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A street in Johar Town, Lahore. Three women left for Syria from this area in December 2015.

A street in Johar Town, Lahore. Three women left for Syria from this area in December 2015.

My most recent trip to Pakistan (from March-April this year) was with the Times newspaper, under the auspices of the Richard Beeston Bursary. As well as covering general news, I was researching support for ISIS in Pakistan. The authorities have been keen to downplay any threat from ISIS within their borders, claiming that it is non-existent as a political force there – but there have been numerous attacks claimed by the group’s supporters. I was surprised by what I found; while there is currently little evidence of an organisational presence of ISIS in any meaningful sense – for instance, a fighting force with the capability of capturing territory – there are significant pockets of support. Those that I met did not fit the stereotypical demographic of militants in Pakistan, who are stereotypically rural and from lower income backgrounds. The first of my pieces on the topic for the Times came out on Saturday 11th June, and looked at support for ISIS (and other terrorist groups) amongst educated women. You can read the piece at the Times website here (link behind paywall) and the clipping is below.

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460545326Back in October, I travelled to Delhi. While I was there, I spoke to various women about how safe they feel in the city, and to activists about the long fight for change. It has been two years since the brutal gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus caused national and international outrage, prompted city-wide protests, and a series of legal changes. But did the incident have any lasting impact?

Sexual violence and violence against women is a global problem, and many of the issues that Indian campaigners describe are common to countries all over the world: a lack of funding for crisis centres and counselling, police refusing to record cases or making victims feel uncomfortable, a lack of female officers. “The police are generally very harsh,” says Dorothy Kamal, a rape counsellor for CSR. “People are afraid of them.” India’s police forces are chronically overstretched; and misogynistic social norms still dominate, for all the current public discussion. “Recognising the problem is positive, but when it comes to solutions, we are still grasping in the dark,” says Kumar.

 

You can read the rest of the article at the New Statesman website.

An acid victim poses with a picture of her before the attack.I wrote a piece for this week’s New Statesman about the horrific crime of acid violence. The piece looks at recent incidents in the UK, and explains some background about the crime globally. Here’s the opening, and the cutting is below.

Naomi Oni had left work and was on her way home to Dagenham, east London, when acid was thrown in her face. The attack took place in 2012 when she was just 20 years old. Oni is still undergoing painful skin grafts to rebuild her face.

In an emotional interview on Radio 4’s Today programme on 24 March, Oni, now 22, spoke of her isolation. “I didn’t choose this,” she said. “I’m only human.” She labelled the Metropolitan Police as incompetent: they initially suggested she had thrown acid on herself. They later charged Mary Konye, a former friend of Oni’s, with the attack; she was found guilty in January and jailed for 12 years.

You can read the full piece here. It’s not the first time I’ve written on acid violence. Last year I spent time with survivors in Pakistan – one of the countries where it is most prevalent. You can read that article here.

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Mukhtar Mai.

Mukhtar Mai.

I co-wrote a profile of Mukhtar Mai, the gang rape victim who became an iconic advocate of women’s rights in Pakistan. The piece is part of the Independent’s “new suffragette” series and was co-written with Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. You can read it over at the Independent.

When Mukhtar Mai walked into a police station in rural Pakistan in 2002 to report a gang rape, she felt completely alone. Her family shunned her; village elders who ordered the rape expected her to commit suicide, and there were no female police officers to help her through her ordeal.

But Mai did not give up, and now, 11 years later, she no longer feels alone. A whole generation of Pakistan’s women stands with her – inspired by the bravery of an illiterate women, from a poor community in Punjab province, who defied tradition and prejudice to take a stand for victims of violence and injustice.

I’ve interviewed Mukhtar Mai before. A transcript of that conversation is available at my New Statesman blog.

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Ahead of the general election, I wrote a feature for the Guardian’s G2 about Pakistan’s female election candidates. While there is a long history of female representation in the subcontinent, these women generally hail from political dynasties. Is that starting to change? The piece looks at the challenges faced by female politicians, and the progress that has been made.

“It is difficult for women,” says Anis Haroon, a caretaker minister for human rights and women. “It’s non-traditional ground to tread, and women still bear the responsibility of home and children. Character assassination is easy in a patriarchal, conservative society. Women must work twice as hard to prove their worth.” Last month, an election official in Lahore told the husband of prospective candidate Sadia Sohail that if she were elected, “the arrangements at your home will be ruined and no one will be there to attend your children”.

You can read the full piece at the Guardian website.

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An acid victim poses with a picture of her before the attack.Acid violence is a particularly brutal form of gender-based violence, whereby acid or other corrosive substances are thrown at people – usually women – with the intent of disfiguring. The problem is prevalent in rural areas of Pakistan, and came to international attention with the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face in 2012. I visited the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad and interviewed some survivors. The full feature is available at the New Statesman.

Zainab was 12 when it happened. She was at home in her village in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, asleep in bed. Her neighbour’s son climbed over the low walls separating the houses, came into her room, and threw acid on her face.

“It felt like someone had put fire on me,” she says. “No-one could forget that pain. It stays all your life.”

Weeks earlier, the neighbour’s son had proposed to Zainab’s sister and been rejected. He was seeking revenge, but attacked the wrong sister.

Zainab, who is now 19, comes from a poor family, with little money or influence. Rather than go to the police, the family sought the help of their tribal elders, who brought the young man in question before them and demanded to know whether he had committed the crime. He swore on the Qur’an that he hadn’t, and given the potency of the religious book, was released.

“I was scared and I wanted to move,” says Zainab. “I didn’t want to stay there in case it happened again, but all the elders said ‘such things don’t happen all the time’. After exactly one year, he threw it again.”

Badam Zari.

Badam Zari.

Two women from Waziristan, the militancy plagued northern region of Pakistan, are standing in elections for the first time ever. I’ve reported on the story for the New Statesman.

Pakistan’s tribal areas are not known for female empowerment. The Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata) which borders Afghanistan is an ultra-conservative region where women are mostly uneducated, and rarely leave the house without their husbands, if at all.

However, a female resident from Bajaur district made history yesterday, by becoming Pakistan’s first ever tribal woman to stand in elections. Badam Zari is a 40 year old housewife, with no children. “I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas,” she told the Associated Press on Monday. “This was a difficult decision, but now I am determined and hopeful society will support me.” Her husband, Sultan Khan, accompanied her when she went to file her nomination papers. He says she has his full backing.