Women behind bars – book review | Pakistan Today

Women behind bars – book review

“Prison Narratives” by Akhtar Baloch,

Compiled and Translated by Asad Palijo, OUP, Pp 178, Price Rs 995

Neglected category of women prisoners in a misogynist and patriarchal society

There are several jail narratives written by political activists, “Kaal Kothri”, by well-known leftist journalist Hamid Akhtar, being an outstanding example. Hamid Akhtar has described at length the conditions of jails in Punjab in the 50s which were not much different from those in Sindh in 70s while there is little change in them in 2017

There are two things that make the book unique

First, it is a narrative by the youngest female political prisoner in Pakistan at the time. Second, it is the earliest first-hand description of the living conditions of women prisoners in the country.

Akhtar Baloch, an 18 year old college student and political activist in 1970, undertook a fifteen day long hunger strike followed by a jail sentence by a military court for a year. She was however released after five months.

Even when facing the military court she retained her chutzpah:

“The major tapped and addressed us. Since you admit to the charges the law must now take its course but first tell me since you are a student you must be aware that observing hunger strike is forbidden in Islam. Hunger strikes belong to non-Muslims like Gandhi. Why do you commit this sin?”

I replied, “You are strong and have an army, weapons, jails and police. You have the means to suppress us. What do we have? How do we get our rights from you? How do we fight against the cruelty you inflict on us? Today our weapons against you are hunger strikes, demonstrations, protests and rallies. It doesn’t matter to whom these traditions belong or relate to.”

There are several jail narratives written by political activists, “Kaal Kothri”, by well-known leftist journalist Hamid Akhtar, being an outstanding example. Hamid Akhtar has described at length the conditions of jails in Punjab in the 50s which were not much different from those in Sindh in 70s while there is little change in them in 2017. Hamid Akhtar has also noted problems faced by prisoners in general and political interns in particular. The vital job that Akhtar Baloch has performed is to focus for the first time on the neglected category of women prisoners in a misogynist and patriarchal society.

There is a gallery of unforgettable characters painted with simple strokes of brush.

Massi Guru, the Sikh prisoner abandoned by husband and children and put in jail after she reconverted to Sikhism. She lies on an old cot trembling with every passing spasm of cough. There is little child Chhalarro, with mother and aunt sentenced on charges of theft. “The child has grown a couple of teeth but has yet to learn to walk.” Rashida the young intern has turned into a psycho. Others are about to follow suit on account of despondency. “Such is their agony and desperation that these wretched beings have resorted to goading and begging the crows to bring their messages for an early release but the crows are either deaf or unable to understand them.”

Akhtar is a keen observer. The reality she highlights is more interesting than fiction.

Zebo, a woman prisoner, is an Iranian, abducted and brought to Sindh and sold to a rich landlord. She fell in love with his driver and married him and turned into a midwife for living. She was sentenced for abortion.

A most relevant part of the book deals with women who have landed in jail on account of the murder of their husbands and there are quite a few of them.

Haleema, aged 15 or 16, was forced to marry a man eighty years old. She decided to poison the husband who must have been older than her father.

Khanzadi, aged 24 or 25, is in jail because of the man she loved falsely implicated her in a murder case. She was married to one but had an affair with another. The husband died in mysterious circumstances. She was accused of poisoning him with the help of her lover. She has a 12 year old son who refuses to meet her. She continues to write to the man who betrayed her because she still retains passion for the old flame.

Mariam has been seven years in jails after being sentenced to death at the age of twelve. She was in love with her cousin for whom she killed her husband.

Zainab, eighteen or nineteen, poisoned her husband and in laws to please her brother who wanted her to marry the brother of a girl he was in love with. The poison was provided by her brother who made her promise she would not name him. She obliged but the brother disowned her.

There are other women also who are in jail for murdering their husbands that they had been forced marry, mostly when they were still minors.

The issues Akhtar raises are still there: Childhood marriages, girls wedded to resolve family feuds or handed over in “watta satta.” The husbands are often too old to fulfill the normal human needs of a young woman but still are jealous, watchful and often violent. In other cases the girl loves someone else and simply cannot pull on with the husband chosen by her parents.

Despite the lapse of nearly half a century clerics in the Council of Islamic Ideology continue to support child marriage as well as polygamy thus helping to cause the tragic happenings which are vividly described by Akhtar.

Akhtar Baloch belongs to a political family. Her mother was a celebrated Sindhi singer with strong progressive and nationalist leanings. Zareena Baloch married Rasool Bux Palejo when Akhtar was still a child. So Akhtar had support from both her mother and step-father. The writer grew up among people fully involved in the movement against One Unit and repressive military rules.

The original version of the “Prison Narratives” was written in Sindhi and published under the title” Qaidyani ji Diary” in 1972. The book was in written in Sindhi for two reasons. First, because it was Akhtar’s mother tongue. While Punjabis have generally neglected their language, Sindhi has all along been the language spoken at home and in the bazaar and has remained the medium of instruction in schools. There are several popular Sindhi newspapers, magazines and TV channels. Sindhi politicians, historians and creative writers have used their language to express themselves. Written in Sindhi the book also served as motivational literature for the Sindhiani Tehrik that was once the largest organisation of Sindhi women. The present book contains additional notes by veteran Sindhi progressive leader Rasul Bux Palejo on the background of the events that led to the student hunger strikes in Sindh and Akhtar Baloch’s induction into political activism.



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