13.4.11

The woman's history

As I packed away my pen and paper, preparing to leave, a young Pakistani woman stood before us and told us that she had been raped on her wedding night by her husband. I was at a discussion on child marriage in Pakistan hosted by Plan Finland and we had just talked of these practices in a faraway place. Her new husband was 26 years older than her and she’d just told him that she was love with a man her own age. This young woman explained that her parents arranged this marriage and were complicit in her three years of violence. She arrived in Finland, her hair pulled out of her scalp and weighing thirty-two kilograms.

The stories that hide alongside us can be shocking. We know such stories exist but there are times and situations in which we expect to hear them.

Her parents a teacher and a business manager – educated people – but rather than face the stigma of her marrying a man for love, forced her at nineteen to marry a forty-five year old stranger.

In the discussion we were reminded not to think of such people as evil, but it is frightening to think that the teachers and managers I know could subject their child to such cruelty. The man she married, most likely also educated and probably with respectable public facade was a rapist – raised in a society that teaches that forced marriage is a legitimate means to acquire wife and that to torture her is acceptable.

The Plan meeting discussed the need for the law to impose itself in the private sphere and this woman’s story illustrated that need with urgency.

Those of us who’ve been lucky enough not to be subjected to harmful traditional practices and other abuses that hide behind the veil of privacy are sometimes reluctant to support the policing of our private spheres, because our spheres, though imperfect, were loving and supportive enough to not make us fearful of what can happen. We were lucky enough that if we went against traditions that we found distasteful we would not be raped tortured or killed.

Still, as Elina Pirjatanniemi, Director of the Institute for Human Rights at Åbo University said “We are more interested in dramatic events rather than small ones,” we should not underestimate the power of smaller abuses, of less dramatic cultural practices that erode our confidence, make us vulnerable to abuse and perpetuate the power differences between men and women, tribes and classes.

This woman’s father perhaps had seemed to her a reasonable man, but he went to great lengths to punish her once his traditions and status were threatened. She is fortunate to be alive.  

Photograph: Galibert Olivier Flickr

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