Flowers from the sands of the Thal!
Religious minorities in Pakistan face numerous issues, from day to day discrimination at work place and neighborhoods to relentless victimization through blasphemy laws of which if even wrongfully accused of, can lead to a death penalty. The situation gets even worse in villages and smaller towns where literacy rate is even lower and the mullahs (religious leaders) are the only ‘learnt’ people. Layyah city, located in the heart of Thal dessert, with a population of 500,000, shares its modest available economic, health, educational and social welfare services with the nearby 1,000 villages approximately, a situation which further exacerbates in flooding seasons.
Victoria Anita is the Christian woman who divided the mindset of the people of Layyah, Pakistan into two when she refused to step down from her rightful post amidst allegations due to her religious beliefs. The people were literally divided into half, one in favour and one against her removal from the post of the School of Nursing Principal the start of this autumn season when a few student went on strike demanding her removal while the city administration was busy coping with the homeless of recent floods.
Victoria is the unrelenting and impeccable teacher when it came to following the rules of the Pakistan Nursing Council in her Layyah institution and was not petrified to stand for her principles when threatened to be removed from her post due to failure to compliance with the personal ‘requests’ of the District Head Quarters top officials. She was asked to sign the licenses of three community midwives students who had failed to prove their competency in handling patients in their practical examination. The license would have entitled them access to government funds to open a health care unit in their respective villages which can be life threatening for the women patients if you are not professionally competent.
In a district where being a woman (in legal terms) in being half a citizen, let a lone belonging to a religious minority groups, Victoria shows no mercy to people who wrongfully alleged to her being a pimp, trafficking girls to senior government officials, and has knocked on the doors of the Punjab high court for proving her innocence. She chose not resign after receiving death threats after allegedly forcing the Muslim girls at the Nursing school to read from the Bible, or hide inside, instead, she chose to be an example for the many young women who are victimized due to their faith and is not afraid to even demean her opponents who have no proof whatsoever against the allegations they made due to her stern attitude, integrity and straightforward attitude. Her students, provoked by the local politicians who wanted to have a member of their own family on Victoria’s post, went on a series of strikes between August and September, and this sparked a controversy. The high authorities of the Health department made an inquiry about the allegations made against Ms.Anita and found her not guilty, which did not serve the intended purpose of the perpetrators. The people of Layyah got offended with the bold decision of the young student to continue the sit-in after Victoria was asked to temporarily go on a leave. They came on the roads against the decision and this led to division of whole Layyah into two groups, thus highlighting the issue of removal on the basis of religious discrimination which also instigated extremist elements to come in action and demanding the killing of the Christian principal!
Victoria remained calm and indifferent as she stood up with her viewpoint that she cannot compromise with the rules of PNC which disallow girls to keep/use mobiles which was also an issue that was raised after the initial strikes. A devout Christian, she said she is not afraid to die; “I strongly believe in my Jesus, and I believe that he is my sole supporter, I show up alone in the court room which surprises the judge and I tell him that I am here with my God, I have no one else with me,” she said with a rare radiant smile on her face. “There could be delays, but it will work out,” she added. The series of allegations had started against her from various interdepartmental sources the moment she was appointed as the principal of the small town’s few most influential and prominent institutes. On her first day in office, she heard the remark of ‘working under the supervision of a churhi’ a degrading term still used for Christians referring to them as the lowest caste, something we inherited from the Hindu caste system since before partition. She was placed there based on her qualification, experience and honesty. Victoria in now in her late 40s and did not get married due to her commitments in the family. She is the middle child of her missionary parents and her 11 siblings today are all educated and well settled in their lives. Her mother, a housewife, was an inspiration as she managed to and all her children to school and gave them values like truth, self righteousness and justice. This is why she thinks she has the mission to fight for this cause and she is not concerned about saving her neck or job; ‘I stand for the truth,’ she says sternly.
Today, the matter is in high court and Victoria is hindered in anyway possible from pursuing the case, her salary has been stopped; her mobility is restricted, she is harassed personally and through anonymous phone calls demanding withdrawal of cases from court, while she remains strong, boldly ignoring the knocks on her windows in the middle of the night. ‘I was appointed as the head of the Nursing School in June 2008 and have been implicated and proved innocent in 8 inquiries since! This keeps going and I have to pay the price of living in a country where religious freedom is still a myth. If I am destined to die fighting for equality, I am ready for it!’ she ends with a determined voice and a positive tone. Victoria is truly a source of inspiration for the young Christian nursing students who are looked down by the fellow students in Layyah and to all the females who keep silent in the face of harsh discriminatory behaviour they face. It is wrong, and there has to be a stop to it.