TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION An Initiative for Peace and Gender Equality through Storytelling

Rabia Nasimi, a masters student in the UK pursuing her higher education on themes of ethnic and gender identity focusing particularly on Afghanistan speaks about her work and her life, along with insights on Afghanistan and the question of identity.

Let's start with something about you. Would you be able to talk about yourself, your work, and your education? 

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, my parents left to continue their higher education in Ukraine. I was born in Moscow (although I hold a Ukrainian birth certificate, as this was the country in which I was registered) and have, subsequently, lived in the UK since 1999. Being born in Moscow and holding a Ukrainian passport reveals the real fluidity of this notion of identity. If I were to travel alone to Afghanistan, I would need a visa as I am not identified as an Afghan national. Again, this idea of not belonging leaves me in a state of confusion and unable to understand my own identity.

You work specifically around issues in Afghanistan and Identity Formation. Would you like to tell us something specific about that?
I was five years old when I moved to the UK in 1999. I completed my primary, secondary and sixth form education in the UK, and then went on to study at Goldsmiths University of London, where I did my BA in Sociology and Politics. My dissertation was titled 'The contemporary crisis of Afghan national identity and the rejection of identifying oneself as an 'Afghan'. I am currently doing my MSc Sociology (Research) at the London School of Economics and aim to write my dissertation on Ethnicity and politics in Afghanistan looking at the 2014 Parliamentary Elections. I endeavour to do my PhD in the future, and continue to look at ethnicity and the future of ethnic identities in Afghanistan, considering ethnic inequalities, classification of ethnicities and everyday experience. 

There is so much negativity around Afghanistan - the media has done a splendid job of portraying the country as being wartorn, to the point that it has "gone beyond redemption". What are your thoughts on this, and what do you believe is the true image that we're not hearing?

We cannot deny that Afghanistan is a war torn country that has been though decades of war and terror, even though there has been considerable improvement since the collapse of the Taliban. Only a tiny elite in Afghanistan enjoy a lavish lifestyle, including glittering new apartments, shopping malls and celebrations at luxury wedding halls. The media plays an important role in conveying the human rights abuses in Afghanistan, both as a popular means of expressing opinion, a platform of discussion as well as helping the government and international community identify government areas of concern. 

What are your thoughts on the situation relating to the rights of women in Afghanistan?

One should not turn a blind eye to the progress achieved through international exposure. There have been many changes in legislation aiming to provide women with an equal position in society. Under the Taliban’s rule, between 1996 and 2001 women were denied the most basic rights and were discriminated against in many ways, simply for being female. But on the whole, since the downfall of the Taliban, the idea of controlling women as personal property remains in the minds of many men.

Farkhunda was beaten to death on the streets of Kabul before being set on fire and thrown onto the banks of the Kabul River. She was falsely accused of burning the Quran. Rokhshana was stoned over an accusation of a crime called ‘zina’ (illegal sex), for rejecting a forced marriage in place of a love marriage. Her chosen husband was lashed and set free.
Reza Gul’s husband cut off her nose. She says she doesn’t understand why. These are just some examples of the horrific violence many women face in Afghanistan today, in spite of their constitutional rights. It seems to suggest that the average Afghan man’s misogyny is still not vastly different to that of the Taliban.

Looking beyond issues pervading gender identity, ethnic identity also remains a controversial and contentious topic in Afghanistan: many believe that talks on identity should be kept to a minimum, due to the fragility of the state.  However, I strongly agree that the more we try to enforce an absolute notion of identity, in the hope of creating unity, the more it actually fragments as ‘identity is an invention’.  Thus, the more we silence it, the more people would become mobilised. This is evident in the ongoing debate about electronic ID cards in Afghanistan and whether ethnicity should be mentioned.

A large part of the world is so pivoted towards stereotypes in their inter-faith relations. Have you experienced that? What have your key challenges been, and how have you dealt with them?

Interfaith relations have become a very hot topic, since the refugee crisis, which has been evident in the increase of hate speech against refugees and Muslims. I have not experienced such stereotypes, possibly due to my liberal position. However, I believe that there is scope to deal with these challenges, through promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation. By raising awareness within wider society of the importance of inter faith issues and understanding about faith communities. 

The intersectionality of nationality, religion and gender brings its own challenges with it. As a British Afghan Woman, what were some of your key challenges in terms of stereotypes people followed or had in mind, in interacting with the members of the BAWS?

That is a very important point. I think as someone who came to the UK at an early age, I didn't face much of a challenge in terms of stereotypes. As I know the language well, have been educated in the UK and therefore have more of an awareness of my rights as a British citizen. However, I think the women who have arrived more recently, may face greater gender inequality, having been born from isolated cultural and religious norms as well as lack of community integration and social cohesion. 

Leslee Udwin
Leslee Udwin, the BAFTA award-winning producer of East is East, and the Producer / Director of India's Daughter, talks about her work, her journey as a filmmaker and her all new initiative, Think Equal.  

Tell us a bit about your life - your childhood, growing years, education and career motivations.
I was born in Israel. When I was 3, a film crew shot part of a movie in the house next door to mine. My mother tells me that I knocked on the door, disturbed their filming, and asked for a job. The cameraman ‘adopted’ me and I was allowed to watch shooting. The dye was cast; from that time I was determined to be an actor. When I was 9, my father took the family to South Africa. I went to school and university there – and did a Drama Honours Degree at Johannesburg’s main university. Much about life in South Africa was shocking for a young mind that had come into a rigid system run on the bizarre notion that skin colour is the determinant of value and of one’s fate in life. I remember being utterly shocked one day, sitting in the tiny box room of our maid, Elizabeth, as I asked her questions about where her family was and why she doesn’t live with them. They were in a rural area so many miles away that she could only go home to see her children twice a year. In 1976, while I was at university, the brutal white South African police force slaughtered unarmed young black children and youth in Soweto’s ‘township’, to smash riots. This left an indelible imprint of anger in my heart – and an understanding at a young age that life is brutal, unjust and unfair. The Indian caste system is no different from the system of apartheid which has now been dismantled in South Africa – and yet the world turns a blind eye to India’s systemised inequity. I simply have to ask - why is that? Why are there no sanctions against India, as there were against South Africa, (and successfully so),  to encourage it to abandon its immoral and despicable caste system, which dooms vast swathes of its population to poverty, abuse, and lack of opportunity?

I was determined to study drama at university. My father, a die-hard patriarch, decided law was what I was born for, and refused to support me financially unless I studied law. So I worked my way through university. I had graduated from my high school with 6 As and a B, and had been head girl at the school, and so I managed to persuade the principal to allow me to teach the first lesson of the morning, so I could earn some money. I would rush off to university after my early morning teaching job, and just make it in time for my lectures. When I left University, there were only two theatres in the whole country I could work in, because they were the only ‘multi-racial theatres’ in South Africa. I went to work at one them, the Space Theatre in Cape Town. A play I was in there was banned – ironically enough it was a play about censorship. I played the title role in the Duchess of Malfi and would, in all likelihood, have had a great career there, but I couldn't stay. I was torn between political morality and personal ambition. I would hand out leaflets on ‘blacks only’ station platforms, where I ran the risk of arrest, and I realised that although the theatre I worked in was non-segregated, audiences were still predominantly white only in practice, and it seemed to me, impossible to influence outcomes in that fascist-run society by working in theatre. And yet that  (the theatre) was then my first and only love. So I left South Africa at 20, and moved to London. I had to fund my own way because my father was still refusing to support me if I continued to “waste my life” as an actress. My need to prove that I was right and he was wrong, and my need to make my own living did motivate me in a good way. But I always felt residual resentment and disappointed at my father’s limited vision and lack of emotional support for me.

I had a great theatre career in London, playing leading roles at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Court, amongst others. I was privileged enough to act with amazing British actors – Alan Rickman, Harriet Walter and Sir Alec Guinness among others. And then one day, acting wasn’t enough for me. Motivated by a real life struggle I had with a psychopath criminal landlord, during which I and a small group of courageous tenants managed to set a precedent in the High Court of England, I decided to become a producer. It was the need to communicate an important story that motivated the change.  I decided to turn the real life struggle and its victorious, optimistic outcome, into a film. I wrote a treatment and sent it to a producer whose work I admired. He agreed to make it for BBC Screen 2, and I worked with the writer on the screenplay, and watched and learnt the ropes of producing. The first film I produced alone was “Who Bombed Birmingham?”, a campaigning film starring John Hurt, for Granada / HBO, which directly led to the release of  6 innocent Irishmen from 17 years of wrongful imprisonment.  And my first feature film was “East is East” (starring Om Puri). That is when my love affair with India began.

I became a director for India’s Daughter, and that film, in turn, has motivated me to now become a human rights activist. So that’s 4 careers in one pretty exhausting lifetime so far. Thank heavens my husband, Kim, is a wonderful enlightened man who understands that love and marriage are a partnership in which one partner supports the other, and there should be no gender lines drawn in who does what, including staying home to take care of our two kids.

What inspired your decision to shoot India's Daughter? What was the emotional and personal thought process behind the decision?
The motivation was entirely emotional, and visceral. If I had thought rationally about it, I think I would have not gone the distance. By pure coincidence, about 2 weeks before the news of the gang rape of Jyoti Singh had hit the TV screens around the world, I had said to my husband in the kitchen one evening while we were (both!) chopping vegetables, that I felt it was time I made another film that changed things – like The Birmingham Six film and East is East had done. And I did say “and this time it has to be about women”. When I heard the news on the morning of December 17, 2012, my stomach turned, of course, but I didn’t think “oh this is a case I must make a film about”. I just thought: “here we are again, another brutal gang rape reported somewhere in the world – how on earth will this relentless cycle stop?” And then, something utterly amazing happened over the ensuing days. 

Men and women in vast numbers poured out onto the streets, and kept on going for days and weeks. I had never seen anything like this degree of passion and activism and commitment for women’s rights. When the government stupidly decided to crack down on these peaceful protesters, (as patriarchal governments tend to do when they fear unrest and see challenges to their failings), with lathi charges and water canons and tear gas shells, I knew I had to go and make a film about this. I fell in love with those protesters. I believed they heralded a real change on the horizon, and that this was like “an Arab spring” for gender equality. I was rashly optimistic of course, but that’s what took me to India to make the film, a desire to amplify and support the voices of those protesters. It was my way of joining the protests. The truth is that if those protests had happened in any other country about any other case that involved a violation of women’s or girls’ rights, I would have gone to that country to make the film about that case, and that protest. What is so utterly ironic about the ban is that the motivation to make the film was in praise of India’s men and women who led the world by example in those protests.

Once I decided, I called my family together in the living room for a family meeting and announced that I wanted to go to India and make this important film which I believed would help women campaign for their rights and to stop violence against them. I particularly addressed my youngest child, my daughter Maya, who was 13 at the time and I knew needed a mother at her side. I said: “Maya, you are the most important person in my life and I recognise you are at the age where you need me. If you tell me not to go, because you need me, I won’t go.” Before she answered, I added: “But you need to also know that if I don’t go, I will find it hard to look myself fin the mirror, feeling as strongly as I do, and not taking action.” Pure emotional blackmail, I see in retrospect, and very unfair. But Maya insisted that I go and was,and continues to be, hugely supportive throughout the 3 years I have been more absent, than there for her.

What did you think of the reactions you received to the film, particularly from India?
I was extremely shocked and hurt by them. They seemed to be so utterly illogical, misguided, and simply wrong. There were certain shocks I don’t think I’ll ever recover form: being told by one of the respected Indian so-called feminists that “a group of 20 Indian feminists (including Vrinda Grover, Indira Jaisingh, Kavita Krishnan, Devki Jai, Urvashi Buthalia) had called for the ban, and that without them alerting the Home Ministry to stop the broadcast, the film may not have been banned at all. Then, finding the Home Minister so utterly badly informed by his research team about my prison permissions, and seeing hysterical MPs in the Lok Sabha screaming about the gori's “conspiracy to shame India” and how I was going to “decimate India’s tourist industry”. Then finding nasty trolls, mostly men, from India sending me tweets and FB messages like “white bitch you deserve to be raped...” It was hugely disappointing and dispiriting. I had already had a pretty bleak view of the human heart and what it’s capable of during my 31 hours of interviews with the rapists and, perhaps even worse, my 9 hours of interviews with their lawyers… That would have been quite enough depression and disappointed in humanity to last a lifetime without the circus of responses from the Indian government, feminists, and trolls… But having said that, the vast and overwhelming majority of reactions from India were hugely supportive  and continue to be. Certainly the Indians living abroad are completely enlightened and supportive – with only a tiny minority feeling defensive and that they have to defend their country’s image. But it seems that the Modi BJP government with its fundamentalist nationalist parent RSS, has a new division for the Indian population: “nationalist” and “anti-nationalist”, and the country is being ruled divisively now on those lines. This means that even those in support of the film within India, dare not speak out. This is extremely worrying and extremely dangerous. India was a striving democracy, but that is no longer the case.

Shooting a film that had so many nuances and elements to it - particularly the emotions and the raw pain of just how terrible the incident was - must have evoked your own pain. How did you deal with that challenge? 
In truth I don’t think I have fully dealt with it yet. I have been going non-stop for over 3 years now – sleeping very little (3 hours a night for the 2 years while making the film and not a lot more now). Straight after the film I started campaigning on the road relentlessly, then started an NGO and a very ambitious global initiative THINK EQUAL (please click on the link and find out more about it and support it ). This is a really new and innovative idea, which demands a system change in the way we educate children. And it’s an idea whose time has definitely come. In a nutshell it’s to educate children’s hearts and not just their heads. I believe it is the only solution to the cycle of violence across our world). So I haven’t time to deal with the psychological pain or trauma of what I learned on my filming journey. At the time, I seemed able to deal it with it (for the most part), because I was getting to understand the reasons why this happens. When I sat with those rapists for 31 hours, including one who had raped a five year old girl, I couldn’t feel anger (which is what I was expecting to feel). I was expecting to feel anger, primarily because I myself had been raped at 18, and I thought the trauma would well up inside me. But it didn’t. Anger didn’t surface. It was not an appropriate emotion given what was so clearly laid out before me, which was that these men had been programmed to think they as they think. They had been handed a set of attitudes towards women so clear, so utterly black and white and confidently held, that they may as well have been handed rape manuals at the age of 12. And there were no interventions – no one to tell them that a girl is actually of value, and wanted in this world, and worthy of respect and education. Where were they to learn that from? The examples they saw all around them, the hard evidence, was that girls were unwelcome burdens, their fathers beat their mothers, their brothers beat their wives, How do we expect them to behave when they’re taught such things by their culture and society? We are to blame for their attitudes and their actions which have been informed by those attitudes. No amount of trying to distance ourselves form them by calling them monster and meting out the death penalty to them, can change that fact. I did have one major breakdown in my Delhi hotel room, not long after I had interviewed the rapist of the 5 year old. Pressure at the time was huge  and I woke up in a total panic, sweating and shaking. I thought I either needed to get into a hospital or to get home. I called home to ask my husband for help and to book me on a flight back I really wanted to end the nightmare and difficulty of doing this film. Luckily my daughter answered the phone and talked me down off the panic attack and said: “Mummy you are not coming home because I and my generation of girls are relying on you.” She was thirteen and a half when she said that. I stayed and finished the film.

What kind of challenges / backlashes did you face after the movie released? How did you deal with them? 
The first I heard about the ban, I was in India, cutting the Indian version of the film for NDTV. I had to, for example, remove the name “Jyoti Singh” from the film because Indian law prohibits the name of a rape survivor or victim being named. And I was there to publicise the film for its NDTV screening on the March 8 – International Women’s Day. The first I heard about the ban was at a press screening we were holding for media. A young journalist came up to me and showed me a mobile phone text she had just got form a colleague: “the film has been banned and there’s a warrant out for the filmmaker’s arrest.” She warned me that I should leave the country. I started phoning all the lawyers I knew and had been working with in India (7 of them), asking advice. Every one of them, except the last one I called, said: “go straight to the airport and leave, don’t even collect your suitcase.” I kept calling another and another because I wanted to hear different advice. My instincts were to stay. I was appalled, Howdare they ban the film and arrest me? On what grounds? I had done nothing wrong and I should stand my ground. The 7th lawyer said something different. He said: “Do not go to the airport.” At last I thought the advice I want to hear. But then he continued: “Drive to Nepal and leave from there. They'll be waiting for you at the airport.” My editor, who was with me, always loyally at my side,  was weeping and terrified, begging me to leave. I decided to stay. My flight which had originally been booked was leaving 26 hours hence. I thought that in the meanwhile I would go on NDTV panels and defend the film and challenge their decision to ban it and point out how wrong they were. I also thought that if I were to be brought to court ,I might need to prove that I didn’t try “to evade justice” by leaving earlier than I had originally booked to leave before the ban. I didn't tell my family. When I left the next evening, on my original booking, there were crews outside the airport departures doors. I covered my head in my scarf, put sunglasses on and went a long way round through arrivals, in order to evade the crews. I was later told that the police had arrived with pictures of me at the house I had been staying in, half an hour after I had left.

As a filmmaker, you are, undoubtedly a storyteller. What goes into your way of telling a story?
Well, each story is unique and will require a different way of telling it so that its compelling truth emerges in the best way. Ultimately I am most fascinated by what makes people tick and seeing things from their point of view, taking their perspectives as aspects of the truth, is what film particularly does best. It takes the viewer on an empathetic journey in which we see the world through the eyes of the ‘other’ or several  ‘others’.  There is no greater act of generosity than doing that. Seeing the world through another’s eyes and experience.

When I set out to make India’s Daughter I was very thoughtful about what the film was, its purpose, its imperatives. I had never directed before, and so I needed to be as clear as possible before I set off  as to what my actual purpose was in making the film. I knew I needed to do 3 things: 1) Make a campaigning film that put the impassioned protests at its centre – as the recurring heartbeat of the film. So that the film would be a campaigning film  which would stir awareness of the issue of violence against women globally and inspire people to protest, like the Indian protesters had so admirably done. 2) My early research into all that had been written and broadcast about the young woman who had been gang-raped and murdered, made it clear that there was nothing at all, apart from one sentence. We only knew that she was “a 23 year old medical student who had gone to see a movie with a friend at night”. She was reduced to a statistic, without a name. I found that hard to accept. What were her dreams, aspirations? Her experiences and thoughts about women in her society? Who was she? What would she likely have gone on to do in life had she not been so callously violated and murdered? I knew I wanted the film to be a tribute to her and for us to get to know who she was and whom we had lost through this brutal act. And 3) I knew I had to interview those rapists and find out what goes on in the heads of men who do this? Without understanding them, there’s no hope of changing them. I also knew that I didn’t want to be in the film, either as interviewer or narrator. I wanted the direct participants in the story to tell the story from their viewpoints. This was partly a recognition of the fact that I was ‘an outsider’ in this culture and could observe it and examine it, but certainly didn't want to comment on it in the course of the film. And partly because I actually hate it when the filmmaker inserts him or herself into the documentary as though they are remotely interesting – it detracts from the story and I think is kind ofarrogant.  I also hate it when a narrator leads an audience by the nose and tells it what to think and fills in bits of the story… I favour films that compel an audience to watch them, that tell their story in an exciting and powerful way. And since I wanted to make a campaigning film, it was also important that it should be tight and focused and emotionally involving. In any event, I have feature film or drama sensibilities, because those are my ‘default instincts’. I worked very hard on the music, for instance,  with the composer, searching for months for the right piece of music that accurately expressed each theme. In particular the music which was the theme for the rapists – which needed to be the deepest most sonorous sound ‘of the depths of pity’ for the world that contains these men. Because that was what I felt when I was with them. The composer Krsna worked tirelessly and loyally to get the music right, He is so talented and was absolutely committed to this film. As is Anuradha Singh, the editor who gave her all to this work, and Riddhi Jha, my angel associate producer. All dedicated, talented, brilliant and amazing people.

What do you see as some of the biggest factors that continue to encourage gender-based violence? Why, in your opinion, haven't we been effective in addressing the issue so far?
Socio-cultural programming is what continues to allow gender-based violence to thrive unabated. Culture is much more powerful than law. The laws are there but the culture often prevents their implementation. Take one example: it is illegal to give and receive dowry. A fairly recent protective law. Why? Because dowry was leading to violence against brides – to what were called “dowry deaths”.  There were cases where the bridegroom’s family weren’t satisfied with gifts from the bride’s family, so they’d kill her and take another wife for their son, with another dowry….. Now that it’s been made illegal, has dowry stopped? Absolutely not. The majority of Indians continue to give and take dowry, This makes them criminals who should be arrested and imprisoned. Culture, mindset, is the biggest factor and indeed the root cause of gender-based, and indeed any other kindof discriminatory violence (racial, religious…)
We haven’t been effective to date because we are dealing with it in a very short-sighted way, We are looking to alleviate the symptoms and deal with fallout after the event, instead of looking to eradicate theroot cause. We are bandaging the wounds instead of operating on the tumour that causes the wound. We need to focus on PREVENTION. And there is only one way to prevent this cycle of violence and discrimination – education. But it’s not ‘education’ as we know it – it’s neither “access to education” nor the kind of education we’re so obsessed with: numeracy, literacy and test results. I am talking about the kind of education that teaches values and emotional intelligence, empathy, critical thinking, perspective taking and conflict resolution…. And these can’t be taught by ‘instructions’ – in other words it’s not about telling kids “you must be respectful”. They have to be taught experientially – and they have to practise this. Particular in the early years when the child’s attitudes and character are forming at an incredibly rapid rate. And when attitudes and behaviour can still be influenced to the good. Mandela said: “children are not born hating. And Ifthey can learn to hate, then they can be taught to love”. Aristotle said: “Education of the head without education of the heart, is no education at all”. These are 2 very inspiring quotes for me and were instrumental in the foundational thinking behind THINK EQUAL.

There is a lot of talk about masculinities of violence and toxic masculinities that are explained as underlying the phenomenon of gender based violence. What do you think of it? Would you believe that toxic masculinities underlie the phenomenon of GBV?
What underlies ALL violence in the world, be it gender-based, religious, racial or other, is a discriminatory mind-set which ascribes lesser or no value to the ‘other’ in each case.  It’s utterly simple: if you have no respect for and place no value on a living creature because she is a girl, or he is an infidel, or they are of the wrong tribe, or it is ‘just a cow’ then you are disposed to treat it as a ‘thing’ and commit violence upon it.  The ‘cow’ is sacred in India, but in the rest of the world it is treated as a commodity to be encaged, raped, inseminated, milked, and slaughtered for the trillion dollar beef industry. If you look at how cows are treated by us in the beef industry, it is easy to see how mind-set informs casual violence. The same is true with people.  When a young boy is raised seeing evidence all around him that a girl is ‘less important’ than he is, that she is destined to become a domestic slave one day, to take care of him, feed him, clean his house and bear and take care of his children. There is a sense of entitlement and power and superiority that make violence against women and girls easy. What are toxic masculinities? They are the expression of a mindset that has existed since time immemorial that believes that men are superior and should be the decision makers, the rulers. Until that changes., until and unless we have gender equality, violence against women and girls will continue.

What are you working on currently? How can young women world over join your efforts in telling truths that the world must hear? 
I have been a filmmaker for some 20 years.  I love filmmaking. It’s my passion and I believe with all my heart that film is a powerful tool for change. However, India’s Daughter gave me such blindingly clear insights into what the problem is – globally – that it also gave me a completely clear view of hat the solution is. I can’t now just turn my attention to another subject and make another film about something else, when I know what action needs to be taken. SO, uncomfortable and inconvenient as it is to me, I have now become a human rights activist. I have started an NGO and have committed myself to THINK EQUAL. With my brilliant colleague, Education Director, Helen Lumgair, and with a global committee of world experts in social emotional learning, we are designing, constructing and delivering a tangible curriculum for the Early Years (ages 3-7) of lesson plans, concrete exercises and activities (160 such lesson plans a year for 3 year olds next year, for example)  – which will be delivered over 4 x half hour lessons per week. We have pilots committed (including in India) across 14 countries. Please click on this link if you’re interesting in reading more.

How can people join our efforts? Well, in 2 significant ways: 1) They can donate on this link and they can fund raise.- encourage their friends to donate. You’ll be amazed how impossible it is to fund start-ups through foundations which profess to fund the sort of work we’re doing. If people give up 3 coffees a month, and pledge the price of those 3 coffees to THINK EQUAL – they’d be supporting world change directly. All donations go to the direct costs of building the curriculum. and 2) They can advocate for THINK EQUAL amongst parents and journalists, opinion shapers and politicians. We should all be demanding that we widen out the education of our children to enable them to lead productive, peaceful, respectful and empowered lives.

To watch India's Daughter on Demand, click hereAll rental fees for India's Daughter also go to fund the education campaign.
Peymana Assad

Peymana Assad, a political activist and a blogger, talks about her story, the perception of Afghanistan, and her work with the British Afghan Women's Society, or BAWS. 

Let's start with something about you. Would you be able to talk about yourself, your work, and your education? 
I currently work as a political officer in Local Government. Our work in Local Government is all about serving the community. Local representatives make life changing decisions for their residents from what support schools need to what type of employment programmes are available for young people. It’s fulfilling to see policy decisions go through that you've contributed to. I guess the reason why I chose politics and activism as my line of work is because of my experiences working in different types of environments, and also whilst reading for my masters at Kings College London in Conflict, Security and Development.The biggest realisation that has come from this is one must be at the table of decision making to make things better. I thought the best way to do that would be through politics, writing and activism - in order to raise awareness about the issues most important to me and in the end influence new ways of thinking about the solution to those issues. 

Your bio says that you were born in Kabul and raised in the UK. Would you like to share something about your transition into a new country, and what life has meant for you afterward?
Yes, I was born in Kabul and my parents came to the UK as political refugees when I was three years old, because of the civil war in Afghanistan. I've grown up as any ordinary British person would but my Afghan roots and culture have been an additional factor to my upbringing and an influential part on my outlook on life.

My mother was adamant that she would make sure we had the core skills that Afghans needed so she sent us to an Iranian school on Saturdays to learn how to read and write Farsi and to the local mosque every day after school to learn about Islam and to read the Quran. This for my mother was a way that would keep us connected to our religion and our roots. I think my parents were really brave in how they handled it all, trying to make life work in a different country after having escaped a brutal civil war, and they did this with such sheer resilience and hope. For me, life in Britain has been a blessing because of the opportunities I have been given that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

A large part of the world is so pivoted towards stereotypes in their inter-faith relations. Have you experienced that? What have your key challenges been, and how have you dealt with them?

This is a really difficult question so my answer will be long. Speaking strictly about inter-faith relations in Britain, I think those stereotypes are more prevalent today because of what is going on across the world. This is in terms of the way those events are brought up and even challenged in the media. I believe a large part of the inter-faith relations debate has a lot to do with race, and that is something that needs to be discussed more openly but isn’t.
The key challenge has been exposing people to other faiths and trying to get them to understand other cultures. But that is very difficult when people keep to very neat social circles that aren’t diverse and don’t expose them to other faiths and cultures. Maybe this is out of fear, or not knowing how to but this is where stereotypes are more engraved and become concrete.
I am constantly placed in a box by people I meet, simply for the fact that I am a Muslim woman. I think the key here is the fact that my female gender is added to my faith identity. Men are never met with a change in tone or questions like whether they’ll be forced into a marriage or what is in their drink. It gets tiring after a while of having to always educate people on this.  
I believe religion is a very personal issue and yet I find myself constantly having to speak up about Islam and Muslims, because of how it’s vilified by a lot of people today, whereas in the past I never felt the need to. I am no scholar of Islam, but I find that it’s become an increasingly important part of my activism to read more into my religion.

You are also a trustee of the British Afghan Women's Society. What does your work with them entail?
The British Afghan Women’s Society (BAWS) has been working with different ethnic minority women for about 15 years now. BAWS main aim is to empower women from low socio-economic backgrounds and to raise awareness about their lives and their issues. The charity does a variety of projects such as holding tea clubs for Afghan women so that they can come together, share their experiences, get advice and have a safe space where they can express themselves amongst others. One of the projects that makes me proud to be a trustee of the charity is the oral history project that we undertook. BAWS did an oral history project titled DAWN, a film where we documented the life of British-Afghan women; it was the first oral history project ever to record the unique experiences of Afghan women who have settled in the UK over the last 40 years. Currently we are working on our annual Mother and Daughter’s event, which will be held at the end of April this year, to celebrate that special bond.

The intersectionality of nationality, religion and gender brings its own challenges with it. As a British-Afghan Woman, what were some of your key challenges in terms of stereotypes people followed or had in mind, when interacting with members of the British-Afghan community?
To be honest I think it works both ways because when I'm in Afghanistan, everybody considers me as the westernised British girl, who does all the things a white-British person would do. And yet when I'm back home in Britain, I'm automatically painted as the traditional Afghan girl, and nobody really knows how to interact with me because of it.
In terms of challenging those stereotypes in Britain, I've had so many incidents personally, like when I was in high school in a geography class and someone called me a terrorist because they found out that I was an Afghan. My reaction to that was to help educate them about my roots and my people, changing their incorrect perceptions. But I've sat with many in the British- Afghan  community that face those types of stereotypes all the time once the other person finds out they are Afghan.  
When I was reading for my bachelors I remember sitting in a seminar about the affect of globalisation on security and one of the other students made a comment about how people from the Middle East and Asia don’t really care when their loved ones are killed because it’s a normal thing for them, its casual. I was really quick to shut her down. But as I've got older I see it everywhere now, in the difference of the way an Afghan death is reported compared to a non-Afghan death, or how non-Afghan perspectives on Afghan issues are given more credit, more authenticity and are heard louder than Afghan perspectives.
I feel as time has gone on it’s become harder to challenge those incorrect perceptions. This is because it’s in books, in articles, on websites, on social media, it is now engraved. And if you do challenge it, there are some who automatically cut you off, dismiss you and don’t listen when you do raise your voice against their incorrect views that they are getting such widespread attention for. The argument I've heard on so many occasions is, Afghans lack objectivity to speak because they are emotionally invested. It is quite clear that Orientalist views on Afghanistan and Afghans are still very prevalent because of how engraved it already is in society.
This needs to be changed and I hope the Afghan community is braver when they speak up about their own history, culture, politics, society and country.

There is so much negativity around Afghanistan - the media has done a splendid job of portraying the country as being wartorn, to the point that it has "gone beyond redemption". What are your thoughts on this, and what do you believe is the true image that we're not hearing?
I can’t tell you how wrong that perception is, yes Afghanistan is going through one of the most difficult moments in its history but it will pull through this, like it always has. The true image of Afghanistan and the Afghan people is one of resilience, I have seen it in their eyes and in their faces, and I can say with great confidence that they will never give up for a better and peaceful Afghanistan. They have and always will continue to strive for a better life, one just needs to sit in the classrooms, to see the eagerness for education on the faces of Afghanistan's children to become something, to serve their country and their people, to know it.
Of course there are still problems and challenges, corruption, war, poverty, the mass exodus of Afghans to other parts of the world, but to throw in the towel now when we've come so far in making things better bit by bit is unacceptable. It is just not in the spirit of human nature to do that, and Afghans will continue to show that life will go on in-spite of all its difficulties.  
The rest of the world would be making a huge mistake if they abandon Afghanistan, history has shown us that. The key for me in keeping people interested is spreading awareness about Afghans and Afghanistan in your own circle, so that those people can take that information and then spread awareness in their own circles and that way we create more educated opinions about the country and people become engaged. 

Avanti Sopory
For some, the hibiscus-petal shaped segment one is often shown on a map on the northern part of the land between India and Pakistan is seen as representing Indian territory. For some others, it represents Pakistani territory. For years together, statistics have come and gone. From intellectuals to academicians, from journalists to foreign observers, Kashmir has remained a part of a larger conversation – one that invariably ends with sympathetic sounds and a soulful shake of the head. And yet, in the midst of all those stories that get reduced into a statistic, there are real stories – stories that have seldom been told – and have been preserved in the folds of time, shared in hushed whispers.

Of the many stories, those of Kashmiri Pandits is lesser known – if not altogether ignored. Avanti Sopory, a writer among many things, has compiled a collection of folktales from her native place Kashmir and which are in the final editing stage. A columnist for a Jammu based newspaper, “Daily Excelsior”, Avanti has also contributed her articles for newspapers like “Young Minds”, “The Daily Latest”, and “Kashmir Times.” She shares her story of life as a Kashmiri Pandit, and being one among the many who were forcibly driven out of their homes in 1990.

Kashmiri Pandits have always had a bit of a stay and go sort of a story, for a very long time. In the 11th and 12th Centuries, with the arrival of the Mughal and the Afghan invaders, Kashmiri Pandits had moved out to escape the impact of the invasions. Aurangzeb, the Mughal ruler, forced Kashmiri Pandits to convert to Islam. At one point in Aurangzeb’s reign, the impact of forcible conversions was too much to bear. The Kashmiri Pandits approached the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who took on Aurangzeb for their sake. After all the turbulence, the Kashmiri Pandits would return to live in their motherland, in their homes. There was, as it appears, a tendency towards hatred for those who were non-Islamic. Among the minority community of non-Muslims, were the Kashmiri Pandits, the Sikhs and the Punjabis – of whom the latter two were a smaller minority in terms of numbers. This was a backdrop that prevailed for many years prior to day of the exodus.

In 1947, after the partition, mercenaries and invaders from across the border entered Kashmir. My cousin’s grandmother lived in Baramullah, the place that is closest to Pakistan. The mercenaries and invaders would enter houses, shoot a few bullets to induce fear, and then ransack the house. They had entered my cousin’s grandmother’s house, and fired a few rounds. She pretended to have been shot, and collapsed, as if she were dead. One of the invaders walked up to her and tried to wake her, kicking her with his booted leg. Another invaders then said, “Saali to mar gayi, chodo isko.”[The woman (the term saali is derogatory) is dead. Leave her.]

It was around the 1980s – specifically, 1986 and 1987, when things got worse. My mother was a teacher in one of the schools in Srinagar. In those days, the area we lived in had houses that were over a hundred years old. If we wanted to accommodate our expanding families, we had to expand our houses by constructing further. One day, my mother casually mentioned expanding the house to one of her colleagues. Her colleague didn’t bat an eyelid when she responded saying, “Why do you need to develop the house? You’re not going to stay here for long anyway!” At that point in time, it didn’t strike my mother as anything significant. It was only much later that we would all collectively realise that there was a grander plan in place – and that we would bear the brunt of it all.

A view of the Kashmir Valley

I was twelve when we left Srinagar – I was in Class Six at the time. I’ve grown up seeing curfews and instances of stone pelting. I have heard many stories of families in Kashmir, facing all kinds of harsh treatment. My father worked for the Intelligence Bureau, but this was not something I knew until I was around a marriageable age and my parents made a matrimonial profile for me. While growing up, I had no idea what my father did for work. But, I knew enough that the militants had made a list of Kashmiri Pandits who had held positions in the Government of India, and that list included doctors and professionals, and included my father’s name. My father would tell us, as children, to not take the same route home and not talk to strangers. To us, these were not strange instructions. Once, my brother was stopped on the way home from school and was interrogated – and I remember my father telling him not to take the same route. As we grew up, we heard of so many similar stories of families and children being harassed and questioned.

I lived in Srinagar till I was in December 1989. In all the years of my childhood in Srinagar, I never knew how big a deal Diwali was. If there was a cricket match, and India lost the match, it was like Eid in Kashmir – there would be massive celebrations. If India won the match, there would be an atmosphere of anger. Personally, to us, identities and attributes didn’t matter at all – we never felt the need to use identity to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We always co-existed. There are so many ethnic groups, and at our age and level, no one even spoke about these ethnic differences. But in 1989, it all changed.

Kashmir has long winters – back then, as I remember it, three long months of winter were winter vacations at school. Back then, in the winters, life would come to a standstill – infrastructure would get disconnected. In December 1989, during the winter vacations, I had gone to Jammu, to visit my maternal grandparents. I wasn’t in Srinagar even on January 19, 1990, the day that went down in history as the official date of the exodus. I had extended family in Srinagar – and they had all been forced to leave. I remember their stories – there were massive calls from the Minarets to drive the Kashmiri Pandits out of their homes. It was not out of the ordinary to constantly hear militants say, “Kafiron niklo”  (Hindus, leave) or “Behnon aur betiyon ko rakho aur niklo” (leave your sisters and daughters behind and leave). Agreed that all sides have had a role to play in the Kashmir valley – even the mention of Kashmir leaves a sense of discomfort in many circles. But in my understanding, the jingoism adopted in colouring the militants among the Muslim community, especially by citing the Indian army and then promising them a future with Islamic law and such else, tended to bridle a greater culture of antagonism to the non-Muslim communities.

I have heard many stories of mothers protecting their daughters from the militants’ grip. Mothers hid their daughters in sacks of rice, and in rice containers in attics. In case of any intruder barging in, my mother-in-law, kept two big boilers gurgling with hot water ready on the attic; only to spout them on any militant or impostor getting into the house. Of course it was protect her daughters from any mishap. Militants used to point the gun at the chandan tikka – the sandal marker of religion that Kashmiri Pandits had on their foreheads. At the time of the exodus, my great grandmother was alive. We had to haul her out of the house to save her life. For her to move out of our home, the ancient, large building, and then to live in a one-room apartment, in a pigeon hole, literally – leaving behind everything we had known, our homes, our items, our lives – it was just terrible. They say that Jagmohan, the then Governor of Kashmir, was responsible and should have done something to avert it. But the Chief Minister then was busy holidaying outside.

There has been no record, no history, no FIR, no official note on these events. My friends and family members in the media tell me that the media is not interested in covering these stories – and it really makes me wonder why there is so much silence around this.

We are not fools to believe that such a big thing was happening and the Chief Minister did not have any idea. I may be naïve about the politics surrounding it, but I am being uprooted and I have no homeland, and all this has happened because of my ethnic affiliation.

The cost of the exodus has been heavy. I lost my home. I lost my motherland. I lost the cultural and ethnic affiliation that binds me to my soil. I tell my children that I am Kashmiri – but my children, who were born in Delhi, they don’t connect with their Kashmiri Heritage. And as newer and newer generations of the displaced populace continue to be born, they will go further and further from the truth of their heritage. They have had plans to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir, and have even given some of them positions in certain administrative capacities in Kashmir. But why is it that only some people have this? Why is it only in select administrative positions? Why is the core position never given? We haven’t had a single Kashmiri Pandit climb the rungs and hold larger administrative positions.

I have no home to go to, at the end of the day. Today, a Kashmiri Pandit in Kashmir is still afraid when he gets out of the house to even so much as buy vegetables. The light is erratic in their areas alone. Why?

Since the exodus, I have not been to Srinagar. There is no desire, either. I don’t want to go there as a tourist. They had burned down my house. Kashmiri Pandits, as a community, have come a long way, and have moved onto eking a living of our own. We are all over the world, and have settled around the world. Is it that if we were uprooted, we are supposed to remain in grief all along? Is our moving on a sin? Does it mean that our past can be obliterated, forgotten, never to be entered in the books of history?
There are around 1.8 billion young people, aged between 10 and 24. This is the largest youth population that the world has ever seen and experienced. In the world's 48 least developed countries, children, adolescents and youth make up a majority of the population. In many countries, children and youth are in the direct line of adverse impacts as a result of conflict. These situations make it imperative that youth voices be heard and added into the global rhetoric on peace building. This report looks into a few insightful examples on how the youth have been integrated into peace building, and makes the case for a comprehensive approach in other countries around the world, to ease the youth into peace building.
Read online
Download the report.

A poem by Austin Schiano

In the serene solitude of New York's 1st Avenue.
In front of the United Nations.
A breeze always seems to blow. 
And as we walk. 
With heavy idealism.
We are anxious to ride the zephyr.
Still, we are apprehensive.
Worried at that which we do not know.
Worried where the winds may take us. 
Still we leap into the infinite blue hope.
Exerting our heavy eyelids on reports of red dirt.
In the wish that we may wash it with white linen.
Rachita Taneja
An interview with Rachita Taneja by Esther Moraes

“So I’m going to begin interviewing you now”, I declared awkwardly, as I looked at the animated image of Rachita on my computer. 

Having been friends for close to two decades, Skype calls are not unusual occurrences for us. This time, however, was unique. 

This time, I was interviewing her – not Rachita, my friend, but Rachita, the creator of Sanitary Panels, a webcomic that is slowly, yet surely, gaining attention for its sharp indictment of Indian society, politics, and everyday sexism. 

Rachita has commented on a number of political developments, frequently critiquing the Modi government, interspersed with occasional observations on the ridiculous problems of daily life in urban India.

Sanitary Panels, 19 October 2015

As a Senior Campaigner at Jhatkaa, Rachita is an activist by occupation, but she is also an active participant in social campaigns outside work. One example of this is the Save the Internet movement, which began in response to the net neutrality debate.

Rachita particularly enjoys talking about the Save the Internet Coalition, and her work as part of it. “With net neutrality there was a massive learning curve for me. This was really thrilling for me, being an activist and having to deal with something that was so new – I went from knowing nothing about it to being an almost semi-expert on it.”

In response to the net neutrality debate, 14 August 2015

“Experiences like this one definitely influence what I draw,” she says. “If I can’t work formally on these issues, I still feel like I need to contribute to it in some way. Through the comics, I can add my own voice to the movements. It’s the same with the current JNU situation – I’m not physically participating in it, but I do feel like I’m part of it by drawing about it.”

While SP has gained an increasing number of followers on Facebook over its two year life span, a comic Rachita made on the JNU issue went viral and resulted in a sudden burst of attention. With 10,000 followers, and its newfound reach of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users, Sanitary Panels has now started getting greater attention in both print and digital media (TOI, 7 March 2016; India Today; Vagabomb).

The comic that went viral, 19 February 2016

Does the viral growth intimidate her? “Oh man, definitely”, she laughs. “Initially, I felt like I could draw whatever I wanted to because no one would care. Now, I’m much more aware of the kind of comics I’m posting and the things I say. I want everyone to know that this is a progressive comic which is primarily political in nature. I don’t post more than one non-political comic at a time anymore. I mean, I’ll still post them once in a while, but I want to ensure that my audience is frequently exposed to political ideas, whether or not they agree with them.”

With the new audience, did she feel an obligation to comment on certain political issues over others, I ask.  “Well, with the sudden growth of my audience, I knew that the next SP I would post would be really important. I knew that I wanted to expose this new audience to something related to feminism. My view is, if you don’t understand or agree with feminism then you shouldn’t be following my Page. So I re-posted one of the older comics, just to test the waters. And the reaction to it was very positive, actually –  that post reached more than 200,000 people!”

Sanitary Panels, the re-posted comic, 29 February 2016

Sanitary Panels began in 2014 as a quick doodle, created in sheer frustration while she talked to her friends and brother about digital censorship in India. This was shared on social media, and, because of the surprisingly positive response it received, her doodles became a regular affair.

I ask her what most affects what she draws, work or her personal beliefs. “I think it’s a combination of the two”, she responds. “I frequently draw things I want to work on, but I also make comics in response to things I see on the news. Usually, issues that I work on are also issues that I feel very strongly about personally, like marital rape for instance. Sometimes I may want to make a comic about something, but I can’t – either because I don’t have an idea that is ‘SP worthy’ or I feel like I’m not equipped to talk about it. I didn’t make a comic about the Union budget, for example, even though I know it’s a very important issue, because I don’t think I can say something substantial about it.”

Sanitary Panels on marital rape, 12 March 2016

We move into discussing the comic itself, and, more specifically, the style of the comic. Does the rudimentary stick figure drawing inhibit her? “Oh, loads of times. There are certain issues I just cannot communicate through SP: race and sexuality, for instance. In a B&W comic, how do I show anything other than ‘generic white stick figure’? Or how do I show a girl with a shaved head? I can’t show the intersectionality of feminism, which I think is a real problem.”
“But I’m inspired by webcomics like xkcd, which always makes its point beautifully using the same style,” she adds. “I know that I have to find way around the limitations of my comic. Like, instead of depending on the drawing, I can show race and sexuality through the text I use. I’ve only made one comic that touches on race issues, and I thought that it was done quite cleverly. But I really have fun drawing SP, I like how it’s developed into its own style – doodles on a notepad that are scanned and uploaded to the internet.”

Made in response to “Travel is your Passion? All Lies”, an article about the problems of international travelling as an Indian

“But if I ever do teach myself to be an artist (if anyone considers this art!), then who knows, maybe I’ll develop another comic outside SP with its own illustrated characters and full colour!”

“One final question”, I say. “If you could pick any one of your comics as your favourite, which would it be?” Rachita laughs and cocks her head to the side, thinking about this quite seriously. She takes a while to answer, and finally says: “I don’t think I can pick a favourite, but some do stand out. I learned how to use humour without spelling it out when I drew about someone who publicly disagrees with the government. And I thought the comic I made about Rohith was really sharp – I took a long time to develop that one. But it’s probably the silliest ones I like the most, since they’re the funniest.”

16 June 2014

On Rohith Vemula, 18 January 2016

10 September 2016

Sanitary Panels is now featured on The Ladies Finger, a feminist e-zine in India, as well as
(c) The Red Elephant Foundation. Powered by Blogger.