Are the Kalash being converted to Islam?

Maureen Lines reveals how some Western journalists get disappointed when the truth they wanted doesn

“All wars are fought in the name of religion”, so said my grandfather. I can’t remember if that were during the doodle bug years, when we lived in the dugout at the bottom of the garden, or when I was going to the pukka school nearby, where my classmates were nearly all Jews.

The Kalasha people of the North-Western Frontier province of Pakistan have forever been exploited. Timber mafia, tourism mafia, development mafia, and so forth. Now the federal and provincial governments, as well as the local district council, are working hard to relieve poverty, implement good projects and protect the rights of the Kalasha, as well as their culture and heritage.

The Kalasha did not reckon on foreign editors wishing to use them for their own interests. True, I have seen false statements about the Kalasha in the Pakistan press, but that is usually due to ignorance rather than any nefarious motives. Usually, these stories are by young eager reporters, who do not check their facts, or by writers who do a story but do not actually travel to the area.

Recently, I experienced two incidents that were evidence of dishonest behavior on the part of editors of the foreign press. Two American journalists emailed me. They wanted to come to the Kalash valleys. They had logged on to our NGO website. They were keen to get a story. Would I help them? Of course. Delighted. Then slowly the questions came. At first they did not get to the point, it was circled around, but I began to get the gist of what was going on in their minds. They wanted to do a story of the Kalash surrounded by Islam. When I told them conversions were only two or three a year, the emails began to drop off. Suddenly these two American journalists were no longer interested in the Kalash valleys.

This was followed by a call and email from a journalist on a British newspaper. He would love to do a story on the Kalash. After a moment or two, he blurted out, “And what about the conversions?”

Oh, about two to three a year, I suppose, I answered.

His voice lost its enthusiasm. Would another story on the Kalash be of interest? I could facilitate his journey. His voice faltered. Well, his editor would probably not be interested. Obviously, preconceived ideas are not the basis of honest journalism.

Maureen Lines was born in North London and has worked with the Kalash people in Pakistan for many years. She is the author of The Kalasha people of South Western Pakistan.
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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.