Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery

Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery

by Susan Kuklin
Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery

Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery

by Susan Kuklin

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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 in Pakistan, and of the movement that continues the struggle against child labor today.

This book does more than recount Iqbal's own amazing odyssey. Both sobering and inspiring, it shows how we are all implicated in the global practice of child labor, and how we can all work together to end it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466860681
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 12/24/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 144
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Susan Kuklin was asked to write Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery by two of the human rights activists she profiled in her award-winning book Irrepressible Spirit: Conversations with Human Rights Activists. The author of many highly praised books for young readers, she lives with her husband in New York City.
Susan Kuklin is the author of nonfiction books for young adults and children, including No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row. She is also a professional photographer whose photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She and her husband live in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery

By Susan Kuklin

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1998 Susan Kuklin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6068-1


My Name Is Iqbal

I started working when I was four. I used to leave my home at four in the morning and come back at seven at night.

— Iqbal Masih

It is brutally hot in Muridke, a small village deep in the heart of Punjab. The village is made up of clay dwellings, each protected by high, earthen-colored walls. Naked toddlers romp in an irrigation ditch, while water buffalo languish in its coolness. Young girls wash their family's clothing on the rocks along the bank.

The men of the village, wearing traditional shalwaar kamiz, baggy cotton trousers and long shirts, sip tea and gossip at the local dera, or meeting place. Hidden behind the earthen walls, young wives suckle their newborns and clean the homes that they share with their in-laws.

In this sun-scorched village lived Saif Masih and his wife, Inayat Bibi. (In Pakistan women are often called by their given name followed by the word bibi, which means "dear woman.") They were very poor. At times there was barely enough money to feed their growing family. Inayat eked out a living as a housecleaner. Some say that Saif, a laborer, had a drug problem and was not a reliable wage earner. On top of that, the Masihs were Christian. Masih means "messiah" in Pakistan's national language, Urdu. Many Christians in Pakistan have the surname Masih. In Pakistan, Christians tend to be a minority who often face discrimination.

The family lived in a two-room house within a walled courtyard. On hot nights they slept outside, in the courtyard, on a large charpay, a bed or platform made of hemp. Hanging beneath the charpay was a hammock made of cloth that acted as a crib for the newest baby.

In 1982 a baby boy was born to Inayat Bibi and Saif Masih. They named him Iqbal. Iqbal Masih.

Sometime after Iqbal's birth, Saif Masih deserted the family. While Iqbal's mother worked, his older sisters took care of him and his other siblings.

Iqbal did not go to school. Education was not compulsory nor widely available in Pakistan. Very few poor children learn to read and write. He spent his earliest years playing in the fields until he was ready to help his family by going to work.

By 1986 an older son of Saif Masih was about to be married. The celebration would include feasting and processions. Weddings are very important to the people of Pakistan. Wedding celebrations are often held even if a person is short of money or out of work. Saif Masih was no exception. He knew that as father of the groom, he must pay for part of the festivities, even though he had deserted his family.

Like most poor laborers, Saif was never able to save much. No bank would give him a loan. He could not apply to the government for aid because there were few programs to help poor people. People such as Iqbal's father are forced to turn to local moneylenders, local employers, or landlords to get the money they need.

In Muridke, many poor people simply borrow from a local thekedar, an employer who owns a nearby carpet factory. In return for the loan, the employer expects collateral, a guarantee of something of value to secure the loan. Saif Masih's only valuable possessions were his children.

Saif asked Iqbal's uncle to contact the thekedar. The thekedar was willing — probably only too happy — to lend Saif money. In return, one of Saif's children would go to work in this fast-growing business. Iqbal, a scrappy four-year-old, was considered ready to work.

The uncle borrowed 600 rupees (approximately $12) from the contractor. Little Iqbal would weave carpets until all the money, including an undisclosed amount of interest and expenses, was paid back. This transaction is called a peshgi, a loan, and it ended Iqbal's childhood forever. From that day forward, Iqbal became a "debt-bonded laborer."

* * *

As were the slaves in America about 150 years earlier, bonded workers are attached to their master. (Iqbal referred to the thekedar as "carpet master.") The master has all the power in the relationship; the bonded laborers have none. Workers cannot change jobs. They cannot refuse work. They are at the whim of their employer all day, every day. In many cases, the entire family of the bonded worker is subject to the master as well. Any form of resistance or protest can be met with severe punishment, including beatings and torture.

Unlike the American slaves of yesteryear, bonded labor is not an official policy of the government. It is illegal. The constitution of Pakistan, for instance, absolutely forbids slavery. Slavery, especially the slave labor of children, is illegal throughout the world, and there are international laws to protect poor workers. Unfortunately these laws are not always enforced.

Modern slave labor in Pakistan and other countries is not based on the color of one's skin. It is based on the exploitation of a person's poverty. The laborers do not necessarily come from another place, as did the American slaves from Africa, though large numbers of bonded laborers all over the world are migrants from other countries. Contemporary slaves are not sold in an open marketplace, and there are no ownership papers. Bondage continues because of indifference and greed.

* * *

When Iqbal began his bondage, the peshgi was widespread among the poor people in South Asia. Poor, landless, rural families, with little or no schooling, are not likely to escape from the brutal system of work-for-loans. Bonded labor is a way of life for many children in many countries.

One mother told a reporter, "When my children were three, I told them they must be prepared to work for the good of the family. I told them again and again that they would be bonded at five. And when the time came for them to go, they were prepared and went without complaint."

* * *

Under the terms of the peshgi, Iqbal was to weave carpets six days a week, twelve hours a day, until he worked off the 600-rupee loan. His training, the tools that he used, and the food that he ate were additional expenses. If he made mistakes while weaving the intricate designs, he would be fined. In order to learn the art of carpet weaving, Iqbal would spend a year or so as an apprentice. During this period, he would not be paid.

Since it is illegal to sell a child in Pakistan, there was no written agreement between the thekedar and Iqbal's uncle. Only the thekedar would keep a record of the expenses that would be added to the peshgi. If the thekedar chose to pad the bill, there was no way to challenge him. There were no witnesses. No contract. Just a simple handshake and Iqbal belonged to the carpet master.

Iqbal was not present while his "sale" was taking place. Later that evening he was told that he was going to work in the nearby carpet factory. No questions. No discussion. Tradition dictates that children do not question their elders, just as wives do not question their husbands. An obedient child, Iqbal obeyed the wishes of his father. The following morning he went to work.


Selling Iqbal into bondage was a straightforward transaction. In other cases, buying children is more involved. Let's say an exporter decides to sell some rugs. He contacts a store in Europe or America that is willing to pay $500 each for fifty rugs. If he does not have his own factory, he usually hires a contractor to get the job done. Some exporters do not even know who actually makes their carpets. Often the exporter will set up a business arrangement with the contractor. "Get me fifty rugs in six months, and I will pay you $250 for each one." The contractor then says to a middleman, or subcontractor, "Get me fifty rugs in six months, and I will pay $125 for each of them." The subcontractor swings into action. He calls on his network of recruiting agents, watching agents, and conveying agents.

Recruiting agents travel to remote villages and make contact with watching agents. The watching agent is usually a person who lives in the village and knows which families are experiencing tough times. The watching agent introduces the recruiting agent to the head of a needy household. The recruiter pretends to be concerned about the plight of the family. He offers his help. "I will place your child in a company where he will learn a trade."

The needy family has little choice. A deal is made, and the child is handed over to a conveying agent, who then takes the new child laborer to the factory. The child now belongs to the factory owner.

People must be paid for their services. Some of the middlemen are not much wealthier than the laborers they seek to enslave. And everyone, everyone, answers to the person higher up on the chain of command. Some of the agents and employers are decent enough and treat the children kindly. Others are very cruel. None of the children are paid properly for their hard labor.


Iqbal's job at the carpet factory was essentially no different from that of millions of other young people who work day and night to help their families. At four o'clock in the morning, he was picked up by the thekedar and driven to the factory where he was to work the next six years of his life. He was put in an airless room, big enough for about twenty looms. A small, bare lightbulb gave out little light. It was sticky and hot inside the room because all the windows were sealed tight to keep out any insects that might damage the wool.

Iqbal took his place in front of a large wooden carpet loom. He was to squat on a small rutted wood platform. (In some factories children sit on cushions. Other factories have trenches dug into the floor to hold the looms in place. The weavers sit on a plank with their legs dangling into a trench. These trenches also provide sleeping places for the children who work far from their families.) Large balls of colored wool were hung near the loom. Red, blue, purple, green — colored thread that would become gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, exotic birds, and sophisticated geometric designs. The ustaad, teacher, explained the process called "knotting."


A loom ready for weaving is simply a wooden frame fastened vertically with white strands of wool. The vertical strands of wool, the "warp" of the rug, act as a skeleton or anchor. Iqbal was taught how to pull the colored thread from the large balls and tie tiny knots around each white warp.

The rows and rows of horizontal knots, called the "weft" of the carpet, must be cut at exactly the same thickness, or else the pile of the rug will be bumpy and uneven.

Like all the other children at the factory, Iqbal learned how to use sharp instruments to tie and tighten the weft's innumerable knots. Once a line of knots was complete, he used a "beating comb," an object with metal blades that look like teeth, to tighten the lines. He clipped the wool evenly with a sharp knife. It was a complicated, monotonous job, and if the young apprentice did not pay careful attention, the blades could cut deeply into his flesh.

The intricate design is created by following the naksha, a paper map, which shows where each colored wool is placed. This is how beautiful carpets are made.


It takes about six months for a trained weaver to tie the million or so knots that make the most intricate four-by-six-foot carpets. Carpets with smaller, more dense knots are more valuable than the ones that are thicker and more loosely spaced. Some carpet manufacturers claim that workers with tiny fingers can make smaller knots. Those with the smallest, most nimble fingers are, of course, young children. Elsewhere children's nimble fingers plunge into scalding water and carefully unravel silk threads loosened from their boiling cocoons. Their nimble fingers solder delicate silver flowers to necklaces and bracelets. Their nimble fingers sew soccer balls. Nimble fingers make bricks and roll cheap cigarettes called beedis.

Human rights researchers report that this is a myth. Children make the poorer quality, less expensive goods. "Nimble fingers" is but one of many reasons employers give for turning children into modern-day slaves.

In the beginning, it was hard for Iqbal to learn to sit still for so many long hours because he had been such an active child. To ensure that he would not run away, a chowkidar, a guard or watch person, chained Iqbal to his loom for hours at a time. The chowkidar was always present, always watching, to be certain that the children were working.


Carpet Weavers

We were too frightened to help each other.

— Iqbal Masih

When Iqbal completed his work as an apprentice, he was then ready to weave carpets. He worked beside twenty other boys. His earnings amounted to one rupee a day (two cents), even though he worked from four o'clock in the morning until seven that evening.

The children in the shop were not allowed to speak to one another. "If the children spoke, they were not giving their complete attention to the product and were liable to make errors," Iqbal later told journalists. Many other freed laborers told similar stories.

Lint and fluff floated in the air. Iqbal would breathe it in and cough it out. Sweat poured down Iqbal's face as he leaned close to the loom. The thekedar screamed, "Don't soil the wool!"

At night he was driven back to his family. He was too tired to play his favorite sport, cricket. "I didn't have time to play ball," he explained later. It didn't take long for the bounce to fade from Iqbal's walk.

Iqbal and his fellow weavers were warned never to leave the factory during working hours. "If we tried to escape, we were threatened with being thrown in boiling oil," he said. "If we were slow, we often got lashed on our backs and heads."

Concentration was crucial. Mistying a single knot led to fines or beatings. Daydreaming could have serious consequences. The sharp, crescent-shaped weavers' tool would slip and nick his fingers. This happened many times.

Once, when Iqbal was so exhausted he began to doze off, the sharp knife slid, digging into the flesh of his forefinger. "Hold your hand up!" the thekedar shouted. "Don't let the blood drip!" The carpet master did not want Iqbal's blood to stain the precious wool thread. To stop the bleeding, the carpet master dripped hot oil onto the wound. The oil, used to seal the wound, stung horribly and Iqbal screamed. His screams were answered with a slap on the head and an order to get back to work.

Every afternoon the laborers were given a half-hour lunch break. Iqbal said, "We were kept hungry." The thekedar provided the youngsters a small portion of rice and lentils. Sometimes there would be a few other vegetables added to the meal. The cost of this simple meal was immediately added to the children's peshgi, increasing their debt.

The cramped, overheated conditions inside such factories often lead to disease. Weavers inhaling thousands of tiny wool fibers can get emphysema or tuberculosis. Many suffer from scabies and skin ulcers because of the "constant exposure to the wool." More often than not, their posture is bowed because they are forced to squat on the wooden platform for long hours. Their hands ache with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.

Iqbal said, "We weren't allowed many days off. Even sick children were not allowed to rest." If a child weaver complained that he was too sick to work, the chowkidar locked him in a dark closet known as the punishment room. "They also hung children upside down until they became sicker. Children were beaten," said Iqbal.

Although most bonded children are docile and obedient, there are a few who are not afraid to talk back. These young people are often hit, chained to their looms, or locked in dark, musty closets. Iqbal was one of the "talk back" boys. He was beaten more often than the other children because, time and time again, he defied the master. He spoke up when he thought something was not right. "Sometimes I was fined."

In a way, the fines were worse than the beatings. They raised Iqbal's debt higher and higher. Instead of paying off his bondage, he was increasing the time it would take to earn his freedom.


Excerpted from Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery by Susan Kuklin. Copyright © 1998 Susan Kuklin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
A Note From the Author,
Part I. Modern-Day Slaves and the New Abolitionists,
Chapter 1. My Name Is Iqbal,
Chapter 2. Carpet Weavers,
Chapter 3. Modern Forms of Slavery,
Chapter 4. Glass Houses,
Chapter 5. "Jungle Fire",
Chapter 6. We Demand an End to Slavery,
Chapter 7. Certificate of Freedom,
Part II. Emancipation,
Chapter 8. Action,
Chapter 9. A Proper Schoolboy ... and Activist,
Chapter 10. Just Like Abraham Lincoln,
Chapter 11. Return to Pakistan,
Chapter 12. Who Killed Iqbal Masih?,
Part III. Reconstruction,
Chapter 13. A School for Iqbal,
Children Around the World Pick Up the Banner,
Where to Learn More,
Glossary and Pronunciation Guide,

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