I walked into Muniba’s flat in Islamabad decorated with her vibrant paintings and her sprightly six year old son racing up and down the living room with all the energy in the world. My initial plan for this cover story was to write about Muniba’s work and her future plans. When she finally made her way into her living room, she was not her normal cheerful self. Having known Muniba for so many years, it was strange to see her so glum. She is usually good at hiding her emotions, but this time it was abundantly clear that something was troubling her.
When I asked her, she turned to me and said, “This is all wrong. Everything that is happening and continues to happen to these innocent children is making me sick! Watching injustice unfold at every level of society makes me feel helpless. I want to begin by talking about it. That is the least I can do for now.”
Zainab Ansari’s murder had come to light two weeks before our conversation, so Muniba had enough time to absorb it and collect her thoughts. Once again, we have lost a precious soul in such a horrific manner was her first thought. She then pointed out that she wants to speak about these issues not to downgrade, but to help Pakistan.
“The first step towards solving a problem is to admit that you have a problem in the first place.” If we do not have conversations about issues that plague society how are we ever going to improve? If we do not talk about sexual abuse, or intolerance in general, we will continue to suffer.”
Muniba made it clear that she was pleased with the way the media put Zainab’s murder in sharp focus, and if the pressure continues to mount, Zainab and her family may get justice, justice that so many others have been denied but she worries that the outrage that we have seen may not be constructive enough to tackle the problem of sexual abuse.
“It is heartening to see that the Pakistani media is all over this case. The people of Pakistan are clearly horrified by what has happened to this precious girl, and like me they are speaking out.” However, I fear that we are following a trend that we have followed in the past. The display pictures on Facebook, angry posts, hashtags, and of course the blame games. But the question remains, what are we going to do next?”
Muniba expounded by arguing that while this anger from the public is a step in the right direction, we need to be aware of the fact that this is not the first time something like this has happened.
“When I was watching the outrage being expressed on television and social media, I felt like I was experiencing some sort of déjà vu.
My thoughts went to Mashal Khan, the poor boy that was beaten to death by angry students last April. Then I thought of Mughees and Muneeb Butt, the two brothers that were lynched in Sialkot. Then Faizan Bashir, a 15 year old boy who was raped and murdered in Faisalabad. Those poor children in Kasur 3 years ago who were forced to commit sexual acts on camera. We are raising our voices and signing petitions, which is great, but again, what are we going to do next? It is time to make a concerted effort towards creating constructive solutions to tackle these issues. We can complain and say that the State is not doing enough, which might be correct, but we have to take it upon ourselves to make a difference. The sad part is that these are just the cases that have been reported. Who knows how many more innocent children are suffering at the hands of these monsters.”
Muniba went on, this time talking about her son, and how she worries for his safety. Being a single mother is hard enough, but when such horrific acts are being carried out against children, you are in constant fear.
“It is not only me, but every single mother feels this way. It is sad to say that I do not feel safe for my son. His safety is something that I am always thinking about. Only a mother can truly understand what I am saying.”
Muniba went further by talking about the lack of tolerance in society. She is terrified that her son is growing up in a time of hatred and negativity. “Being a mother my number one job is to raise my son to be a good human being. We cannot deny the fact there is a severe lack of tolerance in our society. I still feel that we have difficulty accepting people for who they are, or who they want to be. Minorities continue to be treated in a deplorable manner. As many may know, I, along with members of the transgender community have organized a food drive in Islamabad over the weekends. When I hear about the atrocities transgender individuals face on a daily basis, it makes me realise that our moral fabric is slowly coming undone. I hope that we see a day that we begin to not only accept, but embrace our differences.”
Being in the public eye is never easy, especially with social media growing everyday. For a celebrity, escaping criticism or insults is near impossible. When I asked Muniba about this, she immediately had something to say.
“If somehow you escape physical harm, people will find a way to mentally scar you on social media. The constant filth and untruths that is hurled at you will eventually take its toll. At my most vulnerable moments, those awful words really get to me, despite the fact that it is all garbage. It is as if these people go out of their way to virtually lynch you.”
“It is difficult to step away from it, but in the end I do. I realise that these disgusting keyboard warriors hiding behind fake profiles are nothing but cowards. This is not just happening to people who are in the public eye. Cyber bullying is a massive problem, and we need to start addressing it.”
At the very beginning of this discussion, Muniba made it clear that she wants to bring these issues to light so society can redress them.
“ I say all this because I genuinely believe that there is hope. I have met so many wonderful people who are striving to make a difference. When I host the Ramadan show on PTV Home, I meet so many inspirational people who are looking to make Pakistan a safer and more tolerant place. I adore my country as we all do. I know we are better than this, and I know that we can start having these conversations in a rational manner. If we focus our energy on fighting intolerance and injustice and strive to be good people the mindset will begin to change.”