Iqbal Masih: A Slave Who Became a Hero at 13

According to Donna Karan, age and size are only numbers. It is the attitude that you bring to clothes that makes the difference. If the numbers of years lived is to be the definition of success, many may have existed but never lived. If wealth is to be measured by quality of lives touched and legacies left behind, many rich people may have lived on wealth but died wretched and poor. Paradoxically, some who never lived quite long left much, just to prove that quality of life is not defined by the number of years lived but b the legacies of the few years.

In December of 1994, twelve-year-old Iqbal Masih was honored as a hero. Just two years earlier, he had been a slave, condemned to a lifetime of bonded labor in a Pakistani carpet factory. And five months later, he was dead, murdered in his homeland. Though he is gone, his actions inspired an international campaign of middle-school students and adults that is helping to free and to educate thousands of child laborers. Here is the powerful story of Iqbal’s life and death, and of the movement that continues the struggle against child labor today.

Iqbal Masih was born in Muridke, a small, rural village outside of Lahore in Pakistan. Shortly after Iqbal’s birth, his father, Saif Masih, abandoned the family. Iqbal’s mother, Inayat, worked as a housecleaner but found it difficult to make enough money to feed all her children from her small income.

Iqbal, too young to understand his family’s problems, spent his time playing in the fields near his two-room house. While his mom was away at work, his older sisters took care of him. His life changed drastically when he was just four years old.

In 1986, Iqbal’s older brother was to be married and the family needed money to pay for a celebration. For a very poor family in Pakistan, the only way to borrow money is to ask a local employer. These employers specialize in this kind of barter, where the employer loans family money in exchange for the bonded labor of a small child.

To pay for the wedding, Iqbal’s family borrowed 600 rupees (about $12) from a man who owned a carpet-weaving business. In return, Iqbal was required to work as a carpet weaver until the debt was paid off. Without being asked or consulted, Iqbal was sold into bondage by his family.

This system of peshgi (loans) is inherently inequitable; the employer has all the power. Iqbal was required to work an entire year without wages in order to learn the skills of a carpet weaver. During and after his apprenticeship, the cost of the food he ate and the tools he used were all added to the original loan. When and if he made mistakes, he was often fined, which also added to the loan.

In addition to these costs, the loan grew ever larger because the employer added interest. Over the years, Iqbal’s family borrowed even more money from the employer, which was added to the amount of money Iqbal had to work off. The employer kept track of the loan total. It was not unusual for employers to pad the total, keeping the children in bondage for life. By the time Iqbal was ten years old, the loan had grown to 13,000 rupees (about $260).

The conditions in which Iqbal worked were horrendous. Iqbal and the other bonded children were required to squat on a wooden bench and bend forward to tie millions of knots into carpets. The children were required to follow a specific pattern, choosing each thread and tying each knot carefully. The children were not allowed to speak to each other. If the children started to daydream, a guard might hit them or they might cut their own hands with the sharp tools they used to cut the thread.

Iqbal worked six days a week, at least 14 hours a day. The room in which he worked was stifling hot because the windows could not be opened in order to protect the quality of the wool. Only two light bulbs dangled above the young children.

If the children talked back, ran away, were homesick, or were physically sick, they were punished. Punishment included severe beatings, being chained to their loom, extended periods of isolation in a dark closet, and being hung upside down. Iqbal often did these things and received numerous punishments. For all this, Iqbal was paid 60 rupees (about 20 cents) a day after his apprenticeship had ended.

After working six years as a carpet weaver, Iqbal one day heard about a meeting of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) which was working to help children like Iqbal. After work, Iqbal snuck away to attend the meeting. At the meeting, Iqbal learned that the Pakistani government had outlawed peshgi in 1992. In addition, the government cancelled all outstanding loans to these employers.

Shocked, Iqbal knew he wanted to be free. He talked to Eshan Ullah Khan, president of the BLLF, who helped him get the paperwork he needed to show his employer that he should be free. Not content to just be free himself, Iqbal worked to also get his fellow workers free.

Once free, Iqbal was sent to a BLLF school in Lahore. Iqbal studied very hard, finishing four years of work in just two. At the school, Iqbal’s natural leadership skills became increasingly apparent and he became involved in demonstrations and meetings that fought against bonded child labor. He once pretended to be one of a factory’s workers so that he could question the children about their work conditions. This was a very dangerous expedition, but the information he gathered helped close down the factory and free hundreds of children.

Iqbal began speaking at BLLF meetings and then to international activists and journalists. He spoke about his own experiences as a bonded child laborer. He was not intimidated by crowds and spoke with such conviction that many took notice of him.

Iqbal’s six years as a bonded child had affected him physically as well as mentally. The most noticeable thing about Iqbal was that he was an extremely small child, about half the size he should have been at his age. At age ten, he was less than four feet tall and weighed a mere 60 pounds. His body had stopped growing, which one doctor described as “psychological dwarfism.” Iqbal also suffered from kidney problems, a curved spine, bronchial infections, and arthritis. Many say that he shuffled his feet when he walked because of pain.

In many ways, Iqbal was made into an adult when he was sent to work as a carpet weaver. But he was not really an adult. He lost his childhood, but not his youth. When he went to the U.S. to receive the Reebok Human Rights Award, Iqbal loved watching cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny. Once in a while, he also had a chance to play some computer games while in the U.S.

Iqbal’s growing popularity and influence caused him to receive numerous death threats. Focused on helping other children become free, Iqbal ignored the letters.

On Sunday, April 16, 1995, Iqbal spent the day visiting his family for Easter. After spending some time with his mother and siblings, he headed over to visit his uncle. Meeting up with two of his cousins, the three boys rode a bike to his uncle’s field to bring his uncle some dinner. On the way, the boys stumbled upon someone who shot at them with a shotgun. Iqbal died immediately. One of his cousins was shot in the arm; the other wasn’t hit.

How and why Iqbal was killed remains a mystery. The original story was that the boys stumbled upon a local farmer who was in a compromising position with a neighbor’s donkey. Frightened and perhaps high on drugs, the man shot at the boys, not intending to specifically kill Iqbal. Most people do not believe this story. Rather, they 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.

On April 17, 1995, Iqbal was buried. There were approximately 800 mourners in attendance.

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. All the same, to all house maids who are under pressure and imposed labour; to all victims of slave labours, and to all humans who are victims of child labour, do not be discouraged. You should rather see it a special vocation to complete the mission of liberation that Iqabal started, that his death would not be in vain.

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