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Published in the 1-15 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Real life stories
Jamila's death
By zohra javed

May 5, 2003 was quite usual. I will not dramatise by saying I had a premonition earlier in the day. In fact it came as a shock to me when I heard of Jamila`s death.

Jamila is the girl whom I had known for the last twenty five years. The little girl went to school in the same bus as me and we often returned by the same bus too, although she went to an Urdu medium school while I went to an English medium one.

Jamila, the girl who came to my house very often with her mother and tried to hide her bulk behind her short and thin mother the moment she saw my father!
She was much younger to me and hence was not exactly a friend, but gradually became close to my heart as I saw her grow up from a little girl into a mature and thoughtful woman. I remember having once presented her a banarsi silk sari. As she touched the rich green fabric a twinkle in her big black eyes was far too prominent to be missed...the glow emitting from the fire of her dreams, may be, for she was a very sensitive girl. She was ever so calm with a serene smile on her lips. Her slightly darkish complexion was flawless and had an attractive shimmer about it while her eyes shone like two bright stars. She was always neatly dressed, her long thick black hair glistening and mostly plaited in two with a silk ribbon each at the end.

Like any other middle class Indian household where girls are taught to be good wives, mothers and daughters-in-law, Jamila was also trained to be a proficient homemaker. But her efficiency in every household chore could not hide the limp in her leg, which stood out as the most cruel hurdle between Jamila and her bright future...because future of an Indian girl is deemed to be bright only if she finds a husband before crossing her last teen year. That is supposed to be the right age for getting rid...sorry...marrying off daughters.

Jamila's parents went about patiently trying to find a man who would be an understanding life partner to their only daughter. But for the poor couple this search turned out to be dragging and frustrating. However, finally as Jamila`s father promised to gift the boy some expensive items, his sister`s son agreed to marry Jamila.

A marriage solemnised on the principles of greed can hardly be the sacred bond that marriage is supposed to be, and how long can the fantasy last? Jamila was a woman with tremendous self respect. She was humiliated every time she put her husband`s list of demands before her father, which accompanied her as a precondition to her visit to her parents` house. But she kept a brave face. Although her mother-in-law`s atrocities and her husband`s indifference were no more a secret Jamila had a smile albeit a sad one but perhaps the only way of reassuring her parents that she was happy.
With four children and a lot of extreme agony later Jamila was a defeated person as she did her best to cope up with an apathetic mother and son combination. Away from the loving care of her family her eyes began to lose much of their lustre and hair began to fall. Her smile faded and the glow on her face gave way to a pale shade to her complexion...but no one seemed to care.

The harsh fact is that she had no rights. And on May 5 2003 she died a painful death battling blood cancer which was detected after it had done all the possible damage because it was then that she was taken to a doctor who gave her just a week`s time in this world.

Sounds familiar? A young girl falling prey to blood thirsty in-laws and unconcerned husband? This can be compared to the more visible form of violence against women like burning and beating. But the question is do so many young female lives need to be sacrificed at the altar of a relationship based on inhuman desires? Today when some women organisations are trying to get 33% reservation for women in Parliament our heads should hang in shame when a Jamila dies the way she did. Dr Najma Heptulla observed that women were not safe even in high esteem offices like the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha. Quoting the infamous violence in the UP assembly she said she was ashamed by the incident. I would like to add here that many times women are not safe even in their own houses.

Every religion in India has apparently accorded enviably respectful places to women. But needless to say these theories are paradoxically being used increasingly to exploit and malign women. The fact that majority of the women remain oppressed and have no right to basic self respect cannot be denied. Most women do not have any say in decision making and are made to live like the worst kind of bonded labourers. 

Having said all this it is pertinent to find the cause of the problem and possible solutions too. Can the blame be put entirely on the husband and his family? Are they the sole perpetrators of injustice against women? When do we stop treating girls like a heap of dirt? An unwanted burden that must be off loaded at the very first opportunity?

I think a deeper soul searching and an honest analysis of this serious problem is now a must and it has to be taken up by women themselves. One very important aspect that has thus far been neglected is the role of parents. It has been taken for granted that their helplessness in the custom ridden society cannot be questioned. How can parents ever think of harming their off springs? On the contrary they put themselves through hardships so that their children may live blissfully. Therefore any remote suggestion that for what their daughter goes through the parents may be at fault too seems totally devoid of compassion.

Yet a need for all of us to boldly face facts and take some hard decisions in the interest of our daughters has never been more urgent. Let us look into the most glaring irony in the life of an Indian girl. From the time she learns to walk and talk, much before she can appreciate the complexities of relationships she is told that her parents` house is not her own. She is goaded and coaxed with so called great values until she starts believing in them. She is taught to place her husband`s desires before her own. She is trained to live for the happiness of her husband. She is brainwashed into accepting that life without marriage and motherhood is useless. She is told the tales of sacrifices and silent suffering of females in the family that actually glorify myths which a young adolecent mind takes to be true. Thus lives for majority of the girls in India start in extreme insecurity.

Could Jamila be saved had her parents not pushed her into a suffocating alliance? Instead of bogging down young vulnerable girls with miserable responsibilities should they not be given opportunity to develop? Each one of us has something special. It has to be recognised and developed. Many Jamilas have laid down their lives prematurely so that their parents can hold their heads high. In a society where desirability of a woman is measured in terms of how soon she gets married and has children, can there be any hope for respite for women?

The sacrifice of Jamila and others like her must be respected and the only way to do it is to make girls more confident and financially independent. They should not live in fear of becoming homeless. Marriage is important and sacred, but it should not be the only goal in a female life and although customs and traditions have evolved considering many aspects including proper time and place, they must be continuously reviewed and updated for obvious reasons. Marriage should be a happy sharing of this wonderful journey of life between two people, none of whom should feel overpowered by the other. The importance of a mother in building a strong and worthy next generation cannot be minimised as was remarked by a very knowledgeable person, "when you educate a man you educate an individual, but when a woman is educated an entire family is educated."

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