Rema Begum: A Martyr for Freedom. Freedom of Culture, Identity and Choice

In early September of last year, a beautiful, accomplished, bubbly and cheerful woman calmly jumped to her death from a roof top restaurant in London.

The tragic ending of the life of Rema Begum, who was 29 years old, raises, as suicides do, a number of complex questions and convoluted issues, both personal and societal.

Rema came from a traditional Muslim family, but the fact that she went to university, had a professional position and lived on her own, attests that Rema’s family supported her accomplishments and independence.

Most of the headlines focused on the fact that Rema had been the target of a malicious Facebook campaign, where an anonymous stalker had sent her and her family hate mail, and threatened to expose Rema’ s relationship with non- Muslim men.

This was true, and indeed the police had been informed and this campaign of terror had necessitated Rema changing her Facebook account.  Whilst the stress of being stalked and blackmailed was significant it was not the only factor that resulted in Rema taking her own life.

Rema, who had a professional position at the British Library recently lost her job after a confrontation with her manager. On the verge of buying her own flat, Rema then returned to her parent’s home to look after an ill relation. Her own health had gradually begun to deteriorate and despite the fact that she was on anti- depressants, Rema struggled to leave the house.

Rema had been seeing a psychiatrist for some two months for depression. At the inquest, Dr. Sara Dimic explained that Rema was guarded at her appointments and worried about confidentiality and told the City of London Coroner’s Court:

“She revealed to me that she had been feeling guilty for not leading her life according to her family’s values and her religion. She thought that she had led a life that she was being punished for. Her depression was the response to her being pushed from her current job and her moral dilemma in terms of the way she lived her life.”

The day before her death Rema had tried to hang herself at the family home but was taken to hospital by her parents. She was discharged after refusing treatment and promising never to try harming herself again.

Several suicide notes were found at Rema’s home as well as one in her purse. Coroner Paul Matthews concluded that she was suffering from depression and her decision to end her life was deliberate. “It appeared to be reactive to the stresses she was subject to in her life.”

Rema’s lifelong friend Avril Atkins, stayed in touch when Rema moved back to her parents and explained how Rema was wracked with guilt, believing she was living an impure lifestyle and would not be admitted into paradise. Although Rema followed some Muslim practices and had religious beliefs other aspects of her lifestyle  which included going out, drinking alcohol and having boyfriends could be deemed ‘Western’. “I don’t think it was something she openly told her parents about, however I believe they found out she had been seeing someone who wasn’t Muslim,” said Avril, “She did say to me that she hadn’t been living a good Muslim life. She said she wanted to live a more Muslim-based life.”

Rema’s life is symptomatic not only of the purported cultural schism between Islam and the West, but also between celebrity, materialist values and inner values of spirituality and moral substance. In this, Rema’s personal struggle resonates with  people of from all religions and cultures, torn between the glittering, champagne and party aims foisted upon the public by a relentless media, or to live a life of modesty and integrity, of responsibility and value, that can be both the result of family and wider cultural pressures but also a personal yearning.  Rema’s struggle, like that of so many, can be seen as that of faith versus secularism, as well as a debate over what constitutes a meaningful, worthy life.

Undoubtedly however, Rema’s life and her heartbreaking end, were also the result of an ideological schism, one that centres on individual freedom. Some have championed Rema’s death as an honour killing, a sickness of patriarchal culture. And in fact Rema had been threatened for transgressing a group boundary and a moral boundary- for deciding to associate with non- Muslims, both men and women, and for claiming the freedom, inherent in each individual, to choose how she wanted to live her life. A freedom which indoctrinated men and women across cultures regard as threatening; those who try to emancipate themselves require ultimate subordination and control. Rema Begum represented that which patriarchal cultures hate and fear most: a woman with choices and the freedom to choose her own happiness.

From her suicide notes and disclosures to her friends and therapist, Rema was caught and torn between all these opposing cultural forces. But the deeper question that this tragedy reveals is: Why did Rema have to choose? Why did integration mean leaving behind her faith, and why did adhering to her faith mean eradicating her accomplishments and friendships? Her attacker and stalker decided this to a large extent, but his success was down to the fact that somewhere Rema knew, or believed, that those closest and dearest, to her would be ashamed of her choices, no matter what they were. A fact her blackmailer merely preyed upon and exploited. That terror of exposure and shame is common to many second and third generation immigrants as well as people from religious and cultural minorities.

Demographers inform us that we are living in an age of unparalleled human migration. Combined with the forces of globalisations and the internet, no culture can remain solipsist, and uninfluenced by others. Indeed, culture itself can only survive through processes of amalgamation, evolution, adoption and adaptation. In much the same way, no viable culture can be so rigid as to eschew its own internal processes of diversity and invigoration, of micro  cultures within and identities held simultaneously.  In a way Rema exemplified these processes of cultural contact and collision, and crucially of multiple cultural identities, waxing and waning, shifting , conflicting and evolving through a person’s life. Rema was embodying the natural courses of multiculturalism; her life a normal and expected blend of so-called Western lifestyles and so called Islamic values, and probably more besides. And someone found that threatening and judged Rema as immoral because of it, and she was persecuted.

The curtailment of Rema’s freedom and security that ultimately resulted in her death, were the same freedoms and security bequeathed to each and every person; to be able to choose the person she wanted to be, the values she wanted to express, because there was a rich range of choices, and cultures from which to choose. Autonomy and self- determination are only meaningful in a pluralistic context. That she was not allowed to navigate and amalgamate her cultural identities in a healthy, secure way, to choose and refine her choices about the most essential part of her Self,  is the true crime of her death, and explains why Rema’s suicide resonates with all of us living in a multicultural world.

The Samaritans ( 08457 90 90 90 or www. Samaritans.org) urge people in despair to pick up the phone and talk to one of their volunteers who will listen and offer human contact and support but GOLDENROOM has a number of questions to put before the person, or persons who subjected Rema to their campaign of judgement, blackmail, terror and control:

  • Why did you think you were the most appropriate person to tell Rema how to live her life?
  • From where did you derive this authority?
  • On what grounds  do you defend that Rema had no right to her freedoms of choice, of culture and identity?
  • Can you truly defend that threats and the destruction of a person is morally preferable to building confidence, security and communication?

Though Rema lived in one of the most liberal societies in the world, she was openly persecuted and oppressed because she had choices and for that many have rightfully called Rema Begum a martyr for freedom.

29 responses to “Rema Begum: A Martyr for Freedom. Freedom of Culture, Identity and Choice

  1. suicide is not an option, she should have fought with the society even after when she was feeling guilty to not follow her religion as she should.

  2. Very thought provoking article about a number of issue. Religious issues, anti social behaviour and modern technology all seem to collide in this situation.

  3. Tragic as all suicides are. But suicide always comes down to being forced to choose between something and something else. The person killing themselves usually either hates the options, or does not see that there is a second option and feels trapped. I know thats pretty general but I think its true. It was in my case.

    http://primalnights.wordpress.com/how-a-suicide-changed-my-life/

  4. ankithebibliophile

    Reblogged this on WhistlingVoices and commented:
    Great article that questions personal freedom in the limits of culture and religion.

  5. I really liked this post and I thank you for enlightening people with Rema’s story and her struggle. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  6. I’m not going to read this post becasue it’s too long for it’s purpose. The title strikes me as more peolpe talking more trash than the law allows them to. Freedom of choice only goes so far before your actions get questioned by the people tired of being taken for granted.

    • You recently posted a blog about bad grammar. Please be aware that ‘it’s’ as used in your comment is a contraction, for ‘it is’, the correct word required for you comment is ‘its’ the possessive. Also the spelling is people not ‘peolpe’. Very common errors. More central to your comment is the fact that no one is forcing you to read any posts, but casting judgement before you have is a fatal flaw in logic.
      Dr. W.J. Tuinstra
      Editor in Chief
      GOLDENROOM
      Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations
      http://www.goldenroom.co.uk

  7. thank you for this post

  8. I understand her but I wish she would have been stronger and deal with it all. Thanks for sharing! Well written and well deserved in FP.

  9. Tragic doesn’t begin to describe the circumstances in which she became so entrapped. Most heart wrenching is to know her story is repeated day after day. In what ways can all the other Remas be reached and counselled other than tell their story? Thanks for posting her story.

    • Entrapped. Absolutely the correct description of Rema’s circumstances. For our part, GOLDENROOM did a series of articles on cross cultural counselling, looking at different modalities, with the aim of informing those who were in need of counselling but felt it was culturally inappropriate that there were culturally sensitive and efficacious methods available. On the wider scale of course, the journal is providing recognition, representation and resources for people of dual heritage or in cross cultural relationships, so that people can see themselves and their experiences reflected back and gain insight, strength and, for lack of a better word, a sense of ‘normalisation’ about having and living a multicultural life.
      Thanks for stopping by GOLDENROOM and taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment.
      Dr. W.J.Tuinstra
      Editor in Chief
      GOLDENROOM
      Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations
      http://www.goldenroom.co.uk

  10. Shame the law never prosecuted stalkers until now. Stalkers that do this to people are now considered terrorists at the top level. They are also being executed as such too. If it is not criminal it is private. All this stalking and threatening to get at anybody will stop. It is being addressed for months now. It is now rightfully judged terrorism.

    • I think you are right on there- someone harassed and intimidated Rema and caused her fear and alarm, tried to coerce her into a course of action, not through reason, not through care but through fear, illegal force. not too mention the fact that her life and lifestyle was not his to police! It is of course completely illegal to harass someone, and I hope the police and CPS have not closed the book, for the sake of Rema, on this. It is also illegal to induce someone into taking their own life, so I hope they will bear that foremost in mind. Thanks for stopping by GOLDENROOM!
      Dr. W.J.Tuinstra
      Editor in Chief
      GOLDENROOM
      Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations
      http://www.goldenroom.co.uk

      • Stalkers and self appointed police are getting more then police and CPS now. I am happy there are those that are truly concerned here. The law has been compromised to the point it as lost all meaning. It is coming back from the top now. It wouldn’t be red socialism or communism either. Politics is getting fired.

  11. Have faith in humanity, that there are people who are truly concerned for others and the planet. love that phrase, ‘politics is getting fired!’ Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  12. Really like the piece. I live in India. We are seeing the rise of radical forms of identity among cultural and religious sub-groups too. it’s frightening. we are becoming a very intolerant society indeed. i wonder how young people deal with this and observe my children closely in this regard while trying to give them what i consider a liberal upbringing. i love the questions in the end….i ask them all the time, in my head! Thank you

  13. Reblogged this on The Written Blit.

  14. Rema had a breakdown in 2009 because her boyfriend of 6 years married somebody else, she than turned to religion to help her through it but the depression was too severe. Her family knew about her western lifestyle as she wasn’t even living at home! The media turned this incident into a religous cultural extravaganza because it sells, but the reality is she went through a heartbreak that was too much.

    • Dear Sephoria,
      Thank you for taking the time to read Goldenroom’s blog post and comment. Unfortunately, we are unable to verify any facts about Rema Begum other than what we have already published. I would be interested in knowing what you source for this information is?
      Of course we appreciate that in every life, and indeed in every tragedy, there are usually many more complex, hidden and multidimensional factors than what might ever be recognised, understood or known. We take an enormous amount of effort at GOLDENROOM Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations to publish topical analysis and pioneering research based on substantial evidence that our readers can verify for themselves. We seek to publish with integrity, and our content is engaging without losing any of its intellectual rigour.
      Kind regards,
      Dr. W.J.Tuinstra
      Editor in Chief
      GOLDENROOM
      Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations
      http://www.goldenroom.co.uk

  15. You take what was published as the truth? Why don’t you contact her actual family, the people who knew what she was really going through. She didn’t return home to look after an ill relative, she returned home because she herself was ill with depression, the whole religion issue was after she had already became depressed, she said those things in her depressive state not her normal state.
    It’s sad that the media has turned this into a cultural/religious charade, when in reality Rema was heartbroken which is something that women of all religions and cultures go through

  16. I wonder why you would assume that a person’s family necessarily knows them best? Families come in all shapes and sizes and we all play a role within our families, that is but one aspect of our Self. In turn, our understanding of our fellow family members is only as much as the lens of our own roles allows us to see.

    As we stated repeatedly throughout the post, the tragedy of Rema is one of many complex and convoluted questions both personal and societal and I maintain that our analysis went far beyond a ‘cultural extravaganza’.

    In fact, usually the media shies away from questions of culture and religious identity, which is why GOLDENROOM is the seminal and niche publication on cross cultural relations and plural identities today.

    You fail to indicate what authority you have over the truth of Rema’s life and the sad circumstances of her death.

    Thanks you again for reading GOLDENROOM’s blog and taking the time to comment with such passion, especially about the important issues that Rema’s life and death raised.
    kind regards,
    Dr. Tuinstra
    Editor in Chief
    GOLDENROOM
    Online Journal for Cross Cultural Relations
    http://www.goldenroom.co.uk

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