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Musings

Seventy-four Years After Independence…

Mil ke rahe gi Azadi (We will get our freedom)

Aysha Baqir, an activist-author who works with and writes about women in Pakistan, passionately cries for a hearing

Mustard fields in Pakistan. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I dreamt of you again. Waves of lazy mustard fields rolled over the plains. Crowns of ancient firs, pines and deodars, brushed the feet of the giant mist-drenched peaks. Silver white sprays surged and throbbed down bare, black rocky slopes and foamed into turquoise pools.  The rise and fall of the gold sand stilled the earth.

I was part of you when you broke into the world and drank your first breath. Now I am alive in over a hundred and eleven million pulsing hearts and minds and spread over your countless tribes and towns. Yet, I remain, in most part, ignored, abused, oppressed, and repressed.  I am struck and beaten with sticks and rods. I am stripped, raped, and paraded naked. I am doused in petrol and set on fire. I am shot and beheaded. I am killed for honour they stuck between my legs. You gained your independence; yet I still seek mine in the promises you made me. You swore to honour and protect me with the rights my religion freed me with over a thousand years ago. And on this day, seventy-four years after Independence, I tell myself again and again, mil ke rahe gi azadi.

You forget I sacrificed my life for yours when you were a whisper, a glimmer, and gossamer of hopes and dreams. You forget how I risked my life and honour and stole out of my safe home into the treacherous shadows to join secret councils and meetings in which they spoke your name for the first time. I clapped and cheered for you on the roundtables. Breaking laws and curfews, I spied and snuck out letters and telegrams. I traded my gold bangles to fuel your strength. I disobeyed and defied my family, friends, and everyone else who dared to oppose your right to exist. I ran out into the streets, marched along the crowds, led the protests, and screamed your name when they charged me with lathis.  I raced up the civil secretariat to pull down the British flag and replaced it with yours. When I was arrested and imprisoned, I continued to protest without food and medicine, and when I was freed, I joined the women’s National Guard. As the violence erupted, I rushed to the refugee camps to aid the injured, distribute food, and boost the broken spirits. “Muslim women are… more impatient for Pakistan than men,”[i] I clung to the mantra feverishly even when my breath and body burnt and ached.

At dawn, before I could rise, stand tall and step out, you pushed me inside, shrouded me with a chador (stole), and bound me to your newfound, draconian ideals of law, religion, and culture. I fought for your freedom, and you seized mine. With every act and ordinance, you suppressed my right to speak, to be heard, and slashed the worth of my testimony and evidence. You questioned my right to education and work. You shredded my right to be safe in my country. I am made of brilliant shades, yet you chose to see the dullest in me.

Even then, blazed by determination fiercer than fire, I trudge to triumph and break barriers to win awards for sports, science, poetry, prose, business, theatre, entrepreneurship, academics, and filmmaking in an infinite longing to make you recognise me as your own. Yet every day you sell more of me, over and over again, into slavery, drudgery, and lifetime of servitude. I live in jhuggis (huts) of mud, rusted tin and cardboard and watch light fade from my daughters’ eyes while they watch me sweep your streets, gutters, and toilets. I earn less than you can count, and my earnings are not mine. I sow and harvest your fields from dawn to dusk; yet my daughters wither into waste, hungry.

I make up nearly half the country, yet in your parliament I represent less than twenty percent of the total. In your courts my testimony is never enough. My mind is starved; yet, just over half of me attends a primary school. And all of me, over a hundred million of me, is threatened by violence inside and outside my house. I am told to cover up, but I am groped and pinched in the crowded bazaars. I am hauled out of my car and raped in front of my small children. I am violated for the crimes my sons, brothers, and fathers commit. When I am assaulted, you subject me to the “two finger” test or call me immoral. When I protest, I am silenced in the name of honour. I am coerced to forgive and accept blood money. Some dare to taunt me “Apni Izzat Apne Haath Main (your honour is in your own hands).”  I promise you that if I held my honour in my hands, I would not cower like a hunted beast, I would hold it up high above my head, and march free through your lands.

You declare I have a right to education but forbid me from going to school or marry me off when I am eleven, twelve, or thirteen. You offer me rights with one hand and snatch them away with the other. I carry and birth your children when I am a child myself. When my husband beats me, my father begs him to forgive me and when my religion grants me my due share, you cheat me out of my inheritance. You sign accords, and agreements, local and international with powers big and small, but tomorrow if my brother, lover, husband father chops me into pieces; you tell me it is my fault, and the perpetrator walks away free. Sometimes. I tell myself it’s my fault. I am a daughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, but I am also a traitor to myself. Where is my self-worth?

Even the earth protests. The dry winds over the cracked barren soil moan my pain. The dark wet sounds of the rising sea echo my resentment.  When I cheer for my champions, conflict tears and cuts the conversation. You call me a liar. You twist and wrench my heroes, the ones who struggle for my freedom, and turn them into demons and traitors. What if Malala Yousafzai was a boy? Would you have protected and honoured her, and called her yours? Would you have given her a home? In the end you forget that your independence will never be complete without mine. You forget I am part of you. “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”[ii]

What would Mr. Jinnah say if he saw me today?

Courtesy: Creative Commons : Quaid-i-Azam or Great Leader — the sobriquet stands for Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan

[i] Quote by Begam Jahan Ara Shah Nawaz, Dec 25, 1945

[ii] Quote by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jinnah Islamia College for Women, Lahore, 25 March 1940

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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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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