When I first laid my eyes on this picture of Iqbal I was struck by two emotions. The first was a feeling of warmth, one that is evoked by the sight of any pure and innocent child. The second was a feeling of concern upon the sight of the boy’s disheveled hair and worn out fingers. Curious, I just had to learn more about this decade old freedom fighter from Pakistan.
Iqbal Masih was born to a poor family in Muridke, a small, rural village outside of Lahore in 1986. Due to his family’s desperate financial situation, Iqbal’s mother sold him when he was four years old for 600 rupees (about $12) to a carpet-weaving business. In return, Iqbal was required to work in chains as a carpet weaver under horrible conditions six days a week twelve hours a day until the debt was paid off.
We must ask ourselves as consumers of these products about our role in this unethical practice
However this system of peshgi, in which Iqbal was now a prisoner of, is a predatory loan system that is designed to keep the person in debt their entire life. After apprenticing for an entire year without wages, his creditor added the cost of the food he ate and the tools he used to the original loan.
Despite being paid for his work by the time Iqbal was ten years old, the loan had grown to 13,000 rupees (about $260) because of these ridiculous charges! After working six years as a carpet weaver, Iqbal ran away and sought the help of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), which works to help children like Iqbal. He learned that the Pakistani government had outlawed peshgi in 1992 and had cancelled all outstanding loans to employers. With the help of the BLLF he was able to free himself as well as over 3,000 other child laborers. Noted for his intelligence and leadership qualities, Iqbal excelled as a student in school and travelled the world seeking support to continue to help liberate bonded children. His work began to severely affect profit margins of the businesses participating in peshgi, and for that reason began to receive numerous death threats. Focused on helping other children become free he ignored the threats and returned to Pakistan. When asked why he was returning even after knowing that he was risking his life he responded, “I’m going to finish what I started.” On Sunday, April 16, 1995, Iqbal was visiting his family during the Easter holiday and was spending time with his cousins when he was shot and killed at age twelve. How and why Iqbal was killed remains a mystery even today however most people believe that leaders of the carpet industry disliked the influence Iqbal was having and ordered him murdered. As of yet, there is no proof that this was the case.
The problem of bonded child labor continues today. Millions of children, especially in Pakistan and India, work in factories to make carpets, mud bricks, beedis (cigarettes), jewelry, and clothing — all with similar horrific conditions as Iqbal experienced. Groups like the BLLF are working hard to solve this issue, but we must ask ourselves as consumers of these products about our role in this unethical practice. Iqbal Masih’s story teaches us that in order to challenge a corrupt system, wherever it may be, we must have the courage to call out the injustice and be prepared to face resistance from the oppressor. Iqbal teaches us that even at such a young age we can make a difference. It is indeed a very simple lesson but quite frankly, I find it puzzling that we can spend so much time discussing these stories and not feel disturbed enough to actually do something to help. We must cast the idea from our minds that standing up to injustice will result in receiving death threats. There are other, safer ways. However, we must first allow these inspiring stories to penetrate our core and cure us from the disease of apathy. We must ask ourselves if we are doing anything to improve the lives of others around us. We must ask ourselves if the image of Iqbal Masih evokes any emotion within us at all. We must ask ourselves if we possess the courage.