Thursday, 29 May 2014

How far have we really come?

At first glance there doesn't seem to be much that Maya Angelou and Farzana Parveen have in common.  One was an award winning poet, playwright and activist who died aged 86; the other was a 25 year old pregnant Pakistani woman.  By co-incidence they died within 24 hours of each other. 

So what is the link?  Both women were victims of prejudice.  Racist, religious and misogynistic.

Maya Angelou was born in the deep south of the USA in 1928.  Her family were, in modern terminology, dysfunctional; a broken marriage, children moved around the family, an abusive step parent, violence.  She was abused and traumatised so much that she didn't speak for 5 years.  Through great strength of character she rose to become an award winning writer and humanitarian.  She was honoured and feted for her work - her auto biographical book 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' tells of her childhood, the abuse and her rise from the ashes of her life.  It looks at identity, racism, abuse, literacy - a sweeping, moving book which reduced me to tears on many occasions.  Her poetry is funny and touching in equal measure.  She wrote about being a black woman in the 20th century, but is more than that.  It touches on the lives of all women, how we are treated by society, how our lives really are and how we soar above all the adversity we face with humour, grace and style.

Farzana Parveen was a Pakistani woman, 3 months pregnant with her first child.  She was married to a man that her family disapproved of.  For this she was stoned to death outside a court in Lahore by her father and other family members.  These so called honour killings are not uncommon in Pakistan.  The BBC reported that there were nearly 900 in 2013 but stated that these were only the reported cases and the number is most likely to be much higher.  These women are killed for marrying against the wishes of the family, for adultery, for behaving immodestly; basically for not doing what the male members of the family wish.  For in Pakistani society it is the men who hold all the power; women are goods and chattels in the way they were in Medieval Europe. 

I was saddened by Maya Angelou's death.  I admired her as a woman, a writer and as a wonderful person.  Her voice alone thrilled me - slow in pace, deep in tone, she radiated thoughtfulness and wisdom.  Her poetry moved me and amused me in equal measure; would that I could write like her!  Her story moved me.  Along with Alice Walker she opened my eyes to the plight of black women in segregated America and acted as a contrast to the Gone With The Wind view of the Deep South - and I do love Gone With The Wind!

I was saddened and outraged by the death of Farzana Parveen.  She was a young woman expecting a child, a joyous time for most women.  She was innocent of any crime by any civilised measure.  The only thing she did 'wrong' was to marry a man that her family didn't want her to.  For this 'crime' she was humiliated and murdered in a brutal, horrific and public manner.  I don't really want to think about the terror she must have felt when she realised what was happening to her, neither do I want to think about the crowd of people who stood by and did nothing.  My anger is directed at her father and Pakistani society which allows these honour killings to continue. The police don't investigate thoroughly, the courts hand out light sentences or no sentence at all and many families don't pursue cases against those who kill or are violent to women.  This means that such violence is seen as the norm and acceptable.  Unless and until the people of Pakistan take violence against women seriously we will continue to read about shocking events like this.

RIP Maya Angelou.

Rip Farzana Parveen.     

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