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.