By: Fatimah Rubi

Does freedom mean feeding a bird with food and water while keeping it inside a cage?

The answer from many women is a Yes. They have accepted being fed by society; the basic rights they should have known for themselves. 

Hunza is a richly cultured and very welcoming place, one that is considered a symbol of a progressive society for women. However as you peel off the different layers in the society, you realize that like any other, this one has deep rooted traditions that make a woman’s life and journey challenging. When it comes to the safety of women, the women themselves are confused if they are really safe and free to do what they want. 

Recently, I was part of a safe space programme in Hunza called Saheli Circle. As part of this programme, I got a chance to be part of the Girl Advocacy through Film & Media program where I, along with some of my fellows explored the question of safety for women in the society and used our newly acquired skills of filmmaking to bring together women voices in a short documentary film. My fellow Sahelis and I went to survey women around Hunza to understand what they think safety for them means and the challenges they face around it. Majority women we encountered shared that they think they are safe. However, upon deeper discussion it was evident that what they understood about and considered safety was limited. Majority women themselves are confused if they are really safe and free to do what they want. 

It left us wondering if they or us as a collective community of people have ever thought about what safety for women really means? Many women think safety means having permission from the society outside to do things that are part of their basic human rights like gaining education and working for a sustainable future for themselves. It made me think of this safety that comes with dependence on others’ permission and the boundaries they set for us. To be ourselves but only under certain conditions. I have a question for myself and for the women of Hunza and maybe for all women in cultures like ours: If we peel off all our internalized bias, what then does safety really mean for us? 

In our research, we interviewed three categories of women, teenagers, adults and old age women. The interviews with the girls my age put me and my whole team on a thinking process, questioning if we were really safe outside our designated safe zones to be who we are and to live how we want. Our interviews with the older generation of women however revealed that they were birds, caged by the boundaries and limitations of words, beliefs, cultures and values. What broke our hearts was that they had accepted this as the only way of life – bare minimum rights. Is this what we really want to convey to the generations of women coming after us?

I was also a bird caged by my thoughts, thoughts which made me wonder why we women don’t have a true single personality? Why do we have to maintain a split personality continuously pretending  to be someone other than ourselves? Why do we always wait for someone to grant us permission, permission to talk, to laugh, to sit, to eat, to get dressed, why can’t we talk about our basic rights even though, like all beings, we  have a voice to speak? Buried deep by the weight of these permissions, we have totally forgotten ourselves and who we truly are. I would always ask myself, is that what we truly deserve? Being caged? And the answer I would get was maybe yes because there are rules to survive in this world and maybe this was just one of them. I was also a dead fish going with the flow just like others unaware of myself and my rights, until I attended a safe space camp – Saheli Circle run by IEI team where I acquired life skills, the tools to maintain my wellbeing and got an opportunity to speak my heart in safe gatherings. 

It changed my perspective of living and thinking. The very basic thing I learned was that the society we always criticize is not something composed of other creatures, it is something we, ourselves make and it only can be changed when we stop listening to others and start listening to our inner selves because it’s only us who know what we want. The camp I attended was for two months where I got to know about my true personality and discovered the strength of raising my voice through my words to share my experiences. Now that I am aware of myself and the power of being a woman, I want other women to be aware of themselves, to question if we really are in a safe environment then why are we still waiting to get permission to breathe, to live and to be?

Exploring the question Are you safe? with my fellows and the girls and women in Hunza allowed me to dig deeper to understand what safety really means and what safe places really are. For a woman, safety means protection against her physical, mental, financial and emotional abuse. Through our research, we learned that safety is made up many important elements. For women essentially means safe access to opportunities and the ability to exercise their rights. Their right to quality education in violence-free communities and cities. Their right to secure and decent housing. Their right to access affordable public services. Their right to age-appropriate and healthy work environments and opportunities. Their right to move in their villages and cities safely. Having been a part of Saheli Circle, I would also add the right to everyday wellbeing as what makes women feel safe and most importantly, their right to raise their voice, take on leadership roles and participate in making their communities safer, more inclusive and accessible for all.

If I was placed in the research statistics of the state of women in Pakistan, I would be categorized as outside the scope of girls and women who require support. Afterall, I am attending a private school, live in a hostel, and have a family that supports my education fee. But I, too, did not have a safe space to gather with fellow girls, polish my everyday life skills and learn to cope with myself, my challenges, my weaknesses and the questions and worries about my future. The judgment free zone that Saheli Circle created helped me feel safe to express my emotions. It offered a comfortable environment, a helpline in times of need and safe people around you who respect your thoughts and opinions. 

I now believe if you don’t find safe spaces like these around you, then you should better make one by yourself and also for other girls and women around you because sometimes it’s better to take an initial step for the betterment of yourself and for humanity. Maybe if all of us women had access to these safe spaces we would have the courage to expand our ideas of what safety in this world can mean for us and advocate for a world where we have the safety & freedom to be ourselves.

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