On blasphemy, the time for action, symbols, and what you did on your wedding night

July 26, 5 AM
The mass of insects outside my room are buzzing as loudly as a machine at the moment. I’m in the clouds once again; perhaps the fog will lift soon so I can see the valley with its undulating hills.

I’m in a small town called Dhulikhel, about 30 km outside of busy, bustling Kathmandu. We’ve just completed our first day of our South Asian Training of Trainers workshop with almost a dozen participants from 6 nations. The participants are from NGOs working in human rights and are alumni of Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program from the past 5 years. As usual, there are a number of stories worth recounting, but let me focus on only a few for now.

Kill the Christians
Conversation at the dinner table focuses on the usual things in these types of settings: our families, our histories, the beauty of the scenery around us, what we’ve discovered in our walks around town, some of the more memorable moments of the workshop, the struggles and successes of our human rights work and the absurdity of the violations around us. One participant from Pakistan told of two Christian brothers who were killed last week after being accused of blasphemy. According to one website: “ The two were arrested less than a month ago after leaflets allegedly bearing their names and featuring derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad were found around town.” Christians in Pakistan are the second-largest minority after Hindus, and while there are almost three million of them, they make up only a fraction of the population and are regularly discriminated against. Good old Wikipedia informs me that there are a number of blasphemy laws, with little room for leniency if found guilty: “Defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming Prophet Mohammed merits death with or without a fine.” Well, at least there’s no fine for the latter offence.

This is the time
Earlier in the day, our hosts for the TOT, INSEC, Informal Sector Service Center officially opened the workshop. Bijay Raj Gautam, INSEC’s Executive Director, said a few words before introducing Sudobh Raj Pyakurel, founder and Chairperson of the organization. Soft-spoken but with firm conviction, he welcomed us by succinctly describing the human rights situation in Nepal. Now that the second attempt to elect a new Prime Minister has failed (round 3 is scheduled for August 2), he implored that political parties, now more than ever, must embrace human rights in order to create lasting social change. It’s the time to educate our leaders on the primacy of human rights as a core principle for peace. It is also imperative to educate citizens to know and subsequently assert their rights as well. He mentioned that civil society’s voice is now weaker than before in Nepal, and it brought a hint of familiarity to the situation in Canada. Last year, Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary-General, noted with disappointment that the Canadian government had not consulted civil society in its report to the Universal Periodic Review. Civil society did nonetheless contribute their own reports to the UN; they can be found here. On top of that, a number of Canadian NGOs are suffering from recent funding cuts by the government. (Read this to find out more on the effects of these cuts on women’s organizations in Canada.)


Before the break, I asked participants to go to the garden and choose something symbolic to them and to come back after the break and to explain why they had chosen such a symbol. Whatever they chose had to symbolize how they felt about their work. It’s an activity I’d done a number of times in the past, but hadn’t thought of it until I looked at a letter my older son wrote to me last week before I took the plane. Fresh from a trip to Vancouver where my children discovered the symbolism of Native art, my son wrote, “I will choose three things that will give you good luck.”

Rocks, leaves, flowers, grass, drawings of light bulbs and a man in an ever-growing circle, digestive pills and one person saying he saw himself as a gardener were some of the symbols identified and explained with simple and heartfelt clarity. It showed without a doubt the passion these people have towards their work and the creativity that is within each one.

What exactly did you do on your wedding night?
At one point during yesterday’s workshop, a participant encouraged a couple of soft-spoken participants to speak up in order to be heard. I picked up on the point and asked that participant to show us how to speak clearly and loudly enough to a large group of participants. He got up and brilliantly improvised a 3-minute discussion; he was clear and everyone heard. Then I asked anyone else who wanted to get up and practice their own speaking skills in front of a group, and another brave soul got up. She asked us how we were, smiled throughout, made us feel comfortable, spoke clearly, then asked us to form groups of two. Then she told us to share with our neighbour what it was like for us during our wedding night. With puzzled looks all around the room, she kept on asking us to describe exactly what took place during that special night. All the details, go on, don’t leave anything out. Bemusement changed to laughter as some of us struggled to share these intimate thoughts, while most, I think, abstained from any description.

As the laughter died down she then asked us to think of a young girl who’d been raped and had to tell her story in a courtroom. All of a sudden that sobered us up. She went on to tell us that recounting such a traumatic event for a young girl in front of so many people is an extremely difficult thing to do, and in fact most young women in Nepal (where the participant’s from) would not have the ability to express themselves that way. The activity was one she’d facilitated before as a means to raise people’s awareness on the issue. It had the intended effect on us, and we engaged in a longer conversation afterwards, questioning how best to present and facilitate such an activity.

And now it’s time to get ready for Day 2. More later.

One thought on “On blasphemy, the time for action, symbols, and what you did on your wedding night

  • Hi all,
    Thanks Paul for providing us a space for reflecting on the TOT and some HR issues in this region. The workshop has started and started well. The venue is good, food is satisfactory, participants are open to sharing and learning, and of course, we have good facilitators. Paul has given us some resource material on adult learning which says “adults are voluntary learners. They perform best when they have decided to attend the training for a particular reason”. The first two days are enough to conclude that the participants have certain reasons to attend this TOT. So they are performing well. In my opinion the human rights educators in the region of South Asia face more challenges in comparison with other parts of the world. It is very tricky, risky and even life threatening business in most of the South Asian countries. In my country, Pakistan, human rights is still an alien concept for more than 99 percent of the population. It is very difficult to decide from where we should take off.


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