Village Alamgarh, Northern India
I cover my head and stand upright as the calls of the muezzin fill the room. The melodious adhaan which has always filled me with peace, comfort and joy, does little to console me today. I bow toward Kaaba, but my heart and mind are wandering directionless. What have I done to deserve this? Why can’t I live my life like others – with love, respect and dignity?
‘Ameena, hurry. Get ready fast.’ Ammi screamed. Her voice so loud, she didn’t need any loudspeakers. Little Saleema giggled, ‘Aapa hurry or she will come out with her slippers now!’ Terrified at the thought of getting slippered on my special day, I ran across the courtyard towards the hut.
Inside on the charpai was lying the prized possession – Ammi’s green lehenga. My heart fluttered as I held the satin and brushed it against my cheeks, ahhhh…magic! In 13 years of my life, this was the first time Ammi had allowed me to wear something fancy, and not a faded hands-me-down belonging to my elder sisters.
Removing my faded cotton salwar-kameez, I slid into the shimmery dress and ran to check my reflection in the well. Ah! Madhubala… I winked.
‘Ameena,’ Ammi’s soft voice startled me. She brushed my hair and adjusted the dupatta on my head. ‘Masha Allah you are looking beautiful meri jaan. Wait inside till Abba calls for you,’ her eyes glistened as she placed a gentle kiss on my forehead.
I hopped inside once again, this time holding my lehenga. Ammi can’t scold me today, I floated in the clouds, after all it was my Nikah and no one scolds a bride on her special day.
As I prepared to leave my maternal home to start a new life, with a bag full of dreams and a heart full of hope, Ammi hugged me. Feeding a spoonful of sevaiya, she blessed, ‘Ameena you will have a happy married life.’ I believed her.
‘Thwack’ a stinging slap and a push sent me flying across, my hand instinctively protecting my bulging belly. ‘Afzal,’ a hushed whisper escaped my mouth, but his eyes were unforgiving. ‘I will leave you at your Abba’s house tomorrow,’ he barked and walked out.
I didn’t want to go to Abba’s house, not like this. The shame would kill him. My younger sisters would not get married into decent families. I spent the entire night praying for a miracle, and by His grace, the gloom faded the next morning – Afzal had forgotten all about it.
I smiled and served him tea; he loves me. It was just an accident; I convinced myself.
With passing days, I too forgot about that incident.
Harsh winters gave way to a beautiful spring, and my life became beautiful with the gift of motherhood. Little Anwar’s antics kept me on my toes all the while. Afzal’s temper also subdued with time, and I learnt to accept the occasional beatings as part of marriage.
Yasmeen Aapa assured me, ‘it is not uncommon and is acceptable. Don’t worry about it.’ I believed her.
It was a dark and dreadful night when a burnt roti triggered Afzal, and he hurled expletives harsher than the windstorms pounding at the windows. His sudden outburst scared little Anwar who was sleeping next to me. The terrified child wailed till his cheeks turned pink. I patted the little one with one hand, while struggling to make a perfect roti with the other. Stooped over the tandoor, I failed to notice Afzal entering the kitchen, till his knees were practically bumping into my back. Dragging me by my hair, he uttered those frightful words and threw me out of the house, banging the door shut on my face.
I hammered at the door till my hands bled, but unfortunately the wounds on my hands were not deep enough to melt his heart. It was during the night I realised my situation.
Those three words are such powerful weapons, they wreak havoc with just their utterance. They cut sharper than a sword and leave a bloodbath, but there is no blood- just an invisible ocean of tears and sorrow.
I woke up with the adhaan and shuddered! I had spent the night with the chicken, cooped in their midst. Terror gripped me, tears streaming down my face, I went and tapped at the door. I wanted to get back inside before the prying eyes of neighbours fell on me.
‘What do you want?’ Afzal scowled. Before I could answer, he dashed inside and returned with a sleeping Anwar. I gasped when he thrust the sleepy child into my trembling arms. ‘There is no place for you here. You are not my wife anymore,’ he muttered through clenched jaws and shut the door on my face.
I trembled like a leaf. The well was welcoming me with her enticing looks, and I tread towards her. Aghast at the reflection, I retreated with hurried steps. I couldn’t end the innocent life clinging on to me.
There was only one place left – Abba’s house. The few kilometers to my maternal home seemed like a never ending distance, as I walked carrying my child and the burden of shame. I was now an abandoned woman…
18 months had passed in Abba’s home.
Yes, Abba’s home, not mine, for only a husband’s home is a girl’s true home. ‘Ameena, cover yourself and come outside. Afzal miyan has come with the village elders,’ Ammi informed me in a hushed tone.
Heated conversations were taking place in the courtyard, with Abba on one side and the rest of them on the other. Just 15 and brimming with naivety, I couldn’t understand the arguments. I beamed with joy when I heard Afzal speak over the din, ‘ok, I will take her back.’
My eyes welled up and broke the dam which had held my tears all these months.
‘Ameena get dressed, you will leave soon.’ Abba smiled, but it was laced with worry. I wondered why he seemed unhappy, but ammi held me by my elbow and took me inside. Shouldn’t he be happy for me? After all that, I was going back home. Ammi sensed my confusion, ‘nothing to worry jaan.’ I believed her.
They sent me off; from one home to another; sans any grand celebrations. ‘Let Anwar be here for a few days, we will send him once you have settled down,’ were Ammi’s parting words.
Aapa hugged me and left me in a room decorated with fragrant roses, jasmines and champas. ‘Happiness will come to you soon,’ she kissed on my cheeks before parting. It felt strange to be in an unknown room in an unknown house. Probably Afzal has shifted to some other house, and everybody forgot to tell me.
Coyly, I sat on the mattress, waiting to start afresh. My cheeks felt warm at the thought of being reunited with my beloved. Despite everything, I missed him. I missed being a wife.
The door shut with a bang, and a pair of wizened eyes leered at me. ‘G-g-get out. Who are you and what are you doing here? Get out before my husband kills you,’ I screamed with all my might.
The man, old enough to be my father, laughed out loud, his stained teeth sending a chill down my spine. He just continued to laugh and blew the candles. The darkness engulfed not only the room but my life…
I died a million deaths when I realised the fury which had been unleashed upon my life.
They had married me off to another man. His gruff voice stabbed at my heart, ‘you will leave tomorrow morning.’ A million ants crawled on my skin as his greedy hands stroked and devoured me.
It was not Nikah.
It was Nikah Halala*.
A one-night stand which would make me pure so my husband could accept me again. It was not Afzal’s home, which opened its doors for me. It was not Afzal’s hands which touched me. It was not Afzal’s heart which accepted me. But it was a stranger who relished me in the garb of societal norms and customs.
Satisfied, the stranger snored into the night; while my ravaged body and soul spent a turbulent night.
The morning sun brought Abba at my doors. His eyes refused to meet mine as he stood waiting outside the threshold. With a signed contract annulling my marriage, I was free to go.
The wizened man blessed me, ‘all will be well now, you will be happy with your husband.’ I believed him.
With iddat* completed, Afzal married me once again. Ammi sent me off with golden words of wisdom, ‘learn to give in to his wishes. Forget what has happened, give yourself to him completely.’ Aapa cried, ‘try not to come back here again. Abba has enough troubles. Don’t forget there are 3 more sisters waiting in line.’
My eyes searched for abba, I wished to hug him one last time before leaving, but he was not around. He hadn’t spoken to me in the last four months. His eyes were forever sad, with drooping shoulders and a thousand lines running across his forehead he seemed to have aged suddenly.
‘Don’t worry Aapa, I will not bring shame to Abba,’ promising her I embarked with a steely resolve. Come what may, I will make him happy.
I entered Afzal’s house with dreams and determinations to make it my home. I believed my dreams.
Present day – May 1968
Village Alamgarh, northern India
‘Ameena,’ Abba’s …voice startles me. For the first time in all these years, my prayers have failed to pacify my bleeding heart.
I find Abba in the courtyard. There are enormous patches under his eyes.
‘Ameena beti, did you find the answers you have been searching for?’
A teardrop trickles down, wiping it with my dupatta, I go and sit next to him. Anwar and little Zoha are playing with the goats. Their innocent laughter fills my heart with joy.
I am back in Abba’s home. Afzal has yet again shred mine and my parents’ lives with just three barbarous words.
2 nikahs, 2 talaqs, 1 halala and 2 kids later, I am a shunned woman again. ‘Abba, what have I done to deserve this? What is my fault?’ my tears refuse to stop.
I shudder as the events from the previous morning flash in front of my eyes.
‘I am ready to accept her again,’ Afzal had informed Abba. Just like the last time, he had come in with a group of village elders. Beads of perspiration formed on my forehead as I listened in horror. Ammi squeezed my hand, ‘trust your Abba. whatever he decides will be for your good.’ I believed her.
A loud voice shook me, ‘Rehmat this proposal is for your benefit. Remember, there are more unwed girls in your house. This is the only way to lighten your burden.’ Another man spoke up, ‘there is no dearth of brides for Afzal, but this foolish boy insists on marrying only Ameena. His happiness means everything to us, and that’s why we have come up with this proposal.’
Millions of arrows pierced my heart when I recognized the voice. It was my father-in-law, ‘our younger son Faizal has offered to marry her for the halala.’
I covered my ears. Shame cut through every part of my body. My brother-in-law. And the next moment, a cloud of black blanketed me.
I have no memories of what happened next, for when I opened my eyes I was on the prayer mat. My mind blank and heart gripped in fear.
‘Did you find the answers you have been searching for?’ Abba asks again. His calm voice brings me back to the present. ‘No abba, but…?’ I look at my children, ‘whatever you decide Abba, I will obey.’
His sad smile opens the floodgate of my tears, ‘Ameena beti, I found the answers to my prayers. I am responsible for your miseries… you are just a child but have already been through hell.’ I hold his hands, hoping he would stop blaming himself, but he carries on, ‘I am not willing to push you into that evil man’s arms once again. I succumbed to pressure last time, not again. I have failed as a father, I have let you down. I -i-i,’ he pauses, wiping his tears.
‘Abba I don’t understand, what are you saying?’
His voice quivers, and he looks at me with pleading eyes, ‘None of this is your fault beti. No more of this humiliation and suffering. We have one life to live, who are we to wreck this beautiful gift bestowed upon us.’ My throat feels dry as I fumble for words, ‘Abba,’ I whisper and hug him. He continues, ‘This is your home, Ameena, forever.’
Ammi walks in with a bowl in her hands, feeding me a spoonful of sevaiya she promises,‘ enough of all this Talaq, Halala, and Nikah. We have tortured you enough in the name of society, ab bas (enough)!’ her mouth curves into a smile and she hugs me, ‘ live your life meri jaan’.
I believe them.
Tears pool in my eyes, but I don’t allow them to spill over. My days of crying are over.
I have one life and I will live it – with love, respect and dignity. No more tears!
This fictional writing is inspired by this book – Nikah Halala: Sleeping With A Stranger by Ziya Us Salman
Adhaan – Islamic call to prayer, recited by the muezzin at prescribed times of the day
Sevaiya – a sweet preparation made from roasted semiya
Nikah Halala – a practice in which a woman, after being divorced by triple talaq, marries another man, consummates the marriage, and gets divorced again in order to be able to remarry her former husband.
Iddat – period of waiting , generally 3 menstrual cycles.
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