December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Whenever someone gives you a sorrow
Name that sorrow ‘daughter’

Sara Shagufta, ‘To: Daughter Sheely’


Human distress and anguish take many forms. In our society, where extreme poverty and illiteracy exist alongside deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, the distress sometimes takes on an unimaginable garb. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the treatment of our women. I was witness to such an event recently.

She was a little old lady whom I saw in our clinic in the katchi abadi of Orangi. This was my first meeting with her. She was tiny — barely five feet — and walking with a slight droop of her shoulders, she looked shorter still. The doctors treating her at the health centre had not been able to find anything wrong with her physically and had referred her to the ‘dimaghi’ (brain) doctor. She had lots of complaints, mostly physical — headaches, backache, palpitations, weakness, indigestion. She also complained of a loss of appetite, loss of weight and insomnia. This had been going on for a number of years. She carried with her an impressive array of prescriptions. These included analgesics, vitamins, tranquilisers, anti-depressants and antibiotics — all probably justified at one time or another, but which seemed to have made little or no change to her symptoms. She had had X-rays and endoscopies and countless blood and urine tests — all normal.

On questioning her, I found out she was married with two grown-up children — both married and apparently happy. She had no relatives of her own, no parents, no siblings. They had all since died or been left behind in what was then East Pakistan. I found myself at a loss to understand the cause of what appeared to be a depressive illness.

I enquired about her husband and her relationship with him and she said, “It’s all right.” I detected the slightest of hesitation in her answer. I followed it up with another question about him and suddenly, like a dam bursting, it all came out. He was a short-tempered, angry man, who was never satisfied with whatever she did and hit her frequently. She told me he had been hitting her from the second day of her marriage. The missing front teeth and the loss of hearing in one ear bore testimony to the viciousness of his beatings. He threatened her with divorce after every episode of beating. He made her cover her face so the bruises didn’t show. Not having anyone to turn to and ashamed of talking about her problems with others, she had somehow borne and tolerated his behavior.

I felt her voice cracking as she desperately tried to retain her composure. She looked down at the floor, avoiding my eyes. Having exposed herself to a total stranger she seemed uncertain what to do next. She held back her tears as I held back mine. I was uncertain myself what to do next. I did not know whether to feel sorry for the state she found herself in or angry with her for being so helpless and not doing anything about her situation.

But as I saw this tiny forlorn figure before me, I couldn’t help but feel like reaching out to her — to comfort her and tell her there was nothing to worry about. That I’d put things right. I wanted to tell her I’d speak to her husband and make him understand how wrong it was for men to hit women — no matter what the circumstances.

But I knew from experience that it could never be so. I knew he would either not come to the clinic or if he did come, he would deny any wrongdoing on his part. I also knew that if I told her this, she would plead with me not to tell her husband what she had told me, otherwise he would beat her even more.

It is a story heard repeatedly from distressed females in our clinics. In our strongly male-dominated society, the man can do anything he pleases, and get away with it. Whether it is abusing alcohol or abusing his wife (they frequently go together). And it is not just limited to the lower social strata of our society — although it is probably more prevalent in that class. Even in the so-called educated and upper-class circles, women are abused as badly and as viciously — sometimes, more so. The case is the same. The husband, not being happy with something the wife does (or doesn’t do) threatens her and if that doesn’t work, abuses her verbally. If that doesn’t work, he hits her. He must remain in control and his authority must be asserted. That is the way he has been brought up. That is what he has probably seen practiced in his own home.

For the female, it can be a life of torment and torture — physical, verbal, psychological. But one she must tolerate somehow for her children’s sake, for her family’s sake and for her own sake. No matter how traumatic the abuse, she must remain married. That is what society demands of her. That is what her family demands of her. That is what she probably demands of herself. That is the way she has been brought up. That is what she has probably witnessed in her own home. To do otherwise may spell the end of life for her.

On the long drive back from the centre, a hundred questions cross my mind. Why do we bring up our girls to be so dependent on men? Why do women in our society think of themselves as being so powerless and allow men to abuse them? Why, when the girls pluck up enough courage to leave the abusive husband, do the parents insist on her going back — even when it is patently clear that the violence will not abate? Why does the man have to assert his authority? Why doesn’t the man see his violence as a sign of weakness? Why do we bring up our sons in a manner that the abuse of women (mental, verbal, physical) becomes an accepted form of behaviour for him? Why do we not understand that if the man is to respect his wife, he must see the women in his own house — his mother and his sisters — being given the respect and equal treatment as him? And why, for God’s sake, why, do we bring up our daughters with the idea that they must ‘serve’ their husbands?

For the tiny tormented lady of Orangi, such questions are irrelevant, as she, like countless other women in this society, continues to suffer in silence.

This article appears as part of a bigger story: Sex and the Pakistani Woman