She couldn’t leave the house alone, she couldn’t look her father in the eyewithout her head covered and she couldn’t refuse an arranged marriage %u2013 unless she wanted to be blackballed by her family, or worse, fall prey to an honor killing.
“Balkeez,” a 40-something Pakistani-American computer programmer from Bensonhurst, tells a grim tale of growing up in a “standard” Muslim family, which wasn’t particularly fundamental, just “very ethnic.”
“I don’t know why, but it’s a big responsibility to be a Muslim; there’s an ancestral burden placed on us to be better than good,” says Balkeez, who has renounced Islam, adding, “We have to be accountable to our religion, our family and our society; we sacrifice happiness for virtue; it’s a rotten deal.”
Her family’s journey to the United States from Srinagar %u2013 a city on the banks of the Jhelum River in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, once called the Switzerland of the East for its lakes, houseboats and heart-stopping views %u2013 “may as well not have happened” because she was too beholden to her strict Muslim roots to savor the freedoms of her new homeland, says the apostate.
“I remember thinking as a young immigrant that Americans laughed a lot, and seemed to have a lot more fun than us,” says Balkeez, “In our culture, smiling is frowned upon because it suggests a lack of stoicism, which is the crux of our belief system; the more dispassionate the Muslim, the better the Muslim,” she reveals.
Balkeez says that soon after she began menstruating, her parents began seeking marriageable suitors for her, eventually selecting a handsome 17-year-old Pakistani-Muslim from Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] “with white skin like a European,” whose family were wealthy jewelers, and who came with a glowing reference from the local matchmaker. As the eldest of four girls, Balkeez says her father’s biggest worry was to marry them off, quickly, because “for us to fend for ourselves like the American girls was out of the question, and I never knew why.”
After an elaborate, month-long wedding, she departed for southern Africa to live with her new family, who assured her parents that she would be “sada gulab” (“our flower”).
“I was 16 years old, and my parents gave me away to strangers without a thought,” comments the woman, saying that her abuse began within days: “The hands and feet of a Muslim bride are decorated with mehndi (henna dye) as a symbol that she be treated like an extra special visitor in the weeks until it begins to fade and she becomes accustomed to her new life,” but hers, says Balkeez, were still adorned with bright orange designs when she was first struck by her puerile husband “for being sullen after he raped me.”
Balkeez discloses that she soon found herself responsible for most of the household chores, forced to eat her meals alone and barred from contacting her relatives in the States.
“In the late ’70’s, there were no E-mails, and international trunk calls were complicated and expensive,” she recalls.
One day “out of the blue,” her worried parents, uncle and the matchmaker appeared unannounced at the door and, after seeing her bruises, took her back home and annulled the two-month marriage, but didn’t file charges against her in-laws.
She states: “My parents were annoyed at me that I was no longer married, or a virgin.”
Made to feel like a “leper” by her relatives and community, Balkeez says she was “forced to find the will” to search a job and move into her own apartment, severing all ties with her family.
“My parents and siblings didn’t resort to an honor killing, maybe because we were living in America, but they don’t consider me family anymore. If we were to pass each other on the street, they would keep on walking because they feel I have shamed them,” says Balkeez.
She concludes: “I know the soul-searching and heartache Muslim girls go through; my advice to them would be to get an education, report the abuse, and then just go out there and make your own lives, because there is no happiness in Muslim society, just unfulfillment and agony.”