Women, social media and the revolution – Digital Warriors | DW Documentary
I fight for peace because I understand
the consequence of war and I understand the price that one has to pay for war. The people who have lost their family will never be able to recover from it. We use social media to tell our story – to end FGM. Every year three million girls are cut. Why is it that we're being silent about the lives of these girls? There is a daily war in Iran about my lifestyle. They have guns and bullets; we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our social media. They cannot keep these people silent. That is something that I never lose hope. It’s a punishable crime to be unveiled in public according to the Sharia laws in Iran. You get lashes, you get jailed and fined. But more important than this, you won't be allowed to get an education from the age of seven if you take off your headscarf. You won't be allowed to get a job. You won’t be allowed to live in your own country. I want to have the same freedom in my own country and chance for my own freedom without getting arrested, without getting killed, without being beaten up. My body, my choice! My campaign was born from a simple picture. It was a picture of me running in a beautiful street in London. It was a spring, May, the trees were full of blossoms. And I wrote a caption on my picture that every time when I run in a free country and I feel the wind through my hair, it just reminds me of the time when my hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government. I asked women whether they wanted to share their pictures with me, stealthy moments of freedom with me. I was bombarded by pictures from them inside Iran being unveiled. So I created My Stealthy Freedom page on Facebook which now has more than a million followers, on Instagram more than a million followers. And it's all about freedom. It's all about dignity. It's all about choice. This is the house where the cutting happened. I remember that day like it was yesterday… This house is where I went from being just a normal young girl to being a survivor of FGM. Female genital mutilation in Guinea is rampant. We are the country with the second highest rate of girls and women who are cut. Between 96 percent and 98 percent of all women and girls in Guinea have been cut. The reason why fighting FGM in the country is so difficult is that it crosses social barriers. Educated people are cutting their children, non-educated people are cutting their children, poor people are cutting, rich people are cutting, Christians are cutting, Muslims are cutting. People who don’t believe in any religion and are actually practicing ancient religions are also cutting. Girls are cut from when they are born, to anywhere about 10, 11. Sometimes, if it is later, it is 12, 13, 14. So from when they are born, usually from a week old to that age of adolescence, they cut. There Is No Limit Foundation started in 2008 with my sister Mariama Mounir Camara-Petrolawicz and myself. We started it with 18 dollars. So with 18 dollars and a dream, we knew that we wanted people to have dignity and to be able to help themselves. So all of our programs are based in communities. We work with locals and we do microloans. We give women and girls the opportunity to have economic mobility, to own their own businesses, to take care of themselves. The project of FGM only started in 2016. To us, it is not just about dropping the rate of FGM, it’s about creating a new culture. It’s about creating a new tradition and a new norm in our society. Without social media, our work wouldn't be the same. I actually use social media to connect with other sister activists around the world that are fighting against FGM. Sisters from Sudan, from India, from Somalia, all working in their own corner on FGM. We use social media to re-group, to strategize, to support one another. Sometimes an activist might get death threats and tell us, "What do I do?" and we help them respond to it. Social media is critical, it's critical to everything that we do. My father is Captain Mandeep Singh. He was an army officer who lost his life during the Kargil War on 6th August 1999. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Ever since I was 12, I knew that I wanted to write this book. It’s called “Small Acts of Freedom”. It's a family history, it's a memoir. It's a story about three generations of single women who've lived life on their own terms, and it’s inserted with the memories that I have of my father. “He comes back sleeping in a wooden box, with a bandage on his chest – on the same spot where I used to lean my tiny head against and sleep, listening to the rhythm of his heartbeat. My father is finally home. I don’t understand how he can sleep amidst all this noise and crying. People are taking his name over and over again, but he does not wake up.” When I was six years old, we were in this utensil market. It was the first time I saw a woman in a burqa and because I was told that Muslims are responsible for the death of my father, that Pakistan is responsible for the death of my father, I took a knife that was there and I leapt to go try and stab her. My mother just caught on to me as she saw me running. She had no idea what I was going to do. But when she noticed, I think that’s when she realized how much hatred I had been having in my own heart. Kashmir has been this territory that both the countries have been fighting over. But it’s just this tiny patch of land and it’s divided us still to such a great extent that you have to face so much violence and damages and that so many people like me, so many young girls like me, are paying the price for this kind of hatred on both sides of the border. This is where the retreat ceremony happens every day, where soldiers from the Pakistani rangers and the soldiers from the Indian side they shake hands and then there's this demonstration of power on who’s more powerful. Also to evoke this nationalist sentiment in both the countries, but it’s not hateful. There are just two gates here and across the gates the crowds look the same to my eyes. We’re the same color, we are speaking the same language. The least that we as citizens, as human beings can do is end the hatred in our heart and cross that wire metaphorically. I grew up in a small village which is close to the Caspian Sea. When I get homesick, the only thing that makes me feel home and happy is just going to nature. Climbing a tree, going to a mountain or walking on the seaside. It just reminds me of home. Our kitchens in the village are designed for women, because they’re shorter, women are shorter than men. So I remember I used to say to my brother, I know this is short for you but there is a chair, sit down and wash the dishes. So that shows that I started my feminist movement, my feminist revolution from my kitchen. That is important for women. We have to start being a rebel in our house. In our village, we did not have a toilet in our house we had an outhouse. In the darkness, we had to go out. My mother used to say that the darkness is a monster, a shapeless black demon that feeds off your fear. If you are scared of it, then the shadow grows bigger and it will envelop you and swallow you whole. ‘Open your eyes wide, as wide as possible’, she’d urge me when I was a young girl. ‘Stare into the darkness and the shadows will disappear. Never be afraid of the darkness, but stare it down.’ My mother never had the chance to go to school, to university, never. She is not even able to read and write, but to me she is the true feminist. My father, he stopped talking to me. He doesn’t support me, he thinks that I am against Islam, I’m against my own country, that I am betraying my country. But I think these are all happening because the government really brainwashed people like my father. Otherwise my father loves me. When I was a student I got kicked out of high school just because of my opinion. And then I became a journalist, a parliamentary journalist, I got kicked out from the MPs, because I exposed corruption. I became a columnist, then again, because I criticized the president of Iran. It was just a week before the controversial election in 2009. My car got vandalized in Iran and two of my journalistic cards were under my vehicle wheel, so that was a message for me that you know, it’s going to happen to you as well. So I decided to just leave the country. Now I am here and I am not going to keep silent. This is the room that I was living in when I was cut. So I heard conversations and singing. African women, we talk loud – because it was a celebration to them – and I just said, “Well, the singing is really close to me, really, really close to me.” I panicked. So I wanted to run away. But, they come, we walk outside to the courtyard and then we line up with my cousins and others and I will take that long walk. I can't see what they are doing. But then, just this moment where in that movement where I just feel this sharp pain and it's just like: "What is this?" I describe it like… Imagine when you're opening a zipper, that slowness of opening the zipper, you know. And literally I could feel my clitoris just ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts – off. And then pain, and then confusion. I wasn't angry at my mom. I'm not angry at my mom, I'm not angry at my aunts. I was angry at myself. I think that is the problem with survivors, that we sometimes take it too hard on ourselves. I was mad at myself, I was mad at myself for not hiding well enough, I was mad at myself for not biting their hands, all of these scenarios it was always me – I did something wrong. My activism started from my writing. The closest cause to my heart was always India/Pakistan So I would write blogs and I would write stories and I would interact with people. And just slowly I became part of these Indo-Pak groups and slowly I became part of these online movements and forums. Social media is that platform where I can reach out to people, because there are so many people on my social media now. And it’s strange, when I look at the numbers I am quite surprised, but I also understand that it’s a lot of responsibility. When we started that campaign, somebody, well, the right wing mostly, picked up one placard from my video to make a point that I am an anti-national human being and I have anti national tendencies because I ask for peace with Pakistan. Gurmehar Kaur, a young student of Lady Sri Ram College who has ignited a fiery debate on social media and beyond, on nationalism and free speech. What drove many at the time was the belief that her video ended up giving a clean sheet to Pakistan. She wants peace with Pakistan… So after the whole thing became national news, after when I was on every single prime time, it was a very, very scary time. My phone was hot because there were so many messages coming back-to-back and the strangest thing is they were all messages of hate, they were all messages of how somebody would want to hurt me, very explicit messages of how one would want to tear my limbs apart and how they would want to rape me. Do you know who this people were, did they call you up to threaten you or was it on social media? You apparently have reported this to the police now. It doesn't matter how the threat is coming to you. Whether it is a pigeon bringing it or whether it is on social media or whether somebody is calling you. Rape threats are not okay, death threats are not okay. These things are not jokes. You are fearing your life, because it’s not just one person saying it to you that you can go to police and report it. It’s a hundred different accounts, it’s a hundred different people saying it to you. And that gets to you. I think no matter how strong you are that kind of hatred in that volume has a way of getting into your head. I launched My Stealthy Freedom, but after three years it was everywhere. The president of Iran knew about it, talked about it, all the media around the world, the media inside Iran, Iranian state TV, clerics, and I thought, oh my God, now this is the time: we have to shift the online movement to something offline. These people need to identify each other. In 2017 I decided to pick a day, pick a color, and help these people to identify each other in public. These women on White Wednesdays, they are lonely soldiers, lonely warriors. I called it a one-person demonstration, because they never have the permission to take the street. They will be shot, they will be put in prison, they will be tortured. But they are brave, they found their way to protest against oppression. It’s not me leading the campaign; it’s them leading the campaign. And I am only their voices. This is the time men should get involved in women’s movements. So I created another campaign called ‘Men in Hijab’. The government in Iran wants to control society. Because they know that this generation is not going to keep silent. They found social media as an alternative media to express themselves, to be loud and to break the censorship. That is why the social media itself is a threat for Islamic Republic of Iran, so they try to block it. Because they see this is the main battleground. And they don’t want to lose control. The rituals, the ways that girls are being lined up when they are actually being cut, those rituals come from the past, and it is still something that people are continuing. This is all about the secret of FGM – it’s almost like a secret sisterhood. What we are doing is to remove the secrecy around the cutting, so we want people to be able to understand it so that they understand that – one, the cutting is not necessary, so we are doing alternative rites of passage. What the community showed us was how they used to celebrate the girls, but then it will end with the cutting. And what we are trying to do with them is to teach them that you could still celebrate girls, you could still celebrate your tradition, but you don’t need to do the cutting. When we are doing events, we use social media to tell people where we are going to be. The young people, they’ll post it on social media, tag us to it, and talk about how we are talking about FGM and the fact that they are denouncing it. This is a weekly show actually. In this show I give the platform to women inside Iran. I mean mostly women; it’s about people inside Iran who can use their camera and be their own voices, their own media and send the video to me. I feel like I am hugging the whole Iran. They kicked me out from my country, but they could not take Iran out of me. So now, social media and this show is my window toward Iran. Of course, I am scared of receiving a lot of death threats. Especially when I see the government attack me through cyber army like calling me a prostitute, calling me ugly, the agent of CIA, the agent of MI6. This kind of thing from the beginning was kind of hurting me, but not now – not anymore. I come here in my happy times to thank God for everything good that has happened. But I also come here whenever I am sad, whenever I need help, whenever I feel so helpless that I have to reach out to something greater than me. Life has changed a lot. Now I am going to be a public figure, people will know me by my face, by my work. Just give me strength that I can take this position of influence, this position where so many people looking at me what I have to say. Please, give me strength so I can give the best to the world, the best to mankind. I have so many dreams, but the biggest one is: one day, women in Iran have the power to run the country. My dream is just to see women are as equal as men. She’s cut hundreds of girls per her recollection. She doesn’t know the actual count. I am glad that she promised to me – she swore to God – that she will not cut a child again. My dream is that women will be valued all over the world, that it will be okay to be a woman, that we don’t have to explain the space that we have to take.