|Volume 5 Issue 11| November 2011|
Snow on the Equator
'Fallen' women are our fellow women, contemplates WASFIA NAZREEN, high up on Kilimanjaro.
For the longest time, I have had callings that often seemed too deep to steer. I was taught when I was a child, that “We are all soul. And then, we have a body that is only the chariot for it.” As we grow older, we get so caught up in our surrounding environments, and get attached to this body that those beliefs, somehow, somewhere down the line, disappeared into the ether. I have led, for the most part, an intensely struggling life. But if we don't falter our trust, the Universe has its own way of taking care of it at some point or another.
Mountains or hilly regions have always been a shedding ground for me. Where I perform my ritual of cleansing. Skin by skin, I can shed in the shadows of cordilleras, totally undisturbed, while the sun routinely rises over the summit tip and the moon descends into some distant horizon. Like Jack and his beanstalk while we climb away, one carpet of cloud over another, it is all a journey in deep meditation. The final point of the destination does not matter, but surviving during the entire expedition, battling all the variant exposures, do. Following each thought that passes the mind-stream, observing their nature, and upon recognising the fundamental characteristic of it -- obstructive, positive or neither -- simply letting it go! And of course, like with any other matters of life, “gender” and the inherent discriminations that come with it, play a huge role in our thought patterns.
Somewhere near to my departure in an attempt to conquer Africa, I noticed in my desk calendar that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was approaching on November 25th. Even though I have mixed feelings about these “official days of observance,” something struck me. This same year, March marked the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day, which was, if one recalls, originally called International Working Women's Day. As I was packing away to empty myself physically and mentally in the highest point of the African continent, I could not help but reflect on an entire chain of thoughts…
While 'working' in the greater metropolitan area of Khulna, my former sex-worker colleagues from partner organisations had always shared stories of some of their regular customers. Starting from one of the editors of the largest local Bangla newspaper, to a highly respected doctor in Rupsha area, to the eldest son of the owner of a reputed hotel -- they all visit to fornicate. They all have wives at home. We, those who work in the field, all know their names, of their various sexual positions, and styles they prefer, of their kindness, abuse and arrogance, of their caresses and wild violent fantasies. But we dare not utter, or leak any of these private details, due to our employer's 'code of conduct'.
As we entered the base of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world that was once active with its three volcanic cones: Kibo/Uhuru, Mawenzi and Shira, a gentle prayer rested over everything I left behind in “motherland” Bangladesh. Like the silence of sadness clothed in the veneer of modesty. Up here, all those chatter was quiet now, as if they have always been this way. The words we were uttering, fell like mountains beneath the sea. In ancient time passing, soon, they too shall boil forth, red stone, and breed life anew... another colour, an unknown shade, and words no more.
Yet when I lay alone in my tent at night, tight within the strict walls of my negative 26 degrees Celcius Mountain Hardware sleeping bag, I began reflecting on the different “conquering feats” of current times, and it amused me that ever so often, it was taken for granted that sex workers -- because of the work they do, and most often forced to, are taken as scapegoats who could be conquered, roughly handled, violated and done everything with. The same woman who is a 'fille de joie' at night is referred to as a 'woman of ill repute' the next morning! But of course the male editor, doctor, rich hotel owner and others, continue to sport their 'brilliant repute' of prestige eternally.
At least, most of the sex-workers have the backbone to admit their not-so-pleasurable source of income, and at least they are not cheating someone at home at the cost of raping another. Perhaps most of these men have never learnt to love selflessly and truly enough to even realise the pain of being cheated?
Kilimanjaro is unique to the fact that there are six different biodiversities in the same mountain.
As one enters the national park-range, it's the “cultivation” area, formerly covered with shrubbery and dense forest that has now been taken over by pastures and plantations -- mainly grasslands and cropland. Here, heavy rainfall and volcanic soil support the settlements almost up to 1800 meters, where one enters the “forest” area. Within the rainforests, many endemic flowers such as the Impatiens Kilimanjari and the Senecio Johnstonii (beyond 2500 m) are found. Lush vegetation drenched in heavy rainfalls holds endemic trees, most mentionable the Macaranga Kilimandsharica or the huge Olea Kilimandsh (upto 30m high!) At about 2800 meters, we entered the “heather” area, which is mostly covered in mist and fog as the rainforest lines comes to a halt. Heath is mainly any area of open uncultivated lands with vegetation being of heather, gorse and coarse grasses. Amongst the commonest heath-like shrubs found in this area are Erica Arborea, Philippia Excelsa, Stoebe Kilimandsharica and many proteas. Then comes the “moorland” area at 3300 meters, where climate begins to get cool and clear. Here we also experienced the first 'frosts' on the mountain and sunshine was quite intense. At 4000 meters, the landscape changes dramatically as the “alpine desert” area starts, and this is where the game begins as radiation gets intense, evaporation is high and daily temperatures start going through tremendous fluctuations! Nights are well below 0 degree Celsius and daytimes over 35. No favourable conditions for plant life but mosses, lichens and few everlasting flowers thrive. There is scarcity of water and soil thinning. From 4900 meters to almost 6000 meters (summit is at 5895m) “Arctic” area rises with very extreme conditions -- that is freezing cold at night and burning sun during daytime. Oxygen at this level is nearly half of that in the sea level and there is barely any protection from the radiations of the mighty sun! There is absolutely no surface water, only the lichens and the everlasting Helichrysum Newii can survive. Aside from this, temperature falls 1 degree Celsius for every 200 meters increase in altitude, while rainfall decreases steadily with altitude from the forest area upwards.
As a climber in quest of the Roof of Africa, as conscious as I could stay on the different weather patterns of the mountain, the social-worker side of me inherently had to be equally mindful of the historical context of the local people, the indigenous values and the evolution of the current times that shaped the nation. Thanks to western media, Africa has been almost always portrayed as the most violent place on earth, and like Fela Kuti, the great Nigerian human-rights activist and political maverick said, "99.9% of the information you get about Africa is wrong," nothing could be further from the truth. Sure the historical oppression and suffering of Africa has seen no parallels, and even in the post-colonial eras, what she faced is unmatched. However, how that violence is still portrayed and who portrays it, makes a big difference. Africa, as a continent is rising rapidly from the ashes of that past... just like us, Bangladeshis, they are resilient and proud people! In terms of nature, values, hospitality, foundations, or education, consciousness of Tanzanians are absolutely top of the ranks.
Reflecting on the media's role on the different facets of violence that existed in our society, I could only sigh at the biasness of it all. Violence needs no intro and it occurs everywhere. Millions of women around the world are affected, regardless of their socioeconomic, educational, cultural or religious backgrounds. A violated woman not only suffers physically and mentally but also has to sacrifice her participatory rights in society -- a common cause for girls not reaching their full potentials. Whether it is child marriages, domestic tortures, random rapes, female circumcision, or even the 'belief' that the purpose of women is to only serve her family -- it is all violations of the most basic human rights. Rape when used as a weapon of war, is a well-renowned strategy to affect entire communities. At the Fourth World Conference on Women, it was declared that rape in armed conflict is a war crime, and could even be considered genocide, under certain circumstances.
Verbal abuse at times cause way stronger damage than physical violence. In the case of sex-workers, the vocabulary of different derogatory terms many use to label female sex-workers also seem spellbinding, even more for my present oxygen-deprived mind. Bangladesh's sex-workers have been living in a mentally constructed database of 'unclean' women, while our social and cultural norms have been teaching us to regard sex-workers as 'impure.' One Bangla word for them is potita -- translation: the 'fallen' woman.
While magi, gonika, khanki, bajareyr meye, beshshya and other abusive labels serve as curse-words in Bangla to refer to a sex-worker, most sex-workers themselves prefer being identified as a 'jouno-kormi' -- the literal translation of the word 'sex-worker,' since it is the most professional term for the work they do. The term 'beshshya' initially did not start off as a derogatory term, but rather, the name sex-workers identified and were identified with, without queasiness. Nevertheless, the greater mass is often confused, perhaps due to clouded politricks or looming patriarchal constructs of society, with having to decide between the most politically sound label and using words that might require a biting of the tongue post utterance. Similar confusion regarding who/what to stigmatise also comes through in some quarters of Bangladesh, where people in this day and age, still whisper words like 'Hindu' or 'Garo'. This dichotomy is parallel to that of 'Hijra' or even 'Black,' which are often wither uttered under the breath or used as profanity.
These women themselves are led to believe that they are continuously committing sins (except a few who refuse to be conditioned) and that their bodies are nothing but products on sale. Like those 99 cents plastic toys made in China, it is easy to destroy these toys too. But those who manufacture or play with them, inhumanely and recklessly leaving the consciousness of others deformed, are never the ones who become 'fallen'.
Somewhere during my prayers, and acknowledging the many lengthy, sometimes tumultuous paths of this life, Shyamoli said to me: “Let me out, let me out -- I'd like to be myself for a little while!” Shyamoli was the 10-year-old daughter of a former sex-worker, whom I first met at the beginning of 2009. With her sweet little curious almond-shaped eyes, she had dreams to be a doctor and heal the world, and most importantly her heroine-addict mother Kajol, who still lives in Kandapara brothel, Tangail. Despite our severe efforts, we could not exile Shyamoli from the dark clutches of the brothel. And the last time I saw her, only a few months before I departed for Africa, her appearance had started to change drastically. She was more reserved and had anger and fear ripple across her face with every breath she breathed in anxiety.
“Shyamoli, I'm sorry I was not there. I hope one day you'll see nothing in your past was your fault and that once we manage to run away -- which unfortunately is the only resort and the first step in breaking barriers, you will see that love surrounds us, binds us always, both inside and outside and you may perhaps decide to end the fight which persists in your mind. In our minds.”
But Shyamoli was far away from hearing these prayers, as they evaporated into the thin air of Uhuru Peak (meaning Freedom in Swahili), resting right below the equator.
Inside the tent, doubts were looming larger and stronger with every flash of lightning that lit up the outside world… that perhaps reaching the summit that night, invading through that intense combo of harsh wind-speed, snowfall and lightning storms would be an impossible task. I kept praying and telling myself “anything is possible” like a broken-record. Till Meredith, my Alaskan guide shouted for us through the wind. It was time to defeat the anomaly of nature that apparently Tanzania had not faced in the last 10 years…
As we ventured on our summit-push, on the last 1230 meters or 4059 feet, I did not know who else to be… I did my best in all we strived to do -- as if sifting through soulless debris looking for meaning like a beggar for change. We kept trudging on our invasion of the last point of Africa, one step at a time … and despite the difficulty in that painful experience, each moment seemed like a gift -- an expression of cosmic luck opened by prayer, or eaten by ownership -- but this mind was in control how I chose to see that. Once the mirror was warped, the illusions of differences were purchased.
“Open your blinds, see the light, Wasfia. Find happiness ... forgive and forget that super sharp sleet that is slapping your face every nanosecond at god-only-knows how much speed. There is security there, to ignore that your nose is so dry that one light touch on it cracks its skin open and makes it bleed like the earth's womb that's screaming, for so long, for us to change. There is security there to see the sun in the nighttime -- wrapped on the other side of the world or mind, not in the guise of gurus, mothers or fathers, but the source of the special spark of our eyes…”
The same source that ties us all. The same source that creates the very sparkle in Shyamoli's eyes. As the sun started glaring out slowly behind us, I was absolutely knackered from the whole night of steady climbing. The three litres of water that I was carrying had finished, except what was left as dry ice in the canister, and the pipe from my camel backpack, the extra water source, had also frozen in it's entirety. I halted for a second, kneeled down and grabbed some snow and put it in my mouth.
It hurt the canals as it went down the throat, briefly reminding me of my late grandmother who had amazing qualities to sip extreme hot or cold liquids and how it would astonish me as a child! She too believed that the only purpose of her life was to serve and take care of the family. Before getting too much on an emotional roller-coaster ride, I told myself that it would all be okay... Somewhere down there it would eventually melt, and my body would get the hydration it required. We were digging deeper every step as the mountain was now covered with a good 10 inches of snow and we were, being one of the fastest groups on the mountain that day, making new footprints on the path.
Upon reaching the Stella point, at 5730m, we paused to soak in the scenery of the sunrise. We still had to walk around the magnificent crater rim to reach the highest place on Uhuru, which was the top most walking point of the continent. But we could not stand for too long at Stella, as the sun is dangerous up there. I realised, no part of my body could I feel anymore. This has happened before, but not in a long time. I pondered upon the scientific explanations of it and decided to keep walking, realising that the body needed more heat, and I just have to keep going.
As I re-started the journey eyes-locked at the pinnacle, emotions were beginning to go haywire. The concept of “development of the mind leads to development of our society…” kept generating in many colourful 3D graphic animations. Feeling the arrival of a spiritual orgasm (as I had once labelled it) it became more and more clear that the moment was right then, and that particular moment was the most important. That I would not turn back until I ritualistically asked for forgiveness to each and every face that flashed in front of my face. Shyamoli, Rehana, Juthi, Fatema and the countless others who continue to be a subject of our negligence. Violence starts in the mind before it takes over the society. I have seen this violence in every sphere of the women of this country's lives, including my own, and I could only run for myself. There was no poetry in that. Into our loving arms they wished to fly, as nothing of their love was ever a lie. The glory in the nakedness of that truth tore me apart. And ironically, those tears froze into tiny vulnerable icicles even before they could reach their full formations (read: potentials).
I scattered those stories on the very summit, one by one into the thick snow around me and when the final one was told, a newfound glory of renewed commitment jerked my entire spirit. I slowly started feeling my body again and I remembered where I came from. I turned around and started walking back as I could not afford to lose time under that sun on the Equator, that has been curating the conspiracy of a “double-whammy” by reflecting the heat on the snow surface. And there was a long, steep and dangerous way to descend, through the fresh ice formations but more important than that, I had work to take care of at home. These sacred grounds will somehow alchemise and recover the heaviness of it all into joyful endings… The sadness of the speak-less has no home now, but only tomorrow when the truth, which had once escaped our hands, can no longer hide in the shadows. In our lifetime, maybe, there is no inevitability to when a human blossom like a flower in spring… our earlier life forms know better; that what sustains is a faceless fearless gift.
Kili made me realise, once again, that the tides, the Moon that swoons, the Soul and the Mind who whisper… all are in essence, intricately interconnected. In principle there are a lot of ideas that feel amazing, but in execution, not many of us accomplish the emotional hurdles. Kili renewed my faith, once again, that all barriers, essentially, are in our minds only. Can we not walk the Earth with dignity towards all beings, and all women, including our sisters and mothers involved in this trade?
As we celebrate women's working day, not just in March every year, but every other day, and mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women this month let us not forget these women: our fellow sisters and mothers.
And let us make an effort to perhaps someday, identify the srom (labour) they give for mere survival. They did not and do not 'have' it better. But we do, and even though we do, how much of the abundance have we made it available for them? Let us not systematically push any more sex-workers down that long quicksand ditch, and then sit back and call them 'fallen'. How will this Babylonian captivity ever end if the root of the problem is never truly addressed?
Those places have a lot of light to shine to the world and they seek nothing but our shadows.
Wasfia Nazreen is a member of DRISHTIPAT Writers' Collective (www.drishtipat.org/ dpwriters) and the climber for Bangladesh on Seven Summits, a pioneering campaign which celebrates 40 years of Independence, resilience & progress of the Bangladeshi peoples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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