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

Haseena Bano, age 53


My life transformed when my father was kidnapped about 30 years ago. He was a rich and successful businessman. We were considered a wealthy family. Due to our lack of education, we were never able to claim the money or gold he had left behind in his bank accounts. The bank informed us that all his money had been donated to charity. Soon, we fell into dire poverty. After this tragedy, we lost our mother due to high blood pressure. She left behind 12 children who had to learn to survive on their own. Being the eldest daughter, the household responsibilities fell onto my weak shoulders.

When I turned 17, I fell in love with Ali. We ran away and got married. We were so happy together, but soon his parents forced us to get a divorce, as they disapproved of me. After Ali, I married Fazal, but this time it was arranged. We moved to Iran, where I had five beautiful children whom I love dearly. We seemed so happy; I thought we had it all, but it was not enough for Fazal. One day, he told me my sister had passed away. Devastated, I went on my way to Karachi. When I arrived, and saw my sister well and healthy, I was confused. Fazal promised to come get me in a few weeks, but he never came; a notice for divorce did. He kept my children. My youngest was two at the time, today she is 12. He married a younger woman, Khatija, who used to frequent our home as a family friend. I loved Khatija like a daughter; I never expected she would betray me this way.

The pain of losing my children was far greater than that of losing Fazal. After this incident, I began having panic attacks, depression, and kept crying for my children. I spent two years in a charitable mental institution, first as a patient, then after I recovered as a worker. The facilities are usually not very good in state-run hospitals. But I wasn't prepared for the mental abuse and violence. One of the patients was beaten with wooden sticks until her nose was broken because she disobeyed the rules. Fear was our treatment and medicine.

During this time, my eldest son, Shahid, came to visit me. Fazal tried to stop him; but he came anyway since I was very ill. When I saw him, he was speaking English; I could barely understand him. I never imagined feeling so distant from my own child. He brought me clothes, money, and medications. He held me and asked me to come with him. How could I return to Iran? I had no connection with his father. Plus, I would have asked him to stay, but I do not have any money or a home to support him. My home is my workplace.

At the moment, I am much better and work in homes as help. I take care of children and do the cleaning. Everywhere I have worked, I have been taken care of and I have been given a lot of love, maybe more than I have received in my own family. My employers give me new clothes, allow me to play with their children like I would with my own, and give me a warm place to sleep at night. When there is a wedding in their home, they give me new clothes to wear and include me in the festivities.

I hope to find love again. Even though I am in my 50s, I hope I find someone to grow old with. Life has been lonely for many years. My dream is to save my money, and have my own home one day, where my children can visit me. If my dream does come true, I know that I will be able to die in peace.

Salma, age 39


In Pakistan, if you are poor and uneducated, you are just waiting for the day where your life will end; each day is spent trying to find the motivation to survive.

At the moment, I work in a home where I am treated with respect and I get a lot of support for my family. While at work, I am the happiest, returning home is where I am the most afraid.

Every day with Farooq was filled with fear, each minute was painstakingly long, and the physical and emotional wounds remain unhealed. I would wake up early every day to iron his clothes and prepare his breakfast before I left for work. He spent the day at home. If I ever ran a little late, the consequences were dreadful. He hit me so much; sometimes he would give me a black eye or break my arm. Other times, he would take me out on the street and beat me publicly. He had no mercy, not even when I was pregnant. I have miscarried three children because of him. I have two children, one daughter and one son, who was a twin; Farooq killed his brother by kicking me in the stomach. He would ask me to go live with my parents during my pregnancy. Sometimes in the middle of the night, out of nowhere, he would attack me in front of my children. When I shower, I look down at my scarred body and I cry.

Farooq collected all my salary and used it for alcohol and drugs. One day, he accused me of sleeping with another man and divorced me. Being a divorced woman is shameful in Pakistani society. Even though I was suffering with him, I tried to save our marriage. He asked me to do halalah and told me he would marry me after that. According to the concept of halalah in the law, if a woman wants to re-marry her ex-husband, she must marry another man and consummate that marriage. I did what he asked. I did my nikkah [marriage] with another man. I only did this so my children could have their father's name. I went through the process and divorced the other man, and Farooq still didn't marry me again. He said you aren't my wife, you are my whore now. He seems to enjoy finding new ways to torture me.

I thought he would leave and that all this was finally over, but he remained in my life. He kept all my clothes, my furniture, my dishes, my sewing machine, and my washer. He still tried to sleep with me. If I refused or talked back, I would get beaten. I was scared for my life. He would tell my daughter, Seema, that he would throw acid on me if I married another man again. Fine, he is uneducated, but is he also inhumane?

I only have one dream for my future, and that is to start a new life outside of Karachi. I want to work hard, educate my children, and expose them to a life that is nothing like what I have experienced. My parents tell me to leave and to work it out with Farooq as they believe a divorced daughter is a burden even though our home runs on my income. In our culture, women look best in their homes with their husbands. Parents feel weighed down when they return home. I never belonged in my own home or my husband's home. I want a new beginning; I want to show all those people that hurt me that I can create a whole new life on my own; if not for myself, then for my children.

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

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