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While the Iranian government may not be the biggest fan of native actress Golshifteh Farahani after her skin-baring photo shoot forLe Madame Figaro and for appearing partially nude in a short film, the blogosphere is showing her some love. Reuters reports that a Facebook page created in support of the actress has more than 3,400 ‘likes’ and counting.

But her supporters haven’t stopped there.

In an act of solidarity, many fans are taking their own nude photos and posting them online, Reuters reports. Farahani was banned from returning to Iran by the country’s government after her semi-nude appearances.

The Iranian actress has said that her appearances were in protest of Iran’s restrictions on how women are allowed to appear in public, according to The Daily Beast. The Facebook page created in support of Farahani’s protest says its goal is “to support Golshifteh’s move, in order to say NO to relegion (sic), tradition, culture and anti women’s law.” The group description ends with the words, “Viva freedom !!!”

Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani poses during a photocall for the film ‘About Elly’ by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and presented in competition at the 59th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin February 7, 2009. The Berlinale is taking place from February 5 to 15, 2009 with 18 productions vying for the coveted Golden Bear for best picture to be awarded February 14.


Rakhshanda Jalil
You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women. — Jawaharlal Nehru

The proportion of Muslim women who are illiterate is substantially higher for rural north India than for the entire country — more than 85 per cent reported themselves to be illiterate. Fewer than 17 per cent of Muslim women ever enrolled completed eight years of schooling and fewer than 10 per cent completed higher secondary education, which is below the national average.
According to the 1991 Census, there were over 48 million Muslim women in India; in 2001 the number rose to 62.5 million. In popular perception, these women are typically seen as a monolithic entity undistinguished and indistinguishable in their homogeneity. The spotlight, when it falls on them, tends to do no more than view the role of religion in their lives and reinforce the usual stereotypes: pardah, multiple marriages, triple talaq, the male privilege of unilateral divorce and the bogey of personal law. The truth, however, is that like women from other communities, Muslim women too are differentiated across class, caste, community, and geographical location (including the great rural-urban divide). Despite these differences within their lot, when compared to women from other faiths in India, the majority of Muslim women are among the most disadvantaged, least literate, most economically impoverished and politically marginalized sections of Indian society. While debates on personal law and divorce are pertinent and timely, and one is not for a minute running down these issues, Muslim women need to be seen as social beings too, entitled to the same rights that the Constitution of India grants to all its citizens. The right to education, especially at the primary level is mandated by the Constitution, yet over six decades after Independence less than 50% of Muslim women in India are literate. Compare this with other women from other minorities: 76% literacy among Christians, 64% among Sikhs, 62% among Buddhists and a whopping 90% among Jain women!
According to an ORG-Marg Muslim Women’s Survey — commissioned by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi — conducted in 2000-2001 in 40 districts spanning 12 states, the enrolment percentage of Muslim girl children is a mere 40.66 per cent. As a consequence, the proportion of Muslim women in higher education is a mere 3.56 per cent, lower even than that of scheduled castes (4.25 per cent). On all-India basis, 66 per cent Muslim women are stated to be illiterate. The illiteracy is most widespread in Haryana while Kerala has least illiteracy among Muslim women closely followed by Tamil Nadu. Muslim women are found to be more literate than their Hindu counterparts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Most of the northern states are in urgent need of vigorous and sustained literacy campaigns.
The very low level of schooling is one of the most depressing findings of the survey. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of the total Muslim respondents never attended school. There is a negative correlation between education and employment among Muslims and the minuscule proportion of Muslims in formal employment or wealth-creating occupations. The proportion of Muslim women who are illiterate is substantially higher for rural north India than for the entire country — more than 85 per cent reported themselves to be illiterate. Fewer than 17 per cent of Muslim women ever enrolled completed eight years of schooling and fewer than 10 per cent completed higher secondary education, which is below the national average.
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One of the most striking insights into the situation of Muslim women comes from their dismal work participation rate — estimated at 11.4 per cent for urban Muslim women and 20 per cent for rural Muslim women. This low figure is especially striking in the light of the obvious deprivation of most of these women. Significantly, only a minuscule 0.14 per cent of Muslim women respondents cited pardah as the reason for not working.
So what is it that makes Muslim women so badly placed at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid (lower even than OBCs) and so disenfranchised in every sense of the word? A sprinkling of high-profile Muslim women judges, academics, ministers, sportspersons does not offer a complete picture. In the hamlets of rural India and the slums of urban India, young girls are still encouraged to stay within the home (first their own, then that of their husbands’). A complex web of circumstances makes the schooling of Muslim girls a daunting task. There is, of course, a fair degree of conservatism, a general mistrust of Western-style education, even a tendency to regard education for girls as being not entirely necessary, sometimes even viewed as an impediment in getting a girl married. But this is not the complete picture.
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Historically, while there has always been a gap between the education of boys and girls in India in the case of Muslims, the gap has been a yawning chasm. The education of girls has always demanded higher investment in terms of more facilities, more women teachers, separate schools, transport and scholarships to provide the much-needed incentives. Muslim educationists and thinkers themselves, and as a consequence the state and central governments, have been tardy in redressing this imbalance. While there are numerous instances of minority-run institutions among Christians, Sikhs and Parsis that have made special efforts to provide free education to their girls, among Muslim faith-based organisations this consciousness has been late in coming.
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Those involved in the education of the Muslim girl child have not been able to reach any consensus on the sort of education to be given to the Muslim girl child and ambivalences persist about the merits of Deeni Taalim vs Duniyawi Taleem. Meanwhile, there is a growing hunger for education among Muslim girls and women that can no longer be ignored. Several initiatives have been taken by women themselves when they feel the State or patriarchal society is not giving them their due. The Minorities Vikas Manch in Jaipur is doing great work to raise Muslim women’s literacy levels in Rajasthan. Elsewhere, private educational institutions have stepped in providing both secular and religious education. Often women have come forward to set up coaching schools to redress the high dropout rate among school-going girls. The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to some extent Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, have more successful stories to tell largely due to overall higher literacy rates and greater persistence on the part of NGOs. Established in 1966, the Anwar ul-Ulum Women’s Arabic College in the village of Mongam near Calicut, is one such institution that provides a blend of modern and Islamic education. Lok Jumbish (People’s Movement), an NGO specializing in education, has done excellent work among the Meos in Haryana who have almost 90% illiteracy among their women. Lok Jumbish found a simple but workable solution to the steadfast refusal among Meo fathers to send their girls to school. It offered Urdu as a medium of education.
Another myth about Muslims is that they refuse to opt for secular education and prefer only madrasa education and madrasa education makes them religious fanatics. This flies in the face of not just common sense but also statistics — according to the Sachar Committee Report only 4% of all enrolled Muslim children go to madrasas; 66% go to government schools and 30% to private. No middle class person sends his children to madrasas; it is only poor Muslims who cannot afford secular education or happen to live in areas where the State, whose duty it is to provide primary education, fails to do so that children are sent to madrasas. In fact, the cause of lack of secular education is poverty, not religion. But so popular is this myth that madrasa education is ascribed to religious fanaticism and orthodoxy rather than to poverty.
The link between poverty and illiteracy among Muslim women can not be over-emphasised. Regardless of whether illiteracy is a consequence of poverty or vice versa, regardless of the debates between the ‘modernists’ and the ‘traditionalist’, regardless of the merits of an English-medium western-style education and an Urdu-medium traditional education, what Muslim women want today is some form of knowledge that empowers them to better their lot.
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Individual initiatives — few and far between and laudable for their courage, no doubt — will not take the Muslim woman very far. While much is being achieved in pockets, in an isolated, random, almost ad hoc manner, a lot still remains to be done. What is needed, and needed urgently, is a more proactive role on the part of the state. More cash incentives, attendance incentives, special stipends to meritorious girl students, special bus services, more morning shift schools, more emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy, adult-education classes, public reading rooms, gender-sensitive learning materials – these need to be factored into any schemes involving education among Muslims. Given the increasing incidents of communal violence where women are the easiest victims, parents are often wary of sending girls to “unsafe” neighbourhoods. The Sachar Committee Report talks of the co-relation between place of residence and education. If more schools were located in or closer to Muslim-dominated areas, more parents would be willing to enrol their children. While this co-relation is especially strong in rural areas or communally-sensitive neighbourhoods, the positive co-relation has been seen in big cities as well. The Delhi Public School at Mathura Road runs a free school for poor children from the Basti Nizamuddin area. Called “Ibtida” (meaning Beginning), its catchment area is almost 98% Muslim. It caters to the poorest and most disadvantaged by offering free western-style education from nursery till Class VII, using its own classrooms and teachers and providing free books and uniforms.
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At the Ibtida school, one can actually find a student whose mother begs on the streets of Nizamuddin! Likewise, the feeder schools of the Jamia Millia Islamia cater to the disadvantaged sections, to those living in the urban ghettos of Jamia Nagar, Shaheen Bagh, Batla House, etc. and manage to attract – and retain – enough girl students right uptill middle and senior school because of its location. The morning shift school is Urdu-medium till the VIII standard and English-medium thereafter and has been showing consistently good results for both the Xth and XIIth Board examinations. Those students who make the ‘switch’ from Urdu-medium to English manage to do well due to better teaching aids, better textbooks and most of all enough Urdu-medium teachers – a combination that is found to be lacking in most government-run Urdu schools. The government’s much-hyped madrasa-modernisation scheme or catchy slogans such as ‘Education for All’ will amount to little if the so-called incentives fail to meet ground realities.
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The state of the Muslim girl child is such that no single institution – be it government or private – can bring about lasting change. What is needed is an ideal mix between non-governmental organizations, local community, government and international donors. A survey of availability of textbooks in regional languages needs to be undertaken. More Urdu medium schools with better facilities, more women staff, more books in Urdu too would go a long way in encouraging girls to go to schools and stay there. There is also a need for debate and mobilization by the Muslim community itself to make a clear-eyed assessment of the situation.
Finally, let’s remember that literacy alone is not the key. It will not magically open the doors of opportunity. The quality of education is just as important. It has been seen that after the first few years of the primary education afforded to the Muslim girl child, one of two things usually happens. Either the girl is plucked out of formal education by the time she reaches puberty and for all practical purposes lapses into virtual illiteracy, or, if she continues in school and does climb up the education ladder, with every rung, the quality of education available to her is so inferior that it equips her for very little. The quality of education in some Urdu-medium schools as also the calibre of teachers in such schools is so inadequate that the girls who do come out from such institutions – many privately run, others with dubious affiliations from quasi-religious bodies – cannot cope in a competitive environment.
However, to conclude on a less grim note, I want to quote once again from the Sachar Committee Report: “While the education system appears to have given up on Muslim girls, the girls themselves have not given up on education. There is a strong desire and enthusiasm for education.” It is this enthusiasm that we clearly need to tap.
[Rakshanda Jalil is Director of Culture and Media at Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at rakhshandaj@yahoo.co.in]

India’s handwritten magazines have long fascinated me. But while researching the subject for a blog, I came across one in particular that stood out. Jugnu is a 32-page monthly magazine that has been written and published by the sex workers of the Chaturbhuj-sthan brothel in Bihar, near the border with Nepal, for the past 10 years.

Home to about 10,000 women and children, the whole area – named after the Chaturbhuj-sthan temple, which is located inside – is essentially one large brothel. Historians believe it was first established during the Moghul era. Prostitution has become a family tradition there – passed down from generation to generation.

Intrigued, I contacted the magazine and as more details emerged about this extraordinary publication and the women behind it, I realised that this story was much bigger than a blog.

The magazine had been set up by a group of sex workers led by one girl – Naseema. Born into Chaturbhuj-sthan, Naseema was abandoned by her mother and raised by a woman she calls her ‘grandmother’. Although not actually related to her, this woman used the money she earned as a prostitute to raise Naseema and send her to school. Naseema became the first girl in the brothel’s 300-or-so-year history to receive an education.

When she returned to Chaturbhuj-sthan it was not to sell her body. With the help of local banks, Naseema established small industries inside the brothel – making candles, matchsticks, bindis and incense – offering many prostitutes an alternative form of employment. And she set about persuading the sex workers to send their children to school. Now almost every child in Chaturbhuj-sthan is in full-time education.

More than 50 former prostitutes now work with Naseema, who taught them how to read and write. As well as running the magazine – which is sold across India and also sent to subscribers elsewhere – Naseema and the other women work to prevent others being trafficked, mainly from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, into prostitution. In the last year alone, they have been able to send at least 20 new girls safely back home.
But their work has brought them many enemies; the most feared being Rani Begum. As chief of the brothel, Begum’s finances have suffered a blow as a result of Naseema’s activities. Her thugs have publicly harassed and beaten Naseema and the other women who work with her. Naseema has also had to fight pimps, as well as some police officers and clerics who were unhappy about her work.

With a clearly identifiable hero, a suitably sinister villain and plenty of action guaranteed as they face off against one another, I felt I had come across a story worthy of a novel. I was hopeful that we could produce a perfect film, but shooting inside a brothel was never going to be easy. I deliberately chose a very small crew of just three people so that we might remain as invisible as possible. We used a Canon 7d camera. Its small size and light weight meant that we were able to move quickly from one place to the next – something that was to prove useful when Begum’s thugs were sent to threaten us.

Before starting the shoot, I met Begum, hoping that this would reduce the likelihood of any problems arising at a later point. About 65 years old, she lives in a huge mansion inside Chaturbhuj-sthan. Polite and courteous, she sought to portray herself as somebody running a kind of welfare institute for destitute girls and referred to her brothel as a ‘social heritage’. A former dancer herself, she stressed that every girl in the brothel is taught classical music and dance.

Begum grew less friendly when I started questioning her about Naseema and her work, but nevertheless promised not to trouble us as long as we filmed indoors. One day, however, while eating lunch, some men came to tell me that Rani Begum wanted us to leave. We eventually had to call the local police to enable us to complete our shoot.

For me, the most emotional scene in the film is when we meet Roma. A 19-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Roma thought she was coming to India to marry a friend of her brother-in-law. She was rescued from the brothel by Naseema and taken to live in a government shelter. But her family still refuses to allow her to return home for fear that she will give them a bad name. We were able to watch the heartfelt telephone conversation between Roma and her family as she pleaded with them to take her back.

And then there is the story of Boha Tola – a red light area in the neighbouring Sitamarhi district that was burnt down when local government officials conspired with villagers to eradicate it. Unofficial sources say that at least 100 women, men and children went missing as a result of the fire. As they were never officially registered by the government, no effort was made to find out what had happened to them.

Naseema and some of the other women recorded the incident on their mobile phones and gave me the footage to use exclusively in the film. They told horrifying tales of gang-rape, children being thrown onto fires and police brutality. Some of the women from Chaturbhuj-sthan went on hunger strike to show their solidarity with the people of Boha Tola, but the hunger strikers and their supporters were all put in prison.

Now 32 years old, Naseema is an amazing character who is proud to call herself “a daughter of the brothel”.

Click on pictures to enlarge.


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