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When silence is a statement

By: Abbas Nasir

MEXICO is being gravely wounded by drug cartels vying for domination just as Pakistan is being torn apart by religious zealots seeking supremacy.

Everyone knows who Benazir Bhutto was and who targeted her; we also know who Malala Yousufzai is and who wanted her dead. It was nothing short of a miracle that her beautiful life was saved. But how many of us know Maria Santos Gorrostieta?

Let me share what I have selected from an obituary of the woman called ‘Mexico’s heroine’ which appeared in the daily Telegraph earlier this week. Tell me if you find resonance in the bloody ways of the Mexican drug cartels and our murderous peddlers of hate.

“A doctor and mother of three, Maria Santos Gorrostieta served as mayor [of Tiquiche, a town in Mexico] from 2008 to 2011. Over that time she survived at least two assassination attempts, including one that killed her husband Jose and another that left her body peppered with bullet holes and scars….”

While over the past six years, since the government launched an operation against the gangs, “some key players have been killed or captured; the carnage has continued … Official estimates say 50,000 people have been killed since the crackdown began.…”

The region, “known for growing illegal marijuana and poppy crops, has become a key battleground … The main player is a group known as La Familia Michoacána, a cartel notorious for its grisly killings and beheadings….”

“In a country known for its machismo, it has often fallen to Mexican women to take on ‘los narcos’. Without weapons or financial resources, and often with no help from the police, women have come to the fore in an effort to improve the quality of life for their families and communities….

“Like many others Maria Santos Gorrostieta focused on improving social services for her small town and left Mexico’s drug cartels to the federal police, explaining that ‘I have a responsibility towards my people, the children, women, elderly and men who each day rip apart their souls just to bring home a loaf of bread’.

“But that made no difference to the drug barons, who came for her anyway…”

Earlier this month, as she was driving her daughter to school, without an escort since she was no more in office, she was kidnapped. Although at her pleadings her daughter was spared, Gorrostieta’s body, bearing torture marks, was found five days later.

Old-fashioned descriptions and stereotypes of women notwithstanding, the truth is such courage and commitment continuously marks the lives of most women. Yes, some like Benazir Bhutto, Malala Yousufzai and Maria Santos Gorrostieta become icons.

They are inspirational figures because their courage is for all to see, it has a public face. If her own life was her only consideration, then, after that massive bombing on her arrival in Karachi on Oct 18, 2007, Ms Bhutto could have left the country or kept a low profile.

Instead, she made a public declaration the following day that she wasn’t prepared to bow before the terrorists and would fight to reclaim the ground conceded to them. We all know what happened in December of the same year.

How stark was Malala’s reality and how fluid and dangerous the environment in which she chose to become the standard-bearer of girls’ education can hardly be imagined by so many who may be a few hours away from Swat but have as much sense of the dangers as if they were a million miles.

In a polarised and divided Pakistan, there are those who have the audacity to question Malala’s courage, even attribute motives to her. But surely their bias and sorry state of mind can never take anything away from the heroic chapter written by the determined teenage girl.

Maria Gorrostieta didn’t appear any different. Her slender frame took bullets and punishment that would have felled a bull but she remained defiant while she lived. Yes, these women and others like them believe in causes where consequences, no matter how dire, are immaterial.

This is why we celebrate their lives, lament their loss.

But do we have time enough for equally courageous women whose everyday existence, mere survival, is heroism worthy of accolades? The mountain of biases they have to climb, the abuse they brave, be it in the name of culture, religion or tradition?

The world, including Pakistan, exists in the 21st century. Have we ever seriously asked why more than half our population lives and dies in pain and obscurity and often in circumstances which would make our claim to being part of humanity suspect?

Do we recall the name of the last victim of ‘honour killing’? Do we know the name of even one woman disfigured for life by an acid attack? Who was that young bride who so annoyed her in-laws that fuel was poured over her and she was set on fire so her agony in death resembled her life?

All that even the best among us will remember is a faint image of a tortured body and disfigured face. That’s all. We are like this because we choose to be so. Otherwise, why would we have tolerated an environment where questions of women’s equality are seen as challenges to the divine will.

Don’t shake your head. Believe me these aren’t holier-than-thou words. I read Gorrostieta’s amazing story followed by someone’s Tweet about the International Day against Domestic Violence and I reflected.

I couldn’t even recall the names of the women who earned filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy an Oscar and international acclaim. I am bereft. My indifference towards heroic women, in their millions, whose silence makes a statement every day, is inexplicable. Can you say you are different?