There is Shazia*. Shazia with her big green eyes, long brown hair and fidgety hands. She keeps looking out the window. The window is framed with blue curtains. She looks out the window a lot. She keeps swirling her wedding ring.
I met Shazia through some friends. You know, the friend of a friend of a friend type of a situation. She was the first person who agreed to speak to me. She had not promised an interview, just to speak to me.
She kept cancelling on me. I thought she was scared, or may she was just stalling me till I gave up. Turns out, she had to wait till she was sure we will not be disturbed.
She lives in East London. She has flowers in pretty vases on her front porch. I raise my hand to ring the bell. Before I could, she opens the door and greets me with a smile. She had been looking out the window.
We walk past the stairs into a living room. It is decorated in white and hints of blue. There is a vase of flowers on the coffee table and one on the dining table. One wall is speckled with family pictures. She sits me down and brings me tea and cake. We sit and talk. We talk for hours. She wants to know all about me. She asks about my family. She asks me how I know her friend of a friend of a friend. She wants to know about my course. Am I enjoying it? How am I liking the country? Do I miss home?
After some time, I ask if she will give me the interview. I need to record her on my dictaphone. She nods in thought, then asks: “Do you miss home cooked food? I made some for you”.
She gets up to serve me lunch. My heart sinks. She will not give me the interview. Is there a chance I can make her change her mind?
She has made pulau rice, lentils, shami kababs and yogurt sauce. This does make me miss home cooked food.
I start telling her why I chose this topic, how this is more than a university project for me. That I have started writing a book too. That I hope this will raise some awareness. I tell her I have been researching a lot, that I know how important it is to keep identities safe in such cases. I tell her even if she says something that could possibly identify her, I will edit it out.
“I know,” she says, “I am waiting for my sister to come. I don’t want anyone to walk in while I am saying all those things. She will tell us if someone is coming”.
Someone needs to look out the window.
I take a deep breath. Its’ like I had been holding it for hours. She wants to know what I want to ask her.
“Just your story,” I say.
Her sister comes and Shazia takes my hand and leads me upstairs. She opens the door to a walk-in closet and switches on a light. She sits cross legged on the floor. I sit beside her.
She tells me her story.
I do not know if I will be able to do justice to Shazia’s story. It is a simple one, something that happens to millions of women, and men. Maybe it is not that special. Maybe you had to be there, see this beautiful woman sitting cross legged across the closet door from you. Maybe you had to be there to hear the defeat in her voice. To feel the reluctant, resigned acceptance with which she recounted her story.
Or maybe it is just me. Anyways, here is her story.
Shazia was in her late teens when she fell in love with a boy. Their relationship was like any teenage relationships. Talking for hours, giggling over the smallest things, texting at night.
Her parents soon found out about her having a relationship with a boy when her mother found a note from him in her room. She had thought that when the time came, her parents will need a bit of convincing, maybe they will be a little cross with her, but she was sure they will accept her decision in the end.
“Their reaction was something I had not expected,” she said.
She had betrayed them and they were angry. She had hurt their honor. Choosing her life partner was not something she had the right to do. She had encroached on their rights.
And of course, they had to avenge their honor. She suddenly found herself being shouted at, cursed and beaten. Her parents, who had never raised their voices in front of their children, were beating her.
After days of beating, shouting and blaming, they promised her to a man of their choice. Justice was served.
“It was all a blur” she says.
She never understood what it was that she had done that was so bad. What had they found in her room that had caused them to react in such a way.
“It was not the pain. It was the humiliation of it all,” she says.
They waited till she was of legal age to marry and then she went to live with a much older man, one she did not know and did not love. One who knew all about her ‘sin’.
It was very clinical, she says.
“It was like I was standing and watching someone else go through it. It was an out of body experience. It was all happening so soon”.
It did not feel like a wedding. It has not felt like a marriage. It was not about two people starting and wanting to live a life together. It was about one person saving the honor of the family and the other accepting the marriage as punishment.
“I couldn’t accept it. I haven’t accepted it,” she says of her 10 years of marriage.
The abuse started almost immediately. It started with questions. Who was he? Why? Why him? For how long? Do you still like him?
“The possessiveness and the control had kind of started from the very beginning,” she says. He would stalk her, go through her belongings and her phone.
“I felt like I was being constantly watched”.
Then came the taunts. She was a characterless woman. She must be seeing someone now too. Is she still seeing him? He did not deserve to be married to a whore, he was a good man! And then came the beatings. He does not want to have children with her because he will not be able to believe they are his.
Shazia says all this with so much calm, so matter-of-factly. Her only reaction to my shocked face, a smile.
But she breaks down when she says he does not allow her to have friends. She has to keep them a secret. He checks her phone and she has to delete all her texts and call log.
“He has never treated me the way a man should treat his wife. There was no respect there. None. At all.”
How do you feel about all this now, I ask.
“Lifeless,” she says, “I am lifeless”.
Her family, she says, could not have cared less. They did not care back then and they do not care now. Their job was to get their honor back and get rid of her, which they did.
I do not understand. She has a good career and she earns more than her husband. And yet she keeps living this life. Why?
I do not want to be told again that I have broken someone’s trust, she says. She does not want to shame her family and her husband. Not again.
“There is such a stigma attached to this sort of thing. If I leave, I mean. I do not want to do that to my father, or my husband,” she says.
Does she know she has not done anything wrong, I ask.
Yes, she says. She knows she did not do anything forbidden by her religion but she still cannot help feeling guilty. She is ashamed of her past.
“You have to accept defeat,” she says.
I sit there with her, on the closet floor, cross legged, staring at her. I do not know what I should do. Should I give her some advice? I have been in contact with so many women’s organizations for my project. Should I tell her to go to them? Would it be against a journalists’ code of conduct to do so? My hands itch to ring up my university and ask one of my professors.
I turn off my dictaphone. She has given me a 40-minute interview. I promise to only use the recording for my project and to not broadcast it. I promise to take out identifying details. We walk down the stairs. I put on my coat and pick up my bag, I say goodbye to her sister, Shazia walks me to the door.
I cannot help it.
“Why do you care so much about his honor? Do you love him,” I ask.
“I tried to. But I can’t”.
I leave Shazia standing by her door and hurry to catch the train back home.
*Shazia is a name me and ‘her’ agreed on to protect her identity. I cannot put her recording on for fear someone in her family may come across this site and recognize her. I also had to cut out parts of the story so her identity is safe.
This is a blog I started after meeting people going through honor violence. After hearing their stories, I could not just let go. I have to do something. Their stories have inspired me to try and raise awareness about the issue, and this blog is the first step in that direction.
To help, all you have to do is come back to this site and read about them. I am hoping someone will read my blog and be inspired to change theirs or someone else’s life.