Sectarian Violence and Forbidden Love: Irfan’s Story

Because I write regularly about forced marriage and honour abuse, I often receive messages of support and solidarity. Sometimes I hear from women and men who have faced similar issues, or who can identify with aspects of my story in some way. Below is one of those messages, received from a man who has experienced profound heartbreak and abuse simply for being in love with the ‘wrong’ person. ‘Irfan’ has kindly agreed to let me share his story here:

I’m from Pakistan. I read your articles and feel quite disturbed whenever I do. I really appreciate you raising your voice on an issue that we as South Asians are too used to dismissing as part of ‘our culture’. No one knows some of the details about my story – not even my own mother. Even though what happened was never about my family, the ordeal has ruined my life.

hands holding

It all started in 2005 when I was in my second year of university. I had grown very fond of a senior in our department, Amina, whom I had actually met in my first year but didn’t have the courage to make a move on then. My feelings turned out to be mutual – within three months of our initial interaction, we became deeply connected to each other emotionally and physically. I still remember all of our dates and the vows we shared, as anybody does when they’re part of a couple madly in love. Considering the culture here, our relationship was taboo in many ways. What was the biggest problem? I belong to the Shia Muslim minority sect, and she was from the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect (her father had spent more than 20 years in Saudi Arabia). The Wahhabis consider Shi’ite Muslims heretics who are liable to be killed, as exemplified these days by ISIS.

In a few short months however, Amina and I decided that we would stay together forever. Nobody knows this even now, but she failed her semester deliberately so that we could be in the same year and spend more time with each other. We met up every day in class, ate lunch together, and studied together. We even started visiting each other’s homes as part of a study group. There were two boys and four girls in the group, so we always had the cover of our friends. We ended up graduating together and even found work at the same firm. It was at this point our problems began. Everything was fine when were studying, but both of us working at the same place was a step too far for her family. I could feel the tension whenever I visited her home. Her parents, who used to talk with me freely, now didn’t say a word after the initial salaams. We didn’t worry about it too much in the beginning; we knew we were going to get married, but we weren’t in a hurry and we both agreed that we needed to get settled in our careers first before telling anyone.

Soon, Amina was being pressured to leave work and I knew it was because of me. In the meantime, her mother also suffered a heart attack and started blackmailing her emotionally; she said her illness had occurred because of her daughter’s “abnormal activities”. Eventually Amina was forced to resign and stay at home to take care of her mother. I felt so bad, because I knew the problem was me. My job wasn’t paying well anyway, so I left and took another one elsewhere. I saw it as an opportunity to save some money for when we got married, and I knew I had to set myself up properly financially before I could think about asking her family about marriage. So we agreed that temporary sacrifice might work better for us in the long run. I worked from 9am to 5pm in my day job in one corner of the city, then from 6pm to 2am in the other.

Photo by Aliraza Khatri

All I could think about was Amina – I had to be with her! But working two jobs soon took its toll and I was hospitalised for a week. Some doctors said it was typhoid, others said it was hepatitis, but I knew it was stress. For the first time in four years I was apart from my girl. She wasn’t even allowed to visit me in hospital, and she was distraught: on the one hand she wanted to be with me, but on the other she couldn’t hurt her family. Amina is such a sweet woman with respect for everyone and the innocence of a child. Sometimes I wonder if I ruined things for her by becoming her friend in the first place. I was sick for a month, and afterwards I resigned from the day job. But because I had left the previous job, Amina’s parents had allowed her to work again and finally, we were able to able to start meeting weekly! During this time Amina had had countless proposals, as happens in Pakistan. But she refused them all. I’m sure her family knew the reason but things were quiet.

That year, however, things went from bad to worse. Amina was under increasing pressure to get married and when she finally came out directly and told her family about us, all hell broke loose. Her father and brother started abusing her both physically and emotionally, warning her with dire consequences.

Things soon got out of control when one day her father hit her again when she said we wanted to get married despite all the issues. I had to convince them that my intentions were good, so I sent my mother to her home with a proposal, which was flatly refused. Her father wouldn’t even meet my mother, and told her through his wife never to come again. One after the other, my girl refused to marry any of the suitors who came to her house, bearing abuse every time she refused. She was threatened with murder, with my murder and what not. We bore this for over two years, standing defiant to all the threats. The only thing I now regret is that we should have taken the decision like you Shaheen to leave our families and start our own lives. But this is extremely dangerous as Pakistan is the deathbed of free-will couples.

Amina had become an emotional wreck with all this. She became deeply nervous and often suffered meltdowns. Her health began to deteriorate and she started falling sick regularly. Despite all this, she stood strong against her family. One day, amid the usual daily ‘family meetings’, she openly announced she would only marry me or she would rather die. So her father grabbed her by the neck and started strangling her. She was saved by her mother, who then told her to pack her bags and leave. Regretfully she never did, but instead she apologised to her family and once again life resumed. I knew that the only reason Amina’s parents were doing this was because she was a girl who wanted to choose who she wanted to be with, and they simply couldn’t digest this. Again I sent my mother to her home. She was told at the door they didn’t want to meet. All this time my mother and I tried again and again to convince her family, but her father wouldn’t budge. All because I was born a Shia.

Amina also asked me to meet a cleric that her family was very close to, saying he might help us get married. She gave me his number and asked me to set up a meeting with him. I met the mullah, who told me to forget the girl or face consequences. But he also expressed willingness to help me settle the matter if I paid him. I shouldn’t have trusted him. For our next meeting when we were to discuss how he could “help” me, I was called to a location where a group of men first beat me, and then a gun was put to my head. Die or leave her, they said. I opted for the latter to save my life then. Later, I also learned a hitman was tasked with killing me on sectarian grounds. Her brother had allegedly given him my Facebook profile picture and all the information he needed to track me down. Killings in Karachi are common. Almost 2,000 people are killed every year, mostly because of political and sectarian differences. I never told Amina about what had happened, and nobody knows even now.

The whole situation was taking a grave toll on her. There came a point when she asked me to find someone else to marry. Why? Because her family was feeding her lies that she was wasting my life and that she had to let me go. I had settled by then; I had a nice job, a house and a car. Life was more stable, but her family was using all this against me. A short while after, we tried to be together one last time. Amina’s family physician volunteered to try and help us, and she asked me to meet him and ask him to find a way of convincing her family, because they respected him. I went to the hospital where he worked and literally begged him to help us. I cried all the while talking to him. But it didn’t work. One month later, my girl called off our relationship. I begged her to stay, saying that surely everything would be alright. I thought things might change, but after a while I realised it was really off. She was eventually forced to marry a stranger from London. I wasn’t able to find out about it at the time, as her family took her cellphone and computer, and barred her from leaving the house. I couldn’t do anything.

After the wedding was done, Amina was given her independence. She picked up the phone when I called her. Her last words to me were: “If you really love me, accept this decision and don’t do anything rash. Don’t make me feel I did the right thing.” After reading your articles, I just wish we had been brave enough to leave everything behind and start our own lives. I only hope she’s happy after suffering so much because of me. We have never talked since. We were soul mates for eight years, but now we’re strangers.

Shaheen Hashmat

Shaheen Hashmat

Shaheen Hashmat is a Scottish Pakistani writer and campaigner, and the founder of Double Bind. Having escaped the threat of forced marriage 20 years ago when she was 12 years old, Shaheen now spends much of her time highlighting the long-term recovery needs of those affected by forced marriage and ‘honour’-related abuse, focusing specifically on the need for urgent improvement of mental health services. She occasionally writes for Telegraph Wonder Women and the New Statesman, and has also appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, BBC Asian Network, Reuters, Stella Magazine and the Scottish Sunday Mail. She is also winner of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation's 'True Honour' Award 2016. By promoting the voices of other women from a Muslim background, Shaheen hopes to play her part in addressing some of the most urgent issues concerning our generation today. You can follow her on Twitter @tartantantrum, and on her personal blog - www.shaheenhashmat.com.

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