It was inside a UNHCR tent in Jalozai – the largest IDP camp in the country – that I met *Tasneem. Some may call this the story of a woman’s rape. I call this the story of a woman’s resilience.
Located just 35 kilometres southeast of Peshawar, Jalozai camp houses some 60,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) according to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA)., and the number is set to increase. Bustling with people who have lost their homes and possessions, life here is close to unimaginable.
It is only when you meet these people in person that you know what life is like for them. It is only when you look into their eyes that you can see their pain. One such pair of eyes was Tasneem’s.
Tasneem was the only woman there who could read and write, and spoke flawless Urdu. She helped as a translator and facilitator. We were two very different women from two very different world, but we shared an instant connection.
As I sat in her tent as an unexpected guest because my guide’s car had broken down, rain seeped in. The transparent plastic window flapped as the wind roared back and forth, letting water in, wetting the pile of clothes Tasneem had heaped in the corner of the tent – her first stock of embroidery work that she planned to send out to the city for sale. She used to be a teacher but in the absence of schools in the camp, her other skills would now help her survive.
Her four little girls giggled shyly, hiding their faces behind Tasneem’s chadar. “They’re little angels. They should be educated like their mother,” I started. That is when Tasneem abruptly said “they are no angels anymore”.
In the dim light of a gas lamp, I tried to read her face. “Would you like to talk about it? Maybe I can help.” She then began sharing her story.
She grew up as the daughter of a father who had made sure his daughters got a good education, albeit with a warning. “He used to say that non-tribal men get offended by strong women and want to overpower them,” she said
A disillusioned Tasneem spoke of rampant sexual harassment of female nurses, volunteers and doctors in the camp. “Education cannot save women from the monsters who are thirsty for our bodies?” she spat out.
Not even children are spared by these vultures. Two camp officials were very kind to her daughters. But soon the kindness progressed to them starting to tickle and then feeling up Tasneem’s eldest daughter. I looked at the nine year old, horrified as Tasneem told me the story. She was so small and vulnerable! Tasneem had to tell the child that she shouldn’t play outside as she was not a child anymore, because whenever she went outside and encountered the two men, they tried to make physical contact. “But she IS a child,” Tasneem angrily emphasised.
Things escalated when one day her eldest came crying home, saying “those men hurt me”. Unable to control her anger, Tasneem went looking for them as far as the Central Office, but could not find them.
That night she was woken up by one of the men she was looking for that day. “How dare you come to our workplace looking for us,” he said. The other man gestured to her to remain silent. “I knew then that they had come for my body. The only way I could save my daughters from witnessing this was to give them what they wanted,” Tasneem says. In those moments as they violated her body and soul, she thought of her elder sister who had also been raped back home a few years ago, in FATA. Even if she would have screamed for help “no one would have helped because I am a single mother, without a man to protect me or stand by me.” “Don’t wake them up”, she pleaded to them, as they ripped her clothes apart.
As they got more violent, her daughters woke up and started crying, her younger ones the loudest. The men tried hushing them but ended up scaring the children. “Then one of them attacked my youngest daughter who is 4, and that was it,” she relives. That anger gave her unreal strength as she beat up the men with utensils and kicked at them with her legs. “They were startled by my sudden energy.” As they fled, they threatened to kill her entire family if she told anyone, but Tasneem no longer fears those monsters.
Her name is a word from the Holy Quran. “I feel I am not pure enough to keep my name anymore,” she said and broke into tears. I swallowed back mine.
Tasneem did not tell the police as she did not want to fight the case for several years. “Tribal or not, laws do not protect women when its a woman’s word against a man’s.”
She told her daughters not to tell anyone because he didn’t want to make the situation worse for them. This mother has more important things to do, like raise her daughters.
In her opinion when a woman is raped in Pakistan, she is the one who is made to suffer humiliation and shame. Such twisted social standards are the weapons of the rapist.
“My biggest concern is how to raise my daughters and protect them,” she said. This valiant woman is looking towards better tomorrows despite her ordeal. “I can’t wait to leave these tents and move to a city to find work. I want to teach again,” and continues. “The body heals over time. Painful memories have to be stored and locked up in a corner of the heart. Life must go on.” And for Tasneem, it will.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2013.