In our continuing blog series on sexual and gender violence, we feature a story in which a young woman struggles with the demands of a traditional marriage and her desire to study medicine.
He had promised my parents that he would support my medical studies, both financially and in spirit, after we got married. For me, it was the basis for giving my consent. Still Asad Bhai insisted that we have a nikahnama made which carried a clause that my husband, Nasir Ahmed would support my medical studies. Being a physician, my brother knew that medical studies were a long and arduous undertaking that would need extraordinary support.
Abba had first baulked at the idea, saying nobody got formal nikahnamas made; it would give the impression that he and Ammi did not trust my in-laws. But Asad Bhai persevered so that the nikahnama not only carried the clause of support for my medical studies but details of the mehr I would receive from them, a detail that Abba had no reason to negotiate. My husband and his family were gold merchants and my mehr included both money and several tolas of gold.
At the nikah, when the qazi came into my room to get my assent, I stared with bewilderment at my hennaed hands and feet, at the glittering edging of my veil as it hung low over my head. Softly, I voiced my acceptance three times, but waited for him to read out the clauses of the nikahnama, nodding approval only after he had read out the condition that my husband would pay for my medical studies. Passing the medical entrance exams had carried a huge thrill for me, a joy I knew was shared. For it was Abba, sitting at his chemist shop with a pile of newspapers, who had tracked down my roll number among the successful candidates, and it was my brother Asad who had left his hospital duty early to rush home to communicate the news to me.
The qazi returned to the congregation to read the Khutbah from the Quran, explaining the mutual rights and duties of the spouses. It was to the Quran I expressed my gratitude again and again – as we sat and prayed together after the wedding dinner – the holy book between us, and when I entered his home for the first time – my mother-in-law, standing at the threshold, holding the Quran above my head.
It was to the Quran I clung when everything turned out differently. On the first night when my hands and feet involuntarily resisted his rough overtures, he clipped both my hands together over my head with his large hand. I must have passed out soon after, but on waking, my body seemed to be one great throb of searing pain. Some nights, the image rose in my mind of a butcher hacking hard at a leg of mutton and the carcass thrown to rot in the open drain.
When Abba called to say that my allotment letter for the medical college had come and the due date for paying the fees was a week away, my heart throbbed with longing for my family. I could visualise Abba looking through the papers in his intent curious way as he spoke to me, ‘Zoya bitia, there are a lot of things needed here: so many certificates and your admit card roll number – all in original and photocopy. Three bank drafts have to be made in the name of your medical college. Better you come here with Nasir beta, and I will explain everything.’
‘Yes, Abbuji,’ I said, keeping the tremor out of my voice. ‘We will come soon.’
I waited that night to speak to my husband – after he had had his fill of sex, for that was when he lay awake for a while and talked. I explained the medical college admission formalities in brief. There was no reaction – no resistance, no assurance, no indulgence – nothing. Just a chilling indifference as he turned his back on me. With shock, I watched the white chikankari of his black kurta move rhythmically to the heavy breathing of sleep.
My first act of resistance was to leave the breakfast utensils unwashed the next morning and to enter my mother-in-law’s room without summons after the men left for work. Ammi Jaan was reclining on her vast bolstered divan watching Nazia trace a paisley pattern onto a stretch of cloth. I had to come right into the room before she acknowledged me with a smile that did not reach her eyes. She did not ask me to sit.
I came straight to the point: ‘Abbuji called yesterday. We have to pay my medical college fees within a week. There are bank drafts to be made and … other formalities.’ My voiced faltered as I pushed, ‘Can you speak to him about this? Can Abba Jaan speak to him?’
‘To Nasir? You must have already spoken to him,’ said my mother-in-law.
I was silent.
‘He doesn’t approve? How can he, Zoya beti? You are so beautiful. Like an exquisite piece of gold jewellery. He can’t lose you. Suppose someone was to make eyes at you in that medical college? And you were to fall for it? We would then lose our exquisite piece of gold jewellery, would we not? Come sit near me, beti. Here. You have everything here. We don’t need your medical degree, do we – so why do you?’ She reached for the remote control and turned on the television, raising the volume simultaneously. Nazia glanced up slyly at me.
I could make no response. What response could I make to her, to him, to them who deliberately chose not to recognise me, and the achievement for a girl from our community to get a seat in the best medical college in the State? Woodenly, I watched Nazia finish the tracing on the cloth before leaving the room. Ammi Jaan’s door closed on me, as the sound from the television got sharply reduced.
In the ensuing days, I did not see him alone. He must have slept in the spare room, coming into our room only to change. But before the week was out, my parents came. As they sat with stiff humility in the gleaming living room, my mother-in-law spoke untiringly of me: of my poor adjustment, my lack of social and culinary skills, my disobedience to her and my husband, my unorthodoxy, my stubbornness, my selfishness. From time to time, my father-in-law nodded while he … he assumed the air of gloomy disappointment.
Finally, Abba stirred from a hapless humility to plead that my admission to medical studies could technically be deferred for another two years through a gap year certificate for which a simple affidavit from a doctor certifying medical illness could be submitted. Since I was only seventeen, I could gain admission next year which would give me time to adjust to my new home. My Ammi raised her hands in a silent plea. The agreement was deliberately left vague. Except that it was in the nikahnama; I urged my parents wordlessly to assert this, feeling their betrayal. By the time they left, I felt abandoned as if on a remote island, absolutely alone.
Ammi Jaan called me into her room the next morning. I saw for the first time how witchy she looked: the tube light reflected off the blue wall to give her features the quality of a stiff blue mask with hollow arching eyes.
She smiled. ‘Come near, beti. Come, come. You must not take all what I said to your parents to heart. We have to live together, so I had to caution you to the ways of this household. How better than to speak before your parents? All we expect is obedience, nothing more. And of course, we expect a grandchild, our first grandchild – Nasir’s son, our family heir. Is that too much to ask, beti?’ She reached out with her blessing, plucking her hands down on either side of my head and knocking her knuckles against her forehead.
My nausea welled up enough to make me gag, but I kept it down. ‘Ammi Jaan,’ I said, my voice tremulous with sorrow. ‘I want to study. I want to be a doctor. Please, please help me, Ammi Jaan.’
For an instant, her mask lifted and my eyes filled to see a listening face. Almost instantly, the mask was back again, her eyeballs moving rapidly to gain control. ‘Did you soak the rice and dal for the khichri?’ she asked. I broke down only when I reached my room, not allowing her the satisfaction of seeing my sorrow.
My second act of resistance was to see that I did not get pregnant for the next one year – till I could claim my seat again through a gap year certificate. I looked up the unsafe days for an average reproductive cycle and saw they were eleven long nights that fell together. For some months he did not understand my strategy of resisting him during the unsafe period, but when he did, he used force and beatings to make his invasions. Still, I managed to keep the three or four most fertile days free from his assaults. The year dragged on.
It was a battle of wits. While I sought control at night, his family imposed more controls by day. I could no longer go out alone. I could not visit my parents or anyone without permission - denied regularly on some flimsy pretext. I did all my assigned tasks, yet made time to read and re-read my pre-medical texts and the Quran. I zealously followed the call of the azaan, praying alongside. My heart would trip when reciting the Ta’awwudh, as I knew its meaning: ‘I seek shelter in Allah from Shaitan, the cursed one.’
The year passed. My mother did not probe my situation so interactions with my family remained on the surface. When my mother-in-law announced that my father was coming to visit, I was surprised. Abba came to the same gleaming living room. But this time he came with Asad Bhai, who held in his hand my nikahnama. They sat close together on a red velvet two-seater beneath a gilt mirror. After some subdued pleasantries, Abba came to the point. ‘I want to bring up the issue of Zoya’s medical studies. Both families had agreed that she would be allowed to study medicine. Her admission itself is a rare achievement – she worked for it with all her heart. I request you to allow her to claim her seat this year. We will arrange for the gap certificate. But she needs your willingness and blessings.’
There was a tense silence. Asad Bhai held up the nikahnama and said, ‘The agreement is in this document. It has signatures….’ Abba held up a restraining hand.
Then he, my husband, laughed – a slow fat laugh that shook his massive frame. His laugh found reflection in Ammi Jaan’s arched eyes and amused smile. ‘But hasn’t Zoya beti told you?’ she said.
‘She won’t be claiming her seat this year, she will be giving us a precious gift instead – our family heir, Nasir’s child. We will be grandparents.’
My father recovered quickly, unlike Asad Bhai who took longer to disguise his shock.
‘Samdhanji,’ Abba said to Ammi Jaan. ‘Forgive me, but we did not know. We did not know … we are happy for you all … we are happy. I have only one request. Please let Zoya come to us as often as she wishes. This will make her happy and Asad will look for the right doctor for her.’ As they made to rise, the nikahnama dropped from Asad’s lap. My husband swooped down on it with the same slow fat laugh.
I moved back to my parents’ home a few months before my delivery. My child was stillborn. Born pre-term, he was perfectly formed but small and still. Asad said it was probably the malaria I had suffered in my ninth month that had infected the placenta, forcing the baby to come too weak, too early. I felt nothing. Nothing when my in-laws crowded outside the labour room in anticipation, nothing when they fled on knowing he was stillborn. By the time I recovered, the date for claiming my medical college seat for the second time had passed.
Faske-nikah. Divorce. It was Abba’s idea. I concurred wholeheartedly and with gratitude. Abba chose the Darul Qaza, the sharia court for filing the appeal. He said it would be faster, cheaper, would follow Quranic principles and be less damaging socially. It turned out differently.
The Darul Qaza was a pink building with several stories and a neat front lawn dotted with palm trees. He and my parents-in-law were there for the first hearing. We all sat on the ground on rugs before an old bearded qazi who sat at a low sloping table, peering at our appeal and nikahnama for a long while before calling out my name. I tightened my hijab around my neck before sitting down before him.
‘Why have you filed for divorce from your husband, Nasir Ahmed?’ he quizzed.
‘I … we had agreed before the nikah that he would pay for my medical studies. It is in the nikahnama … I passed my medical entrance….’
‘I know what is in the nikahnama. Were there arbiters from both sides to help reconcile the differences?’
‘My parents came, requesting that my husband should pay my fees. It is in the nikah… my in-laws said they wanted me to adjust to their family before I could think of joining medical college.’
‘Why could you not adjust? It is the duty of good women to be obedient.’ Despite my sweating palms, I pushed, ‘I did my duty. I was obedient. He … they did not want me to study … they did everything to prevent me.’
‘What did they do?’
I searched for the right words. Before I could, he dismissed me with a wave and summoned him instead. He unleashed the same tirade that my mother-in-law had unleashed about me. There was an addition. ‘She does not have a good character,’ he said, leaning conspiratorially towards the qazi. ‘She has deliberately gone out alone into the crowded market late in the evening when all modest women have left the streets to go home. She deliberately removes her niqab before men. If she can do this while living in a traditional home, what will she do in her medical college?’
The qazi shook his head and quoted from the Quran, his family gathered around the qazi, speaking in whispers. The qazi announced, ‘The Ahmed family is willing to take the girl back. I am setting the next day for the last Thursday of next month. Let us hope the girl will consider reconciliation and adjust to the culture of her husband’s family.’
This could not be according to the Quran, I thought. The Quran is just and benevolent, equally to men and to women. I knew this, as the Quran had held me together through my worst days. More hearings transpired. Then my husband and in-laws stopped appearing. Slowly we learnt that while this court could pass the decree of divorce, it could not make him return my mehr. A divorce without mehr would make me a burden on my family. It would sour everything. I began working on Asad. Together, we eventually succeeded in persuading Abba to remove our papers from the Darul Qaza and file a divorce petition in the civil court.
It took two long and trying years. I worked in Abba’s chemist shop to help save on the salary of two salesmen. Still, it was a terrible financial drain on Abba. The divorce finally came through, with a court order decreeing he returned the mehr. I would pass my medical entrance exam once again and use the mehr for my medical studies. There was no decision here. This was choiceless.
Neera Kashyap is the author of short stories for children, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co, 2003 and for anthologies from Children’s Book Trust, 2004 and forthcoming. She has contributed essays that interpret scriptures and ancient literatures to print journals. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Reading Hour, Muse India, Cerebration, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Direct Path, Kritya and The Earthen Lamp Journal. She lives in Delhi.