I felt wrenched for my best friend, Haya. She was crying in her mother’s arms, it was her seventeenth birthday, and we should have been celebrating, but her mother had just relayed her father’s news.
My best friend was getting married; she had never met the groom, but she knew he was chosen solely because of his financial influence, and she would be his fourth wife.
Haya started veiling when she saw her first blood four years ago; the veil marked her womanhood. Her marriage announcement made it suddenly appear to me that happiness is realized in the face of unhappiness; we were both happy until Haya’s despair stared in my face.
Haya was much more beautiful than I or any of her sisters; she was tall and slim with almond-shaped eyes. Her long black hair was the envy of her sisters; I knew I would never possess such qualities, so envy for me was a waste of time. Unfortunately, Haya was not only beautiful but also bright; in our land, a woman’s brilliance assures her propounded misery, for her sole duty is to serve her husband. While it is true that most marriages in our religion are in the hands of older females of the family, our fathers were the sole decision-maker on everything. Just three years prior, I was thirteen. Haya had told me that her father had decided that his most beautiful daughter would marry a man of wealth and prominence; she also revealed that she was yet to get married because her father saw her then suitors as not wealthy or prominent enough.
And now, Haya was going to get married; I knew I had no place there; her back was turned to me; I slid outside the room and wept as she cursed her father, our culture, and our religion. I lost many of her words, but I had no words of comfort for Haya.
Three of my elder sisters had suffered a similar fate, they were married to men our father liked. Since I started veiling, they told me stories of their time with their husbands, Anzilah’s fate was much worse, her husband was sadistic, and she had been subjected to horrific sexual brutality that she felt her only escape was death. I dreaded the day I would get married, I shuddered for I felt the pain of my marriage will overweight my happiness.
I can barely recall the weddings of my sisters but I can bring back to my mind every detail of the event that occurred at Haya’s wedding day.
It was 18th, June 1989, because of the weight loss, her dark eyes dominated her face, I could see through those enormous eyes, fear. Few women attended the wedding details, I took her palm in mine, she looked at me with those fearful pupils, I felt there was something she needed to tell, something she was not telling me.
When a Saudi bride is happy, the preparation is filled with laughter, for Haya’s wedding, it was somber, Haya’s groom was an old man but then, many old men married young girls, I am sure they were used to the terror of their brides, after all a virgin bride should be: frightened to the core. I knew the groom was older than her father, he looked like an old circus monkey to me, I felt disgusted at the thought of having his body on my friend’s body. I watched him accept their congratulations of his marriage to such a beautiful woman, he then began to lead Haya away, her eyes locked onto mine, I do not know what it was but it was much greater than fear, I felt certain no one would help her. I found no consolation to the knowledge that Haya would never be happy again, as I walked home, I felt hate for the customs of my land, the absolute lack of freedom for our sex, laws made by men just to subdue women, all in the name of Islam.
In my country, I have seen newspapers print articles that honor a man for executing his wife or daughter for indecent behavior, congratulations are given by the Mutawas for the men’s notable act of upholding the teachings of the prophet.
The next morning, three of these Mutawas arrived at our gate, I peered through the window as they spoke in low tones with my father. “Alishba!!”, my father was pallid when he came into the house, I went to the living room, the Mutawas had left. I sat disbelieving when he told me Haya was going to be executed by stoning the following Friday at ten o’clock, my heart raved with fear when my father informed me that the Mutawas would return to question me if I had accompanied Haya on her shameful undertakings. My face turned pale when my father said the unexpected, “Alishba, if by chance I discover that you dishonor our name, no one not even God will stop me from lowering you in to the earth. Accept your fate as one that listens for you have no choice”.
My life was spared by the fact that my hymen was intact, no one, not even my father believed my fabrication that the indecent magazine spotted beneath my bed was given to me by a friend whom I met during a trip to Cairo and that I had no idea they were obscene since I had never opened them.
At 10 o’clock on Friday, I sat on my bed, I thought of Haya. Khalid, my brother had been at her execution, I lost most of his words but I knew Haya’s father had condemned his daughter to death, her husband had raised his hands slowly, “Let her be stoned!” The crowd became hysterical and people began to dance, as if caught up by madness, he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Let her be stoned”, he had looked radiant, men slapped him affectionately, children grab hold of his shirt and arms had lifted him off the ground. Sighs, moans and shouts filled the air. “The whore must die … Death….. Death to the woman”
“People said that after the marriage had ended, the man went in with Haya, it was not long when he came out if the room grabbing Haya by the hair, she had nothing on her, he told everyone that he had wedded a woman of no honor, he demanded that the money paid as Mahr be refunded right there, people said there was no blood on the sheets, she was not a virgin”. I was surprised at my brother’s disgust at the plight of my friend. As the law required, the body of the martyred woman would remain exposed, as an example to all.
I closed my eyes, I felt her body lowered into the ground, I would no longer see those almond shaped eyes, Haya would not laugh again. Very early the next morning, I emerged from my house, I slipped out of the house like a thief. I walked through the paths that led to the beach, the sun was not in sight, I sat on a rock just near the bay, my chest tightened, I would never see Haya again. Only then did I pray. Only then did I cry.
It was dusk, the big yellow circle was sinking, for Muslims, it was time for the fourth prayer of the day. I stood on my bedroom balcony, I saw my husband and two of his sons leave our home and walk hand in hand to the mosque, I saw many men greeting one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Memories of my childhood raced back to me, I was a girl, shut out from the love of a father, reserved for his son Khalid. Thirty years of my life had passed and nothing had changed. My life was a circle, father and Khalid, Kareem and his sons, yesterday and today and tomorrow, primitive and immoral practices passed from father to son.
I gently rolled up my prayer mat and strolled to our garden, I stopped to rest in the gazebo specially built for Amal, my only child and closest companion who would soon turn twelve. As I thought of my child, my depression came to me, fierce and strong, tears stung my eyes when I thought of the fact that I would have no more children. Nine years ago, I had felt a surprising sting of grief and guilt, all it took to unleash it was me thinking of the unfinished crib in the tool shed or the suede coat in my closet. The baby came to life then and I could hear it, could hear its hungry grunts. The grief washed over me, it turned me inside out, I was envious of my sister wives in the harem, some had seven or eight and didn’t understand how fortunate they were ,how blessed that their children had flourished in their wombs, children that they had not bled away with soapy water and anti-septic down some toilet drain.
Nine years since Amal’s third birthday there has been fifteen cycles of hopes raised then crashed and two additional wives, each loss, with each disappointment Kareem had grown more remote and resentful. Nothing I did pleased him, I found myself trying to look good for him, i had worn my best hijab for him, once I even put on makeup but he took one look at me and winced with distaste that I rushed to the bathroom and washed it all off.At night my heart raved with fear of what excuse he might have to pounce on me, there was always something minor that would infuriate him. I couldn’t give him a son. I was a burden, I could see it in the way he looked at me. I was a burden to him.
“Alishba” A voice called out interrupting my thoughts, it was my husband. I watched him walk briskly across the thick grass, I gestured with hand for him to sit beside me, to a familiar disappointment he settled at the farthest corner of the gazebo, he did not return my smile.
“Alishba, I have come to a decision, some months ago. I refuse to discuss this matter with you due to what recently happened”
I nodded, my mind tossed around the possibilities of what he was about to say. He then uttered words that shook and reverberated memories in my head. I was trapped in a dark reality that I did not believe, at first I could not breathe or move, the memories gave my mind quick visits and suddenly the excruciating image of Haya’s fearful pupils creped across my mind, I remembered Anzilah’s tales of her time with her sadistic husband, I saw myself at the back of a van decorated with flowers, a doll in my hand, driven off with a man I did know. No one saw my grief.
Finally, life returned to me and it came with my strength, I clawed his face and kicked his groin. I really was determined to kill the man who was my husband, to restrain me Kareem had to pin me to the ground and sit astride. My scream pierced the air, the names I called my husband left our servants aghast who scurried out of sight as the scuffle continued, the depth of my pain could not be expressed in words.
“No!! Never!! My daughter will never be married off to an old hag. Not now,not ever!” I hated the man in front of me. “May all your camels die Kareem” I uttered the greatest curse in the Arab world, my husband was apparently baffled.
I told him that I would never submit to the humiliation of giving my daughter away to a man she did not know. She was not even twelve and the man was fifty-six. Never. Kareem could utter any deception he chose but the pain and humiliation I had endured would never be replicated in my daughter’s life. Yes, I would accept what God placed before me but this dispensation did not extend to my earthly husband.
“Mother”. A familiar voice called out to me.
“Come Amal, come quickly”. I stretched forth my hands to hold her.
I felt Amal tremble and her mouth stretched in a howl when her father told her of his decision. Amal began to weep saying she doesn’t wish to live, I stood over my daughter like a mountain and for the first time in my life, I defied Kareem. I told him Amal would never be given away to a man she did not know or approve. I would go to the Council of Religious Men with the story and they would not allow such a matter to happen. I would fight and no one would stop me from protecting my child. Not while I live. In Islam, fathers reserve the right to give their daughters to men of their choice but if the daughter refuses, the marriage is annulled. Kareem threatened me with divorce but I stood fist and told him to do whatever he had to do but I would never allow my daughter to swim in such evil.
Kareem stood unblinking, staring, apparently analyzing my resolve. Askance at my apparent resoluteness and wanting to avoid public interference in a family matter, for once in our married life he gave in.
Every upheaval is a transition and what doesn’t kill definitely strengthens, Haya’s execution and my years of trying to win the acceptance of a man I didn’t love, with the world stretching before me I had yet to conclude.
With every gift comes an equal challenge. I pulled Amal close to my side as we settled on the gazebo, ” Never again”. I said to her. “Never again will I remain silent in the face of cruelty and evil to any woman”.
Primitive customs had always determined the roles of women in my land, the right to drive, to toss aside the veil or travel without the permission of a male guardian were lost dreams during my early years.
The sky began to colour purple, I looked up to see bright stars stealing through the clouds. It was an unusual sight. Maybe we can start with the smallest of things. Maybe all we need to do is walk those steps. Maybe happiness will follow.