Many women needing to get out of a bad marriage or otherwise in an oppressive captive domestic situation either suffer in silence, or rarely, make a desperate run for it and possibly get shot for their trouble. But men aren’t the only ones who take the law into their own hands when ego is bruised over a wife or daughter. Sometimes — if only sometimes — when women cross the threshold of pain, they either kill themselves or their tormentor. And some took ‘action’ long before so-called ‘honour killings’ began to be flaunted by politicians or their lackeys. The prospects of prison never bothered them. — At least not with this role model who could be a source of inspiration for others.
By Najma Sadeque
In the once, or still, notorious Sukkur Jail, there’s a woman prisoner who’s been very happily serving her life sentence — unless of course she has in the meantime passed on and is even happier in the after-life.
She achieved her happiness the day she killed her husband.
There are no stereotypes for real-life Pakistani murderesses so this one was a pleasant surprise. She was a quiet, thoughtful middle-aged woman who all the other women prisoners looked up to. Even the woman superintendent spoke of her with affection and suggested I try to talk to her. Bibi, as I will call her, was by nature a woman of few words, nor did she ever have visitors because she had been ostracised by her own family after the murder.
The other women prisoners, after receiving the superintendent’s green signal, crowded around me with curious enthusiasm and did as much interviewing of their own. Mostly young, most locked up for crimes they never committed, including some who were paying the price of being victims of trafficking, I looked at Bibi from the corner of my eye while she sat aloof watching me and sizing me up.
She would only talk to me if she felt like, the superintendent warned me, and suggested that I strike up a conversation without asking personal questions at first. I did better than that; I kept my distance. Finally when I’d almost given up hope, Bibi got up and approached me. It was interesting how the other women melted away without being asked, as if to say: she deserves her turn now with the visitor.
She could have been almost anyone’s mother – the resigned sort who never expects anything for herself because she’s been conditioned from birth to believe that women were created only to serve. The kind who only finds happiness in that of her own children. She was in fact a mother, but her children, although grown up, were never allowed to visit her because her very-dead husband’s relatives warned them of the same fate he had met with if they came anywhere near the jail.
“How are you? May God keep you and your family well,” she took me by surprise, taking away the words that I should have greeted her with. After that she quizzed me exhaustively at the end of which she knew more about me than I eventually got to know about her. Her interest in fellow humans after having no hope left to rejoin their outside world was moving …. and humbling.
My eyes fell on her hands and feet – the superintendent had asked me to take a look, although she hadn’t said why. They were misshapen, clearly mauled by man’s brutality; not something she was born with. “Do they still hurt?” I couldn’t help asking, only imagining what she must have suffered.
For the first time she smiled “Not any more,” she replied, and she patted my back as if I needed to be consoled. She was not educated but she turned out to be a deeply spiritual person. I was completely floored by her total contentment in prison where life was Spartan at best and there was no one except the superintendent who rose up to her level of thinking.
She said little about herself but spoke at length about acceptance of fate and choices, about material and non-material needs, the joys that came of sharing with the other women prisoners who now constituted her entire world, about how she looked forward to the life hereafter. She never mentioned her children and at that moment it would have been an intrusion to ask.
She suddenly pointed to a tiny single-room structure in the courtyard at the furthest end to the wall. “That’s where Benazir Bhutto was kept in solitary confinement,” she told me. I looked at the sorry-looking building. “It has no windows,” I noticed. “There’s just a small one facing the wall so she couldn’t see other people,” she explained, “Can you imagine what she went through?” Yet Benazir Bhutto never went through anything near what this woman had as I was soon to learn.
Those were the days when one felt very sorry for Benazir Bhutto. And she wasn’t even married then. The superintendent rejoined us. She picked up both the woman’s twisted hands ever so gently and held them tip to me and began to tell Bibi’s story.
The woman’s husband wanted to marry again, a girl young enough to be his daughter. She accepted his decision without argument. But then he asked her to leave their home permanently. She asked her family if she could move back because her husband did not want her any longer. They said they were too poor; they couldn’t afford to have her back, which was true enough. She told her husband that and begged to be allowed to remain in his house as a servant …. unpaid, of course.
But he didn’t want her around under any circumstances. It would spoil the atmosphere for his new wife. — Not that he gave a thought as to who would look after the children. Beatings were nothing new to her. All it took was a foul mood. But now they turned savage. What he expected to achieve by that was not immediately clear. If he expected her family to take her in to save her from his hands, it didn’t work. Wife-battering was routine. Then he thought of something new.
Every few days, he would beat and throw her to the ground, tie her to the charpoy such that each palm and foot was fixed immovably under a corresponding charpoy leg. Then he would fling himself atop the charpoy and go to sleep while she writhed all night. If she screamed in pain, he would whip her.
He would sadistically allow her wounds to heal, then start all over again. Very soon her hands and feet became useless. She couldn’t cook or wash or sweep and she could barely walk. That gave her husband even more reason to savage her some more. And he added torture to torture while she was tied up. —Things that cannot be put to paper.
As I listened, I was acutely conscious of her fixedly watching my face. I must have turned pale because she kept patting my knee saying, “It’s over, it’s over.”
It became clear he was trying to kill her, not directly because then he would be hauled up for murder, but by causing so much grievous injury, that she would die of her wounds at home or at hospital. He wouldn’t be jailed for that.
By then she had only one thought in her mind. To be free of unendurable, maddening pain. As the ‘family doctor that drew her traditional knowledge of herbs from her mother and grandmothers, she was also familiar with poisons. Summoning her last ounce of strength, she prepared him the kind of meal he liked and laced it well. Not that he thanked her for her effort — He couldn’t have anyway, as it was his last meal.
I cannot remember mention of any postmortem for traces of poison in the body, but her husband’s family got her arrested, tried and imprisoned. No one noticed her broken body and she didn’t understand the legal proceedings. She didn’t care either. On the other hand, she couldn’t wait to get to jail. I actually wondered why she hadn’t done what she did much earlier.
I looked for an opportunity to ask what these plants from the sands of Sindh were from which she drew her lethal brew. It appeared to be knowledge worth sharing in special circumstances. But I didn’t get a private moment with her after that —the superintendent got too caught up in our conservation.
“Have you ever regretted what you did? I asked instead.
“Never. Not for a moment,” she replied. I’ve spent the happiest days of my life here,” she added as if to reassure me, “and this lady is so kind to me,” pointing to the superintendent. It was to the superintendent’s eyes that the tears came.
“I pray in my own way,” she tried to explain. Bibi was truly remarkable; for she had learned to meditate without knowing either the word or the concept. I suddenly realised she had said very little herself. The superintendent did most of the talking while Bibi nodded every time her jailer looked at her to get her assent she was telling it right. Bibi seemed to prefer it that way.
One has often wondered whether Benazir Bhutto, on coming to power, ever wondered about her fellow-inmates in jail. Given the unchanged state of affairs in all prisons, she obviously didn’t. Neither did Nawaz Sharif. But then, one didn’t expect it of him as one did of her. However, if jail has to turn out to be comparatively the happiest place for women in distress, why would any woman in her right mind want to remain a Pakistani citizen?
Had this murderess been a man, her action might have been upheld as an ‘honour killing‘. But Bibi, I think, would have found that dishonourable.
This article was published in You – The News on May 11th, 1999