‘They promised my life away before I was born’

A few days ago, I was taking a cigarette break with a colleague of mine at work and we got to talking about illiteracy which, by the time our cigarettes were done with, had turned to a talk on the treatment of minor girls in rural Pakistan. I told her a few stories of girls in my native village which really depressed her. We got to talking about the so many women and girls we know in the city who are dealing with the repercussions of hurting their family’s honour or who are living to preserve it.

We went back to our desks to work, and I kept thinking back to the time when I thought I would never be able to find case studies for my documentary on honour violence for my university dissertation.

Perhaps because I am sensitive to this subject, I find that very other woman I meet has a story behind her, a story of being pressured, of being forced to give up her free will and you would be surprised at how many want to speak to you about it.

Some years ago, I was an assistant teacher at a local college. It was a time when I was rebelling and I had moved from Peshawar to Islamabad. I was in my early twenties then and I wanted time to sulk and I wanted time to figure out what I wanted to do with my future. So, because I can never just sit idle, I enrolled in a small college to get a diploma in accounting of all things and I also assisted a professor there. I got to experience a different side to the students. I mean, when you are helping them one-on-one and when they are trying to explain to you why they did particularly bad in an exam or why they were late in handing in an assignment, you get to see a very personal side of them. It can be a tricky job, keeping just the right amount of distance and not overstepping boundaries when you are trying to help.

This girl who is the reason for me writing this blog post, let’s call her Saira, this girl used to always wear bright colours. Yellow, fuchsia, parrot green, baby blue. She covered her head as well and her headscarves were so interesting. Embroidered and embellished and with jewellery and ornaments on them. She would have matching phone covers and airy sandals.

The ornaments hanging from her pen would swing with each stroke as she took down notes in class.

She was always the first to arrive and the last to leave and she tried so hard with her studies. Her work was not as good but you could tell she had put in a lot of effort. I started helping her one-on-one after classes which is when I noticed that she lived in fear of her phone. She would jump every time it rang and she would be quick to answer. I did not know who was calling or if it was the same person calling every time, but I knew she had to account for any extra time she was spending outside.

She would smile after she had attended the calls and would get back to our class. She wanted to join the police so “no one can force anyone into anything”.

I had found that explanation very amusing. When she found out I wanted to be a journalist and do a bit of creative writing, the next day she gave me a printed copy of something she had written and asked me to see if it was worth being published.

I stuck the papers in my office drawer, promising her I will read them later and forgot about them.

I was surprised to know Saira was married. She was showing some girls pictures of her wedding when I came in. She was pointing to all the extra expenditure and how she had made sure everything would cost more than it should.

This was very unlike her. I had not known Saira to be vain. During our one-to-one class later that day, I asked her about her pictures and why she was pointing to all the extra expenditure. I know it is intrusive, but I was very, very curious about this break in character.

“Because that is what I am proud of most. I was trying to make my parents pay for forcing me to marry someone I do not like at all,” she said.

I had to know. So I asked her what had happened.

Saira said her family had pressured her for two years to marry her paternal aunt’s son. She was 18 when I met her. Her father had promised her hand in marriage to his sister’s son when she was born. Her future husband was 15 at the time.

“I agreed in the end because how long can I keep saying no. I felt like every time I said no, they put more and more restrictions on me. Before I got married, my father decided that I was no longer to go to a school because what if I was saying no to the match they had made for me because I liked someone else. I enrolled in this college two weeks after I got married,” she said.

In order to make sure she will say yes, her husband-to-be had promised to let her continue with her studies and her father had bought her a car so she can come and go as she pleased.

After the wedding, she found that the car was also for her husband as he did not have one and she often found herself being driven. Though she was allowed to attend a college, she was allowed to do so with several restrictions.

“I was bribed,” she said sarcastically.

“But I don’t think a car was enough for all I have to go through every night,” she said.

What should I have done in that situation? This is Pakistan where there are no proper institutions, support or rules and we have a huge problem with the implementation of laws.

What was I supposed to do? Give her advice, help her find someone who will help, go to the authorities, find her a lawyer? None of these work in Pakistan. Family is the backbone of society here and government authorities seldom interfere.

In fact, I have known police officers telling women to be mindful of their family’s ‘honour’ and not pay heed to their complaint.

Saira stopped coming to college after a while. I tried calling her, because the professor asked me to after a few days, and found that her phone was switched off.

I do not know what happened next, whether the college pursued her case or not. I went about my year and got busy in applying to universities myself. A few months later, I want abroad to start my degree and forgot all about Saira.

That is, until one day I received an email from her. She said she had been following my Instagram and was pleased that I had gotten myself into journalism school. She hoped I will be pleased to know that she had managed to get a divorce from her husband.

“But now, I am not allowed to go anywhere. My parents think I may be seeing someone which is why I got a divorce. They are punishing me for breaking the promise they made all those years ago. Who gave them the right to promise my life away before I was even born,” she asked.

Again, I could not do anything except give her advice. I told her to try and continue with her education, so that when her parents eventually relent, she has something. And that was the most frustrating part. That is the reason for me starting this blog. We have absolutely no mechanism, no system in place for protecting women from being denied their right to living life on their terms!

We exchanged many emails over the next couple of years. In that time, her family took away her phone, banned her from using any social media, go out of the house, make friends or even make phone calls. She made an email ID on her home computer when no one was around and would email me whenever she had the chance.

“Send me pictures of you. You are the only window I have to the world,” she said.

Saira would get so excited if I went somewhere with friends or even if I went out on a Wednesday night.

“I pray that I will be able to do these things someday and that you are never restricted from them,” she wrote one time.

The emails stopped one day. I assumed her family found she was using the home computer.

Fast forward to five years later, when I had moved back to Pakistan and had started working at Dawn. I was out shopping in a mall when I heard someone call my name. I recognised Saira’s voice immediately.

I turned around to face a woman who looked as if she was in her 50s. She was wearing a black and white, rumpled suit. Her face was devoid of makeup, her skin was flaky. Her hair had fallen. She must have gained some 70 pounds.

“I always prayed I run into you sometime,” she said.

We did not get to talk even for a minute because her sister was accompanying her. I sensed that Saira was on one of her monthly, supervised outings. Her sister was watching us like a hawk.

When Saira asked for my new number, her sister only pretended to save it on her phone. I knew Saira will not be given my number and she will never call.

Half a decade later, and her family was still punishing her for getting out of a marriage she had never wanted in the first place. She was led away by the arm mid-sentence.

A few months ago, I was cleaning out my cupboard. I had not gone through all the things I had packed away before I left for university. I found two stapled sheets of printed paper in one of the boxes. It was the article Saira had given me to read and tell her if it was worth publishing.

The haphazardly written piece was on how the police should be involved in ensuring a bride’s consent before weddings.

*Saira is a name I picked to protect her identity. I took out many identifying details from the story for fear that someone from her family may come across this site and recognise her. 

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.

-Sanam Zeb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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