dissipates watching blame games, self-glorification, and trade wars. It’s a twenty-four hour non-stop live soap opera on the world stage. The headlines flash a new twist and slant until it’s hard to decode what’s true or not. I can’t help but grudge the movie directors for implanting a fallacy.  There are no supermen or superwomen left there, or perhaps I am not looking in the right direction.

I meditate. I focus on the rhythm and the sound of my breath. I move with my breath as I inhale and exhale. A ping. My phone flashes, my heart lurches, and my attentions wavers. Lying on my yoga mat, I breathe long and deep while hundreds of thousands of young and old fight for each breath in crowded hospitals or might not even make it there and die at home or on the way. Should I look inward or outward, here, there or where? What should I pray for, who should I pray for, and in what order? 

I step out for a walk and my husband turns back with a smile to hum one of his Steely Dan favourites. I snap, “Don’t do that.” He stares. I have no answers. I step out in fear, yet out of choice.  Thousands don’t have a choice but to step out to earn a living. Thousands more are carried out in body bags to be buried into mass graves.

At home, I crib about missing my weekly trip to the grocery store. It is impossible to order online. I cannot see, feel or smell the fruits and vegetables. I moan when the plain yogurt runs ‘out of stock’, when the page stalls and crashes, when the message pops out that there are no more delivery slots, and when three of the thirty five items I have ordered are dumped out of my cart because they are not available. How do I forget that million will go hungry tonight?

I call family back home. The connection breaks. I call them again, and the connection breaks again. I sit down. A hot darkness swirls around me. I sink into a sense of loss. What’s happened? What’s wrong? No flights. No connection. No control. What will I do if I can’t reach them? The phone rings and I am able to breathe again.

I know then that if I lose control, I lose this battle.

Every day across the world, hundreds of thousands of government staff and healthcare and essential industry workers leave their loved ones to fight an amorphous and dangerous enemy. Can I do the same while staying home? They are at the front line. I must stand right behind them. It’s not their battle alone. It’s my fight too.  

I cannot return to the past. I long to though, I admit.  Yes, I can try to imagine a future, a better and different future, but I cannot control it. I straddle an uncertain present between the past and the future knowing I cannot go back and I have little jurisdiction over the future. But, in hedging between the past and the future, do I forget about the power of now, the power that I possess to change, to create change, to sustain change this very instant for myself, my family and for others around the world?

It’s not easy to open myself to the power of now. There are distractions, blockages energies that I have to move past or simply ignore. I push my own needs aside. It’s not about me. It’s about others. I stumble, fall, and then rise up again. When I focus on gratitude and goodness and all that is positive around the world, there is a shift, a change and opportunities glow around me. In wonder and silence, I appreciate and applaud the change-makers around the world. The virus is now part of my eco-system. It will recede but can rise again, mutate and swell again. Why do I wait and for what? If I live now, then I must live in this moment, to act in this moment and change in this moment.

I salute all the healthcare workers and the essential services providers for saving lives. I salute the charities and not profit organizations for helping the homeless, the needy, and the hungry. I salute the trainers, the teachers, the chefs, the artists, the writers, the poets, the drivers, entertainers, and comedians who keep young and old engaged and entertained at this time. I salute my husband who gives me hope. I salute the young Singaporean graduate of NUS school of Medicine who has built a website that makes translations easily accessible to all the medical care teams. And again, I salute the thousand of healthcare and essential industry workers who are in battle now.

I pick up the phone to call my loved ones. I click my phone to help charities and the communities of migrants that need food or medical supplies. I donate to the homeless, the hungry, the needy or just reach out or mail a note to someone who has made me smile. I share information that can help others. I reach out wanting to create change this very instant and now. If I open myself to the power of now and the power of this moment, then I open myself to immeasurable and sustainable change and part of the future I imagine.  

Aysha Baqir grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals and was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. Her interviews have appeared in Ex-pat Living, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Kitaab, and The Tempest.  She is an Ashoka Fellow. www.ayshabaqir.com