By Kamanthi Wickremasinghe
A 15-year-old relates her views on extreme poverty
The execution of Rizana Nafeek was an incident that shook the world with horror and grief. The unfortunate incident of an infant passing away while in her care was the cause of her death. The unfair practices exercised by the Saudi government were heavily looked down upon by the international community. Yet nothing could stop her from being executed and taking this matter in to consideration Zainab Iftkhar, a courageous young girl was inspired to write a book at the age of 15 which was launched on August 15 2015. The book is not based on Rizana’s death but on the cause of her death, which is extreme poverty. Titled as ‘Poverty is not passivity’ the book speaks about extreme poverty, about Rizana and what alternatives can be taken instead of foreign employment and such insecure professions. Zainab has successfully completed her IGCSE exam and is currently applying for her A/S level. In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Zainab spoke about her views on the execution of Rizana, the contents of her book and what she feels about women seeking foreign employment.
What thoughts do you have about the incident in general?
When Rizana first came to Saudi Arabia I was only 6 years old. Since she came there my mother was requested to go and visit her in jail and therefore every month she went to visit her. That continued up until I was 13 years old and Rizana was executed. Something in me just kept telling that, my mother struggled hard to release her and I couldn’t do anything to stop her execution since I was small. I thought I will not be able to stop her execution but I would be able to stop the reason why she came to Saudi, which is extreme poverty. If there was no extreme poverty she wouldn’t have worked as a maid. Therefore I thought I should do something to eradicate extreme poverty and stop the reason why she died.
So did this motivate you to write your book?
Yes. After the age of 13 I was looking at how these youngsters around the world are campaigning for their rights and what they believe in. Eventually when I became 15 I told my mother that after my IGCSE’s I want to write a book. My exams finished on June 4 this year and immediately afterwards I started working on my book for nearly a month and the book entirely relates my opinion on poverty. There are 3 chapters about Rizana in it. So I have written how poverty has affected me and how I think that ‘Poverty is not Passivity’ which is the title of my book. This means that just because someone is poor he doesn’t have to accept everything that society imposes on him. He has courage and the ability to fight back and we shouldn’t think that any poor person is passive, which is the motive behind my book. Also I thought that my book would encourage the lawmakers in my country would take an effective initiative to eradicate extreme poverty so that no more Rizanas would come. I don’t want another Rizana to grow and die and also I don’t want another Rizana in Sri Lanka or in any part of the world. I thought that if a 15 year old can think that deep about poverty then we can actually do something to stop poverty.
What relationship did you have with Rizana?
My mother was visiting her in jail for 7 years. She’s a girl whom I have never seen but we have always shared our feelings with each other. The stories that my mother told were exclusively personal to me.
According to your mother, how was she been treated while she was in jail?
She was treated well. I even mentioned that in my book. There is a sentence which states that she was treated well and it quotes : “ I believe that there is a little good in everything that is bad, it’s like searching for gold in a patch of mud”.
It was popularly known that she was tortured by the police and was given inhumane treatment. Are these all exaggerations or were there more to it than your mother seeing her being treated well?
I don’t know about them. My book is based on poverty and what made her to go there. There’s nothing about Rizana’s life after the incidents that happened there.
There are many more women who seek foreign employment due to extreme poverty but ultimately some return with nails pinned to their bodies or in caskets. What suggestions do you have for policymakers or the responsible authorities to improve the standards of their living environments?
In my book I have requested them to be involved in the cottage industry. Our foreign income is mainly generated from foreign employment. We have exported labour and not exported goods because of their low quality. So I thought through the cottage industry we could reach out to these people. There are so many organisations in Sri Lanka based on the cottage industry. But still it’s not effective because these people don’t have either the courage or the initiatives to take up such a business. Therefore we must encourage them. They need more encouragement and motivation to do such businesses and to maybe start exporting what they produce. I have mentioned these in the last few chapters. Also I think that the government should implement an effective initiative to reach out to the people. Unless we reach out to the people effectively, this message will never be conveyed. I want to make sure that none of the housemaids would suffer in future.
What are the contents of your book?
The first chapter talks about my view about poverty in general. The next 3 chapters are about Rizana Nafeek and how I grew up listening to her story although both of us were little girls. Here I have vividly expressed my emotions and also the emotions experienced by my mother. I have elaborated on how she was slain through extreme poverty and how I believe that there shouldn’t be any other Rizanas in Sri Lanka. Then I move on to chapters that emphasize on self-sufficiency, self-employment, cottage industry and micro credits. There is another chapter in which I have mentioned about the war and how it gives rise to poverty. in many countries like Syria, children are orphaned and poor people are made to live in campsites at the borders because of the war. Therefore if we can bring peace we can stop poverty. other chapters are about women’s empowerment and I believe that this quagmire that the women are placed in is given to them by society. But they shouldn’t accept it but seek for alternatives. There are 26 chapters in the book and towards the end I also talk about plantation workers and the poor living conditions that they live in. I would like to request the government to look in to that matter as well. The last chapter of the book is named ‘MEI’, which stands for Motivation, Encouragement and Inspiration. I want every Sri Lankan to be motivated and to be inspired.
There is also the issue of gender discrimination which is common among many professions. Have you touched upon this issue as well?
If I quote from the book it states : “ If women are timid and scared to change the world, then they are cowards. But if the world is afraid of the change they would bring, then it’s time for the cowards to become warriors.” Another states : “Through living, we must try to achieve success in a different way. Through living the life that others try to snatch away from us. The sound of silence can only be heard if the noise has agreed to stop. Likewise, the sound of voices can only be heard if poverty has agreed to culminate.”I have also mentioned about training housemaids and also about a pension scheme. Some of them live abroad for 15-20 years but are not paid properly. So even if they return they are in the same position which they experienced 15-20 years back. The entire motive of them going abroad is lost. When these people work abroad for so long they should be given something like pension schemes like how the government workers are treated here in Sri Lanka.
What message do you have to give for women who are seeking foreign employment and women in general?
A woman is not just flesh and bones. A woman is a medal of valour; she is a pride and an accomplishment. A woman is everything in this world. She is very powerful. You should acknowledge that power you have and put it to good use. You should inspire others. Fear will not send your children to school and will not put bread on their plates. If you are afraid, people will stampede on you and walk away but if you are brave and bold everyone will come to your rescue and everyone will save you from your plight. Just because you are poor it doesn’t mean that you are hopeless and useless. Poverty does not make anyone passive. Poverty gives you the power to challenge the toughest thing on Earth, which is faith; poverty gives you the chance to feel the most electrifying feeling on Earth, which is hope; and poverty is just a little part of this life. If you can defy poverty then you can be the strongest person on the planet.