My name is Iqbal Masih

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Did Iqbal really hear Munawar contradict his master?  Did he really see him approach the two men so casually?  Sheikhupra’s lawyer claims that he gave a flyer to Iqbal and his brother as invitations to the meeting; and as a precaution, he invited the master as well. The lawyer offered to accompany the boys back to the sweatshop afterward. Iqbal showed himself to be perceptive, so the militant lawyer of the BLLF made an effort to maintain friendly relations with Arshad, knowing that he could hang around the child labour sites without arising suspicion.foto-iqbal-cordoba

The meeting focused on demonstrating to the children that they had specific rights that must be respected by everyone. When Ehsan finished his speech and looked to conclude the meeting, he directed the microphone towards five children, knowing that the words of a child had potential to be more moving than those of an adult.

Ehsan had not noticed the boy from Haddoquey. Iqbal was pale and seemed very attentive, and when he began to speak the microphone was handed to him. At first he backed away. Then he stood up: “My name is IQBAL MASIH.”  With a trembling voice, he continued to tell, in his native Punjabi, of the sweatshops in which he had worked. He explained that after a few months the pain in his legs kept him from sleeping, and that the Paishgee would never stop growing from the loans being taken out by his mother. He said nothing about Arshad. Iqbal still understood very little; the only thing he knew for sure was that he was suffering.


Iqbal’s mother remembers that the next day Iqbal went around telling everybody about the famous law that was abolishing child slavery: “I didn’t know why nor how this law was adopted; I understood that the paishgee was illegal and I wanted to hear nothing of it.”

Ehsan demanded of his local representative, Munawar Virk, that the child be allowed to pass into his custody as if he were his own child. Two days later, Iqbal’s master conceded to the demands of the BLLF and Iqbal was handed over. At the time, his paishgee was thirty thousand rupees. It took three days to convince Inayat Bibi to separate herself from her child and from the awful work that was causing her child to suffer so. Inayat intended to make an objection, but Iqbal managed to convince her to let him go when Munawar promised that the BLLF would give her financial assistance.

Iqbal got on track at Lahore where Ehsan had continued to visit him with the intention of integrating him into one of the primary classes taught to children at the BLLF. In Lahore, Iqbal waited for him, penned up at No.13 Fane Street in a Victorian Supreme Court building planned for demolition.


They left Haddoquey after midnight by way of a road made for horses. The boy, accompanied by his mother, had waited forty minutes in Muridke to catch an already overfilled bus. They got on the bus and the old wheels left the dirt road for the asphalt of the national highway heading towards the Lahore bus station. The eight-hundred kilometre journey to Lahore would last three hours. Iqbal watched the desolate landscape, full of sweatshops and slave-labour driven brick factories.


Inayat was no stranger to Lahore, since it was the birthplace and former home of her son Iqbal.  She had lived there with her ex-husband Saif in a one room house rented out by Saif’s grandfather in the Bahar Colony neighborhood. Since that time the city had changed dramatically. Once the bus had crossed the large bridge across the Ravaee River, Iqbal’s mother became anxious as she faced Badshahi Masjid, an impressive mosque designed to receive more than sixty-thousand worshipers at a time.

When the bus arrived at the station, a cycle rickshaw approached to pick up Iqbal and his mother.  Unsure of themselves, they paid 25 rupees to be taken to the address mentioned by Munnawar Virk: 1, Dyal Singh Mansion on Sharah Quaid I Azam Avenue. Built in the Raj era, the mansion was a beautiful structure in the form of a U-curve around a plaza. Inayat grabbed her son’s hand as she looked for the staircase that led to the precious second floor with a beautiful cement balustrade with handmade cornices. After finding her way upstairs she entered a long hall which housed the headquarters of the BLLF. The mother and son entered to find themselves in a small furnished bedroom, with a school-desk, a grey telephone, and a few folding chairs to be used as the guests wished.


After being emancipated, three places would mark Iqbal’s life in Lahore: the Dyal Singh Mansion office, the spacious rooms of the Campus of Freedom on Lawrence Street (a possession of the “Liberation Forced Labour Front”), and the orphanage at Nº 13 Fane St. at the end of a street full of law-offices whose lawyers were called to argue in front of the Supreme Court. These were three key places for the organisation that served three distinct purposes. The small room in the Dyal Singh Mansion received all of the workers, journalists, and sympathizers that wanted to connect with the BLLF. The Campus of Freedom served as the training centre for all the militant activists and as a planning centre for their demonstrations. The Building on Fane St. was used as shelter for travelling militants and the children schooled in the movement in Apna schools, a kind of school that served the poor. According to Iqbal’s peers, Iqbal had no trouble integrating himself into his new environment in the midst of the deafening and chaotic city of Lahore.

Iqbal benefited from his special status after being taken under Ehsan’s wing, despite some envy it caused among his roommates. Under Ehsan’s protection, Iqbal usually travelled by car and often slept at Ehsan’s house, where he helped with small chores. Under Munnawar Virk’s advice, the president of the BLLF arranged a deal that would assure Inayat’s financial security in exchange for her permission for the BLLF to be in charge of her son’s education. This deal would send Iqbal 500 rupees per month, two thirds of which would go to his mother, which would then go to pay off the still unpaid ‘paishgee‘ incurred three years before to pay for Aslam’s wedding.


Eighty kilometres away, unable to leave Arshad’s sweatshop, Iqbal’s brother Patras refused to be the sole bearer of the debt incurred by his mother. He was enraged and had asked his master to let him leave.  The excessive passivity of the other workers in the sweatshop, and his disappointment in himself for not having taken advantage of the fight being carried by the BLLF, like his brother, had all deeply hurt this twenty-year-old young man’s pride.

Having known only the hell of the brick factory since early childhood, Patras now aspired to be free.  Three months later Patras and his mother went their separate ways when Arshad resigned himself to Patras’s abandonment of the sweatshop, convinced that he would make up the loss of the money given to him by the BLLF. Patras then went to live with his father and stepsister Zubeida.


The different fabric businesses would employ university-educated personnel to camouflage what was actually happening in their factories through the use of technical language. Because of this, one of the largest chores of the BLLF was the development of the worker’s argumentation skills. Being able to voice clearly the sufferings of child slaves was a basic necessity for the movement to work. This was a main preoccupation for Iqbal while he was completing his studies in the schools already mentioned; and in accordance with this idea, he completed his studies in two and a half years in Lahore with the BLLF.

A small elementary school with a single class, held in the corner of an old building, was masterfully directed by two volunteer teachers, Miles Tehseen and Nadia. Such schools were established throughout Pakistan in the places where poor people worked in servitude. Often, in the open air under the shade of a tree, and under the direction of a volunteer teacher, the will of the BLLF to offer a solid education to the children manifested itself. Due to their success, they began to receive support from the international minister of labour and from various non-political organisations, especially from Scandinavia.

Iqbal, who could not remember a time when his life was not filled with slave labour, could not believe what he was seeing and showed deep interest. Freedom had inspired Iqbal to study and his rapid mastery of the subject material placed in front of him caused his last teacher, Nadia, to doubt the boy’s age:  “He behaved like the children on the patio, playing with the ten year-olds.  However, he had the intellectual maturity of a teenager.” Nadia had guessed him to be 10 or 12 years old when she looked at him, and 16 or 18 years old when she heard him speak.


After a few months at Lahore, the frail but gifted student, Iqbal, became a consummate militant. The time came for him to decide. He was prepared to fight against children’s exploitation. Seated beside the leaders of the movement in the demonstrations, defending the rights of workers, Iqbal took the stage to tell, in detail, his own slave experience.

Numerous photos taken in this period by the BLLF’s volunteers show a shaggy-haired Iqbal trying to explain himself in front of large audiences of sympathizers. One-hundred people in Kasur, more than one-thousand in Faisalabad, two-thousand in Gujranwala… public oration on tour came to Iqbal as effortlessly as his studies at the school on Fane St. He was unique, directing himself towards the adults. He explained to his teachers that he had been very lucky to be able to learn and that their children must be given the same freedom. He told them about what he had suffered in the sweatshops–the pains in his legs and the humiliations. The strangest thing was his fearlessness to speak. It was evident that he had suffered a lot.

For the young militant Iqbal, now named “president of children’s freedom” by his peers in Lahore, one annual reunion mattered more than others. That was the reunion of the 18th of September, the date set by the BLLF to celebrate the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to prohibit the use of the ‘paishgee’. It was a festive and militant organised meeting in Minar-E-Pakistan Park, at Lahore’s entrance, conceived to pay homage to the millions of enslaved Pakistanis. During the previous 15 days leading up to the meeting, posters and flyers were distributed by the Punjab announcing the general mobilisation of the BLLF’s members with slogans like the following:  ‘Friends, join the fight against slavery”. A fleet of buses were prepared to bring the majority of the persons participating to Lahore. There the festivities mixed naturally with the efforts to form an adult consciousness of the problem of child-slavery.

Iqbal loved the barefoot marches; they went up the main avenue with flags adorned with three symbols: A plough for the brick makers, a raised fist for the carpet weavers, and a notebook for the students. Iqbal loved to hear the slogans screamed into the air: “Exploiters! We are free, forget the Pashgee!” He loved the electric atmosphere created by this environment in which the men exhausted themselves, drenched in sweat, under the close watch of the police. The BLLF became a second family for Iqbal Masih. And the fight…became his life’s purpose.


That night in September 1993, Zafar Malik watched Iqbal. As he sat beside the boy during the closing ceremonial dinner for the international seminar on children’s rights in Lahore, the Punjabi lawyer remembered his own son who had suffered from a chronic degenerative bone disease. Iqbal’s tiny stature (less than 5 feet tall), his posture at the table, and his frail body, reminded the lawyer of the long nights he spent with his dying son. But Iqbal seemed to listen intently to the lively discussions spoken over dinner.  Hidden behind the child’s face and body was an adult. Zafar Malik did not believe him when he said that he was eleven years old and could have sworn that the boy was at least sixteen. Malik did not know his history or his origins and, least of all, the role that the boy would play in the BLLF.


Zafar tried to convince Iqbal to go to a doctor in order to find a remedy for his growing problems and continuous joint and kidney pain caused by his work in the sweatshop. He seemed to be suffering from severe rickets, a common bone deformation syndrome in child slaves made to sit for many hours. It is often impossible to determine the age of these children. Most Pakistani doctors will say that they have attended to children that they guessed to be eight or nine years old, who, in reality, were fourteen.

Ehsan made sure that Iqbal’s age and health remained a secret. He had been told by a European doctor that Iqbal’s age was hard to determine and his bodily deformations could be attributed to the boy’s real genetic identity. It was suspected by many that the boy’s real father was his paternal uncle, the dwarf Sardar.

Despite this, Ehsan was never convinced to follow up the uncertain warnings of the doctor. Some months later the president of the BLLF prepared a project for the child: it would involve Iqbal’s and his classmates’ participation in the international conferences on slave labour.


Ehsan still remembers what impressed him most during an international meeting in New Deli. It was the participation of many Hindu child slaves that came to speak out about the slaves’ conditions in the glass and weaving industries. The idea of having children give testimony was first suggested by Michel Bonnet, a Frenchman who was a highly effective mobiliser in Pakistan. This idea would be the key to bringing the truth about child slavery to the people and Iqbal’s incorporation to the BLLF offered the organisation the perfect spokesman.

Worried by the envy that Iqbal caused among his classmates, Ehsan did not make the boy participate in his personal projects. Iqbal had been moved so that he could have his own room in the building on Fane St.

Iqbal met Brittmarie Klang, a forty-year-old Swedish volunteer stationed in Lahore with a Scandinavian organisation looking to help the BLLF start an Apna schooling program in the smaller villages. Originally from Linköping and mother of three children, she became a frontline militant acting as an advisor and intermediary in obtaining international funds. Her presence always caused rumours and envy among a people suspicious of anything foreign.

This attitude towards foreigners did not deter Brittmarie from beginning scholarly investigations into slavery in Pakistan. Her first trip brought her to Lahore in the early 1980s to investigate brick factory slave-workers. Her desire to verify her findings led her to Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz, the brick makers union created in the early 1970s by Ehsan.

Brittmarie often passed by the different BLLF stations in Lahore, and in the process became a maternal figure for Iqbal. The Scandinavian woman and the boy from Haddoquey would meet in the religious bookstore San Pablo. Sister Daniela Baronchelli, the Italian missionary who managed the store, remembers seeing them in the video section choosing educational videos from Europe. The sister was yet another person incapable of guessing the boy’s age. While in the book store Iqbal stood out for his insatiable curiosity and the profound things he liked to talk about. One day Iqbal and Brittmarie spent almost an hour looking at a single photo album of Europe while they talked about freedom. Iqbal told the women that he would love to travel.


Brittmarie was going to make Iqbal’s access to a world audience a possibility. This would happen through ‘Kaleen’, a televised documentary about child-slavery in sweatshops. The documentary was created and presented by the Swedish producer Magnus Bermar. Filmed in different parts of Punjab in 1993, ‘Kaleen”, first aired on Swedish television and later on many other European stations, showed the tragedy of exploited Pakistani children who weaved the marvellous rugs sold for high prices in the Western world.

Designed to raise consciousness about child-slavery, this documentary was finished at the same time the first worldwide campaign against child-slavery was being mobilised by the International Labour Organization (ILO). To shine the light on this scandalous exploitation, an agency volunteered to create a book of photographs entitled “Children of the Shadows”, as well as a moving French documentary entitled “Infancy in Chains”. Before these works, Magnus Bermar’s idea of making investigative televised documentaries on slavery in Pakistan was not widely considered.

‘Kaleen’ became more than a mere adventure for Iqbal after the arrival of the Scandinavian film crew in Lahore.  As Iqbal took the cameras into the sweatshops of Muridke, he was convinced that this documentary would help to save the lives of many children.

Sister Daniela sold the video in her bookstore. But would the many bookstores around the world do the same? This would involve breaking away from their multinational corporate origins.

Iqbal became one of the key figures in this new documentary that was being attacked by part of the Pakistani press. The boy’s testimony was recorded in his school in Lahore. It was a testimony filled with pain, anguish, and hope for the future. At the end, Iqbal finished by saying, “Now I am not afraid, it is my master who is afraid of me”.


Iqbal knew that this documentary was an accusation of the carpet industry and the lords of Haddoquey that would provoke a violent retaliation. The slave-owners were surely beginning to talk amongst each other about the subversive tactics that could be used to silence these statements. Iqbal knew the hateful and oppressive rule of silence was now broken. In a country of purist ideologies where the untouchable Christians were not supposed to speak out, they were now speaking loudly to the whole world. Although the dangers were great, the reasons for fighting were greater. The fight now was filled with enthusiasm and the force of friendship.

Iqbal’s values had matured. He had learned, like so many working-class children in Europe, the true meaning of “comprehensive and collective advocacy”. Behind Iqbal’s frail body and young face was a man with strong and cultivated qualities. In two years Iqbal had learned to write, speak in public, to be responsible, and to fight like an adult. Many who saw him speak in the public BLLF reunions claim that the boy’s gestures were those of a firm and serious militant.

When he finished his speeches he raised his fist powerfully above his head. He was prepared to go head to head with the overseers and intermediaries, prepared to be a witness for the world and a face for the children shown in Magnus Bemar’s documentary ‘Kaleen’. Now that he was free he was at war with all of the oppressors of the world. Iqbal had received his liberty for free, but he would gladly give his life for the liberty of others.


Twenty-thousand kilometres from Lahore, Jennifer Margulis checked her fax machine to verify for the thousandth time that the fax number on Ehsan’s business card was the same as the one she was using.  The young employee in the “Department for Human Rights” at Reebok, the American multinational, was trying time and time again to contact the charismatic Pakistani activist, with whom the department’s director, Douglas Cahn, had requested a meeting. The information on the card appeared to be correct but she received no answer. The fax receipt that confirmed the arrival of her fax only added to her dismay.

Reebok had a great idea when it created its Department for Human Rights, though it would not escape the irony of being one of the organisations that profited most from the state of the world at this time. For this gigantic producer of sporting equipment, the giving of annual prizes to young people around the world for their activism was driven purely by economic incentives. Human rights became an investment for the multinational corporation.

The trophy awarded to young activists by Reebok had the name of the company engraved in white and blue. It was meant to honour the young people who had significantly contributed to a cause of human rights. The initiative for the award came originally from such prestigious people as ex-president Jimmy Carter, rock singer Peter Gabriel, and the director of the International Layers Committee for Human Rights, Michael Posner. The only condition for being awarded was that the recipient be younger than 30, and that they have worked to realise a dream directly related to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The promoter of the “philanthropic” program was Douglas Cahn, the director of the Reebok Department for Human Rights. Cahn had worked in other departments of the multinational for years prior to his philanthropic position. The work of his team consisted of finding candidates by gathering information from the press and non-political organisations. Each year there would be an award ceremony in Boston where Paul Fireman, the president of Reebok’s board of directors, would hand out five “awards”, each with a check for twenty-five thousand dollars.


Douglas Cahn’s work took him around the world in order to make contact with the award recipients. His travels brought him to the international conference on human rights organised by the UN in Vienna Austria in 1993. Among others, Cahn was introduced to the president of the BLLF, Ehsan Ullah.

Returning to Stoughton with his usual pile of business cards collected during his business trips, Cahn gave Jennifer Margulis the chore of establishing contact with Ehsan; but the Pakistani militant did not respond to Reebok’s petitions. Over the next year, Reebok continued to get no response from Lahore, though the BLLF’s activity continued to grow.


For a time, Ehsan collected the faxes he was receiving from Reebok and organised them in a stack.  He knew that he had in his presence the perfect candidate for their award, but the right moment had not yet arrived. The cause for the enslaved children of India and Pakistan was gaining an audience through the informational efforts of the ILO and the Swedish movie “The Carpet”. When these works faded from the consciousness of the public, there would need to be other ways to recharge the public consciousness, and these ways had to be planned for ahead of time.

Enveloped in all of the responsibilities of his work, Ehsan had a hard time surrounding himself with people capable of executing the innumerable tasks necessary for the movement’s success. He now had serious doubts. The international dimension of the problem was placing a heavy weight on his shoulders, forcing him to change his strategy. The reality was that the problem had to be fought in a way that had never been tried before.


Ehsan and the BLLF began to be a problem for their European collaborators such as the OIT and the International Antislavery Association in London. Those in the ILO accused them of being too demanding and for launching attacks against the current Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for employing children in her service. The BLLF thought that the ILO was not hard enough on the Pakistani administration. This lack of government criticism in the ILO was undoubtedly political.

The role given to Iqbal by Ehsan also became political. The child became a spokesman for the organisation through his role in the movie “The Carpet”. His charisma and the firmness of his testimony provided the perfect weapons for the BLLF. At last they were in a position to put pressure on the authorities to mobilise the international community to put an end to child slavery.


The first Reebok human rights team member to arrive at work in the morning, usually Jennifer Margulis, had the chore of looking at and correctly distributing the faxes sent in overnight.

One fall morning in 1994, while Jennifer was drinking her coffee, a handwritten letter caught her eye. The letter was addressed to her superior, Douglas Cahn, and the signature of the sender gave Jennifer great joy. The four letters BLLF and the city name Lahore were spelled in larger letters on the page. Ehsan had replied personally in his own handwriting to the multiple invitations that he had received from the American multinational.

The moment had arrived. Below a half page of excuses, the letter presented its candidate for Reebok’s award committee. The candidate was Iqbal Masih. He was said to be 12 years old. The letter recounted the exemplary life of a brave young boy, sold by his mother for a handful of rupees for lack of enough money to survive. It told the story of an apprentice, humilliated, beaten and forced to work.

We know very little of Ehsan’s moral convictions. Would any method suffice for accomplishing his more-than-just objectives? Would he use the boy’s age to penetrate the hearts of American society?  In any case, we must realise that the “lie” of the BLLF is much smaller than the lie that says the consumer society is the force that moves the world. This lie runs through our society, just like violence. It is not morally acceptable for the oppressed to lie and make violence, but, it is always less acceptable for the oppressors to do the same.

Upon receiving this first reply, Douglas Cahn ordered that Ehsan be contacted immediately. Because of the time difference, the fax from Reebok was sent during the sleeping hours in Lahore. This time, though, the reply from Ehsan was immediate. Together with a letter were pictures and negatives of Iqbal and of the carpets made by child-slaves, carpets that had uncanny resemblance to those being sold in Washington and New York!

With two months until the 1994 Reebok Award ceremony for human rights in Boston, Iqbal’s candidacy brought about two problems: his very young age, and his originality. The multinational had only given its prizes to young adult militants. These two problems would have to be solved quickly by the awards committee.


The issue of the candidate’s young age was resolved once before in the case of Ashley Black, a young American girl responsible for starting a campaign against TV violence. The issue of originality was much easier to resolve. Reebok loved the girl’s energy and drive, and, in light of her accomplishments in promoting more tolerant television programming, she was awarded a special prize in 1993: the Young Person in Action Prize.

Assessing Iqbal’s candidacy in the short time was a more difficult matter for the committee. In addition to the physical distance, large American human rights organisations were completely unfamiliar with Pakistan. Besides, the fact that Ehsan had never been to the United States made the investigation even more complicated.

This last complication was quickly resolved thanks to the collaboration of the International Antislavery Association in London. An old and honourable British institution created in the 19th century to fight for the abolition of slavery, this organization would seem to be in decline for various reasons, but its excellent networking in the Indian subcontinent had put it in contact with the BLLF and its president, Ehsan Ullah.  Through this organization, Ehsan was able to fund his yearly trips to Geneva, where he would speak about the contemporary forms of slavery.

Although she began to distance herself from the BLLF in 1992 for political disagreements with Ehsan, Leslie Roberts, president of the International Antislavery Association, tried to ease the uncertainties that Reebok’s human right department was now feeling after receiving testimonies from American unions that contradicted BLLF testimonies.

Finally, Douglas Cahn invited Iqbal to the United States. The letter of invitation contained two airplane tickets, one for Iqbal and one for Ehsan. Northeastern University in Boston was designated as the place of the ceremony, the date was to be December 7, 1994 and the prize was to be twenty-five thousand dollars ($10,000 were to go towards Iqbal’s education and the other $15,000 to the BLLF.)  The letter said that after accepting his award, Iqbal would continue in Massachusetts for a few days so that he could speak in front of an audience of American children.


Before coming to the United States, the president of the BLLF decided that they would make a stop in Stockholm first. There Ehsan and Iqbal were received at the airport by Brittmarie Klang. Brittmarie did everything she could for them; she set them up for meetings which were reported on by the Swedish media. During this visit there was a campaign to boycott Pakistani carpets in order to put pressure on the authorities in Islamabad.

The dialogues between Iqbal and his new Swedish colleagues turned out to be a great success. Even with his sickly body and tiny stature, the young Pakistani boy captured the attention of his new comrades with his gestures and charisma. Brittmarie bought him clothes: jeans, a silk shirt, a maroon sweater, and a grey jacket.

Crippled by pain, Iqbal decided to consult with a respected paediatrician in Stockholm in November of 1994. The doctor, Bert Thybrom went forward with a diagnostic test suggested to Iqbal months earlier when he was still in Lahore. The doctor ordered one of his nurses, Yvonne Simren, to do a series of X-rays of Iqbal’s entire skeleton: hands, knees, spinal column, etc. The resulting images did not leave any doubts.  A treatment of hormone injections to cure Iqbal’s growth problems were in order. Luckily Brittmarie was able to get the treatment done for free by a Swedish pharmaceutical firm.

After Iqbal’s death, doctor Thybrom was asked to state Iqbal’s age for the record. In response to the request Thybrom composed a three line certificate indicating that the X-rays confirmed that Iqbal was eleven years old.

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