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Breaking point

October 12, 2014


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Some things are great facades: the toothy grin of 24-year-old Salma, the quiet confidence of 36-year-old Nida, the dismissive arrogance of 37-year-old Umeed, the peculiar eccentricities of 23-year-old Uzma, or even the exclamatory fit of laughter from 28-year-old Razia*. These women have all been deeply hurt; but unlike a visible injury, their wounds are invisible. They are ill because of the severity of trauma suffered. Their minds, in a state of shock, have given up on operating in a way that we would dub ‘normal’. They have been unwell and were in treatment at various mental health institutions in Karachi, but society largely rejects them as lunatics. In truth, these women hold the secrets to the dirtiest dichotomies of society today.

“My brother-in-law raped me,” says Salma, “but nobody believed me. My husband told me I was lying, and accused me of having an affair with someone. My parents did not quite comprehend what happened; they told me to compromise, whatever the issue. There was nobody to fight in my corner or plead my case. Everybody thought I had gone crazy.”

Two weeks later, while Salma was still grappling with the reality of having been raped by family, the husband divorced her. “I lost my mind; my world had come apart because of something that was done to me, not done by me. I could not live with it, I went suicidal.”

In mental health institutions across Karachi are daughters of a lesser god. Meet five women who share their tales of starting from scratch after their flesh and blood abused and abandoned them

Salma’s parents admitted her to one the city’s mental health institutions, hoping that some focused treatment through psychotherapy and medicines would help Salma recover and heal. Doctors had made it clear to the parents that they could not put a deadline for recovery; every individual heals at a different pace. Salma was released after about four months, but healing from the trauma of sexual violence took much more out of her.

“At the institute, they wanted us to have structure in our lives. We woke up at particular times, were told to shower at particular times and have food at particular times too. There were activities in the day, and doctors would visit in the evening. The rest was up to you,” she narrates.

“The worst part was the psychotherapy. It was difficult. The doctors wanted me to be comfortable with my reality so that I could deal with it. But who can possibly be comfortable with being raped by family? I am scared of people now, I know how savage they can be,” Salma says.

Much like Salma, Nida too is a victim of sexual assault. Nida is a single woman, unmarried by choice, and worked at an NGO in Karachi. Much like Salma, Nida too has given up hope of ever getting justice.

“It was a paternal uncle,” Nida curtly says. “He was a religious man, which is why I trusted him. Because of him, I lost faith.”

She was first admitted to an institution recommended by the same uncle who had raped her. Nida’s parents agreed.

“All doctors encourage structure and routine. As part of a regime, the mental health facility used to instil discipline in its patients. We were told to seek forgiveness from the Almighty for the calamity that had fallen on us. I was angry, I didn’t want to pray, but they would inject me with a sedative every time I protested,” narrates Nida.

It was rage that landed Umeed into a mental ward. “I lost my mind after my husband defrauded me, stole money from my bank account, and moved to Canada with my children. I should be angry about that.”

Umeed used to be a small business owner. She was newly divorced when she had to be admitted — the first time.

“My mother-in-law picked my children up from school, took them to her house, and decided to keep them there without ever asking me for my permission,” she says.

Umeed spent over five hours consumed in a maddening search for her children. It was only after she spoke to her ex-husband that she realised that the children were safe but that they now were the subject of a custody battle in court.

“My life was on hold, the lawyers had already been involved. One day, when I called my ex-husband to speak to the children, he didn’t answer. Then the next day, his phone was switched off. I got worried. I kept calling him for another two days. And then, I received an email from him: he was in Canada, he had taken the children too, and he wasn’t returning. I was livid,” narrates Umeed.

Out of control, Umeed admitted herself to a psychiatric ward in one of Karachi’s largest hospitals. This point was later used by the husband first in a Pakistani and then in a Canadian court to prove Umeed wasn’t mentally fit to shoulder the burden of mothering. “Nothing could be further from the truth, those children are my life.”

Umeed could not bring her children back to Pakistan. Business was floundering and her partner needed her to pick up the slack. The failure pushed her towards drug abuse. “Heroin became my choice drug of the day, every day for some eight months. Without it, I was unable to confront the idea that I could not protect them or save them, or that I could not even wish them on their birthday or even talk to them,” she says.

Umeed returned to the ward for addiction treatment; she kept returning intermittently for the next six years for treatment. She sold her share in the business two years into the treatment.

“Our divorce wasn’t really sour, we both wanted to go in different directions. But it is my right to be angry at my ex-husband for stealing my children away. People tell me to have faith, that one day my children will return to meet me. But I can’t forgive or forget. There are kids involved. Family and friends focus on my rage but subconsciously or unconsciously, by telling me to move on and concentrate on the now, they undermine what happened to me,” says Umeed.

Uzma’s father was a drug addict. She is the youngest sibling in a family of 12; her elder siblings are married and didn’t live with the parents. She was only 16 when trauma hit her.

“My father regularly used to hit my mother; she was the one who not only protected all of us, but also had my five sisters wedded and settled in their homes. She would hide money from my father; if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have had food to eat,” she says.

One night, as the altercation between the mother and father grew louder, her father picked a butcher’s knife and slashed her mother. “He was under the influence I think, but I don’t quite know. She died,” says Uzma.

Devastated and distraught, Uzma fell into depression. But she didn’t know what was coming next.

“My father returned home late one night, saw there was food to eat, and began asking me about where the rest of the money was hidden. That money is what my brothers had given me, just so that I could sustain myself. I refused. So he tore my clothes, pushed me onto the street, and locked our door,” narrates Uzma.

“I was standing there, all alone in the darkness, with a torn shalwar kameez. I started shouting and screaming. I passed out from screaming so much, because that’s all that I can remember. When I woke up, I was at a mental health facility, having been injected with lots of sedatives. They said I was out of control when I was brought in. I stayed there for the next three months, partly because I wanted to figure out who I’d be staying with next. It was obviously not going to be my father.”

Today, Uzma works as a secretary in a bank and lives with her eldest brother.

Razia was in the driving seat when her car collided with a speeding trawler on the Baloch Colony Bypass. Her father, mother and younger brother, all died in the accident. Razia miraculously survived, even though surgeons had nearly given up hope because of the blood loss suffered.

“When I finally woke up, after five days, I heard the news. I went into severe depression. I would cry all day long, nothing felt right. One day, I left home, and started walking towards the railway station. I don’t know why, I don’t remember if I was going to take a train elsewhere or commit suicide,” says Razia.

Her domestic help managed to track her, and called her elder brother to come to the scene. Razia was rushed home.

“My brother admitted me to a mental health facility and paid an advance on the room. We got an air-conditioned room, with a working television,” narrates Razia.

But after a month, the brother’s visitations first decreased, then stopped altogether. Razia was shifted to the general ward by the end of the second month, one with occasionally-operational fans and no television. Soon, the head nurse would also assign Razia to toilet-cleaning duties.

“I stayed there for about 20 months. Then, I made contact with my best friend; I believed that I had healed enough to take on my brother,” she says.

Once liberated, Razia discovered that her brother had indeed sold all property to which she was heir to, and embezzled the money.

“I didn’t want to fight, I simply wanted to construct a new life for myself,” Razia says. “I moved in with my best friend, and slowly rebuilt myself. I still share an apartment, but I pay rent now, I cook food, and try and find something worthwhile to do.”

*Names changed to protect privacy

The writer tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 12th, 2014