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Witness: The Life of a Palestinian Woman

Sacrificer           Souad (Bantam)
Sacrifice code       wfor0253
Sacrifice date       25 march 2009

The Life of a Palestinian Woman

As a teenager in the West Bank, Soauad became pregnant by a local boy. He
'shamed' Palestinian family condemned her to death and she was set on fire by
her brother-in-law. Every year, thousands of women in the Middle East die in
'honour killings'. Souad survived. This is her harrowing story

He came towards me and said, with a smile: "Hi. How goes it?" He was chewing a
blade of grass. "I'm going to take care of you."

I hadn't been expecting that. I smiled a little, to thank him, not daring to speak.

Suddenly I felt a cold liquid running over my head; I was on fire. I slapped at
my hair. I screamed. My dress billowed out behind me. Was it on fire, too? I
smelt the petrol and ran, the hem of my dress getting in the way. Did he run
after me? Was he waiting for me to fall so he could watch me go up in flames?

I'm going to die, I thought. That's good. Maybe I'm already dead. It's over,

My name is Souad. My story began almost 25 years ago in my native village in the
West Bank, a tiny place, in a region then occupied by the Israelis. If I named
my village, I could be in danger, even though I am now thousands of miles away.
In my village I am officially dead; if I were to go back today they would try to
kill me a second time for the honour of my family. It's the law of the land.
It's because I am a woman.

A woman must walk fast, head down, as if counting the number of steps she's
taking. She may never stray from her path or look up, for if a man catches her
eye, the whole village labels her a charmuta, prostitute. A girl must be married
before she can raise her eyes and look straight ahead, or go into a shop, or
pluck her eyebrows and wear jewellery. My mother was married at 14. If a girl is
still unmarried by that age, the village begins to make fun of her. But a girl
must wait her turn in the family to be married. The eldest daughter first, then
the others.

There were four girls of marrying age in our household. There were also two
half-sisters, by our father's second wife, who were still children. The one male
child of the family, who was born in glory among all these daughters, was our
brother Assad.

Twenty-five years ago, I spoke only Arabic; I'd hardly been further than a few
kilometres beyond the last house on the dirt road. I knew there were cities
further away but I had never seen them. I did not know if the earth was round or
flat. What I did know was that we had to hate the Jews, who had taken our land;
my father called them halouf, pigs. We were forbidden to go near them for fear
of becoming pigs like them.

My brother went to school, but the girls did not. Where I come from, being born
a girl is a curse: a wife must first produce a son - at least one - and if she
gives birth only to girls, she is mocked. At most, only two or three girls are
needed to help with the housework, to work on the land and tend the animals.

Our stone house was big, and surrounded by a wall with a large door of grey
iron. Once we were inside, it closed on us to prevent us going out. You could
enter by this door from the outside, but you could not go out again. My father
and mother went out, but not us girls. My brother went out and came back through
that door; he went to the cinema - he did as he liked.

A day without a beating was unusual. My father would shout, "Why have the sheep
come back by themselves?" then pull me by the hair and drag me into the kitchen
to hit me. Once he tied up my sister Kainat and me, our hands behind our backs,
our legs bound, and a scarf over our mouths to stop us screaming. We stayed like
that all night, tied to a gate in the stable.

This was life in our village. The girls and women in the other houses were
beaten regularly, too. You could hear the crying. My sister was beaten by her
husband and she brought shame on our family when she came home to complain.

My mother had 14 children, but only five survived. One day I learned why. I must
have been less than 10; Noura, my elder sister, was with me. We came back from
the fields, and found my mother lying on the floor on a sheepskin. She was
giving birth, and my aunt Salima was with her. There were cries from my mother
and then from the baby. Very quickly my mother took the sheepskin and smothered the baby. I saw the baby move once, and then it was over. She was a girl. I saw my mother do it this first time, then a second time. I'm not sure I was present for the third, but I knew about it. And I heard Noura say to her: "If I have girls, I'll do what you have done."

That was how my mother got rid of the seven daughters she had after Hanan, the
last survivor. From then on I hid and cried every time my father killed a sheep
or a chicken.

As long as I lived with my parents, I feared I would die suddenly. I was afraid
of going up a ladder when my father was below. I was afraid of the hatchet used
for chopping the wood, afraid of the well when I went for water. That well was
my greatest terror, and my mother's too. I sensed it. Sometimes, coming back
from the fields with the animals, my elder sister Kainat and I talked about what
might happen: "Supposing everybody's dead when we get home . . . And what if
Father has killed Mother? A blow with a stone is all it would take!"

The possibility of our mother dying preoccupied us more than the death of a
sister, because there were always other sisters. Our mother was often beaten,
just as we were. Sometimes she tried to intervene when my father hit us
especially viciously, and then he'd turn on her, knocking her down and pulling
out her hair.

I haven't seen my brother Assad for 25 years, but I would like to ask him one
question: "Where is our sister Hanan, who disappeared?" Hanan was a beautiful
girl, very dark and prettier than me, with thick hair and heavy eyebrows that
joined above her eyes. She was not thin like me. She was dreamy and never very
attentive to what was said to her. When she came to help us pick olives, she
worked and moved slowly. This wasn't usual in my family; you walked fast, you
worked fast, you ran out to bring the animals.

I was in the house one day when I heard shouting. My little sisters and I ran to
see what was happening. Hanan was sitting on the floor, arms and legs flailing,
and Assad was leaning over her, strangling her with the telephone cord. We
pressed ourselves against the wall to make ourselves disappear. Assad must have
heard us come in because he yelled "Rouhi! Rouhi! Get out! Get out!"

When my parents came home, my mother spoke to Assad. I saw her crying, but I
know now she was just pretending: I've come to understand how things happen to
girls in my land. It is decided at a family meeting, and on the fatal day the
parents are never present. Only the one who has been chosen to do the killing is
with the intended victim.

I don't know why Hanan was condemned to die. Did she go out alone? Was she seen speaking to a man? Was she denounced by a neighbour? It doesn't take much for everyone to see a girl as a charmuta who has brought shame to the family and must die to restore their honour - as well as that of the entire village.

As I grew up, I waited hopefully for a marriage proposal. I was 18 by then and
had grown to hate village weddings because all the girls made fun of me. No one
asked for Kainat, my elder sister; she had resigned herself to remaining an old
maid. I found this terribly depressing, because I had to wait until Kainat was
married before I could take a husband.

Then I discovered that a neighbour, Faiez, had asked for me. "But we can't
discuss marriage for the time being," my mother told me, "we have to wait for
your sister."

Faiez lived in the house opposite ours. Sometimes I caught sight of him from the
terrace where I laid out the laundry to dry. He must have had a good job in the
city because he didn't dress like a labourer. He always wore a suit, and he
carried a briefcase and he had a car.

I imagined that we were married, that he'd come back from work at sunset and I'd
remove his shoes and, on my knees, I'd wash his feet as my mother did for my
father. I would be a woman with a husband! Maybe I'd even be able to put on
make-up, get into his car with him, and go into town to the shops.

But what to do? I wanted him to know that I was waiting, too. I decided to do
everything I could to speak to him, at the risk of being beaten or stoned to
death. One morning I heard his footsteps on the gravel outside his house. I
shook my wool rug over the edge of the terrace and he looked up. He saw me and I
knew he understood, although he made no sign and not a word was spoken.

There were regular, secret meetings. One day he placed his hand on my thigh. I
pushed it off. He looked annoyed. "Why don't you want to? Come on!" I was so
afraid that he'd go away, that he'd look for somebody else. So I let him do what
he wanted - without quite knowing what was going to happen to me. He wasn't
violent, but the pain took me by surprise. He told me he was in love with me.

One morning, in the stable, I suddenly felt very strange. The smell of the
manure made me dizzy. And later, as I prepared the meal, the mutton made me feel
ill. I tried to find a reason that wasn't the worst one. Of course, I couldn't
talk to anyone. If I was pregnant, my father would smother me in the sheepskin

When I told Faiez, his face went blank. He promised to talk to my father. He
said I should wait - "Until I give you a sign." The days passed, and he gave me
no sign. I was hopeful all the same, every evening, of seeing him appear out of
nowhere, as he had before, to the left or right of the ravine where I hid.

Three or four months later, my stomach began to get larger. It was my father who
came towards me, on a washing day, his cane striking the ground of the
courtyard. He stopped behind me. "You're pregnant," he said. I dropped the
laundry into the basin. I couldn't look up at him. "No, father," I insisted.
Later, I pleaded with my mother, assuring her that I had had my period.

There was a family meeting, which of course I wasn't allowed to attend: my
parents, Noura and my brother-in-law Hussein. I listened behind the wall,

My mother spoke to Hussein: "We can't ask our son. He won't be able to do it -
he's too young."

"I can take care of her."

Then my father: "If you're going to do it, it must be done right. What do you
have in mind?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll find a way."

I heard my sister crying, saying she didn't want to hear this and that she
wanted to go home. Hussein told her to wait, then confirmed arrangements with my parents: "You'll go out. Leave the house. When you come back, it will be done."

I couldn't comprehend what I had heard. I wondered if it could have been a
dream, a nightmare. Were they really going to kill me? And if they did, when
would it be? How? By cutting off my head? Maybe they would let me have the child then kill me afterwards? Would they keep the baby if it was a boy? Would my mother suffocate it if it was a girl?

The next day my mother told me that she was going to the city with my father. I
knew what it meant. I looked at the courtyard ; it was a big space, part of it
was tiled, the rest covered with sand. It was encircled by a wall, and all
around on top of the wall were iron spikes. In one corner, the metallic grey
door, smooth on the courtyard side, without a lock or key, and only a handle on
the outside. If he came, he could only enter by that door.

Suddenly I heard it clang. My brother-in-law was there, he was coming towards
me. He was smiling.

Twenty-five years later I see these images again as if time has stopped. I was
sitting on a rock, barefoot in a grey dress. I had lowered my head, unable to
look at him; my forehead was on my knees. Then suddenly I was running and on
fire and screaming. There were women, I remember, two of them, so I must have
climbed over the garden wall and into the street. They beat at me, I suppose
with their scarves. They dragged me to the village fountain; I felt the cold
water running on me and I cried out with pain because it burnt me too. I heard
women wailing over me. "The poor thing . . . The poor thing . . ." I was lying
in a car. I felt the jolts of the road. I heard myself moan.

Later, on a hospital bed, I was curled up in a ball under a sheet. A nurse had
come to tear off my dress. She pulled roughly on the fabric and the pain jolted
me. I slept, my head still stuck to my chest, as it was when I was on fire. My
arms were extended out from my body and both were paralysed. My hands were still there, but I couldn't use them. I wanted to scratch myself, to rip off my skin
to stop the pain.

When I woke again I saw two bare feet, a long black dress, a small form like
mine, thin, almost skinny. It wasn't the nurse. It was my mother. Her two plaits
were smoothed with olive oil, her black scarf, that strange forehead, a bulge
between her eyebrows over the nose, a profile like a bird of prey. She
frightened me. She sat on a stool with her black bag and started to weep, her
head rocking back and forth. She wept with shame, for herself and the whole
family. And I saw the hatred in her eyes.

Never will I forget that big glass she filled to the top with a transparent
liquid, like water. "Drink this. It's me who gives it to you."

I was so thirsty I tried to raise my chin, but I couldn't. Suddenly a young
doctor - one of the few members of staff who had treated me kindly - came into
the room. My mother jumped. He grabbed the glass from her hand and banged it
down on the windowsill. "No!" he shouted. He took my mother by the arm and made her leave the room. "You're lucky I came in when I did," he told me when he
returned. "From now on no one from your family will be allowed in here."

Three or four days later, I still hadn't eaten or drunk anything since being
admitted to hospital. I knew they were letting me die because it was forbidden
to intervene in a case like mine. I was guilty in everyone's eyes. I would
endure the fate of all women who sully the honour of men. They had only washed
me because I stank. They kept me there because it was a hospital where I was
supposed to die without creating more problems for my parents and the village.
Hussein had botched the job: he had let me run away in flames.

One night I felt a strange pain, like a knife stuck into my stomach. I could
feel something strange between my legs. I didn't realise, at first, that I was
giving birth. The doctor heard my cries and came into the room. He leant over
and took the baby away, without showing it to me.

Later he told me that I had given birth at six months to a tiny boy, but that he
was alive and being cared for. I heard vaguely what he was saying to me, but my
ears had been burned and hurt so terribly.

Someone came into the room once, in the middle of this nightmare. A hand passed
over my face without touching it. A woman's voice, with a peculiar accent, said
to me in Arabic: "I'm going to help you, do you understand?" I said yes, without
believing it. I was so uncomfortable in that bed, the object of everyone's
scorn; I didn't understand how anyone could help me. But I said yes to that
woman. I didn't know who she was.

My second life began in Europe at the end of the 1970s in an international
airport. Concealed behind a curtain, my body smelt so much that the passengers
on the plane taking me to Europe protested.

But next to me, in a cradle, was my son Marouan. I gazed at his face, long and
dark, under the hospital bonnet. He had been found in an orphanage, where the
hospital had sent him because I was expected to die.

The woman, Jacqueline, a worker for a humanitarian organisation, had tracked him
down. She had also persuaded my parents to sign me over to her, telling them
that she was going to take me somewhere else to die. My father, I later learned,
had made her promise that they would never see me again: "NEVER AGAIN!" They would tell the village that I had died, and their honour would be intact.

Jacqueline was taking me to the serious burns unit of a Swiss hospital. The day
after we arrived I had an emergency operation, to free my chin from my chest and
allow me to raise my head. For long months there were skin grafts, 24 operations
in all. My legs, which hadn't been burned, provided replacement skin until there
was none left to give.

At first, my arms hung stiffly at my sides, like a doll's, but eventually the
medical staff straightened them so that I could move them. I began to stand,
then walk in the corridors and to use my hands.

I now live in Europe, where I am married to a good man, Antonio. We have two
daughters. When Marouan was five, I signed a paper for his foster-parents to
adopt him. We had lived together with this foster family for four years after
our arrival; his parents were also mine. I still feel guilty for making this
choice, but I knew he was happy, and he knew I was alive. I was 24 and I didn't
feel I could stay any longer. I had to work, gain my independence and finally
become an adult. I would not have been able to raise him alone.

I am still Muslim, but I retain few of the customs of my village. I detest
violence. If someone reproaches me for being critical of the Muslim religion I
try to help them understand what they haven't understood before. My mother
frequently quarrelled with our neighbours. She would throw stones at them or
pull their hair. In our country, the women always go for the hair.

More than 6,000 "honour" crimes are committed every year - in the West Bank,
Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, India and Pakistan. In Pakistan the custom is
an accepted part of national culture. In Jordan, a man who has killed his wife
in a state of rage is entitled to the judge's clemency; the same law applies to
a man who kills his wife simply because he suspects her of adultery. It is
increasingly common for "disgraced" families to hire bounty hunters, so women
who manage to escape to other countries are forced into hiding.

I have since met many of these women. One young girl has no legs: she was
attacked by two men who tied her up and put her in the path of a train. Another
girl's father and brother tried to murder her by stabbing her and throwing her
into a dustbin. There is another whose mother and brothers threw her out of a
window: she is paralysed.

I have never met any other burned women. As far as I know, none of them have

Edited from Burned Alive by Souad (Bantam), published on May 1.


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