Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Portrait #55: "I used my mind..."!

Her father used to give her a hard time about how she dressed when she went out, and about the type of transportation she took to school. He never let her have a minute's peace about anything. Nor did he really see the point in a girl studying, so whenever she left in the morning he'd hassle her about wasting her time trekking to school every day, meanwhile risking her own innocence by leaving the house. Why didn't she just stay home?

By the time she got to 9th grade, his harassment had worn down on her. So when the first thing went wrong at school, she went ahead and quit. It wasn't as if a girl like her was every going to use her education anyway.

Sure enough, within months, an eligible young bachelor noticed her at a party and got her phone number. The next day he was at her family's house asking for her hand in marriage. It was a dream come true for the impressionable 15-year old and both she and her parents agreed. It was a short engagement, and she soon moved to a nearby town to live with her new in-laws.

The fairy tale ended abruptly when her mother-in-law started shouting at her and demanding things of her, and giving her a hard time about pretty much everything. About how she kept the house, about her lack of children. Her handsome groom was also merciless, always, without fail siding with his parents over her. He beat her violently and regularly, often even in public as they walked down the street. He told her that the Holy Qur'an said he was supposed to beat his wife, and the poor teenage girl had quit school, meaning that now she didn't know how to argue with him or explain to him what the Qur'an really says.

But she wasn't stupid. Quite to the contrary, she speaks elegantly and has a real knack for decision-making. She didn't learn her values at school, or from her family, or from her husband's family. She told us that she used her mind and figured it out for herself.

First, when she didn't immediately become pregnant, she went to an uncle and asked for help training as a hairdresser. After completing a 6-month training course, she went to work at a beauty salon. For six years she did something unheard of in her community: she commuted the hour between her in-laws' house and her city of birth to work and contribute to her family's income.

When she got home each night, she was met by verbal abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She grew in confidence at her job, though, and for a short period of time one of the women at the salon took her under her wing and mentored her. She started to learn a little bit more about her religion and about moral living. So when she would come home and her husband would beat her, she started arguing back, using logical arguments to explain why he should stop.

Finally, she got pregnant with her first child and quit her job. Life was still hard at home, but she was excited to begin her family. She swore to herself that her daughters would grow up with a good moral education and good values, that they would not suffer the emotional and intellectual vacuum in which she herself had lived. Things were still bad with her husband, and at one point she was so beaten up that she went a full year without leaving the house.

Her son was born a few years later, and she continued to try to instill good values in her children. When they reached school age, she prepared their clothes and school supplies, and gave them pep talks. And she continued to try to convince her husband to treat her well, explaining that their children deserve the best. She also told him that she wanted to stay with him and build a family with him, but she would have to leave if he kept treating her this way. In fact, she had already approached her parents about moving back into the family home, but they said that while she was welcome back any time, her children were their father's responsibility and so not their problem.

So she stuck it out. Slowly, her husband began to come around. He responded to her arguments, and the blows subsided. He started to set up a little house of his own, a place where his wife and children could live free from the watchful eyes of his mother and his father. As his daughter matured, she too started pressuring her father to treat her better. When he'd shout at her or beat her, she would look up as only a daughter can look at her father and ask, "But Baba, why do you do this?"

Then her husband lost his job. His wife, now a mother of three, swung into action. She asked a few people for help, but didn't get far. No one gave her a penny. But a neighbour hired her to do some cooking, then a local organisation hired her for bigger cooking projects. During the two years her husband was unemployed, she supported the family by making party snacks and helping to cater meals. She could do this at home, still looking out for her own children as she worked.

Now she has four children and isn't working. But when her youngest is in school, she plans on going back to work. Her husband isn't yet the man she dreamed of, but she believes that he has improved from Zero to Fifty Percent good. She is proud of her children who are doing well in school. Though her house is barely two rooms with no more furniture than two tattered sofas, it is hers, it is the domain in which she has begun building a family the way she thinks it should be, something different from anything she has ever seen, and something different from what they saw in her husband's home.

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