She made a man go back on his word

Honour is a complicated concept here in the sub-continent. The head of a family will, most of the time, protect you and provide for you no matter what. He will be expected to support you financially throughout your life, even after his death. And in exchange, he will have the right over every breath you take. There is no escaping it, even if you are financially independent and even if you live on the other side of the world.

Honour is very strongly related to one’s word. Once you say something, you will be held to it. Much like Twitter today, there is no such thing as changing your mind, or understanding that someone might say something under duress.

I once met a woman who was made to sacrifice more than a decade of her life, not because she dared to love, but because she lied under duress, once.

I met, let’s call her Safia, almost 15 years ago, but I only got to know her story a month ago.

We were staying at my aunt’s in our ancestral village. I like to wake up early when we are visiting this aunt of mine because she has one of those traditional village homes, where the rooms open into a veranda that looks on to acres of manicured green lawns, where chickens and birds peck about the garden. You can see men working in the fields, children skipping down the narrow paths between the fields on their way to school, women going to get water from the tube wells with large earthen pots on their heads, some of them swinging by to pay regards if they know you are visiting. The mornings in my village are so peaceful.

I was sitting down to breakfast in the veranda with my mother and aunt and I did not want to start the day, that would have meant parting ways with that gorgeous scenery, so I tried to extend the conversation the two sisters were having. They were talking about distant relatives and I only needed to ask, “who’s that”, and both sisters would proceed to tell me that relative’s life story while I sipped hot masala chai.

It was during this that I got to know the story of this distant relative, whom I have decided to call Safia in this blog and whom I had met a decade and a half earlier.

I remember that meeting very clearly. It was my uncle’s wedding and we were delivering invitation cards, my mother and I and two of my cousins.

I remember, my mother guiding the driver to the downtown areas and down a wonderful labyrinth of narrow lanes. The streets were lined with shops selling groceries and vegetables, stationery, toys, car spare parts, bread, plastic ware, furniture and electronics. The upper stories of these shops house the shopkeepers’ families and the wives can be seen gossiping with their neighbours across the street through their windows and they lower baskets tied with rope down to the street if a vegetable or egg vendor passes by.

We stopped in front of a relatively large house right at the end of one of the narrow lanes, built at a distance from the rest of the houses. It belonged to the owner of one of the largest bakery chains in Peshawar. The house must have been more than a hundred years old and though renovated, the original architecture had been retained so that it had low doors and large windows with shutters adorned with intricate woodwork.

We had to cross the garages, the lawn and the men’s area to get to the main house through a small door in a side wall. The door was so small, at five feet eight I had to bend down almost to my knees to get through. Once through the door, we had to walk through a narrow street and in through another door, impossibly smaller than the first, which led into the house.

Finally inside, we were led to the drawing room by a servant where Safia greeted us with a smile that did not reach her eyes and, literally, with her arms open. I did not know how to react to the open arms, but my mother did not miss a beat and embraced her distant cousin. The two exchanged pleasantries and we were asked to sit down. I did not want to because the sofas were covered in cobwebs, but it would be rude to refuse.

She had brittle, ghostly white hair, yellowed teeth and cracked, papery skin. She stood taller than me and wore clothes that were at least four sizes too big for her. The servant brought out some fruit and she started peeling oranges for us. I declined because she had long, dirty nails. My cousins declined as well but my mother did not, which surprised us and we all looked at each other when she took the orange because my mother is a neat freak.

My mother and Safia continued to catch up with one another, asking how many children the other has and what they were doing. Safia would laugh at inappropriate times, she would tilt her head back and look at one of us cousins while she did, so that you would meet her eyes and would not know if you should smile or turn. The laughter did not reach her eyes.

After a few minutes, we stood to take leave. My mother told her not to walk us out but she insisted. Somehow, the rest of the party went ahead so that I was the only one left behind at the second of the low doors. A large German Shepherd came running at me from the house, teeth bared. I struggled out of the small, narrow door just in time, with not a second to spare and closed it behind me as the dog missed me and lunged at the door. Safia’s son came running out of the house and took the dog away, apologising. Safia opened the door and laughed, her eyes also laughing this time.

“I love seeing that. The other day, the dog bit my sister. It was so entertaining,” she said.

I hurried out of the house without saying goodbye and got into the car, slamming the door shut. I was mad at my mother the whole ride back and did not let her explain to me.

Fifteen years later, my aunt told me Safia’s story.

Safia married a man her family had chosen, the son of a very wealthy man, who owned the largest, most popular chain of bakeries in the city. She was envied by her cousins and sisters because she would get to live in the city, drive around in cars and wear fashionable clothes. Safia was also excited, my aunt said. She was just 18 then and had always dreamt of living in the city.

When she came back to visit a week after her wedding, Safia told her sisters and cousins stories of how the women in the city do not have to be accompanied by men when they go somewhere and that they can even go to the cinema and the bazaar.

Her happiness did not last long, however, because the next time she visited, she came with news that the family she was married into, in fact were followers of a different sect of Islam.

Safia told this to her mother in private, who advised her to go back home, collect all her valuables and then leave her husband’s home for good. When they come to enquire, they will tell the whole family that they had been lied to.

Safia did as she was told.

When her husband’s family came to ask her why she will not return home, Safia’s mother called the whole family and requested a Jirga– an assembly of elders that makes decisions by consensus or according to the norms.

The Jirga was headed by Safia’s uncle and my great-grandfather. He was the most influential man in the village till he died recently and had the most land.

Safia’s mother told the council of elders that the family had been lied to by her daughter’s in-laws and that therefore the marriage should be annulled. My great-grandfather agreed and called Safia in to ask her what she wanted. When she came in, her mother-in-law started shouting at her and called her a thief for taking all her jewellery with her. When my great-grandfather asked her if she had, the barely 19-year-old Safia panicked and said she had not.

My great-grandfather ordered punishment for her in-laws for deceiving his family about their religion and levelling accusations against his niece. The mediation process was still going on when a few days later, Safia gathered courage and told him that she had taken the jewellery that was rightfully hers with her when she left her husband’s home.

My great-grandfather went back to the Jirga and told the elders of what had happened. They had to suspend the punishments against her in-laws and because she had made him go back on his word, my great-grand father ordered Safia to go back to her husband’s house and that he will no longer protect her. He ordered the rest of the family to also sever all ties with her and not go to her rescue.

When she went back, crying and pleading, Safia’s mother-in-law took her to the roof of the house and locked the door behind her. The roof had no shade and no water. Safia was locked on that roof for 12 years.

Her mother-in-law would occasionally throw a raw tomato, onion or potato up on the roof to ensure she did not die while her son would visit her at night, so she also bore children during that time. She spent several pregnancies up on the roof, with no respite from the harsh summer sun or the freezing winter nights. She did not have a bathroom or other washing facilities.

No one was allowed to visit her on the roof and her children would also be taken from her when they were born.

Safia was allowed to come down and live a normal life, whatever that may have meant to her, when my great-grandfather had a change of heart. Her in-laws were ordered by the Jirga to be nice to her, and they have been since.

When I met her, Safia had been out of her imprisonment for a decade or more. Other girls from my family have since been married into that family, now knowing that they are followers of a different sect of Islam.

But if Safia had lied, so had her in-laws. Safia had lied due to duress. She was not like any 19-year-old now, she had had no exposure to the world outside her house. Her in-laws, on the other hand, had lied because they had wanted a union with my great-grandfather’s family.

If it was the Jirga which was to award a punishment, and if lying had to be punished, why were the in-laws not punished? Their lie had implicated the life of a human being while Safia’s lie did no one any harm. She had also not stolen, she had taken what was legally hers.

She was only punished because she made a man go back on his word. Such are the weird customs of honour, of the importance of a man’s word.

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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