An 18-year-old Sindhi girl student went on a hunger strike until death all by herself, without a platform or a canopy or media promoters, or any help except for a faithful friend’s decision to join her, to raise her voice for her people’s rights. The year was 1970 and the country was under Gen Yahya Khan’s martial law. Sentenced to one year’s imprisonment by a military court, she and her companion spent nearly five months in prison, mostly in Central Jail, Sukkur. All efforts to persuade her to end the hunger strike failed. Ultimately, she ended her protest while in jail, at the request of a people’s forum.
This would have been enough to guarantee her a place of honour in the history of the struggle for rights and equity waged by the women of the then western wing of the country. (The women and girls in the then eastern wing had a richer record of striving for people’s causes.)
But Akhtar Baloch also fulfilled an equally noble mission. Through the record she kept while in prison, published this year in English as Prison Narratives, she introduced the world to a good number of Sindhi women — and a few from other parts of Pakistan — whom she found battling against heavy odds while incarcerated. Most of the women in her ward in Sukkur jail had murdered their husbands. However, being driven to killing their spouses to escape from unhappy bondage was not the sole cause of their predicament; the feudal lords and their culture, their stranglehold over the police and their ability to manipulate the subordinate judiciary increased these women’s plight many times over. Finally, they were trapped in a vicious system that obliged them to surrender their quota of bread and milk, meant for their children, and a part of the food and fruits brought by their families, to the rapacious matrons and the head of the women’s ward.
A stark exposition of the conditions of women prisoners in Pakistan and a brave teenager’s remarkable personal struggle
Many well-informed citizens are aware of the unmitigated misery of Sindhi women and the fact that the treatment meted out to them in prison is an extension, albeit in concentrated form, of their lot when they are supposed to be free. However, most people look on the wretched population of women’s jails and wards in terms of numbers. They react to the tales of these women’s suffering without their heart or conscience getting pricked. Baloch’s narrative presents before us real human beings of flesh and blood, who have their weaknesses and their strengths, their capacity to be cunning or straightforward, and boundless reservoirs of love and kindness. She writes with feeling that is at once unforced and artless and is thoroughly effective because of that.
Baloch also displays an impressive ability to arouse the readers’ sympathy for the prisoners by eschewing any demonstration of pity for them. Take the case of the woman who poisoned her husband and several other members of his family, and failed to prevent one of her brothers from courting death. She accepted full responsibility and avoided naming the brother who had plotted the gruesome murders. Or meet the woman who was happy to obtain bail in a murder case, but was back in the prison within a few days; the feudal playboy who bailed her out had done so in the hopes of marrying her. She rejected him, had the bail cancelled herself and returned merrily to the prison. Or the young woman who was 12 when she was accused of killing her much older husband. She was awarded the death penalty that was commuted into life imprisonment — perhaps nobody thought twice about awarding the death sentence to a girl who was only 12 at the time the crime attributed to her was committed. Baloch also writes about the many prisoners who learned to demean themselves by spying on fellow inmates and bent over backwards to earn the jailers’ petty favours.
The author herself was able to persevere in her resolve to face the rigours of incarceration mainly because she came from a politically active family presided over by her stepfather Rasool Bux Palijo and her mother Zarina Baloch. They were greatly concerned about her safety, but made no attempt to dissuade her from putting her life at stake. Instead, both of them steeled her resolve to keep the fight going; he with strong appeals to her intellect while her mother comforted her with the milk and honey of her love. Their letters form an important part of the narrative. Above all, there were verses by Shah Latif and Sheikh Ayaz for all occasions: when a wounded heart needed to be soothed or when a weary fighter had to be steadied. The luckless prisoners, too, fortified their spirits and gave vent to their yearnings and sorrows by singing Sindh’s rich treasure of poetry, both classical and folk, and the miraculous power of music helped to rescue the miserable creatures from the abyss of hopelessness.
It all seems extraordinary, but then Baloch herself is no ordinary person. Her steadfastness as a political activist apart, she has brought up her five children well, given them a good education and guided her eldest daughter, Sassui Palijo, to win a place in the Sindh Cabinet and later on in the Senate. Baloch herself progressed from being a primary-school teacher to headmistress of a school and to teaching at higher institutions after selection by the Public Service Commission.
As well as Baloch’s recollections, the book includes two useful articles by Rasool Bux — one on the background of the turmoil in Sindh in 1969-70 and the other to explain the circumstances in which Baloch decided to join the fight.
This prison diary was published first in the original Sindhi more than 40 years ago. Is its English translation relevant in 2017? It is. For three good reasons. First, the narrative forms a valuable part of our people’s history of resistance to oppression and injustice that we need to recall to be better able to meet today’s challenges. Second, the beautiful piece of writing penned by a girl before she reached the age of 20, and that too in prison, merits a permanent place in our literature as well as wider dissemination.
The third, and perhaps most important reason, is that this work should persuade us to ask ourselves whether we have learned over the past four decades to deal with political dissent in a lawful, democratic and civilised manner, and whether the unfortunate women prisoners in our jails have been freed of the thuggery and tyranny of haughty matrons and sadists in uniform.
By Akhtar Baloch,
compiled and translated by
Oxford University Press,
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017