A Soundless Scream
By Jasmeen Manzoor, copyright 1997 Dawn, Pakistan
We talk about literacy and values. What for, when the darkness still prevails. We talk about women and their rights. What rights, when in this day and age women are not even considered humans. We are just three years away from the 21st century and yet we have learnt nothing. Our problems instead of decreasing have increased out of proportion. The incident I am going to narrate is a true story in which only the names have been changed. This is about women who have no access to anywhere. They live in far off areas and suffer problems which we think are extinct. A few months ago I visited my native village in NWFP.
Passing through Kohat I sensed tension in the city and saw a lot of men gathered at different places. I am talking about men only as purdah is strictly observed in this part of the province and women are not allowed to go out in the open markets. I asked my driver what had happened and he reluctantly told me that a woman had committed suicide. He didn't know the whole story so I waited impatiently for my village where I could ask someone what had happened. There too, everything was very quiet and the usual chirp of local women was missing.
Finally, after meeting everyone I got a chance to ask one of the females of the house what had happened. So, silently dabbing her soft blue eyes with her dupatta she told me that something terrible had happened and because the practice of suicide was very new to them, she thought a curse was going to envelope the entire region. She started crying, bitterly cursing the females born in these areas.
She slowly gathered some courage and started saying that all these 55 years of her life she had witnessed honour killings and killings for land and the so called killings in the name of blood but she had never come across a woman committing such a crime. I was shocked to hear this and asked why she called it a crime?
"Because", she replied "now all the women would be given a bad name".
She went on to say that this 18-year-old girl Zainab had burnt herself to death. Zainab lived in a village some 35 kilometres from Kohat and was widely known for her stunning beauty. She was the only child of her parents and was sold in the name of marriage to a well-off family for head money or the saar paisay, as known in Pushto, at the age of 15, an age when she should have been going to school or playing with children her age. Young and beautiful and full of life she stepped gracefully into the folds of a new life without knowing the tragedy awaiting her.
Days went by and due to strict purdah and honour system observed by them she was not allowed to visit any of the neighbours or even her parents as her in-laws insisted that since she had been bought she had no relationship left with her parents. Later, I found out that her parents were not even allowed to attend her funeral because according to the in-laws she had brought bad name to the family. Just to cover up their crime they labelled a poor innocent girl as corrupt saying that since she committed suicide without any reason, she must have been carrying someone's illegitimate child. But of course there was no chance of that as she had not even set a foot outside the house after getting married. This was just a cover up story to mislead the village jirga and the higher authorities. She had no option but to commit suicide as she was being repeatedly raped and molested by her father-in-law.
Yes, that is the truth which was so carefully and cleanly distorted. What choice did a little girl of 16 have who had had to tolerate all this for two years and could not take it any longer when she finally conceived a child. What went through that little mind of hers we will never know. No one wants to talk about the incident as they refuse to believe the truth and those who do believe it are too scared to bring it up. They talk in hushed tones, weeping silent tears for the ill-fated Zainab. But what good are these tears. Can they bring her or her child back, how many more Zainabs have to commit suicides before we realize the gravity of the situation.
It all started happening after one year of her peaceful marriage. The father-in-law used to be unusually kind to her and used to hold or touch her hand while taking a cup of tea or food from her. A slight touch on the butt or a little brush on the breast. The molestation had started long ago but she did not realize it. When it started happening too often Zainab felt awkward and started avoiding him. But how long can you avoid a person living under the same roof. She complained to her mother- in-law, but was told to keep quiet or else there would be blood everywhere. She, in return blamed Zainab for seducing her husband.
One day, while Zainab was busy in the household chores and her husband Zaman Khan had gone to the city for work, her father-in-law crept behind her and dragged her into the room, not even scared that his wife might scream or that the neighbours might hear her. As Zainab struggled to escape she was beaten up and was dragged all around the house and then finally raped. When the mother-in-law tried to stop her husband, she was also beaten up till she lost conscience.
This then became the order of the day till the son was away in the city. She was beaten and repeatedly raped for 3 days. When the husband returned the whole episode was concealed from him and about his wife's bruises he was told that she had injured herself by a fall. He was not educated enough to realize that such bruises do not occur from falling, and not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his own father would rape his wife. Her mother-in-law, put her dupatta at Zainab's feet, crying and giving her all sorts of promises not to say anything or there would be bloodshed and that her son would kill his father and go to prison and the whole family would be labelled as tor, meaning black and corrupt. When Zainab refused to listen to all this she was threatened that if she said anything the mother-in-law would refuse all this and she would have to be killed and labelled as a whore. The first time it happened she screamed and fought with the father-in-law but she being small and fragile wasno match to the six-foot man. And since the whole issue was quietened up, Zainab had no choice but to suffer deep emotional and physical wounds as long as she could bear it.
What choice did she have? She would have lost both ways. And then this terrible incident became an everyday routine. Whenever possible the father-in-law, and the non-availability of the husband, made Zainab's life hell and finally one day, when she learnt of her pregnancy she could not take it any longer. There was one question she did not have an answer to; whose child was she carrying: the father-in-law's or the husband's?
That fateful morning as the husband left for work, she slowly got up and moved into the little mud-built kitchen and poured the can of kerosene oil on her, lighting a single match she burnt herself. Help came too late and Zainab died a painful death just like the painful life she was leading. There was only one difference, this was by her own free will. Her choice of death was the only thing she was allowed to choose in the entire 18 years of the life she lived. Later, when the elders of the village intervened and tried to inquire into the matter, Zainab was labelled as a bad girl and blamed for having illegitimate relations with some one. No man was named because there was no man. The truth was hidden from the people just to save the family from bad name and prosecution.
The truth came out when one day Zainab's ex-mother-in-law came to visit her parents. Zainab's father at first did not let her enter the house, but as she was crying and wailing hysterically the villagers gathered and requested him to at least hear her out. Upon entrance, she threw herself at the feet of Zainab's mother crying and asking for forgiveness. She said that since Zainab's death she had not been able to sleep because of her sins and the time had come for her to die. So she wanted to go to God with a clear conscience. She said that since Zainab's death her husband and son were both very sick, and were loosing money day by day. She assumed that it was Zainab's curse on them and she had come to beg forgiveness from the late girl's family. I never found out if they had forgiven her or not. That hardly makes a difference anyway? Nothing can bring Zainab back.
Zainab's parents still live in the village, and go through the pain of it every single day of their lives. There has been no news of the in-laws after the event. They probably moved out to another village. People have long forgotten this story of brutal suicide.
All they can remember is the girl's black character and not her pain.
As the world moves on this part still lives in the dark ages dominated by male tyranny. But the saddest element is that the female lets him do what he wants. If it would not have been for Zainab's mother-in-law and her fear of the truth, Zainab might, just might, have been alive, or even if dead, she would have died with a clear name. Can we ever light a little flame of hope for these sad eyes, can we make a difference before other Zainabs have to leave this world? Their eyes looked at me as I picked my bag and said good bye to them, they asked me what good my article would do? And to tell you the truth I had no answer for them, just some worthless tears.
Tears of stone
By Zofeen T. Ebrahim, copyright 1997 Dawn, Pakistan
Soaked to the skin, the chill not making my life any easier either, I skipped the many slushy puddles and the overnight rivulet that had formed. And as I looked up, I was amazed to see almost a dozen young faces, all ages, from two to twelve, gaping at me with arrant curiosity. I smiled, they smiled back. With my short hair plastered to my head, and the wet shawl draped around and shoes peeping out from under the layers of slush, I must have looked quite a sight. One boy came forward to shake hands. My interpreter told him something and he went off red-faced. He later told me that the fellow thought I was a man. For women never shake hands, women never even come out of their homes in front of strangers.
The visit was part of my assignment, for an NGO, to see the havoc the earthquake had brought to the villages in Sibi, Harnai and Quetta. When we reached the villages it was pouring and coupled with the cold and the language handicap, it was laborious getting the work done. Barren and arid mountains, devoid of even the most basic shrubs, the landscape was sometimes broken by an orchard or two of apple, cherry or apricot blossoms. Charles Napier once said, "Balochistan is the place where God threw the rubbish when he made the world." But in its infertility lies ensconced its unscathed beauty and its hitherto unplundered natural resources. And that is true for its people - completely unplundered and so close to nature that it is almost frightening.
The faces which were staring at me so unabashedly were beautiful faces. Runny noses, weather-beaten red-cheeks, light hair which had never seen the sight of a comb, and yet there were so many girls with afringe. Most were wearing chokers around their necks made of tiny coloured beads. All wet, they seemed oblivious to the biting cold. The little girls wore colourful clothes, Balochi style with big, baggy, long frocks which were dirty and they were barefoot. Boys wore shalwar kameez, or just kameez and old hand-me-down sweaters (courtesy the various aid agencies), which had seen better days, slush licking at their calves. "The slippers got buried in the debris," a mother told me when I asked. My interpreter, belonging to the same village, from the Frontier Corps, and literally illiterate, said the kids never wear slippers, and are always unkempt.
Just next to the rivulet, a little boy was relieving himself. Once done he too joined the crowd. By now a few men had gathered and on request they took us inside their home which they call a haveli. It is an interesting home. The walls made of round stones plastered with chikni matti mixed with straw; the entrance door is small and you have to bend to get inside. Once inside, you enter a big open courtyard, which is basically a multi-purpose area. One corner is usually the cooking area, the rest can have the washing area, where they wash utensils and clothes. Because of the quake, most had put up tents right in the middle of the verandah. There were a number of rooms, dark and dinghy, the sleeping quarters, I was told. Most homes had a minimum of amenities, just a pile of brightly coloured quilts were to be seen but no beds and hardly any furniture.
Interestingly, each village is comprised of an extended family and a village can be formed from about twenty people to a hundred. Some men, I met, had married twice after the death of the first wife, and they had ten or more kids, the eldest having gone to the city to work and the youngest still suckling. One man in Sibi, whose wife and two kids had died seemed least shocked. He seemed quite happy with the monetary aid given to him. Asked what he intended doing with so much money he had probably never seen in his life-time, he answered, "after paying off the loan, I don't think I will be able to marry." I told him how could he even think of marriage at this stage and he retorted, "then who will take care of my kids?"
The women I met were shy, observed strict purdah and were so meek they hardly spoke. One side of the face was shrouded with a chadar. What was surprising was that gone was the loveliness that I had observed in the younger lot to be swapped by harsh features, the travail of womanhood writ plainly all over. Husbands spoke on their behalf though I had requested them to translate. The women also wore a lot of the patterned bead-work jewellry.
The Balochi girl-child probably never enjoys the carefree child-hood days. For the day she is old enough, six or seven, she has to help either at home or outside. Most of the villagers are maaldar, that is, they are shepherds. Across the rugged terrain, you often saw little girls accompanied by their mothers taking the flock out to graze.
Some, who stay at home, have to help with the house-work, from cooking and cleaning, to taking care of their younger siblings, to fetching water and even wood for fire. Once they enter puberty, rishtas are sought. In this part of the world, the custom of vulver, which is bride-money, is still practised. So as against the rest of rural Pakistan, when a daughter is born, she is not scorned though she never enjoys the same status as her male counterpart.
While talking to a cross-section of people regarding the trauma the women went through after the earthquake, they never felt that the women were in need of any psychological therapy or counselling. "Our women are tough and quite used to natural calamities," they all pronounced giving me the impression that it was a ridiculous notion. All of them were men from the government, locals, and even a medical doctor.
Contrary to that, what really appalled me was when one man had the audacity to say that "I'd rather that the females of my family remain inside the haveli and be buried in the debris than come out in the mohalla. Be-pardagi hoti hai." I asked him when the tremors shook the earth, did he go out, and he replied, "but of course, I was so scared, that is the first thing I did."
I met an old woman, in a village, who could speak no Urdu, in fact when I greeted her, she did not even speak a word, tears just rolled down her cheeks of their own volition. She did not have to speak to tell me her state of mind, her tears spoke volumes.
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