Finding Myself Part II: My Father and Being Gay

Having parents from two different religions is hard. The hardest part is that there are two different principles you need to live by. Interestingly enough, my parents had two major things in common: there would be no losing my virginity before marriage and there is no such thing as being gay as their daughter.

I don’t know why my parents got divorced, I honestly don’t remember a time when they were ever together. My mother raised me and my father visited every single weekend. His visitations were like clockwork. Throughout my childhood and early teenage years, my dad and I had a great relationship – he always had a yearning to want to take care of me and be present for me. I was the entire reason he remained in America, even though I had siblings and a stepmom living in Jordan.

Eventually, when I was 16, my parents switched custody, my stepmom and siblings came to America and my life changed forever. Although the relationship with my dad was still strong, it continually declined. He felt like I wasn’t a good enough daughter because of my “attitude problem” and “something was obviously wrong with me.” I did stupid things as a teenager like sneak out of the house to hang out with friends or have friends who were boys, which in traditional Islamic households is a huge no-no. I just didn’t understand why it was bad or actually, why it was so bad that my dad began to be more distant from me in our relationship.

Things escalated when I was 18. We had just moved to Indiana from Dearborn, Michigan and my dad found three old journals that I kept from ages 14 to 17. I had forgotten they even existed until I was packing my things to move to Indiana – I simply kept them in the box they were in and moved them into my new closet in my new room. My stepmom had stumbled upon the box when looking for something for my sister and encouraged my dad to read the journals. In them, he discovered that I was gay.

When I got home from school that day, my father beat me for the first time in my life. Our relationship was never the same. My father would continue to physically, mentally, and verbally abuse me for 5 years. According to him, I was “lucky” because I should have been killed for being gay. It was a privilege that he allowed me to be alive and live in his house.

It was during this time that I truly believe I was at the lowest point of my life. In 5 years time, my spirits were broken, my thoughts of myself ever being a happy person and living the way I wanted to were crushed. I tried to think of any way – anything I could do to just get away from my father and just have my own life. I absolutely did not want to get married because I didn’t want to be with someone like my dad. However, over time the abuse continued to get worse. It escalated and escalated until one day, I was hurt so bad that a friend of mine called me and said, “You’re moving out.”

I thought that was hilarious – me, moving out, yeah, OK. That was the last thing I thought I needed – another excuse for my dad to come after me, find me, and kill me because I had the nerve to disobey him in the most defiant way possible.

It was a privilege that he allowed me to be alive and live in his house.

My friend wasn’t kidding, though. He convinced me that it was the best thing for my sanity and my life. We looked for apartments, I hired an attorney, and within 2 and a half months, I had filed a protection order against my father, got an apartment, moved out, and took off my hijab.

The biggest weight ever was lifted off my chest – but nothing about the decision was easy. I didn’t just lose my father, I lost my entire family – my siblings, my aunts and uncles and cousins, my nieces and nephews. Most days, I easily forget everything that happened in my life before the day I decided to move out. Other days, it is hard for me to not think about my dad, how he’s doing, what my life would have been like if he knew about my wife, how happy I am, or if he would be able to be happy to see his daughter living and achieving the best she can.

It should be a known fact that there is literally nothing wrong with being gay – no matter how taboo that is in the Muslim community. This is 2018 – these things should no longer be stigmatized and people should not be punished or killed for being who they are or loving who they want to love. It isn’t abnormal, there is nothing wrong with you. Love is love, regardless of gender.

It’s important to understand that being gay isn’t a choice – you don’t just wake up one day and decide, you know what, I think I’m going to just change my sexual orientation today. I had always been gay, was punished for it, and came out when I was 23 because I met the woman that would change my entire life. I’ve said it so many times, but it needs repeating until it becomes real thought, it is 100% possible to be gay and Muslim. You can be comfortable in your own skin. You can love who you want to love. If the expression of love became the norm, no one would be judged for it. You shouldn’t be judged for it. Straight people don’t get scrutinized or judged or looked at funny or told they are going to hell for who they LOVE (although, there were times in history where biracial love was illegal and scrutinized – looking back on it now – doesn’t that seem stupid? We need to progress quicker.).

 

MARIA ANTONIA

 

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Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna finds Muslim family, who saved his life in 1992 riots, posts emotional message

Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna doesn’t need introduction. From hosting the Indian version of MasterChef to cooking for the then US President Barack Obama at the White House, the Michelin Star chef has made India proud on countless occasions.

Vikas Khanna

The affable chef had recently revealed how a Muslim family in Mumbai had saved his life during the riots in Mumbai immediately after the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. The video of Khanna’s interview with actor Anupam Kher had gone viral on social media platforms.

In the interview Khanna implied that he had not been able to meet the family. Khanna had recounted how the Muslim family had given him refuge in their small house. The chef, then relatively new in Mumbai, had set off to find out if his brother was fine as the riots broke out across the city. A Muslim family, he added, found him at a crossroad and had given him shelter in their house. When a Muslim mob entered the family’s house, they lied to them saying that Khanna was a Muslim and one of their sons.

Khanna told Kher that the episode left an everlasting impression on him. He said that he’s been observing one Ramadan fast every y ear for the family.

On 11 June, Khanna posted a photo of breaking Ramadan fast at Delhi’s Jama Masjid. The celebrity chef wrote, “Heartwarming evening. All Heart. Tears. Pain. Pride. Courage. Humanity. Gratitude. This will be the most significant and important EID of my life. Thank you everyone to connect me with my souls”.

His subsequent tweet carried a photo of the chef breaking fast with a family with Delhi’s Jama Masjid in the background. He wrote, “On the holy occasion of EID. May every home and heart be filled with abundance, happiness and peace. #EidMubarak. May this EID bring the world together. #Gratitude.”

JKR Staff

 

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Mobile Schools Are Catching Up to On-the-Go Girls in Kenya

Teachers are traveling alongside nomadic families, adapting class times and locations to help girls stay in school.

Kenyan girls who grow up in traditionally nomadic, pastoral communities often roam the arid plains of the country with their families in search of grazing grounds for their goats, cows, and camels. But the journey is usually at the expense of an education—moving around so often, and especially to remote areas, makes it difficult for many to attend school on a regular basis.

Enter mobile schools, an initiative on the rise that supports teachers who travel with groups of families, adapting class times and programs of study to the work and migration patterns of pastoral groups.

Back in 2010, the Kenyan government partnered with UNICEF to establish the National Commission for Nomadic Education, creating goals and strategies for educational access among nomadic, pastoral communities across the country. The initiative recognized that more informal, mobile schools would need to be implemented. At the time, the government and UNICEF established the Kalokutanyang Mobile School, serving several villages in Turkana County, but the newly formed commission has since called on church groups and charities to help expand the program. Teachers live with the nomadic groups, setting up tents or simple structures such as makeshift schools, and move with the groups. Today, approximately 90 mobile schools operate across Kenya.

The groups’ on-the-go livelihood isn’t the only educational barrier. Continuing attacks by Islamist militant group al-Shabab, as well as erratic weather patterns caused by global warming—which can bring on heavy rainfalls or terrible drought—also force pastoral groups to leave their settlements suddenly. But the mobile schools do their best work around some of these challenges.

“The school calendar is based around rainfall patterns,” Saadia Maalim Mohamed, who works for Adeso, a nonprofit that operates mobile schools in Kenya, told Trust.org. “Learning takes place during the rainy season when labor demand on the children is low and movement of communities is minimal.”

Girls are especially in need of educational opportunities. Ninety percent of girls in the region’s pastoral groups attend school for less than two years, and in some communities, nearly 20 percent of girls over the age of six have never attended school, according to government reports. Traditionally, girls in these families have been required to look after the animals and do chores while boys’ education is prioritized.

As one Kenyan educational official explained to the IPS news agency in 2008: “The nomadic life favors only boys to be in school. Parents force boys to go to school and the girls are required to look after the animals. [Parents] leave the boys under the care of relatives who ensure they go to school, while girls move around with their parents from place to place in search of pasture for their livestock.”

Gender inequality has long been a problem in the region, and cultural practices such as polygamy, female genital mutilation, and the belief that a woman’s place is in the home—or, in this case, on the plains tending to animals and fetching water—have made it difficult to generate support for girls’ education.

More than a decade ago, studies revealed even more alarming educational disparities in the country. When free primary education was implemented in Kenya in 2003, more than twice as many boys as girls were enrolled in school, according to UNICEF. That situation has since improved nationwide but only in the central, coastal, and western parts of the country and among wealthier, urban families. In the North Eastern Province, where the majority of pastoral communities reside, many live in poverty and school enrollment rates remain low.

David McNair

 

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Khushwant Singh, the Grey Pastel

Khushwant Singh, Sketch drawn by Aseem Sundan

As a kid, I used to be alone at home a lot since both my parents went to work. I used to explore my home, scan the cupboards, and inspect everything closely. I was new to the world so everything seemed like a spectacle. Our little three-room railway quarter was like a fortress to me. I used to admire this bookshelf beside my father's study desk a lot. Reading alphabets and forming words were new to me too, so I used to keep reading the titles of the book, wondering what they meant. There was this thin book in the lot titled 'Train to Pakistan’. It was the only unusual title in the bookshelf, as all the other books were about engineering, construction - mostly non-fiction. Even though I was very young, the word Pakistan was still something that rang a bell - something that we knew we couldn't associate to love or claim as a part of our own. Something we definitely couldn't talk about much, unless it was ‘Pakistan’ and the word ‘war’ in the same sentence. I am going to put this as unconcealed as possible, as kids in schools, by teachers or at home, we were never particularly made aware that there were actually children like me on the other side who would wait for their mothers to iron their uniforms and prepare their tiffin box in the morning before school. That there were actually children, mothers, people who lived on the other side. I was sure till a point in time when I couldn't think any better that Pakistan was just angry, hungry brutish men in green. Pakistan was more like this one-uniform monster every part of whom had one aim, that of destruction and who deserved just one sentiment, that of hatred. Much like in our TV dramas where everything was just black and white for us, grey was just a pastel color we never really used even while painting. I think they don't teach us to use grey even in our art classes is because grey gives you horizon, scope to wander, change, understand, and contemplate. Mere Pride and Prejudice are the bright colours they fix everywhere to shine out loud, colours that don't soothe your eyes. Colours that always shout and never sing a cry or a lullaby. Grey is like hustle, it teaches you, you brave it and you discover there are hues and shades and new colors which are more fulfilling than mere saffron or green. 

A few years passed, until one day when I finally took the book out and started reading it. I must have been 11 at the time - too young to read such a book. But probably not. That is debatable, but through blood, gore, sex and reality of intricate human emotions and mad rage, that book took me into the grey of the world around me - one that I didn't knew existed. The book wasn't political, time and again I struggled finding what I had read or was taught in the schools or on the television. It was the human dimension of the book that made me believe that only by the virtue of coloring yourself in a certain shiny color one cannot not be good or bad, all humans can be deplorable, and anyone could be one of us. I realized it wasn't the geographical or religious inclination by which I related to people or rooted for them: It was their situations, their responses, the way they loved, the way they spoke and their characteristics. That was the first time I found this rare shade of grey called perspective. I started posing some difficult questions to my parents and my mother reaffirmed my new-found faith that how we're actually exactly the same people. I realised there was more to the world if you were willing to read and explore the greys.

From what I have read, Khushwant Singh was an unusual man to say the least: His wit was unmatched, he knew how to laugh at himself and he did not know when to shut up. Brave, bold, stupid - that's how he can be best described. Figure this: He went and pleaded for the release of 93,000 prisoners of war to Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India at the time, saying it was morally wrong to hold them. She snubbed him by saying "thanks for the lecture on morality" but he was undeterred and kept advocating for their release despite being called an unpaid agent of Pakistan. His daughter Maya Dalal fondly recalls this. Some remains of him were sent to Hadali, Pakistan, where he was born. His remains were mixed with cement and placed behind the marble plaque so he could rest where his roots were. Maya recalls how the entire village welcomed her with warmth and hospitality because of the affection her father commanded in Pakistan. Sometimes I wonder what would his commentary be about the state of affairs today in both countries and it always brings a smile to my face. I miss reading his column. His writing prowess was unmatched and he knew how to find a way to walk with the reader. ‘Delhi: A novel’ is probably the most profound piece of writing by him, capturing a thousand years’ worth of history of a city, capturing the spirit of it and making it come alive in a manner that the city starts talking to you after a while. You will find yourself seeing the same places in Delhi in a whole different light. You stand in Hudson lane and start wondering how those refugee camps would have disappeared to give room to these high-end cafes blaring with loud music. You cannot help but wonder how its glory was stolen by Rasina Hill. The way he wrote from the perspective of Mir is so poetic and heartfelt that one would find themselves going back reading the same chapter time and again. Only for his portrayal of the characters in the book he deserves the highest position in literary circles. 

By reading ‘Khushwantnama’ which he wrote at 98, you would get an idea of how old age changed him. He confessed that he no longer like the company of people as he used to - not even women. This somehow makes you really sad. How he keeps staring at the one-foot high lamp with a wax lit diya inside for solace and peace of mind. He spoke about charity, Urdu and retirement. They say he spent his last days reading poetry and he never stopped writing. His love for writing can be seen from the volume of his work, the vast topics he wrote about, from the portrait of a serial killer Raman Raghav to the portrait of his grandmother and translations of urdu shayari. His writing had all the colors of the world. In my mind and as claimed by him in a chapter of Delhi, Khushwant Singh lived by the one couplet of Ghalib:

nā-karda gunāhoñ kī bhī hasrat kī mile daad 

yā rab agar in karda gunāhoñ kī sazā hai

(For the sins I could but didn't commit, I must get accolades

If, O creator, there is punishment for the sins I did commit)

I'll leave you with an excerpt of his comment on hate and religion as recalled by Ramachandra Guha in his essay 'Remembering a simple-minded Sardarji' which is impeccably relevant in these current times and which I find myself reading a lot:

"Distort your facts, inject a dollop of pride in your own race and religion, prejudice and contempt for that of others and you have witches’ brew of hate which can easily be brought to boil’.  ‘It is both historically and morally unfair to cater to chauvinistic pride and prejudice. If you brainwash the younger generation with this venomous mixture of distorted fact, fancy and specious argument, you will forever be the real authors of communal discord. You will be the real perpetrator of what has happened in recent weeks in many cities and towns of Gujarat — the murder of the spirit of Gandhi. If we fail to make ourselves into one nation, you will be the authors of that failure."

 

Aseem Sundan

 

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From where I stand: “Women need support from each other to cope with this crisis”

The Rohingya crisis started decades ago, but the intensity and the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh since last year has been unprecedented. Noor Nahar is a Rohingya woman in her thirties, who has lived in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh since she was seven years old. Today she is working as a mentor to newly arriving Rohingya women refugees as part of a UN Women-supported programme.

I came to Bangladesh many years ago. I was only seven years old and all I remember is crossing the river on a boat. My mother said that the Myanmar military had killed my nine-year-old brother, so we had to leave our home.

I used to think that one day Myanmar will take us back and the violence will stop. But I don’t see any improvement of the situation in Myanmar. The military torture is worse and the number of Rohingyas fleeing is much more than what it was during our time. I have heard that many villages in Myanmar are now empty.

Being a refugee myself, I know the struggles that other Rohingya women face in the camps. I come to the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre four days in a week and teach tailoring to the women who are new. Since I have been here for a long time, I am part of the Women Support Group and I provide information to other refugee women, refer them to appropriate services, and I talk to them. Women need support from each other to cope with this crisis.

Noor Nahar

 

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ISLAM IN MALAYSIA - AN EVOLVING CONVERSATION

Both SIS and ABIM have been leading the conversation on the question of the role of Islam in life of the nation, a conversation that affects those within the faith community as well as those outside. Today, a few days before the end of the month of Ramadhan, we talk about the results of the 14th General Elections, the future of Malay ethno-nationalism and the dialogue between Muslims on different points on the political spectrum.

 

Sharaad Kuttan

 

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A gateway to culinary delights

This last week, I stumbled upon a unassuming new restaurant that had opened its doors only a couple of days earlier. Specialising in traditional Pakistani cuisine with their own signature reflecting in each dish, this outdoor restaurant claims to be serving popular delicacies from each of the gates of old Lahore. Hence, its name, Baranh – signifying 12 gates of the Walled City.

Located at Gaddafi Stadium sandwiched between the mighty Fazl-i-Haq Dera and Nadeem BBQ, Baranh presents a surreal ambiance in the evening with small lamp posts and bubble lamps hanging from trees. A limited indoor sitting space will be ready by the end of this month. There’s an open kitchen outside with a separate lassi counter on one side, and the menu doesn’t only include select old Lahore specialties – pathooray, haleem, tawa chicken to name a few, but a lot more of what desi cuisine is all about: from an assortment of parathas and lassis to mutton and chicken karahis. I was told the specialties section will be expanded gradually to represent all the gates of the old city. Also, the food is prepared cautiously, keeping in mind the spice tolerance levels of customers; extra spices are either added to be served on the side for those looking for that extra hit.

As soon as you’re seated, you’re served with complimentary gol gappa shots – gol gappay filled with veggies resting on shot glasses of that tangy tamarind water. I personally like the water with my gol gappay much tangier than this mild serving.

Over my two visits to the restaurant, I tried quite a few of their specialties, starting with the Walled City favourite, tawa chicken. This has to be one of the best tawa chickens I’ve had in town: juicy, succulent piece of chicken leg or breast that instantly melts in your mouth is cooked in loads of spices and lemon juice and topped with fried green chillies for some extra spice and crunch. For those that like their tawa chicken hotter, there are extra chillies and lemon on the side as well as a mint raita to slightly balance off the spices.

Thankfully, with Baranh around, one may not have to travel all the way to Taxali for a spicy piece of tawa chicken.

The tawa qeema is another specialty. This minced beef cooked in desi ghee and lightly drizzled with malai defines rich, indulgent comfort food. Cooked with a concoction of delicious spices, this turned out to be a delightful plate of food. I also tried one of my favourite traditional fares, pathooray and channay. What I loved about the pathooray at Baranh was that they tried to play with them yet retained the flavour. These pathooray are smaller than the usual ones, brown, crispy, oil-free and, most significantly, stuffed – with a choice of chicken or qeema to choose from. On the side, of course, are chick-pea gravy, mixed pickle for some added tinge and a sweet chutney for some balance. This one’s not to be missed!

 

Besides some of these ‘gate specials’, the restaurant also offers the usual traditional favourites, of course with their own touch to them. The mutton karahi, served in a wok, comprises tender, diced lamb cooked to perfection, sprinkled with coriander and drizzled with some cream and lemon juice to add to the flavour profile of this popular dish. While the cooking of the mutton was perfect, I personally felt the cream/malai somewhat overpowered the other flavours, though the dish looked extremely appetising.

Sheharyar Rizwan

 

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Quantico: The Muslim writer targeted in Indian episode controversy

A Bangladeshi American writer with no role in scripting a controversial Quantico plot implicating Indian nationalists in terrorism is the target of vicious attacks - including rape and violence - on social media platforms.

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed was on Quantico's writing team for just the first season and directly involved in scripting only two episodes - one independently and the other as a co-author.

Despite pointing this out repeatedly on her timeline, Hindu nationalists have trolled her relentlessly, many accusing her of being part of an Islamist propaganda against "peace-loving" Hindus.

One comment on Twitter said: "Care to explain your wildest fantasy while you wrote Quantico with Indians being masterminds of an attack? Does this stem from a deep-rooted bias, hate, anti-Hindu, pro-Islam conditioning of your fragile mind?"

Hyper-nationalist TV news anchors first accused the lead actor, Priyanka Chopra, of insulting India while also pointing fingers at a Bangladeshi American with "vested interests".

Ahmed says she hoped that once they realised she had nothing to do with the episode, the fury would die down. But it did not.

"The level of hysterics crescendoed very quickly," she says, adding, "It has grown really vitriolic with threats of rape and violence even toward people supporting me."

She says the angry voices cast her as the Muslim agent of a "diabolical anti-Indian and anti-Hindu propaganda machine that is deliberately spreading hate through this show".

"All they had to do was search Google or look at the screen credits to find out the facts," she says.

The episode, The Blood of Romeo, aired on 1 June in season 3, and showed the main character, Alex Parrish (played by Priyanka Chopra), stopping an attempted terror attack.

Though ostensibly planned by Pakistanis ahead of a summit about Kashmir, Chopra's character discovers it is in fact Hindu nationalists trying to frame the Pakistanis.

The strong reaction forced ABC, producers of the crime drama, and later Chopra to tender an apology. The Network also strongly defended Chopra but no such statement was issued for Ahmed.

Even though she had nothing to do with the scripting, the apologies came as a disappointment for Ahmed, who has previously also written strongly against the rise of radical Islam and raised her voice against atrocities on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh.

"I felt like they (ABC and Chopra) were capitulating to bullies. That's how fascism takes hold," she says.

 

Brajesh Upadhyay

 

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Women and Domestic Violence

Have you ever wondered why women are spiritually, physically and emotionally stronger than their male counterparts? Women work better with scars - be it scars of a Caesarian section operation where they will nurse their babies despite the pain after the operation. Some even prepare meals for their families during the healing process. Women never look or concentrate on the scars but rather on the goals to be achieved. It is called strength of a woman .The scars can go up to four times in their lifetime but guess what, they will still rock their heels after healing. But wait a minute – isn’t it unhealthy for the uterus?

 

We also menstruate once a month before we reach menopause. Some of us even cook for our families and afterwards we take painkillers to relieve our physical pains after our chores and targets have been accomplished. Some of us even forego our twenty one days allocation of paid leave at work to clear their backlog be it cases in courts or reports in the office. Are we naive or just hard core human beings?

 

Depending on the background a woman grew up in, she is always taught by her mother or guardian that women must always work hard just to put a smile on their loved ones’ faces despite the challenges. This includes doing domestic chores. But all of these cause emotional and psychological torture to us while we try to be the Jack of all trades. We end up going in bed with a string of questions in our minds during nighttime. Sometimes it causes us insomnia, while some of us end up even with mild depression or even mental health issues or also stomach ulcers. But why?

 

In Africa, a good wife is measured by her ability to sire and make exquisite delicacies just to prove to the in-laws that she is worth the dowry to be paid. This automatically equates women to items of measure in marriage. In Africa, when a woman gets married there is no going back home unless it is the time for  family visits or when they face domestic unrest. She is then told to pack her bags and go home to correct her morals to please her husband despite the scars she received from the domestic violence perpetrated against her. Some mothers will even tell their daughters during the wedding day that marriage is all about perseverance. And in the Luhya Tradition in the western part of Kenya, they believe a woman’s pride is when she is being hit by her husband. Pride and hit are like water and oil though!

 

Over 40% of married women in Kenya are victims of gender-based violence or even sexual abuse. Some lodge reports but a majority languish in pain due to fear of being divorced and left homeless or being judged by the community or even by their own parents. It is a shame to take back an injured and divorced daughter back home, unless when she is in a coffin: After all, domestic violence leads women to the grave early.  The Federation of Kenya Lawyers (FIDA) work on the ground filling divorce cases for free since 1985 but more women need awareness of this service perhaps.

 

When women report cases of domestic violence to their church, most of them are told to pray hard and fight for their marriages. Why is this that church leaders or mosque leaders lack the capacity to advise their congregation on the above on domestic violence? What are they afraid of?

 

Telling their members to walk out seems to be a big shame on them - they should concentrate on preaching the word of God. It is ironic to tell a woman who go through domestic violence to pray with no solution. I think houses of worship should be trained more on providing counselling skills which they should share with their members in times of distress. It is a big letdown when they let their own get injured or hurt and most of the marriages are officiated from the same places so women shy off from telling the church leaders their problems.

 

In 2016, a lady by the name Mwende in Ukambani, Kenya had her hands chopped off by her husband due to domestic violence. Her story was featured in all media houses in Kenya but the public blamed her for cheating and never judged the ex-husband for harming her. Why is society harsh to only us women and yet we walk and work with scars while men are allowed to move on with no charges and no scars at all. To the surprise, they marry off very fast. Men move on so fast.

 

Mwende is a survivor of domestic violence. She was lucky to get the assistance of the governor’s wife to fly to India for surgery and get fake arms but the scars in her memory will live on. This is a major tragedy that a lot of women suffer.

 

Say no to Gender-based violence (GBV).

 

Ulfat Hussein

" Ulfat Hussein is a Kenyan motivational speaker "

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A Story of Despair but Also of Hope From an Afghan Refugee Theatre Group

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Recently, on June 1st, the Parastoo Theatre group staged a performance called ‘Screaming in Silence’ at the Damansara campus of Stella Maris International School, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Parastoo is the Persian name for the beautiful bird called Swallow. The bird is always moving and has a nomad-like quality as it doesn’t really have a home – a befitting name for the theatre assemble which is made up of refugees from Afghanistan.

The play is straightforward enough: It is set in Afghanistan and tells the story of Nazanin, 12, who is forced to marry an older man when her father loses to him at gambling. She tries to fight for her freedom, but ultimately finds that her fate is bleak and she is caught for trying to flee.

Nazanin’s fate reflects the bitter reality of a lot of Afghan women. Afghan law rules that girls and women in the country who suffer from violence have the right to flee their home. However, they are often arrested by law enforcement officers who do not know the law. According to statistics, 70 per cent of female prisoners in Afghanistan are imprisoned for escaping their home.

“By performing “Screaming in Silence” I wanted the Malaysian community to be more familiar with the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. The oppressed women do not have any power and the effective tool to escape from their oppression and the primitive life in Afghanistan. They look forward for freedom and assistance,” the play’s writer and director Saleh Sepas said.

Saleh Sepas

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Sepas created the Parastoo Theatre group in 2017. Sepas is a theatre graduate from Kabul University. He has written scripts for theatre, radio and television. Perhaps one of his most impressive works was writing and directing the BBC radio drama called ‘New Home for New Life’. It was aired to millions of households and has won a string of international awards for promoting human rights.

Building a theatre assemble was hard for Sepas at first: None of the actors had prior acting experience. When he announced a call-to-action, twenty people came, but ultimately, he chose six, based on a few criteria, such as their ability to make to for rehearsals and meetings, having interest and belief in acting, as well as having the talent and skills for acting.

Theatre of the oppressed

The play utilized a tool called ‘Theatre of the oppressed’ (T.O). T.O was created by the late Nobel Peace Prize nominee Augusto Boal and has been popularized across the world as a tool for social change. Boal started T.O during his work with peasant and worker populations in Latin America and since then, the tool has been used for community building, peace efforts, activism and government legislation. T.O uses audience participation: After a performance ends, people from the audience are called up to the stage to ‘play out’ an alternative version of a scene that they like in order to change the plot - and ultimately the ending - of the story.

It is a tool to show that ordinary men and women have the power to shape their own destiny.

‘Screaming in Silence’ played to a pack audience of students. After the performance ended, a few students eagerly came up on stage to enact alternative plots to the story. The question posed was simple: What could have been done to prevent Nazanin from being married off to her father’s gambling friend?

The students’ ‘intervention’ drew hilarity from the crowd who cheered enthusiastically.

Amanda Soo Wei Xuan, 16, was among those who volunteered to come on stage. “I learned from the performance that we must always respect people and their decisions,” she said.

“It is important for our students to think about those who are less fortunate,” Allen Yong Kuan Hon, Head Teacher of Stella Maris International School, said. “Watching this performance, students are challenged to understand the struggles of others and be encouraged to think from a global perspective point of view.” 

Sepas said: ‘Theatre of the oppressed helped the students to become aware about the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. They were not just a viewers, they were part of the theatre who played their own ideas and solutions on the stage. Using this tool, the audience are not just a viewers but also an important part of the theatre, which provides a solution with their participation. It helps to make their worldview become better, and they are encouraged to think and provide solutions with responsibility. In fact, the students encountered a challenge and they were struggling to deal with this problem and try to find a solution.”

Sepas also emphasized on the cultural exchange that the play brought between Afghanistan and Malaysia.

“Refugees have voices, and this theatre is one way to bring the voices of refugees closer to Malaysians,” he said.

“Previously, I felt that there was a space between the refugees and the locals, but today I feel that the space has been removed,” Sepas said at the conclusion of the two-hour event.

(Images: Stella Maris International School Editorial Board)

Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is the editor of Muslim World Today.

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