Victoria Anita: a Flower from the sands of the Thal- A story of rebellion against religiously biased mindsets
Victoria Anita is a Christian woman who divided the people of Layyah into two when she refused to step down from the post of Principal School of Nursing amidst allegations related to her religious beliefs. Layyah, a city of 500.000 people, is located in the heart of Thal desert in Pakistan, which shares its modest health services with 1000 nearby villages. The forced removal from her post came during the height of the cities problems with homelessness related to the recent floods and the refusal of student nurses to treat the patients in the subsequent influx at the start of autumn 2010.
Victoria was an unrelenting and impeccable teacher when it came to following the rules of the Pakistan Nursing Council and stood on her principles when threatened to be fired 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 who had failed to prove their competency at handling patients in practical examination. The license would have entitled them access to government funds enabling them to open a health care unit in their respective villages. “We are here to save lives; we cannot afford to risk the lives of patients,” she shared her concern. “The second difference which emerged was being asked by the top hospital official to permit the students to keep mobile phones which violate both PNC rules and hospital rules,” she argued. “I am not the person who will bend the rules.”
The allegations against her started the moment she was appointed as the principal of the Layyah School of Nursing, one of the small town’s few prominent institutes. In a country where a woman (legally) is half a citizen, belonging to a religious minority group is an additional challenge. But Victoria shows no mercy to people who wrongfully accused her of trafficking girls to senior government officials, and has knocked on the doors of the Punjab high court to prove her innocence. "I am not going to succumb to these dirty tricks and pressure," she said while explaining how she chose not resign or hide after receiving death threats for allegedly forcing the Muslim girls at the Nursing school to read from the Bible.
“I am choosing to live like an example for the many young women who are victimized due to their beliefs, we [religious minorities] are suffering for our integrity and straightforward attitude but still serve this country diligently” her tone changed from stern to nostalgic. But she remains the woman who is not afraid to speak out against her opponents who have no proof for their allegations. The student nurses decided to continue the sit-in after Victoria was asked to temporarily go on a leave. This offended some people of Layyah who demonstrated in the streets against the decision, splitting the town into two groups, further highlighting the issue of removal on the basis of religious discrimination. It even instigated extremist elements to come in action and demand that the Christian principal be killed!
I met Victoria at several occasions during the series of strikes and have witnessed her calm behaviour as she stood up for her viewpoint, refusing to compromise the rules of PNC. 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.”
Talking to me over a cup of desi tea, she recalled her first day in office where she overheard the word 'churhi' being used in a remark. Churhi is a degrading term still used for Christians, referring to them as the lowest caste. “I was placed there based on my qualification, experience and honesty,” Victoria told me. “It is a small town and we face constant shortages of teaching staff as no one wants to be transferred to Layyah, but we still manage to give 100% result,” she said in a complaining voice. Victoria, now in her late 40s, 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 send all her children to school and instill in them values like truth, righteousness and justice. This is why she feels her mission is to fight for this cause and she is not concerned about saving her neck or job.
Today, the matter is in high court. Victoria is hindered from pursuing the case, her salary has been stopped, gets harassed and receives anonymous phone calls. 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 eight inquiries since! 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, I am ready for it!” she ends with a determined voice and a positive tone.
Victoria opened her home to the Christian students who faced discrimination and were refused protection while residing in the nursing hostel. Advocating for equality, she urges these women to not succumb to the manipulative elements that suppress their rights. She remains a source of inspiration for the Christian nursing students who are looked down upon by their fellow students in Layyah. Victoria is also raising voice at many different human rights platforms like HRCP through her writings to shed light on the intolerance and inequality faced by the Christian nurses in remote places.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.