Last year two young women from Bangladesh and India shared the first Meeto Memorial Award, at a ceremony held in Delhi. The ceremony, being held in Dhaka on October 1 this year, will honour Akeela Naz from Pakistan in recognition of her struggle for the land rights of farmers and women. Her struggle encapsulates the spirit the Award aims to recognize and celebrate.
Akeela Naz is seen as the person behind the 'Thapa force', "an army of protesting women farmers, each wielding a thapa (a stick used to wash/beat clothes with). Outside the region, she is known as a grassroots revolutionary fighting for the rights of a million landless farmers," says the citation released to the media.
Born in 1976 to a landless farmer's family, Akeela's young life has been "a saga of struggles," says the citation. Her family lived in dismal poverty even though both parents toiled day and night in the farm to provide for her and her four siblings. They were "among millions of poor farmers who were forced to pay heavy revenue (in cash and kind) to companies and military agencies that did not even own the land. Fed up of endless exploitation at the hands of corrupt and abusive officers and rising revenue payments, farmers of the region launched an uprising called the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP) or the Tenants Association Punjab. The movement demanded ownership of land by tenant farmers who had laboured and cultivated these lands for over a century, yet had no legal rights over it."
Young Akeela dropped out of college and joined the struggle in its early days. The AMP with a membership of several thousand tenant farmers from across Punjab, raised the slogan of 'Maliki ya Maut' (ownership or death) and approached the local and provincial administration. "All their efforts at engaging the government on the issue went in vain. In fact, the authorities intimidated the farmers through armed police and paramilitary rangers. At one occasion of protest, a few farmers were killed during police firing and hundreds, including women and children, were injured."
Living in a small village (Chak 87/10 R, pop. 6000, 4 km from Khanewal) about an hour's drive from Multan, she was the AMP's first woman member. Over the years, her involvement and role in mobilising farmers, especially women, became crucial to the struggle. The AMP's membership now numbers some 10 lakh, working in ten districts.
Since the year 2000, Akeela has actively campaigned across Punjab and organised women into self-defense committees. "Women learnt to use their thapas as a weapon for self-protection and to guard their lands and families against encroaching police forces. Akeela's army of women came out in full strength during a massive public rally in March 2010. This turned out to be a decisive event for the farmers. It finally forced the government to give in to AMP's demand of land ownership by tenant farmers. Akeela was one of the main interlocutors during the ultimate parleys with the government," says the citation.
Akeela also "leveraged the opportunity of massive gatherings of women to fight for peasant women's inheritance rights. She mobilised women around issues of health, literacy and domestic violence. In 2008-9, Akeela registered the Peasant Women Society with the objectives of empowering women farmers with education and vocational training."
A Christian by birth, Akeela has worked in the face of threats and dangers with total dedication for the rights of the marginalised, says the Citation.
Talking to Aman ki Asha, Akeela said she feels good about being recognised for what she has done, but there is much more to be done. "This Award has given me encouragement and strength and has empowered me to do more," she added. "I'm happy that my efforts have brought a positive change in the lives of poor peasants, and what we are doing is being appreciated not only on a local level but internationally."
Akeela visited India in Jan 2003, representing Pakistani Mazareen in the South Asian Forum. "People there also want to meet people here, across the border. Asian countries should work for the spread of peace. Together, we are stronger. That budget of millions of rupees that we spend on defense should be spent on other sectors," she said, adding that she strongly supports Aman ki Asha
Women from Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Burma are expected to attend what is all set to be a truly South Asian event. Sunila Abeyasekera, the award-winning Sri Lankan human rights campaigner will deliver the keynote speech. Indian feminist Abha Bhaiya, will say a few words about Meeto, and respected Pakistani academic Rubina Saigol presenting the citation for Akeela Naz. Bangladeshi singer Anusheh Anadil, one of last year's awardees, will present the award. Akeela Naz will say a few words about her struggles, followed by a word of thanks from the Bangladeshi activist Hameeda Hossain. Anusheh Anadil will also give a special performance.
Many of these activists, including Kamla Bhasin herself, are involved with the South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers (Sangat). Sangat's annual month-long gender training and leadership course is being conducted in Dhaka this year. The Network celebrates its 25 years this year - http://sangatsouthasia.org.
- Samra Waqas
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
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