To Be a Woman in Pakistan: Six Stories of Abuse, Shame, and Survival

Nargis, age 18

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When I was young, we lived in our village with our entire extended family in a three-bedroom home. My mother used to raise cattle. She would sell the milk and run our home with her income. My father didn't help. He never really contributed, he was too selfish. Before he married my mother, he was married to her sister. When she passed away, my family told my mother that she was best to take of her sister's children, so she married my father. We are a family of eight, so our home survived on close to nothing.

When I was a child, I was never able to buy anything I wished for, but I had the chance to attend school. I was really passionate about learning. My favorite teacher, Kiran, loved me. She would tell me to sit in her chair and help her teach other children. I even used to wear a scarf like her and would assign homework to the others. Those were my best memories. I was able to learn Urdu. At the moment, my employer helps me learn English.

In our home, women are the breadwinners, while my father and brothers work when they feel like it. My father collects the income that we all earn. He is wasteful, he will go out with his friends and won't return for four or five days sometimes. He never fulfilled his responsibilities as our father, never earned for us, and he didn't want us to go to school. My father was uneducated, so he won't let anyone else ever study. I wish my childhood lasted longer than it did.

My parents sent me off to work in homes in Karachi when I was six or seven years old. In my village, at the age of four, young girls first learn to do sweeping and cleaning dishes. At the age of six, we learned to iron and wash clothes. By the time we turned ten, we'd learned to cook everything.

When I was really young I got hurt because my brother was playing cricket and the bat had ripped my head open. I needed stitches. My parents took me on a bicycle to the hospital and the doctors gave me medication. In the area where I live, we didn't have any real treatments, so my mother did a lot of healing at home. She used onions, oil, dough, and bandages. In our home, we never really saw any happiness. Our parents were never able to bring peace in our home. My father was very abusive. He used to beat my mother and I witnessed it since I was young.

I remember once when I was cleaning, I was sweeping the floor and my father told me to come to the store to help out. I told him I was coming, I wanted to finish what I was doing. He got impatient and he picked up a wooden stick with sharp edges and he hit me with it. I was five at that time. All I remember is screaming and crying.

My most horrific memory was when I was eight or nine years old and I saw my father beating my mother for no apparent reason. He began beating my mother with a faucet and an iron rod. After he was done, we all lay down to sleep. I slept next to my mother. I remember being so afraid, I couldn't sleep all night. I remember my mother telling me, "no matter what happens, promise me you won't scream." My father had kept the faucet and iron rod under his bed. My brother and I snuck out in the middle of the night with the iron rod and faucet and buried it far away in the sand outside so my father would not be able to use it. In the morning, he woke up so angry that he picked up a wooden log and beat my mother, accusing her of stealing the items from under his bed. I ran up to him and to give him a hug to calm him down. My father stopped finally. He loves me the most.

Memories like these are unforgettable. Growing up in an abusive environment and seeing the torturous ways of my father has led me to lose faith in my own future. My only ray of hope comes from my work environment where I am loved and treated as a child. My work makes me feel worthy that I am may be special. Maybe there is something better out there for me.

Nazneen, age 41

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There is only one time in a woman's life where she is truly free and that is when she is a child. She can play and laugh. We were three sisters. My younger sister used to go to school and my older sister married at a young age. I studied a little bit, I know how to read and write a little. I studied until fourth or fifth grade but I don't remember much. We lived in a home made out of mud and sticks in our village, called Thatta. We came and spent a few years in Karachi to do our schooling and lived in a rental home. Then we returned to our village. My parents both used to work, my dad used to earn more income. My father did labor work, he earned well enough. My mother used to work in a school and take care of kids. When mom left work, I began working and had to leave my education.

After childhood, as soon as a woman gets older, household responsibilities begin to weigh her down and then she marries. If she is unfortunate, she marries the wrong man and is burdened for the rest of her life. When I got engaged, I started sewing from home to make money and prepare for my own dowry. If we did not provide sufficient dowry, there was a chance the marriage would not happen. As soon as I turned 16, I was married to my cousin, Nabeel. Within three years of marriage, I had my son, Samir. He was born prematurely at seven months and I had to have an operation. Until ten months later, my husband never came to get me. I went back to his home by myself.

Everyone began mistreating me when I returned. My mother-in-law and his sisters didn't give me spending money, food, and worst of all, no one loved my son. I began earning my own money and taking care of my son in their home. Nabeel may never have beaten me, but he managed to scar me emotionally. He never accepted our child as his own. He married another woman behind my back and created a whole new family with his new wife. They have children together. His mother and sisters were all involved in his second marriage. How could they do that to their own niece, their own cousin? My life has been filled with misery after marriage.

I came to live with my family after this incident. When my son Sameer turned three, I went off to work. At times, I would not be able to see him for a month. He calls me by my first name, and calls my mother ammi. I am the primary breadwinner in our home, making merely 6500 rupees [$72 U.S.] a month and I barely cover our expenses of food, medications, and clothing. Sameer has only studied till fifth grade as I could not afford the fees for higher learning. There is a reason why the poor remain uneducated generation after generation; we simply cannot afford it. It isn't that we do not want to study; it is simply because we can't.

I have seen many hardships in my lifetime, but nothing compares to the flooding that occurred in our village two years ago. I was in Karachi working when the flood was on its way to Thatta village. My son, mother, and sister were able to get on a bus and leave before the water arrived. They weren't able to take anything except for the clothes on their back. My father remained in Thatta during the flood and he was in the water for three days. The government workers charged 20,000 rupees [$220 U.S.] for each person they saved from the water. Many poor people could not afford saving their loved ones. Even rescuing survivors is a business in Pakistan.

When I returned to my home, everything was lost; all our valuables, the money I had been saving for years, and our home had fallen apart as well. We received no help from the government. They gave each home about 20,000 rupees to survive, when our losses were well over 200,000 rupees. My family and I had to rebuild our home ourselves. In these difficult times, our village developed a deep sense of community. Even if we have one meal and we didn't know what we would eat the next day, we still shared it with one another and prayed that God would give us something more the next day.

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Zara Jamal is a Canadian writer studying at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

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