I have just finished a book called Burned Alive by a woman called Souad. She was a teenager when her brother-in-law poured petrol over her head and set fire to her. Her crime was serious in “honour” killing terms among Palestinians; she was pregnant. But every year hundreds of women are murdered for just looking at a man, or sometimes doing nothing wrong at all.
In Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago a girl was stabbed to death by her father who caught her looking at a Christian website. I assume he is still walking free.
The beginning of Souad’s book is one of the most compelling I have ever read. She describes how she walks, quickly and with her eyes on the ground, so as not to risk anyone accusing her of illicit behaviour, such as eye contact with a man, which would lead to her being branded a charmuta (a whore) and certain death.
When she is in hospital a few months after the burning, rescued by a woman working for an organisation called SURGIR, she sees nurses talking openly to doctors. “I won’t be seeing them tomorrow,” she thinks to herself. On the West Bank, where she comes from, they would be killed for less.
It seems incredible that these medieval atrocities still go on. But they do. Souad is only a few years older than me. In Afghanistan today a woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes and 80% are forced into marriage.
Souad describes the plight of women as worse than animals. She tells how her mother used to suffocate new-born girls. Now she feels revulsion at this, but at one stage she felt they were better off dead.
I think many things when I look at my lovely, free, happy, noisy, clever little girls. But after reading Burned Alive my most pressing thought was that I am happy they will never suffer the kind of opression many women all over the world suffer. And that they will never allow themselves to be treated worse than an animal. And that their life expectancy is more than 44 years (average for a woman in Afghanistan) and that life for them is a series of adventures and happy events, not just fear, terror, hunger, enforced ignorance and horror.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008