When Brandon Stanton of the Humans Of New York fame came to Pakistan in 2015, it was monumental. In between the world labelling Pakistan as the hub of exporting terrorism, the photographer, photojournalist and activist was a beacon of hope, a third party willing (and daring) to show the world a glimpse of Pakistan from an entirely different perspective.
He toured the North, bringing one-off stories from common Pakistanis.
Showcasing, yet again, how borders do not define people and at the end of the day, how common our troubles are.
One of the stories he highlighted was Syeda Ghulam Fatima’s, the fearless and relentless messiah striving for the rights of bonded labour in brick kilns.
If you hadn’t heard about Fatima Bibi’s initiative before HONY, it’s okay. Many unsung heroes in the world pass away without as much as a footnote in history but Fatima will not be one of them.
A seven-part series signature to HONY’s spirit of photojournalism delved into Fatima’s crusade against bonded labor and her journey of providing rehabilitation and freedom facilities to victims of this heinous crime, oft deemed as “modern day slavery”
Having worked for their freedom and rights for decades, Fatima Bibi quickly became the subject of world’s sympathies. Through her organization, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Fatima had previously established Freedom Centers where laborers could seek protection and seek legal counsel. A call for action was raised by HONY and within hours, donations poured in for the cause.
The ‘Harriet Tubman’ of Pakistan received a whopping 2.3 million dollars worth of aid from all parts of the world to further her efforts.
By September 2015, her story was recognized world over and she was awarded the prestigious Clinton Global Citizen Award. The following year, her accolades included the much coveted nomination for Aurora Prize For Awakening Humanity.
A recent article, however, made everyone second guess her true nature and the authenticity of her organization.
The article delved into narrating months of establishing contact with Fatima’s NGO, counting various instances that downgraded the cause and detailed the results of those donations.
To quote the article directly:
“The NGO claims that it raised USD 2.3 million (PKR 246,114,003) through HONY for a project called ‘Freedom Center’, which was meant to offer a safe haven for rescued workers. The NGO maintains that one of the first centers is being built on Raiwind Road, Lahore but, like many government projects plagued by corruption, this one seems to exist only in photographs and on paper.
Unfortunately, the donations – supposed to be used for liberating bonded slaves and the eradication of bonded labor – seem to have been swept under the rug, and no one seems to know how they are being used, or, indeed if they are being used.”
BLLF was discredited for misquoting facts regarding construction, lack of accountability for money and the rescued laborers. Seemingly “evidence” was shared to put doubt on the legitimacy of Fatima Bibi’s NGO. This information stirred a mix of emotions as people much like myself expressed their outrage, disgust, disbelief and general disappointment.
On the flip side, however, is another story.
MangoBaaz got in touch with Fazeelat Aslam, the acclaimed Pakistani film maker and co-producer to Academy Award winning documentary “Saving Face” who has been closely affiliated with Syeda Ghulam Fatima.
Between 2011-2013, Fazeelat Aslam produced a piece on Syeda Ghulam Fatima every year, covering her story for international publications like Al-Jazeera and VICE, producing a report and multiple video shorts. Spending months with the abolitionist, she has a thorough understanding of not only Fatima’s character and integrity but the impact BLLF has had on “bhatta mazdoori”.
Speaking about her experience working closely with Fatima, Fazeelat was quick to recount it as nothing short of “incredible”
“It was incredible how she worked, she didn’t sleep, she barely ate. She worked day and night by my side. I was often in awe. I’ve had mic on her with her being completely unaware, she has been pursued by armed men, regardless, she has always been consistent. Her empathy is immense, anyone who has seen her with her co-workers knows the depths of her commitment to her cause”, Fazeelat says.
It was Fazeelat Aslam who put Brandon Stanton from Humans Of New York in touch with Syeda Ghulam Fatima.
“Brandon reached out to me before his impending travel to Pakistan and Fatima was someone I was a hundred percent certain about putting forward to him. I never doubted her character for a second”, Ms. Aslam admits.
“No matter what the article says, the mazdoors treat her with more respect than anyone else.”
Addressing the many inaccuracies in the article that she labels “slanderous”, Fazeelat maintains that she has documented proof regarding the construction of “Freedom Center” being far from complete.
“Being currently in the process of filming a documentary on Syeda Ghulam Fatima, I have her on camera from back in December 2016, stating how the construction is in its nascent, most basic stages and while BLLF had aimed to have some substantial construction done by 2017, given the constant security threats, there is no date that has been confirmed.”
“You should also know that the article has insinuated that the 2.3 million worth of donations would be used towards building a Freedom Center but the vision from the very start was to use the monies raised to facilitate the emancipation of bonded laborers through greater outreach. Anyone who understands how freeing bonded labor works understands there is a lot of expenditure at play. It is on record that by June 2016 alone, BLLF had rescued 470 labourers, these cases are all officially filed through the high court, that doesn’t account for the many who have continued to be rescued since, but the larger changes to challenge the systematic problems around bonded labour will take years to implement, and anything else would be wasteful.”
When asked whether there is complete transparency with regarding to the funds, Fazeelat notes that exactly 12% of the funds have been used so far.
“Fatima has been in constant contact with Brandon Stanton and myself, she has asked us on multiple occasions to document her progress because she wants the world to be assured about where the money is being used. Look, I’ve personally accompanied Fatima to the bank, stood with her in the same room as her bank manager, with the camera rolling. The article also states that Fatima has been working on the center for the past two years when the truth is that she only received the first installment of the donation less than a year and a half ago.”
“It is important to remind people, she has been shot at, her life is at constant threat, she is one of the few people working against bhatta maalkaan. The consequences are dire and the wealthy owners of these brick kilns are committing atrocities everyday”
With such factors at play, the progress has been hampered greatly and the road ahead is equally daunting but that doesn’t discredit the cause nor does it disbar the organization Fatima has been instrumental in the workings of. As far as the process of handling funds is concerned, board approvals are associated with any/all withdrawal. Speaking on individual capacity as a character witness for Fatima, Fazeelat calls for an immediate retraction of the said article, calling it a poorly researched and written with obvious bias. “The criminal misrepresentation of facts cannot be ignored”, Fazeelat opines.
It is noteworthy to pinpoint that the author had neither contacted Fazeelat Aslam nor Brandon Stanton for fact-checking purposes before the article was published.
“Despite multiple reassurances by Fatima regarding the bare minimal usage of the funds, the author wrote otherwise.”
As a case that has garnered global interest, it is imperative that the details of the workings of BLLF be shared not only for the sake of transparency but in the spirit of not maligning causes that are genuinely working for the betterment of those in need. With many allegations sufficiently refuted, it is absolutely critical for BLLF to make the details publicly known wherein the publications must ensure that upon making allegations verified documentation is provided so that future projects such as these are not looked down upon with added suspicion and scrutiny.
The journalistic misconduct here, if proven, not only needs to be addressed head on but used as an example.