International Women’s Day 2014 – “Remember the Ladies!”

Today is International Women’s Day – a day set aside worldwide to “Remember the Ladies.” The theme this year is “Inspiring Change – for greater awareness of women’s equality” and today we celebrate – we celebrate the economic, social and educational achievements of women even as we remember – we have a long way to go! 

I wrote the following post 3 years ago, just 2 months after I began blogging. I re-post it today to celebrate women worldwide! 

…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.” Abigail Adams‘ letter to her husband john Adams, March 31, 1776

A fitting quote for International Women’s Day with the resounding cry “Remember the Ladies!”.  Its time to pause, take a look at history and celebrate Women. Thousands of events around the globe will be held for the sole purpose of inspiring women and celebrating women’s achievements. It has been 103 years since the first International Women’s Day celebration held in 1911.  World-wide, women and men are gathering for events to honor this day.

In the myriad of blogs, online news articles and other media stories you will find much news on the day and the issue of women – work for women, equality, fair wages, childcare, places to breastfeed without feeling like you’re committing an indecent act and more. But the story I want to relay is a story you won’t hear in mainstream media sources and as I think of the purpose of International Women’s Day, I think on this women as a picture of persistence, entrepreneurship and hope. She is a symbol of someone who inspires change. 


Day two of flood relief in Pakistan saw us at a Baloch village. Maybe it was because it was day two and the excitement was now coupled with exhaustion and recognition of how limited our skills were within our current context, but everything felt a bit more difficult. As we were packing up after a busy morning of multiple cases of malaria and malnutrition a woman arrived at the village where we had set up camp. She was accompanied by two other women and after walking over a mile in one hundred degree heat approached the men in our group unafraid to voice the need at her village. “We’re just a short distance away! Why can’t you come to our village?” She was indignant as she looked around and said”We have needs there too!” And so we went. The coldest of hearts could not have refused her persuasive words and our hearts were warm.

Arriving at the village it was a whirlwind camp set up, a quick plea for triage from the doctor, and patients, accompanied by diagnosis and treatment papers, quickly seen and sent off with the right medications. In the midst of this we learned the story of our strong woman friend. She was a widow with eight children. She was a seamstress and proudly sewed for her family and others in the village. Her livelihood had been severely compromised by loss of her sewing machine during the flood. Her story was compelling and her spirit did not call for sympathy or pity, rather it called for partnership.

And we were the ones who knew the need, had the resources and could be partners in moving her back to a place of economic freedom where she could continue her work, her parenting, and her contribution to the village. Our team leader along with the Marwari men, the organizers of all our work, located the perfect sewing machine in the Shikarpur bazaar. It was not electric so could be used despite the frequent power outages and it was shiny, bright and perfect for our entrepreneur.  The sewing machine was purchased and the task was now to find the time during our schedule to return to the village.

The perfect time came as we discussed what to do during our last day in Pakistan. We knew the work of running another medical clinic and felt it was not possible. The decision was made to return to this village with a plan to do some teaching of basic public health, relay some stories of faith in the midst of tragedy and top it off with mithai (Pakistani sweets) and delivery of the sewing machine.

I’ll never forget the corporate joy expressed both visibly and verbally by the entire village. Our lovely lady could not rip open the plastic protective covering fast enough. There it was. Shiny and perfect. A symbol of restoration, hope and resourcefulness.

The last memory we carried with us was the woman dancing, the machine balanced perfectly on her head with her smile radiating from her heart to her face, accompanied by men, women and children in the village.

Women worldwide don’t need pity but we all need partnerships and some could sure use a sewing machine,so today ‘Remember the Ladies!’

I’m celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day by blogging for the #WomenInspire Campaignsponsored by USC’s masters degree in social work program. Join the blog carnival to honor a woman who has inspired you!

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Give Her a Break!

Yesterday at breakfast Lowell was reading NPR journalist, Heather King’s spiritual memoir, Redeemed. I just finished reading it a few days ago too. In some ways it’s a sequel to her book, Parched. If Parched describes the depths to which she sunk in her alcoholism and various addictions, Redeemed, follows her journey out toward God. It’s a well-written document of her honest spiritual journey through the death of her father, breast cancer, community and divorce. The cover describes it best when it says, “A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles toward God, Marginal Sanity and the Peace that Passes all Understanding.”

Lowell, in between bites of cereal, made a comment about King’s battle with cancer. Bronwynn, ever listening, asked, “Is this the same person that was an alcoholic and a drug addict?” When we indicated that it was, she continued, “And now she has breast cancer?” Lowell swallowed and nodded yes. Bronwynn’s response was a quick and heartfelt prayer, “Geez God—Give her a break!”

I have prayed that same prayer for many of my friends over the years. There are times when it seems people are doled out too much. The suffering is too deep, too painful. And it keeps coming. No one has just one isolated sore-spot. Pain piles on pain. Divorce on top of cancer. Death next to another illness. Unemployed and then a suicide in the family. Robbed and shot.

Geez God, give them a break.

Lately I’ve been praying this prayer for my beloved Pakistan. Pakistan is the home of my childhood. I grew up there. I have “aunts” and “uncles” and friends and old neighbours yet there. My memories of the call to prayer, train rides through the Thal Desert, fresh kinoo oranges, playing with goats in the chuks (villages), picnics by the canals are vibrant and very much alive. When I played dress up it was with Gulshazia and Nadine in a secluded courtyard. We folded silky headscarves into burqas and we donned them with innocent modesty and giggles. When we played kitchen it was over a small brick fire pit. Sitting on our haunches we madly stirred our imaginary curry and kneaded the dough for pretend roti. Sometimes mom actually let us light a fire. Sometimes we had a real potato to cut into our pot. Sometimes we had real atta to mix with water to make our roti dough.

Pakistan, since its beginning in 1947, has been through the wringer. Political instability, caught in the crossroads of terror trafficking, rocked repeatedly by drought, earthquakes and floods it can’t seem to cut a break. And yet my heart cries out for that very thing, Geez God—give her a break!

In some ways I suppose I’m still trying to process the attack at All Saint’s Church in Peshawar that happened on September 22nd. Earlier in March, in Lahore, an angry mob burned two churches and blazed over a hundred homes of Christians. An earthquake hit on September 30 and another one rumbled through on October 6th. On October 16th, 2013, a suicide bomber attacked the law minister, Israr Gandapur, in his home as he celebrated Eid with friends and well-wishers. Eight were killed and another thirty were wounded. Wikipedia has thirty-eight pages dedicated to “Suicide bombings in Pakistan” –and all that just since 2007! Watching this place that I love suffer so much, so deeply, so repeatedly has been unbearable.  Others of us who claim Pakistan, either by birth or by adoption, also struggle to come to grips with it all. It’s become this unbelievable patchwork of griefs so deep and impossibly difficult to articulate perpetually shrouding my soul.

And yet so often it seems to me that Pakistan is so misunderstood. It’s been painted by the media to be the source of all terrorism, and all evil. I want the world to know that Pakistanis are not the enemy. Pakistanis should not be judged by the acts of evil or by the terror-sharers that come from the region.  Imagine if outsiders or foreigners heard of the shootings in Colorado, or the tragedy last winter in Newtown, Connecticut and they mistook all Americans as violent senseless evil-doers.  We would rise up in protest at such ignorant generalizations. And we must do that now too on behalf of Pakistanis.

Pakistanis are the victims. They have suffered repeatedly at the hands of evil-doers. They’ve experienced more terror and violence than we can ever imagine. War is constantly fought on her northern borders. Relations with India are fragile at best. To the west Afghanistan’s prolonged issues leak out into Pakistan. It’s too much. Terrorists maybe the enemy. But they are not just our enemies. They are Pakistan’s enemies too.  Pakistani Muslims and Christians are the prize. We need to fight for and win that precious prize.

I plead for mercy for this, my war-wracked country. I petition for justice for a place where the seeds of corruption were planted generations ago and continue to push up like a noxious weed. I beseech The God of Ishmael and Isaac to show favour on those who seek Truth and Peace.  I pray the US has great wisdom in her dealings and interactions with this vulnerable country. Pakistan was never meant to be America’s diving board into the region.  The use of drone strikes is unjust and cruel. The innocent are killed. The grieving and the angry; the hurt and the confused rise up like a swarm of stirred up bees. Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty and attempts to rule her own country are thwarted with each new drone attack. A successful hit still doesn’t, in my mind, justify the hundreds of unarmed civilians killed in unsuccessful hits who’ve been killed. (Wikipedia estimates that anywhere from 286-890 innocent people have been killed –including over 160 children.)

Pakistan is a country rich in history and natural resources whose people are warm and dignified, whose culture is hospitable and generous. She has much to offer the globe. She understands the complexities of being a smaller younger sibling in a feuding clan as she stands together with her South Asian family: Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Pakistanis invite others into deep loyal friendships that are laced with a wonderful sense of humour. Pakistanis love children and respect the elderly; they hate to offend anyone; time is flexible and free flowing; they respect modesty. You’ll never eat more delicious food, or drink better chai. There is a deep kindness that cloaks the Pakistani culture. You know it as you enter it. Pakistanis are very gracious and welcoming.

But mostly, I cry from a heart perplexed by the complexities of so much sorrow, and with complete reverence: Geez God, give her a break!

Yar darr mat, Malala bann (Don’t be scared, be a Malala).

Saturday, November 10 was proclaimed Malala Day in honor of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for her ongoing activity in support of  education for girls within Pakistan.

The photos posted on BBC News document vigils, demonstrations, and prayers throughout Pakistan. Men, women, and children bound together in support of this little girl and hope for the future.

Just days after the shooting, a short article published in The Express Tribune had an update on Pakistan’s reaction summed up in a phrase:

Yar darr mat, Malala bann (Don’t be scared, be a Malala).

It was a collective response to feeling helpless in the face of evil and wrong doing, and it was, and is, powerful! Throughout Karachi, one of the largest cities in Pakistan, this phrase was used and people responded.

Hearing about this response in Pakistan is heartening, it’s good news. Everyday our media sources bring us bad news from Pakistan, bad news delivered with smiles that show off perfect white teeth; bad news given with bad pronunciation of the word Pakistan; bad news delivered with no empathy or understanding of this country.

And then comes a Malala and we are given a glimpse of tremendous courage, a glimpse of someone who believes in something beyond her circumstances, and is moving forward in a trajectory that cannot be stopped. Moving forward and now carrying a country with her.

And it’s happening within Pakistan, by Pakistanis  — without another country trying to impose an agenda and values and push change that would inevitably die. Change that comes from within is lasting change. Change imposed from without is not change at all, it’s imperialism.  It’s arrogant thinking that walks in front of and not beside. 

And this change is led by a 14-year-old girl who has a purpose and courage to carry out that purpose.

“Don’t be Scared – Be a Malala” is a call to courage for all of us, no matter where we live. A call to change what needs changing in our communities, in our towns, in our work places, in our places of worship — but most of all in ourselves.  Because change comes from within. 

 *Photos courtesy of Tim Irwin and Jason Philbrick – fellow Third Culture Kids who share a love for Pakistan. 

First Pakistani on the Oscar Stage

With a roar of applause Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy arrived on the Oscar stage, her beautiful shalwar/kameez glittering under the lights. She took the Oscar for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) for a film that tells the story of Dr. Muhammad Jawad, a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon who works to restore physical and emotional health of Pakistani women burned in acid attacks.

The award was given just before 11pm, a time when my eyes usually grow heavy and I wonder if it’s worth while to watch until the end. My second wind came in the form of great pride as the film maker, a Pakistani woman, raised her Oscar on the stage, thanking the Academy and giving a tribute to Pakistani women everywhere, most who would not be watching, but a tribute nevertheless.  Her talent, along with the skill and passion of the doctor who cared enough to make this a real story, not just an idea, were enough to wake me up as I clapped towards the screen.

The film is called “Saving Face” and tells the personal stories of two Punjabi women, the true heroes of the night, Zakia and Rukhsana.  These women survived acid attacks that burned and disfigured their faces. Their heroism is not only about surviving the burns, but that they used this event to fight for the rights of Pakistani women, to fight for justice.

All of these people – the lovely and talented film maker who told the story, not just of the attacks but of resilience, of physical and emotional healing; the physician who used skill and compassion, traveling to Pakistan and bringing along teams to work with him; and the women – brave women who would not let their pain paralyze them; all of these are heroes.

I feel so proud. I have no right to, I have only been a guest in Pakistan, I am not Pakistani, but I feel proud of this accomplishment. Proud as a sort of adopted cousin, maybe even daughter, of Pakistan.  Proud that in the world of film this story has risen to the top. It has been deemed Oscar-worthy and so will receive the attention that it has deserved all along.

So my heart is full. And as the 84th Oscars end, this award will forever be archived in Oscar history and Pakistan has had a chance to shine in a wonderful way.

Pakistan Zindabad!