Breaking The Silence On Gender-Based Violence (GBV) — Personal Accounts From Pakhtunkhwa

In my field of research work, I often either meet with or hear stories about women — Pashtun women — who’ve been victims of violence and abuse, usually in the hands of their male partners/husbands, other male members of their families (i.e. brothers, cousins, etc.), or their in-laws (which, sadly, also include women such as sisters-and mothers-in-law). Most of these women suffer alone or in silence, in fear that they will be ostracized and shunned by their families and the community. Such fear also stems from deeply rooted cultural norms and taboos, where if a woman were to speak out or raise her voice against her abusive husband, relatives, or in-laws, she, not they, would instead bear the brunt of the blame. And even if she does end up succeeding in gaining sympathy from the community, the fear of “khalak ba sah wayee?” (What are people going to say/think?) will always follow her, like a dark ugly shroud, each and everywhere she goes, thus bringing “shame” and “dishonour” not only upon herself, but upon her whole family as well.

Nevertheless, the topic of gender-based violence is a highly sensitive one, and it is rarely discussed, if at all, especially in the Pashtun community. I know this, because I am a Pashtun woman myself. I also know this because I’ve met abused women in the past who’ve told me — well, more like assured me — that husbands, male relatives, and in-laws abusing the woman is not uncommon — it is the norm. And that women who “misbehave” deserve to be hit or worse. Violence has thus been internalized — normalized even — where many women expect it, because it is one of the things they’ve been taught while growing up.

Before I go any further, it is important to first understand what is meant by gender-based violence, as the word “gender” can easily be misconstrued, especially in this context. The European Institute for Gender Equality (“EIGE”) defines gender-based violence as follows:

It is violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender. It constitutes a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, dignity, equality between women and men, non-discrimination and physical and mental integrity.

However, it is important to note that while gender refers to both women and men, and that both genders experience violence in many shapes or form, it is women who suffer predominantly in the hands of their male counterparts; it is women who experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse, either through threats or coercions, stripping them of their liberties and their right to live peacefully. Though, here I want to mention that while I do not want to dismiss nor undermine the violence that men face as well, as they, too, can be and are victims of GBV, either suffering in the hands of other men, and some even in the hands of women. And the same goes for women abusing and oppressing other women as well; this fact should not be overlooked either. At the same time, when we talk about GBV, it needs to be understood that it is not simply limited to men abusing women; not primarily at least. Yet, when we look at it from a global  statistical point of view, the violence that women face in the hands of men is far more greater than the other way around. And this needs to be strongly acknowledged, keeping emotional and personal sentiments aside.

Although it is difficult to distinguish between the various different types of violence as they are not mutually exclusive, gender-based violence includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Domestic Violence
  • Sex Trafficking (I’ve written an academic piece on this in the Pashtun context, and it can be read here).
  • Swara
  • Marital rape
  • Female foeticide/infanticide
  • Walwar (I’ve also written an article on this issue; it can be read here).
  • Sexual/physical harassment
  • Child/ forced Marriage
  • Marriage to the Qur’an (forced marriage to Holy Islamic Text)
  • Honour-based Killings

Anyway, the reason I’ve brought this important issue to the forefront is because not too long ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a humanitarian worker by the name of Muhammad Yaqub; a very respectful Pashtun hailing from the Swat region in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who has passionately dedicated his life to the development and empowerment of women, both across the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) regions. His main focus is (or at least has been) working on GBV response mechanisms. His research study was on the “Perceptions and Attitudes of people towards GBV in KP and FATA.” (If he has completed that research study, I’ll be sure to share the full document, with his permission, on my blog as well.)

Mr. Yaqub was also very kind enough to share some personal stories of Pashtun women whom he encountered, during his fieldwork, that have suffered tremendously from GBV violence. Most of these women live in IDP camps, with barely any food, money or access to medical facilities. It is important to understand that the eminent low-status of women and issues pertaining to gender-based violence is usually exacerbated during natural disasters and especially during the aftermath of humanitarian emergencies (I wrote an article that sheds more light on Pashtun women vulnerabilities in natural disasters, which can be read here). One such example is when the 2010 floods swept many parts of KP; in the aftermath of the floods, there were many cases of sexual harassment, sex trafficking, honour killings, swara, and child marriages. Unfortunately, very little cases of such violence were reported, and there were even fewer survivors who managed to seek any help, if any, at all.

Nevertheless, the stories that I am about to share below are not wholly bleak; although depressing to read, the victims managed to seek or receive some sort of help/assistance from local NGOs, despite their daunting situations. And just to let my readers know, names and locations of these personal accounts have been changed in order to protect the privacy and identities of these victims. I also advise reader discretion as not only are these accounts deeply painful to read, but they are the reality of the situation back home.

I feel it is extremely important that we share these accounts so that we can be made aware of how severe a problem this is. Most of us don’t realize how serious a problem is, until and unless we read actual accounts and perhaps even personally witness victims of gender-based violence ourselves. Stories are powerful. They are one of the driving forces to gaining firsthand understanding of the situation, and then finding ways to taking meaningful action in order to rectify it. Hence, it’s time we broke the the silence on this issue and have these brave women come forward and tell their distressing stories, because it is only through awareness and realization of the profundity of these issues that we, as Pashtuns — as a uniting community — can bring about some change.

***

Story 1: Palwasha’s Story

Palwasha is a resident of the new Durrani IDPs camp, in Sadda Kurram Agency. She is married and is 38-years-old. She has one daughter and one son. Her husband is a labourer. She has four sisters and no brother to help support them (financially). Although she has two step-brothers, they never bothered to help with the household chores/expenses, especially after her father passed away. Violence against her started from very early on — in her own parents’ home, due to her poor relations with her step-brothers. One of her step brothers forced her to marry a cousin who was younger than her. Although she refused to marry the boy, she wasn’t allowed to resist as her brothers forced her to marry him. The marriage was troubled from the very beginning, causing Palwasha to leave her husband; she has now been separated from him for the past two years. When asked why, Palwasha stated that her husband was not supporting the children and instead invested more time in Tableegh, which resulted in the increased economic vulnerability of the family.

Palwasha also said that her husband treated her like cattle.

“I don’t want to keep any relations with my husband as he beats me a lot on minor matters; the only reason I was living with him was because of our children.”

Because she was so dependent on her husband, after separating from him, she had no other source of income. She suffered from acute anxiety, sadness, insomnia, and irritation due to the violence she endured resorting her to taking sleeping pills to help shut out her painful memories.

UPDATE: An NGO in the area has managed to provide her support by referring her to a psychologist in the area. In the first session with the psychologist, she was encouraged to share all her feelings. Anger management techniques were provided in the second session that helped her cope with the situation. After religious counseling was given in the third session, she felt more relaxed and happy. The NGO further provided aid in the form of  hygiene kits, which further provided her with basic health services. Despite the hardships she faced, her latest comment was this:

“I am trying to bring happiness and start a new life, I am very thankful to you people (referring to the NGO).”

Story 2: Zarmina’s Story

27-year-old Zarmina is a resident of New Durrani IDPs camp, Sadda Kurram Agency. She has three sons and one daughter. Her husband worked as a labourer in the local market. Zarmina has been living with her brothers for the past one year, as her husband was killed in Tirah Valley during the conflict. During the time her husband was murdered, she was three months pregnant. She soon gave birth to a baby girl, but her health deteriorated soon after giving birth as she was suddenly faced with a serious illness. Also, the illness prevented her from fulfilling household responsibilities. An NGO identified her after ten days of giving birth and upon asking her how and where the birthing took place, she replied with “I delivered this child in a tent.” Upon inquiring  about the cutting of the umbilical cord, she replied that it was cut with a harvester (LOUR – A local instrument for cutting the grass). As a result, she was diagnosed with a very severe infection.

UPDATE: Zarmina was counseled, provided with a hygiene and baby kit, and advised to only use sterilized instruments in any future pregnancies. After the check up and medications, she is gradually coming back to normal and better life. Her latest statement was:

I am now able to fulfill my household responsibilities and feel better and happy with my family.

Story 3: Gulnar’s Story

Gulnar is 30-years-old and currently residing in New Durrani Camp, Kurram Agency. She has two daughters and two sons. Her husband is an old man and cannot work. They have been married for the last 20 years. Her parents are living in Peshawar. She has been living with her husband and his previous wife’s children.

When she was 10-years-old, her father made a bargain with an old man who was 50-years-old and sold her to him. The man was already married and had four kids at the time. However, because his wife had passed away not too long ago, he decided to purchase Gulnar to both tend to his sexual needs and to also look after his children, despite knowing that she was only a child herself. Since Gulnar was only 10-years-old at the time of marriage, and had not yet hit puberty, her husband restrained from consummating the marriage until she was 13-years-old. It was during this time that she faced a lot of difficulties.

“I was just passing my time for the sake of my children,” Gulnar said. “I was looking after my husband and his first wife’s children since I myself was a child.”

UPDATE: One of the NGOs identified Gulnar as a GBV survivor and referred her to a psychologist, as she had been suffering from a ‘maturity disorder’ since the last five years. She was also complaining about her lack of appetite, insomnia, lack of concentration, loss of interest in daily activities, and had taken to taking sleeping pills. After trust-building in the first session with a psychologist, she began to be more open with her feelings. Religious counseling was then provided to her in the second session. Gradually, she showed cooperation, as she began to feel more relaxed and liberated. In addition to helping her mentally and emotionally, the NGO also helped enroll her in a skills-training program, such as tailoring and embroidery. She has now successfully completed her training and is back home (in Teendo), leaving behind the bleak life she led in the IDP camp.

* Note: It is important to understand that GBV is not only limited to the husband abusing the wife, or the man abusing the woman. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, GBV can take many shapes and forms, and it can be inflicted upon the woman by either her husband, male relatives, or even her in-laws. The next account is of a woman who suffered violence in the hands of her son — her own flesh and blood!

Story 4: Sabina’s Story

Sabina Bibi is a 50-year-old woman, hailing from the Faqir Kali, in Peshawar, and currently lives with her son.

It has been a decade since her husband passed away, and ever since then her son has begun to behave badly with her, constantly verbally and emotionally abusing her. He is currently the only breadwinner in the family, and the woman has no one else to turn to, but him. She is also a heart patient, and the behaviour of her son was beginning to take a very negative toll on her health.

Not too long after, she was visited by a lady who referred her to an NGO that could help her with her dire situation. She then approached the NGO and relayed to them her problems, as she was disturbed and quite depressed. The NGO then referred her to a psychologist, with whom she shared her family issues.  The psychologist provided her the option of moving out and living in a shelter home, as it was a safe haven for many GBV survivors, but she refused; she did not want to leave her son and and her disabled grandson, all on their own. Feeling hopeless and dejected, the psychologist then referred her to weekly counseling sessions, to which she verily agreed.

Her latest statement was,

“After having attended my third session, I feel more relieved and have begun to understand my problems better, and hopefully will be able to cope with them.”

* Note: The following account, as relayed by Mr. Yaqub, is about a Pashtun woman who suffered violence in the hands of her abusive mother-in-law and sister-in-law — yes, women abuse other women as well, and this is a problem in our society that desperately needs to be addressed as well. These are women who are conditioned to further fuel patriarchy, allowing men to maintain their power and dominance in the society.

It was a hot summer of June in Peshawar and IDPs from Tirah valley and Kurram Agency (FATA) were very distressed to return to their homeland. A female psychologist was visited by a lady named Shabnam on the sixth day of June, and was crying out for help. The lady was about 35 years of age, married, and was complaining about the domestic violence she was facing. Also, due to the insurgent situation in Bara Khyber Agency, she and her family had been forced to displace and leave their home behind. She is a mother of six daughters and, due to this fact, leads a very difficult and stressful life.

According to her, the mother-in-law is constantly harassing and abusing her for not having given birth to a boy. And it is not only the mother-in-law who does all the abusing, her husband and her sister-in-law abuse her as well, and have made her life miserable. Both the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law find every opportunity to induce the husband to physically and verbally abuse her.

“Children are a gift from God. How can I choose to have a baby boy? If I knew how to choose a baby boy I would have done it to stop this misery,” she said, as tears streamed down her face.

She also adds that not a day goes by that her her mother-in-law does not abuse her in front of her husband for not bearing a son. She (the mother-in-law) has even forced her son to take on another wife, just so that she could have a grandson. As a result of all this violence and abuse, Shabnam’s daughters are constantly in a state of distress. She also struggles to meet her daughters’ basic needs, as it is impossible to seek help from both her husband and her in-laws, who don’t seem to care at all for the girls. Each time the younger daughter tries to show too much love or affection to her father, he either dismisses her or doesn’t respond to her at all. And when they get hungry and ask for food, Shabnam constantly worries that she will be scolded and physically abused if she cooks anything for them. The worst part is that she is pregnant again, with her seventh child, and the expectation is that she must bear a son this time. As a result, Shabnam is very worried about her life, as she has no idea how she would be able to fulfill this impossible demand.

During her session with the psychologist, she cried and cursed herself and her mother-in-law. She said that she was so depressed that she wanted to die during her pregnancy so that the child would not come into this miserable life. She even contemplated committing suicide, but stopped herself because she wondered that if she died, who would take care of her daughters? The psychologist then started counseling sessions with her in hopes of helping Shabnam cope with the difficulties in her life.

Although, there is no update on Shabnam’s life, once I find out what happened to her after those sessions, I’ll be sure to include an update. Hopefully it will be a positive one.

* Note: There are plenty more stories like these that need to be shared. And while I am a little short of time, I decided to share the ones that desperately needed to be told. I’ll be sure to keep updating this blog, perhaps even break it into parts, so as not to overwhelm my readers with too much information, as more GBV stories are shared. Also, if you are a Pashtun or Afghan woman, who has experienced or personally witnessed gender-based violence, please feel free to reach out to me with your story at sesapzai@gmail.com. You have a voice, and it needs to be heard loud and clear. Let’s put an end to this silence. Let’s break it. Because it is only through speaking about it, discussing it, and finding solutions that we can hopefully eradicate all sorts of gender-based violence from our community.

The fight begins now.

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