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A life less ordinary: The woman who fought back

This is the second in our series of extraordinary tales of ordinary Pakistanis.
Updated 14 Nov, 2014 02:16pm

By Yumna Rafi

This is the second in our series of extraordinary tales of ordinary Pakistanis.

Often self-inflicted wounds are the toughest to recover from. This is the story of one courageous woman who suffered in silence, fell to the depths and turned her life around.

Najma gasped for air, desperately fighting against the crushing weight of the pillow pressed down by someone who she had dedicated her life to: her husband.

No one heard the muffled cries for help, her hands and legs which had been kicking frantically, stopped struggling after a while.

Najma’s husband, Zahid, released his weight from the pillow and checked his wife’s wrist for a pulse, satisfied, he left the room.

But he had left too soon and perhaps, also, underestimated his wife’s will to survive.

Najma regained her consciousness, dazed but fully aware that she had survived another murder attempt. This wasn’t the first time he had attempted to kill her. Just days before this incident, Zahid had poisoned her food.

It wasn’t until she had vomited several times and was taken to a nearby hospital by a neighbour, that she realised what had happened. As doctors pumped her system clean and gave her the details of the contaminant, she lay on the hospital bed contemplating how to escape the endless torture.

“Because of the poison my chin dropped completely and it took months for me to recover,” said 43-year-old Najma while pointing to her face in an old picture.

She had started seeking counseling, and even taken a neighbour in confidence. But there was no clear way out of her misery. Although laws exist, victims of domestic violence rarely get legal protection in Pakistan. Some of the victims do not approach the authorities because of societal taboos attached with such issues.

 Najma shows a picture of herself before her burns. -Photo by Muhammad Umar
Najma shows a picture of herself before her burns. -Photo by Muhammad Umar

“My husband said he could not believe how I managed to stay alive even after these attempts. Then, he tried to psychologically push me to the extent that I would take my own life.”

Najma was married to her cousin Zahid Iqbal at the age of 12 after her father's death. In the first few months with her husband, she realised that Zahid was unwilling to support her, both financially and emotionally. She became wary of the little care and love her husband showed her and went into depression. In the absence of an emotional and moral support, Najma sought comfort in her younger sister.

"We were eight siblings and I was closest to the younger one, our bond grew even stronger after my father's death so much so that after my marriage, I took her in with me.”

Her sister was there to fill the emotional gap, but the question about how the house would run without any finances was left unanswered. Zahid started forcing her to look for work, beating her when she returned empty-handed.

Najma ventured out in the streets of Kharadar looking for any kind of work that would make her a few rupees. After weeks of toil, she found a wholesaler in Lee market who gave her the task of making tassels.

"I earned Rs 15 for making a dozen tassels. I was desperate for work so I was ready to do anything," she recalls.

In this time period, Najma gave birth to seven children; two of whom died due to malnutrition and one because of cancer. With the deaths of her children, Najma clung on to her work, toiling day and night to make enough money to feed her children.

But in the midst of fulfilling her roles as a mother, wife, and the family's sole breadwinner, Najma did not suspect what was happening in her own household until one day she was locked up in her room by her husband.

This was the day she had decided to tell him she was expecting their eighth child.

“My husband locked me up in the bedroom with my children. He and my sister, Musarrat, were both together outside the whole night,” she said recounting the day she finally realised her husband and sister's true intentions .

“The next day Zahid said he was going to marry my sister too. My baby sister whom I had loved dearly. He wanted to keep us both in the same house.”

What followed was a series of heated arguments, often ending with Najma bruised and beaten. The news of the possible marriage quickly spread through the Lyari neighbourhood. A few concerned neighbours tried in vain to intervene in the matter.

“The elders in the neighbours approached Zahid and told him it was not possible to marry both sisters, even Islam does not permit it. But he denied everything to them, saying he considered Musarrat to his own sister,” said Najma, recalling how things went from bad to worse.

“When I realised what he wanted, I decided to send my sister back to my mother’s place but he was enraged. He would not let that happen. My mother was alive and yet she didn’t help in any way to save my marriage. It was as if everyone had plotted against me.”

Zahid knew he couldn’t marry Mussarat while Najma was still alive; he sought murder as the only option. The two murder attempts soon followed, yet Najma survived and lived on for the sake of her children.

She didn’t think of separation as an option, with the fear of living with the stigma of divorce for the rest of her life and having nowhere else to go.

Tempers had risen, frustration and helplessness was evident in all members of the household and then came the breaking point.

 Najma shows her burns. -Photo by Muhammad Umar
Najma shows her burns. -Photo by Muhammad Umar

Falling down

Najma’s body was bruised from the endless beating. When the screams for help faded, a newborn baby’s cries issued from the bedroom, but Najma was oblivious to it. A six-year-old boy sat huddled with his three siblings in the corner, staring at their mother, speechless and transfixed as she doused herself in kerosene oil. A matchstick burned, the oil bottle crashed on the floor as a fresh wave of screams pierced the night.

What should have been a happy occasion turned into a living nightmare.

“When Zahid heard about our eighth child, he came home furious. He lashed at me; I thought he was going to beat me to death. After he left I thought this was it. I did not want to live anymore.”

She set herself on fire.

The neighbours came to her rescue as her screams erupted and took her to the hospital.

But it was hardly the treatment that her severely-burned body required.

Even days after she returned from the hospital, she was subjected to more torture at the hands of Zahid.

“I was bandaged from head-to-toe. But even then, he pounded me till my bandages were ripped apart. He told everyone that I had a questionable character and that the child wasn’t his.”

The newborn died when Najma couldn’t feed him because of her deteriorating health.

“Six days after my son’s death, he divorced me and threw me out of the house.”

Fighting back

It came as no surprise to Najma that no one was ready to give her shelter or the custody for her children. Two of her children were sent to Lahore to their paternal aunt’s place, and the other two were taken by Zahid to Hyderabad. Their house was sold.

With no roof over her head and no money, Najma resolved to banish her haunting past and get her children back.

“I knew I had made mistakes in my life by not standing up, by continuing to live with my husband for 11 years and for trying to kill myself, but I also knew I had to fix my life. God wanted me to live.”

Najma continued to make tassels, the raw material were her only luggage.

 Najma shows the different steps required to make a tassel. -Photo by Muhammad Umar
Najma shows the different steps required to make a tassel. -Photo by Muhammad Umar

She would sit on the corner of the road for hours a day, intertwining strings around electricity poles till a tassel was formed. With the little money she saved, she would spend it in buying sweets in bulk and selling them door-to-door on minimum profit.

“I made tassels during the day and at night I would knock on doors to sell sweets. Many refused to even open the door because of my visible burns. I even worked as a maid for a while; I did everything I could so I had enough to travel to Lahore to take my children back.”

She would sleep under the open sky at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine, or under fruit carts at night.

But Najma had not fully recovered from the burns and bruises. Strangers came to her aid more than her blood relatives ever had.

“There came a time when my body was covered with insects. I had worked too hard and my burns had not healed. A man at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine saw my condition and financed my entire surgery at Aga Khan Hospital.”

Her survival was on zakat and free food at the tomb, saving up every penny to take a bus to Lahore.

"She has to be one of the bravest women I know. For a woman to go through so much, in our kind of society where men are apparently always right, this is indeed something to be proud of. After suffering so much physical and mental trauma, I don't think even men would have recovered. She even gave her children an education," Abdul Malik, Najma's neighbour says.

Family reunited

It took Najma two and half years to earn enough money to travel to Lahore and get her children.

“I saw ami walking in the lane where we were playing and could not believe my eyes. I told my brother and we ran towards her,” said Hina, Najma’s only daughter.

It was soon evident to the mother that her children had not been treated well.

“My son’s arm was burned and my daughter face was covered in lice,” Najma recalls with contempt.

The children along with their mother went back to Karachi and took a house on rent in Lyari.

“The landlord was unwilling to give the house because I was alone and without male supervision. I promised him I would pay the rent on time, even if it meant starving myself.”

Najma often only had a day’s meal but her life was slowly getting back on track. She enrolled her children in school. An unexpected visitor also came soon afterwards. Her son, Rizwan, who had been taken by his father to Hyderabad, ran away and came to Karachi looking for his mother.

Zahid had remarried in Hyderabad to a woman who later divorced him and he now lives alone.

Najma, on the other hand, got her daughter married to a young worker, who she had met in Lighthouse market. She is now living with her children, their spouses and grandchildren in Sultanabad, away from the memories of Lyari.

 Najma with her grandson. -Photo by Muhammad Umar
Najma with her grandson. -Photo by Muhammad Umar

Her ailing health continues to trouble her, along with limited income to educate her children and grandchildren.

As a result of her own misfortunes, Najma has taken it upon herself to instill a sense of independence in the women in her neighbourhood. She generously trains and equips other women with the skill of tassel-making.

“I have started to make small colourful balls that are put on clothes on Rs 5 for 100 along with the tassels. I will continue to work till I can,” Najma says.

As a group of women gather around to hear her story of resilience, it becomes apparent that Najma's destiny was to survive and inspire others.


Credits


Photography

Muhammad Umar

Producers

Shameen Khan

Taimur Sikander