My friend Sharifa rents part of a large house along with five other families. When I went to visit her one day, I saw a woman sitting in the yard amidst a pile of clothes and a bucket of water. A man was standing over her. I was curious to see what was going on because the woman’s head was inside the bucket.
After asking other members of the household, I understood what was happening. The man, Ahmad, was the husband of the woman in the yard. He came home every weekend from studying at a religious school, and his wife, Nafisa, lived in the house along with his three sisters. One sister was married and she lived there with her husband, three children, and mother-in-law.
The extended family supported itself in many ways—renting out rooms for additional income, raising cows. The husband of the married sister was blind, but he contributed by selling toys.
Every weekend when Ahmad came home, his sisters gossiped about his wife Nafisa. Because of the gossip, he starting beating everyone in the household—including his mother, sisters, children, and of course, he beat his wife the most.
I stared at Nafisa and thought she was forced to do what she was doing, but since other neighbors showed no reaction to the scene, I wasn’t sure. I guessed Nafisa was washing her hair in the bucket. When I asked my friend what Nafisa was doing, she explained that as a punishment her husband forced her to drink the water after washing his dirty clothes.
Half an hour later I went outside to talk to Nafisa while she was still in the yard. Out of nowhere the sisters-in-law appeared before I could reach her and politely invited me into their home. We introduced ourselves and talked about the weather. They talked about their neighbors, but never mentioned what was really taking place inside their home.
Sharifa warned me by saying, “If we started to talk about the violence in their house, they will demonstrate it to me by beating me as much as they can!” I then asked her if I could talk to Nafisa.
Looking for answers
Anytime I went to Sharifa’s house I looked for an opportunity to talk to Nafisa. Finally, after two weeks I was able to meet her alone for ten minutes in the small, secluded backyard while she was hanging the clothes she had washed. I started the conversation by saying, “You don’t have to be treated this way. Your rights have been violated.” She denied that she was being beaten and said that she very happy with how she lived and asked me not to worry.
I understood her and felt helpless and short of words to explain to her. What could I have said? I saw that half of her head was bald. I knew it was not because it was styled to look like that, but was probably the result of her pulling out her hair. When I mentioned it to her she immediately covered it and left.
My friend told me she knew Nafisa would deny what was really happening. “I just wanted you to give it a try,” Sharifa said.
Living with them, Sharifa knew Nafisa’s story: Nafisa had no parents or siblings. When she was very young, her uncle had given her in marriage to Ahmad. After a year she could not tolerate the beatings and escaped to her uncle’s. Ahmad’s family apologized, bought some animals for her family to try and make restitution, and asked her to come back home. Nafisa refused. But when the uncle, who had been away on a trip, came back and saw Nafisa still in his house, he forced her to return to Ahmad’s.
The violence escalated. Nafisa was treated like the worst creature in the world, but she resigned herself to this fate.
Ahmad’s family had a history of violence. It was not only Nafisa who was subjected to abuse; it started when the children tried to beat their mother and grandmother. The sisters beat each other and sometimes even their own mother. And of course, every day Nafisa was also beaten.
Violence became part of Nafisa’s normal daily life!
Editor’s note: Our writer will continue with this story in a future installment. Photo by Stan Ouse.