Three years ago it was 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez who was murdered. Twenty years ago it might have been me. The circumstances were different but we both refused unconditional submission. I survived. Aqsa was killed by her father and brother in a brutal act committed under the guise of family honour.
Aqsa was strangled in 2007 in her family home in Mississauga, Ont. Three years later, in 2010, my husband and I emigrated from Pakistan to Canada. We, too, settled in Mississauga. It was six months after our move, with my daughter just graduating from Grade 8 and looking forward to her first summer in Canada, when I suddenly came upon the terrible story of Aqsa Parvez.
On June 15, 2010, the newspapers and news stations were in a frenzy: Aqsa’s brother and father had changed their pleas to guilty. Aqsa’s mother was grief-stricken; the two men had been sentenced to life in prison. I sat stunned on the couch in our small, newly rented apartment. Everything I thought I had left behind was still with me, in my new country. Even here, I thought. Even in Canada.
In 1989, I was studying at Karachi University. Like Aqsa, I was meeting new people and encountering new ideas. I was changing from a sheltered, repressed girl into an open-minded, inquisitive young woman. My family was noticing these changes. When I brought home books with titles like State and Revolution from the library, my brother looked at them, and me, with increasing suspicion (a harbinger, I know now, of things to come).
And then, I committed the ultimate sin: I met a boy, who, like me, was becoming increasingly skeptical of repression in the name of race, class and religion. My family hated him. He was poor and non-Syed.
My family, according to my parents’ beliefs, are direct descendants of the Prophet’s only child, his daughter Fatima. (Ironically, Muhammad had no son, so it was up to his daughter to carry on the bloodline.) We were brought up to consider ourselves superior. We were not only Shiite Muslims, but Shiite Syed Muslims, holier than most others in our religion, including, of course, the boy I met and fell in love with in my first year of university.
We were neighbours in Karachi. We lived in the same apartment block. Knowing my family and fearing their reaction, I didn’t disclose our relationship. But within a year, they found out. Being neighbours, our families used to meet sometimes. During one encounter, his sisters told my elder sister what was going on. My sister was shocked—especially because there were already several other “correct” marriages being proposed to my family at that time. She immediately reported back to my mother.
Suddenly, I had two options. I could give in to family pressure and sacrifice love for the sake of family “honour,” or risk everything by marrying a man deemed unsuitable for me.
I don’t use the word “everything” facetiously. If I dared go against the family, I ran the very real risk of being killed. Aqsa Parvez’s death may have been big news in Canada, but in Southeast Asia and parts of the Middle East, such honour killings are a regular occurrence—as pervasive when I was a young woman 20 years ago as they are today. According to the Aurat Foundation, a non-profit organization that tracks the status of women in Pakistan, in 2009 604 women were killed in the name of “honour.”
So when my mother and brother confronted me, I knew what was at stake. As soon as I looked in my brother’s eyes, I began to shake. My father died when I was in Grade 10. My brother, only three years older than me, had since assumed the role of the family head. On that day, he did the talking. He told me I was doing something very dangerous. He asked if I knew what the punishment might be. He wasn’t talking about the punishment I would get, but the punishment someone like him, a man who did what he had to do in the name of preserving family honour, might receive.
I knew what the penalty was. It was common knowledge. If my brother was to murder me, he would probably spend six months in jail, at most. That’s the way it was in our country: police and lawmakers sympathized with the murderer.
The victim deserved what she got.
Terrified, but resolved not to give in, that night I snuck out of my parents’ home. The next day, I married my boyfriend in a civil ceremony. I was frightened they would come after me and kill both of us. So we went into hiding. We stayed at his cousin’s house. My family searched for us but could only get in touch with my in-laws. They demanded that I be returned. My in-laws, too, were not so happy with this marriage, but since my new husband was the eldest male in his family, his will was honoured. At our request, they pretended they had no idea where their son had gone.
After hours of intense discussion between the families, a decision was finally reached: the two families agreed on our marriage. But there was a catch. My brother insisted that first I had to return to the family home, so that my marriage could be properly arranged before neighbours and relatives found out about my elopement. My brother asked my in-laws to bring me to their apartment, where he would come and take me home.
I knew it was a trap. This was a common ruse by disgraced families. They would pretend to agree to the marriage provided it was done by traditional custom. If I had returned home, my brother would have killed me with the blessing of the rest of the family.
I stalled as long as possible, and then, suddenly, it was too late. In the two tense days since I had left home, the news had spread. Everybody who mattered now knew. Nothing could be done to reverse it. My family informed my in-laws they didn’t want me back after all. I had shamed them. They would abandon me forever. They considered me as dead.
But I wasn’t dead. I had managed to escape with my life. Poor Aqsa was not as lucky. She allowed herself to be lured back to her house. Her brother and father did to her what my brother and mother hoped to do to me 20 years ago.
What happened to Aqsa haunts me in ways I cannot express. Over the last few months, reading about the cold-blooded murder of this 16-year-old girl, the scar over my own ordeal has become raw again. Even as I watch proudly as my own teenage children establish themselves in a country that offers them more opportunity than I could ever have hoped for, Aqsa haunts my dreams for them. Poor Aqsa, whose parents came to Canada but could never relinquish their so-called ideals. If only they could have been more patient, could have seen that Aqsa’s desire to wear Western outfits and refuse the hijab did not mean that she was an apostate who mocked their values and culture. If only they had decided to disown her as my family did me. As the years went by, they may have eventually come to see the world differently.
Four years after vowing to never speak with me again, my family relented. My mother and brother have now fully accepted my husband. He is their son and brother-in-law, and my children are the family’s beloved grandkids and nieces and nephews.
Today, when we visit, the family, including my brother and mother, shower my children, the half-Syeds, with affection and presents. But I know that they will never forget what I did to them. And, even thousands of miles away from them in this new country, neither, apparently, will I.
Originally from Karachi, Anila Batool has worked as a journalist in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.