05 October 2015

Rizana Nafeek and dimensions of our poverties

There were prayers for the girl.  Maybe we don't realize that we should pray for ourselves.

This article was published on October 5, 2011, exactly 4 years ago, in the 'Daily News'.  Rizana is no more and yet she's still among us in many ways.  

I wrote about Rizana Nafeek, the young girl sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian Courts. The context makes one feel utterly impotent. Helpless. These are moments for prayer, for the praying kind (which I am not). I can but plead and hope. 

The article I wrote (published in the Daily News of November 4, 2010 as ‘Save Rizana!’) generated some feedback. I was humbled and corrected and thought I should share. 

First of all, I made the common error of conflating schools of faith on the basis of common source. I referred to Rumi, Hafiz, Ghalib and Khayyam, ignoring the fact that they belong to a different culture and subscribed to a different articulation of the Mohammedan faith. They were not Sunni Muslims like the Saudis and I was reminded by a reader that the Sunnis do not even consider Sufis to be Muslims. 

Dumping all denominations alluding to the same teacher, say, in one lot so that the sins, wrong-doings and blemishes of one can be drawn and used to taint the other is common in debate and inter-religion politics. It is good to be alert and good to be chided, even in the friendly manner in which my friend the reader did. My apologies. 

As important are the following facts about the case, which were sent to me by another reader: 

He pointed out that ‘the dead infant’s parents have to consent to a pardon but they are the ones responsible for the fatality for placing their infant in the care of a housemaid, untrained for nursery duties and not understanding what had been expected of her’. 
There is an element of negligence and therefore complicity that the Saudi Courts appear to have ignored. Perhaps that’s a loop in their law and perhaps there’s very good reason for them to leave such escape-windows open, I don’t know. 

My friends adds, ‘The confession, which she later recanted, had been in Arabic - a language she never understood’ and says that charges had not been explained to her. I don’t think the Saudi law can be this insensitive. Perhaps the Saudi mission in Colombo will clarify how this happened and what kind of logic was applied here. 

He points out, ‘Rizana’s language was Tamil, but the interpreter provided to her at the trial was an Indian Muslim’ and surmises, probably correctly, that the interpreter’s Tamil dialect must have been just as alien as the Arabic. That’s troubling. He points out that Rizana was 17 at the time of the alleged offence and execution of a person who committed a crime when a minor is against Saudi law. 

The most moving and troubling response was the following: 

‘I have been praying for Rizana night and day, because for me this issue is personal - not a matter of right or wrong or the laws of the land. I believe the baby in question choked to death. I am haunted by an event that took place in 1961-we had gone to Jaffna from Dambulla for a wedding. My baby daughter had a mild temperature; it didn’t seem serious-I left her with my sister and went out. When I returned two hours later her temperature had risen slightly. I was giving her some fruit juice which she seemed to suck without a problem; what I didn’t realise was that she was ‘convulsing’ while sucking-the juice was going down her airways. Suddenly she stiffened - we rushed her to hospital. When I handed her over to the nuns in ‘Paediatrics’ her feet and hands were blue! She got pneumonia and was saved, I think, by the consultant and the nuns. Instead of three days in Jaffna we had a traumatic three weeks. 

‘I thought I was ‘educated’ but I almost killed my own child. Rizana was a child, uneducated and alone. 

‘I don’t think that God or the Prophet advocate this type of justice. Isn’t it strange that we twist everything that is good into something that is evil?’ 

The evidence has been marked by a lot of hush-hush and I don’t think we will hear the true story. It is quite possible that this is indeed how the infant had died. Either way, we are talking about a child here, a 17 year old who has never handled children before, never been a mother. 

We do twist everything good into something evil, my friend is correct. We can do better though. I am convinced of this. A lot will die if Rizana is made victim of a system of legal murder. 

I shudder. Not out of fear. Sorrow. Pity. 

All I see is a little girl called Rizana who is so innocent that she does not know that she has precipitated a lot of teaching. I’ve benefited. I say ‘thank you’ and feel that I’ve uttered a blasphemy. That is how poor I am right now.