|"Burka" - The lie that shrouding oneself in layers of clothes will not make people stare at you and wonder and guess about your natural 'assets'. (oil on canvas)|
Walking briskly on the dusty road Zulekha passed the man who sold sweets to children on a pushcart every day. Moving fast she wanted to be away from the scorching eyes, even though she was covered head to toe in a black burka.
“Why are you in such a rush little woman? No time to speak to your poor Chacha?” asked Mohammad Ali. Zulekha was as old as his youngest daughter Mariam. He had two wives and 12 children. Mariam was born to him by his second wife who herself was only 23 years old at the time.
Ignoring the call she continued making her way towards home. This was now a daily routine. She would get out of the Madressa attached with the Green Mosque and hurry towards home. The Madressa, a place where they taught everyone how to read the holy Quran, was a fascinating place for all girls her age. For this was where all the guys went and learnt how to be men. Or at least this is what her envious friends thought, who could not be far from the truth.
Being the only girl allowed to go there by her family, and that too alone, was an amazing feat for her friends, who could not even step a foot outside their homes let alone go and study among boys their age. Chuckling, she thought, only I know the price I have to pay for this freedom.
It was a very hot day, the temperature reaching 45 degrees Celsius, and the black burka a constant cause of pain and misery. She had to be home faster or she would die. Extreme heat mixed with the unsettled dust in the unpaved street was suffocating. The Niqab covering her face got wet as she gasped for breath and she could feel beads of perspiration running down her spine and on her forehead. The symbol of virtue was clinging to her sultry body, turning heads.
It is embarrassing how they all preach about the safety and security provided by this piece of garment. They say the other girls who refuse to comply with the tradition have no shame and concern for their virtue, but little do they know about mine. As the mind was indulging in self loathing, she opened the wooden door of her house and entered the confines of her home. At least now I can get rid of the filth, she thought as she moved straight to her bedroom.
She noticed her mother’s keen eyes as they searched her for some signs of agitation. It was not new though, any girl who went out was looked at in this manner as soon as she returned. Signs of some newfound knowledge were frowned upon in this society.
“Zulekha, you are early today, did you get a beating by Molvi Sahab?” asked her mother Zarina from across the courtyard.
“No, it is just that I had a headache. I left early.” She lied. Yesterday she had said that Molvi Sahab’s son came to see him, so she left earlier than usual. I am wise beyond my years. I am 14 and I can lie just like my father. Thoughts rushed through her head again as she folded the despicable garment. It was a gift from her brother when she was hardly 13.
“Do not take a shower today, there is no water and electricity is out as well. We have to save as much as we can so your brother and father can take a shower when they are home,” said Zarina.
“But I just came back home and I have to wear this black thing which makes the weather three times more scorching than it already is,” she complained. I have to take a shower, I cannot continue with the filth inside and around my body any more. How can God be so unfair? A question she dare not ask anybody popped up in her head.
“I told you how things are done in this house, you have to accept it since you are a woman,” replied her mother, bringing her back to reality and the hateful thought of having to comply with everything, just because.
She sat in the corner, on the floor, hugging her knees to her small chest, thinking of the privileges her father and brother got, despite that they beat mother every other day. Life is unfair Zulekha, better get used to it, she remembered a tiny sobbing voice in her head. As the voice reverberated in her head, she started crying, her whole body was shaking and trembling, and when she could not take it anymore, she started wailing loudly.
“What is wrong my child? It is only a shower; you can take it as soon as we have electricity. But if I let you have it right now, and your father or brother come back the same time. Both of us will be in trouble. I don’t want them to hit you for every tiny thing. Stop crying my child. Oh I wish to god I was born to somebody else,” cried Zarina, hugging her daughter.
Power failures were a norm here, and the heat was suffocating everybody, she understood her daughter’s pain. Was she not the same age when they forced her to wear this black monstrosity? She remembered how she was taken out of school when she was only 9 years old and was sent to a Madressa for learning the Quran. She was stopped from going there too as soon as she started menstruating. She inhaled the hot air circulating in the courtyard and looked at Zulekha beseechingly, “This is just the beginning, and you have to face many hardships still. Life is never easy for a woman. It is the will of god, so when we bear children, we do not feel the pain too much. Just think if we had an easy life like men, how will we bear children?”
She had a weird logic, her mother. Zulekha hid her face between her mother’s breasts and felt a strange calm take over her. Her whole body was hurting today and she could feel some wetness between her legs. She started crying louder and louder, till her mother shook her and asked in an angry voice what was wrong. “Nothing,” she lied again.
Getting up and leaving the loving circle of her mother’s arms, Zulekha drifted towards the bathroom. She had to clean or she would go mad. This was not the time to worry about a beating; she had to take the risk. After the shower, I would pray to God for electricity, and to make everything fine. She thought innocently.
As she walked in the candle lit darkness of the bathroom, her adolescent body quivering with anticipation of what she may find. She peered down and saw a little blood oozing out of her little thing that she still did not know a name for. Tired and exhausted, she washed every inch of her body with soap and water, dried herself up and donned her clothes before stepping out.
Is all this my fault? Do I have something in my behavior which prompts the old Molvi to do the things he does? She asked herself again and again. But she had no answers, and she was too scared to ask anybody else. It was wrong her instincts told her. I should runaway from all this, there is no escape otherwise.
But running away was too much work, was it not? Where will I live? Also, if I leave this house the guys who just follow me with their eyes for now, will follow my footsteps. Shrugging all these worries aside for now, she went to ask her mother if she can bring Mariam over.
“Mashallah! Your daughter is very pretty and intelligent. She finished reading the Quran now. But I suggest you keep sending her so she can practice,” said Molvi Sahab to Zulekha’s father Gul Tabraiz. She looked at her father as if willing him to refuse the suggestion and to take her home as soon as possible. But Gul Tabraiz was a simple religious man. He had taken huge pains to get his daughter in to the Madarsa for learning the Quran, and any praise from the Molvi Sahab will make him stand tall among his peers.
“As you wish Molvi Sahab, as you wish,” he sealed his daughter’s fate with the simple sentence. Zulekha felt she is falling into an abyss of darkness from which she will never get out, while Molvi sahib with his kohl eyes smacked his lips in anticipation. The day for him could not have ended in a better way.
Dejected and disappointed she walked home with her father, who was chattering away in his happiness. “You made me so proud,” he said, “Now I can look in Mohammad Ali’s eyes and tell him my daughter is educated. May be it will make him send Mariam to learn the Quran too?” he speculated.
Panicked and frightened Zulekha did not know what to say. If Mariam goes to the Madarsa, she will find out my dirty secret, she thought. Things could not get worse than someone finding out.
Mariam was her best friend, but even she did not know the dirty secret between Molvi Sahab and Zulekha. Though little did she know what Mariam suffered at her own father’s hands. Life in this small neighbourhood of crisscrossed narrow lanes was not good, at least not for the girls. Their life started within the four walls of their fathers’ homes and ended in the walls of the biggest bidder at the marriage market. Anybody who tried to break away from this norm was dispensable. Like Palwashay, who fell in love with the ice-cream man and was taken to the ancestral village, never to be seen again.
For Zulekha it was a nightmare with the Molvi’s slimy hands on her body and the growing dread that someone would find out about it any day. It had been going on for a year now and she had started feeling sick every day she woke up. With these thoughts in mind she hurried out to the courtyard so she would throw up in the open sewer that ran along the west wall. Zarina who was in the kitchen came running to her aid. Putting her arm on her back she gave her daughter support, only as a mother can when a child is in need. She forgot everything else, even the scarce ‘chappati’ on the stove.
Her mind was a riot of thoughts one after another. Zulekha had never been sick, but since she started going to the Madarsa she had been eating less and less, but gaining more and more weight. “O’ my Allah! Keep my daughter safe,” she prayed.
Drained and exhausted, Zulekha walked to her bedroom on her mother’s arm. Her face held no feelings or colour. She could not look in Zarina’s eyes, but kept staring at the rafters in the ceiling where the bird had her tiny nest. How free the birds were, she thought, when Zarina jerked her back to reality by asking sharply if everything was all right. With a vacant expression Zulekha looked at her mother’s worried face and said, “Yes. What could possibly be wrong? I am just sick; I guess it is because of the ‘chaat’ I ate with Mariam.”
Not satisfied with the answer, Zarina started checking her daughter’s body with someone who had considerable experience as a midwife. Men in their society did not allow women to go to the hospital mostly, so the women learnt basic skills in helping each other in delivering babies.
As she continued her search she felt as if a noose was being tightened around her neck every passing second. From the back to the sides and then to the stomach, she went further down as a last hope that her daughter may be safe and she would not lose her, but God was not merciful. Not only was Zulekha not a virgin any more, she was pregnant for at least 5 months.
“Who?” asked Zarina.
“Molvi sahib,” Zulekha replied.
Shaking with rage and anger Zarina said, “Even in the Madarsa?”
“Even in the mosque,” she said.
“Oh my daughter, what will I do now, how will I save you from these men?” wailed Zarina, hugging her daughter to her chest with tears streaming down her weathered cheeks that were getting absorbed in her dirty ‘kameez’. Zulekha had no tears; she sat like a stone trying to comprehend the situation, when the smell of the burning ‘chapati’ shook the mother and daughter out of their thoughts. Leaving her, Zarina went to the kitchen to prepare food for the male members of her meagre household. Her mind raced to find a solution out of the current predicament but she could not think of anything to do. Neither did she have a family of her own whom she could ask for help. Even if she did, they would certainly not help her and instead kill Zulekha she realized. Nobody will point a finger at the Molvi, people would rather kill a girl than a religious man. Girls were dispensable at times like these. Especially if they were of no use to a man any more.
Note: This story has been inspired by a lot of real life incidents related by friends and acquaintances.