My Sisters Made of Light
Jacqueline St. Joan
“We shouldn’t be in here,” she said. Her voice rose in anger. “It is injustice! We don’t belong here at all.”
Almost eight years ago I met a remarkable Pakistani, a woman whom I will call Aisha, a grassroots teacher for twenty-five years, a woman who had been involved secretly and personally in rescue efforts for a number of women condemned in so-called “honor crimes.” As I listened to her stories, in my mind she became the “Harriet Tubman of Pakistan.” As for myself, I had spent years as a lawyer activist in the early battered women’s movement in the United States, so the details of the abuse Aisha described were strange, but strangely familiar at the same time. On the evening that I met my new friend, as we washed dishes after a small meal, we recalled the courage of the abused women we had known, and, with our hands in dishwater, both of us silent, we began to weep. Impulsively, I quietly asked her if I could write her story. She agreed at once, and over the following months, we met every other week over cups of tea while I read and she commented on my first drafts of this story. After awhile, her story became mine as I turned it into fiction, both to protect her and to give me the freedom to create the particular story that seemed to want to be told. Over the next six years I traveled to Pakistan, conducted extensive research, became involved in Pakistani human rights support work, and completed this novel with the help of many others.
In Pakistan I experienced the most exquisite hospitality I’ve ever known. As a guest I was given the best of what was available and if I asked for something, it was provided. Part of the hospitality of a guest is to return the favor. So in a way this book is my hospitality gift to Pakistan. It is my hope that its characters will begin to live in the minds of Westerners so that when the media reports on something done by a Pakistani, we won’t think of the terrorist stereotype, but perhaps instead we will imagine Amir or Jabril Kazzaz or Ujala. My dear friend is back in Pakistan now, continuing to help women there in a wide range of ways. When I asked her recently what was needed—a school? A clinic? She said they needed a safe shelter for women and children escaping abuse. They have the place for it, the contractors are lined up. They just need the cash. So half of my proceeds from the sale of My Sisters Made of Light will be donated for this construction project.
Below is an excerpt from the book.
Karachi Central was notorious. Built in the 1890s to hold one thousand prisoners, the jail’s population then was close to five thousand. Fewer than five hundred prisoners were female, twelve of whom were on death row, ten for killing their husbands.
We met the professor and three law students at the office of the jail matron. I remember it as a hot, humid day. The lady jailer, wrapped entirely in green cloth, peered at us from behind her big, round sunglasses. She moved as little as possible; only her lips had any life in them. As she spoke, they seemed to thicken and inch forward like two slugs. Seated at a metal desk, her body appeared to tower over it, her girth marking her as a lifelong, seated functionary.
“You can take those clothes inside. Give them to these girls to carry.” She lifted one shoulder and cast her glance like a fishhook that landed on two women standing by the office door. The women did not look up.
“Could we speak with them, please?” Faisah asked rather boldly, I thought.
“As you wish. Ask them anything. Just ask them how they are treated.” The lady jailer’s confidence spread across her face. “We have nothing to hide.”
“How is it for you here in the prison?” Faisah lowered her voice to question them. “Do you have enough to eat? Do they treat you well?”
The women nodded in unison.
“Answer them,” the lady jailer ordered, without looking up from her paperwork. She leaned onto her elbows, her arms hidden in the folds of green.
“Yes, Madam,” one woman said. “They treat us well. It’s just like home here.”
Suddenly, the lady jailer pushed her chair backward, scraping the concrete floor. She strained to lift her body, signaling that the meeting was over.
“The gentlemen will have to wait here. Only ladies inside.”
The male student, the professor, and a policeman with a belt full of keys headed for the men’s side of Central Prison. Faisah and I, and two other students—Rani and Laila—trailed the two inmates down a covered corridor to the women’s section. The key turned noisily in the lock, and the metal doors creaked. I cringed a little.
The doors opened to a large yard packed with women and children. The space was roofless, framed by mudbrick walls. On one side of the courtyard was a line of small rooms without furniture, a larger dormitory with a few string cots, and several stalls for toilets at the far end. Next to the dormitory was the outdoor kitchen where women were chopping mustard greens and boiling rice. Others washed clothes at the hand pump and hung them on a line, or they clustered under the only available shade—a thatched verandah outside the row of sleeping rooms. Women sat cross-legged on the bare ground, eating with cupped fingers from plastic bowls and feeding their children in the same way, or laying their babies across their laps underneath their shawls, where the babies sucked until they slept. Quite a few women were pregnant.
“It’s a kind of village,” I whispered to Faisah.
“A village of the damned!” she said.
“Call me Sita,” said the Kholi girl who carried Ammi’s clothes. “Will you help us, too?” She squeezed my elbow, keeping hold of the soft spots by my tendons.
“I’ll try,” I said, pulling my arm away. The girl was hurting me.
“Follow me,” Sita said. Then she grabbed my forearm and led me to the area where laundry was stretched across a wall to dry. Children squealed, playing tag between rows of wet clothes.
Sita wore a chiffon sari that was spring green in color and embroidered with cheap red and white thread. The scooped neckline of her blouse rested in the pockets of her collarbones. Her veil was clipped to her head and hung freely down her back, as if it were an extension of her hair. White plastic bangles circled her wrists. The girl looked different now than when she had mumbled her replies to our questions in the lady jailer’s office. When she spoke, she placed her fists on her hips. Her tiny body was as unmoving as a mountain.
“We shouldn’t be in here,” she said. Her voice rose in anger. “It is injustice! We don’t belong here at all.” I motioned for her to sit down next me on the ground, and I opened my notebook.
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