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Women activists recount tales of trauma at Sufi event:Times of India

TNN | Mar 19, 2016 Delhi: It is an image she cannot erase from her mind: a young mother who risks being shot dead but won't let them take away her 13

TNN | Mar 19, 2016

Delhi: It is an image she cannot erase from her mind: a young mother who risks being shot dead but won’t let them take away her 13-year-old son to fight in the war. When non-violence activist Afra Jalabi shares this disturbing image of the trauma of women in strife-torn Syria, she is not talking of the pain inflicted on the population by the ISIS. This particular incident involved the military officers of the ruling regime.

In Delhi to share her journey as an advocate for women trapped by war, Jalabi is a participant at the four-day World Sufi Forum that began on Thursday. Proponents of women’s empowerment from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States are in Delhi to share with activists and academics their experience of combating violence of all kinds, including terrorism.

Jalabi recalls the time in 2014 when she met the mother of a teenager who was being coerced into leaving for the battlefield. “This woman had seen her husband being forced from home and taken away by the regime to fight in the battle,” she narrated. “When he was killed, they returned to take away her 13-year-old son, but this time she was determined to rather die than let them take him. So, when this armed man put the gun on her forehead, she stood firm. Her courage made the man pull back and leave.”

Much later, when Jalabi enquired about the fate of the woman, she learnt that the entire town had been flattened during bombing and all residents there had been rendered homeless. “ISIS is brutal, but please understand, Syrians are also the victims of the failed regime and that is what has allowed outsiders to come in and initiate the brutality,” she emphasises. “People want to replace the atrocities inflicted by the autocratic regime with democracy and peace.”

A Syrian who left Damascus with her family when she was just 5, Jalabi now lives in Canada. She fights to usher in peace in Syria under a civil rights movement called “The Day After”, named for the day when her country forsakes war and embraces peace. Before the Syrian revolution, Jalabi had been a signatory of the Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity by opponents of the authoritarian government, and a founding member of the Syrian National Council.

Jalabi, who is pursuing a PhD degree at Concordia University, returned to her country in 2014. “I visited Syria as part of a human rights mission to Idlib and other towns,” she said. “It was a strange experience to be free on land but live under an occupied sky. You did not know when the sky would blow up and who would wake up or be dead the next morning.”

She said war was a male-dominated phenomenon and wherever there was strife, women played the role of brokering peace through civil rights movements, art, culture and spirituality.

Like Jalabi, Saudi poet, essayist, editor and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab too is in the capital to share her experiences working with women, youth and children in the Arab world. Nawwab finds answers in religion and spirituality through her Sufi poetry.
She spoke with passion about the issues she grapples with. One of these is the guardianship law in Saudi Arabia. Under the law, whenever a woman wants to travel, she needs the permission of a male guardian, who could even be a small boy. “Why does a woman need a male guardian?” Nawwab told TOI. “What about women who don’t have a father, husband or son? What will they do?”

 Nawwab said that the archaic law had to change and she has been mobilising support for this as well as creating awareness about its absurdity. “A positive step is that now women don’t need their male guardian’s permission to open a bank account,” she said. “Also more women are coming into positions of power in government to raise these issues.”
From Pakistan, there is Sumbal Iftikharis, an MPhil degree holder, who talked of a new form of non-violence in her country. She explained that the Hast-o-Neest Institute for Traditional Studies and Arts in Lahore and Karachi promoted the understanding of Islamic spirituality through traditional art, languages, music and architecture. As a member of the institution, she aspired to initiate a “Spirituality Without Borders” campaign to construct inward humanism, while deconstructing the outward barriers.