Don’t force children to get married

Flickr: Marian, Creative Commons

I can’t laugh about it anymore. Not a day goes by when I’m not gripped with anxiety about the future of Pakistani children. I do not wish to use this as an opportunity to compare my situation to another’s, or to belittle the horrible grievances so many have to suffer through in society. Forced marriage is no laughing matter, and neither is the physical and emotional abuse which often feature where forced marriage is concerned.

According to Plan UK, 1 in 3 girls in the developing world is married by her 18th birthday. The Forced Marriage Unit, led by the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office, published a report on their findings from 2014. In it, they establish over 88 countries where forced marriage was a concern, and 23% of all the cases were domestic (i.e. in the UK), involving “no overseas element”.

Whilst the majority of campaigns against forced marriage understandably focus on underage girls in developing countries, there is something to be said for the fact that at least 46% of last year’s cases were with victims aged 18 or over, and a further 32% of adults’ ages were unknown. That is potentially 78% of cases with victims aged 18 or over. Whichever statistic you choose to consider, that is still a huge portion of adults finding themselves forced into marriage with few avenues to explore.

All things considered, there must be a proportion of adults in the UK who are suffering from abuse related to forced marriage, many of whom will be students at university, worried about their future. Whilst I do not wish to belittle the experiences of those outside that demographic, I think that my insight as a university student should allow me to focus in a little on university students.

Within my region from Pakistan, I am acutely aware of cases where people have been forced to get married to someone they barely know, ending in divorce, running away, domestic abuse, and at worst, murder.

These individuals were bright, had their whole futures ahead of them.

 

Intrinsically, we need to challenge the authority of the community and the parent. No matter what religions or diktats say about the power of the community, it’s not good for anything unless it’s tolerant and accepting.  A community where people are looked down on for not being married or for choosing to marry someone they want to wholeheartedly marry, is not a healthy community. It’s an animosity-filled, hateful environment which people need help to get out of, and fast.

If only it was easy to get communities where this is considered the norm to change their attitudes. Arranged marriage is also often synonymous with forced marriage in the eyes of many. The pressure and guilt associated with each rejection mounts until someone cracks. If one is found out to have someone else in mind, then immediately, an intervention is called with religious leaders and family members to convince the person otherwise and to choose an appropriate person.

Even if there is no direct threat of violence, an arranged marriage can still be a forced one. It can be a marriage of convenience, to help you leave home, or to help you find some financial independence. It can be a means to escape your temporary situation and hope for the better, because you can’t think of an alternative. An arranged marriage where it wasn’t truly out of choice, but came with heaps of pressure and guilt is certainly not, in my opinion, a free marriage. A free marriage is one where you have wholeheartedly chosen to marry someone, without having to think about the consequences in the community. A forced marriage is much more like one where the only way to go is to say yes, for fear of repercussion or isolation.

I can no longer be an apologist for my community when it comes to arranged marriage. I know in certain cases, people consent to having matches found and would happily marry one of their family’s choices. If that works for you, that’s great. But lots of people in this world do not have the right of choice.

Marriage should not be something to trade your freedom for.

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Pakistan needs Independence- of thought

Flickr: Umair Khan, Creative Commons

Happy Pakistani Independence Day. Pakistan Zindabad. I hope you are all celebrating with your families and friends, eating mitthai and sharing the magnificence of Pakistan. One nation, one soul. But if Pakistan wants its soul (and citizens) to be zinda (alive) for a long, prosperous life, then it needs a new kind of independence- one of thought.

A nation which broadly follows Sunni Islam, the image of Pakistan is better defined by bitterness, greed, and jealousy. Some of you will gasp.

“A Pakistani, a British-born one, is telling me I’m bitter, greedy, and jealous?”

Well, not exactly. I’m talking about our image. That thing so many people seek to enshrine in diamonds, glittering with sacrifice, to show it off to anyone who will look.

This is the downfall of Pakistan.

It is embedded deep within our culture, and is carved out of the mountains of stone in people’s hearts. Sacrifice runs in the blood, and is spilt too easily. Our dewy complexions hide beads of sweat, glistening with the reflections of onlookers. We are not sculptures, but statues: unyielding, stuck in a time where we do not belong, a symbol of decay.

The problem within us is not the invasion of new, Western ideas (because a lot of them are not new as it is). It’s not our colonial past and our brutal separation from India. It’s not even our continuing spate of failing governments, marred by assassinations but hiding behind a thin veil of democracy. The problem is our reluctance to shape a future in which people can just get on with our lives. We need to move on, past the old, tired ideas, and make ourselves independent. We need the citizen to be separated from the government. We need the villager to be separated from the village. We need the body to be separated from the mind.

Pakistan is obsessed with what it thinks everyone is saying about them. There is an inherent suspicion within the country. Whether it’s the government and the fear of fraudulent intentions, or the neighbour who has a big mouth when it comes to your big arguments, Pakistan is trapped in an endless cycle of being suspicious and having suspicion cast upon it. The same can be said for our international reputation when the government is accused of pandering to the Taliban or other extremists. Likewise, when parents are certain that their child did something wrong because so-and-so was spreading unverified news about them, Pakistan contributes to its own demise.

Instead of worrying about what other people think, let’s focus on creating something we are proud of. A nation which is held back by backbiting is not a magnificent one, no matter how insistently you pretend it is.

If the small-scale attitudes of Pakistani communities were to improve, this could eventually lead to more trustworthy, socially responsible governments. Yet, Pakistan takes offence when anyone suggests it changes itself, much like a parent whose child makes a valid point.

I see it everywhere. However, Pakistan is damaging its future by controlling every single aspect of people’s lives.

By focussing on what others think, we chain ourselves. In a society which supposedly follows mainstream Islam, judging others rather than leaving it to the judgement of Allah is our main problem. We take too much time deciding to do things in a way others would admire, even though people with negative attitudes will pick apart even the most perfect tablecloth and say it’s stained, because no one can win that argument. You can go back and forth, arguing about how clean it is, and those with unclean intentions and a lack of capacity for rational argument will insist on saying it is dirty for the rest of their lives.

I see this matter as a not entirely straightforward one. Due to the close-mindedness of many within the community, we cannot remove ourselves from our situation and look at what we’ve done. We have raised unhappy people who then inflict their miserable judgements upon others, because they don’t see why anyone else should forgo their duty to be miserable to make everyone happy.

Duty is not necessarily sacrifice. It’s not necessarily negative and foreboding. Real duty is a positive one to ensure that we are a welcoming community of accepting people, who have our own aspirations and encourage others to reach theirs. If this is truly to be the great country everyone pretends it is, everyone, from the village to the city to the capital, needs to ensure that they focus on achieving positive goals.

Just be nice to each other. We don’t need to drag others down to be satisfied. There is nothing preserving about culture except its need to constantly change according to what we do.

Until our community realises that we are the ones responsible for the sorrow and the sadness in our lives, we will live in denial and blame everyone for our misery. No, that is wrong: we should not seek to blame, manipulate, and scapegoat anyone.

Let’s start thinking about the wider impacts of the culture we follow, and do something to ensure we raise strong individuals with individual ways of thinking. Only then can we eradicate the disease of backwardness. Let the people think freely, and be free.

Don’t you want to be happy too?

N.B. I come from a small village near Rawalpindi and visit frequently. Please do not take this as a snapshot of all Pakistanis but those who engage in backward thought.

Why I am not sorry that I am ambitious

Flickr: Chris Roads, Creative Commons

I used to apologise a lot, and in fact, I still do.

All my apologies chained my hopes and ambitions down to the ground. I thought I was grounded, but really I was bound to norms cultivated by seeds of insecurity and guilt. I think it has taken me a while to realise that not every day will be a day where I feel strong enough to fight against all the perceived injustices I face, but at least I am one step closer to being able to wear my dreams on my sleeve. At least now, I can actually have the clarity of thought to realise that there is something wrong with believing you are wrong for dreaming. At least now, I can see the chains that had wrapped themselves around me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak out.

It all started when I was born. A girl, a day late (as per usual), and healthy… except for that facial palsy. So I was already born wrong on three accounts: I was not a boy, I was not on time, and my face was paralysed on the left side. Thus began a lifetime of trying to prove myself to everyone I met, or hadn’t met. Thus began the coiling of chains, like a baby’s finger wrapped around your thumb, reminding you of responsibility you can’t simply shake off.

And since then, I have never been enough.

Why? By simple virtue of being a girl in a Pakistani family.

I have only been praised when it has seemed non-threatening. I can only be congratulated if I am a modest mouse who shies away from everything I have achieved, and disowns it, choosing to cower in the shadow and accept that I am just a stupid girl who was lucky that her parents let her do things.

Never mind the fact that I am ambitious and driven, or that I have sought out so many opportunities for myself. Society tells me that I am lazy and ungrateful. I am impertinent and arrogant. Society says I am something to be beaten into submission and controlled, because if not,  I will become wild and reckless. Western, even.

It’s the life countless people in this world live, simply because no one is interested in Pakistani women, so much as mechanisms with which to exert power and exercise influence. It is degrading, and belittling, and women are made to apologise for it. Even when women have been used completely and utterly, they are still told that they did not do enough to do what they were designed to do.

I am not sorry that I have opinions, ambitions, and a clear heart. I wish to change the world for the better; money, status, or what other people will think are not the driving factors of my ambition.

Do you know what is?

Duty.

For all society has tried to cultivate a negative duty in women where we don’t do things because of duty to be quiet, obedient, and submissive to a culture that bears no relevance to us, we have worked hard to ensure we don’t lose sight of our positive duties. I have been blessed with the privilege of being able to study in the UK, have success in internships and other initiatives, and create relationships that will last a lifetime and ensure I get to where I need to be. Yet, the only reason I have ever done any of this is so I can help other people. Every day, I work for these people. I work for my kindred spirits from across the world who have to face sexism, homophobia, you name it, and feel like taking their life because they do not feel they have one.

So no, I am not sorry that I have ambitions which are clearer and more honest than yours. I am a person. An ambitious person, no less.

You cannot kill my ambition, and you cannot kill a fact.

I am ambitious, and I am not going to apologise for it.

I hereby publicly denounce jihadis, extremists, radicals, and scapegoats

Flickr: Kurdish Struggle, Creative Commons

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-to-take-firmer-stance-on-muslims-who-fail-to-denounce-jihadis-10399230.html

Today, someone drew this article to my attention. Really, I have already been living this reality.

Every day, I am faced with a barrage of articles, considering the conundrum of how to get these awful British (usually Pakistani) Muslims to denounce those crazy fanatics over in not-so-far Syria and Iraq. Or Sudan. Or Pakistan. Or the United Kingdom.

So here we go, Mr. Cameron, Sir. I hereby publicly denounce jihadis, extremists, radicals, and scapegoats. I distance myself from the issue, refuse to engage with any kind of debate over why I am being asked to publicly denounce someone I don’t know, who does not hold my beliefs, and I accept that the country will now look kindly upon me as a patriot who has proved their Britishness in a most British fashion of denial. I am so very proud to be able to say I am a British-Muslim-who-is-not-a-wannabe-terrorist-or-jihadi-bride because, of course, my poor little brainwashed mind can’t tell the difference between true love and a weapon. Nor can I, who has only studied at university, have the intelligence to understand why not condemning ISIS and their kin would result in a terrible loss of life. Because of course, terrorist attacks are directly linked to how many times a day I say that I condemn ISIS and all those who follow them.

Maybe I should walk around with some kind of sign on… Maybe we should colour-code Muslims for ease of identification. Introduce national ID cards which state your opinion of jihad.Maybe your Passport should contain a chip which lets the authorities know whether or not you made a Facebook status denouncing jihadis. Someone tell Mr. Cameron all my amazing ideas. Better yet, I should do it myself. If I bump into him in Whitehall, I will tell him all of this, and I’m sure he’ll thank me for making his life easier, even though I’m a Muslim.

Privilege, of course, is not within my remit. I cannot have the privilege of glancing at foreign faces on a train and slowly back away when they look well-dressed, and then say “Aslaam-u-alaikum” on the phone. I don’t have the privilege of wondering why that girl is wearing a headscarf, and why that man is wearing that funny long dress and carrying a, Y’Allah, a BACKPACK. I do not have the privilege of sneering about how these Muslims want to take over the UK, or don’t inform the services on each other enough. I do not have the privilege of being sympathetic and outraged during a terrorist attack, and turning to my neighbour to tut with disgust over that family across the street who won’t look at anyone in case they say something. I do not have that privilege of being able to defend my right to not be a scapegoat in this situation, without incurring the wrath of accusers who point their pointy fingers at me, and call me a Holoucast denier, or a jihadi bride, or a murderer. I do not have that privilege because I am a Muslim, a woman, and a Pakistani. Forget that I’m British, forget that I’m a human. I do not have that privilege.

So, Mr. Cameron, Sir. When you make that speech in Birmingham to a bunch of Muslims and clerics, and sternly speak in a headmaster tone, admonishing bad pupils, patronising us with double-speak, remember something. You are currently breeding a nation of people to feel criticised for who their parents are, victimised for what they believe in, and alienated for trying to be normal people who don’t have to write a blog post or make a speech every time something bad happens on the other side of the world.

I shouldn’t have to feel like my voicing anything but a condemnation of ISIS means I’m a prime target for radicalisation.

I know exactly the kind of trash which is being thrown at me, and I know the mud-slinging won’t darken my heart. I will stand loud, proud, and ready to condemn this GOVERNMENT, for trying to condemn ME. I am a Muslim. But first of all, I am human. I do not need to apologise for someone else. I do not need to publicly distance myself from anyone else. I am Maria Munir, I am 20, I’ve done national TV campaigns, campaigned with the Liberal Democrats since the tender age of 8, I have engaged with ambassadors from all over the world, and I am more than just a Muslim who condemns ISIS.

You would do well not to forget that, Prime Minister. Muslims are not scapegoats for your inability to conceive a solution to this problem.

Now go back to your drawing table and start again.