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Ameena's Dilemma

By Beena Sarwar

30 May, 2004

Ameena has paid dearly for being literate in illiterate surroundings. She never went to school, but an uncle taught her the alphabet when she was little and she learnt to read by deciphering newspaper headlines. But she was married to a man who was unlettered, like the rest of his family. They viewed her reading habit with deep suspicion, and eventually threw her out because she refused to give it up.

She was then pregnant with her second daughter; the older, Shehr Bano, was two years old. They had stepped out to get some breakfast when Ameena's mother-in-law and husband locked them out. After waiting in the Lyari street for hours, Ameena walked to her father's home. He took her in, and since his death soon afterwards, Ameena has brought up her two daughters single-handedly, working as a maid in affluent households to ensure an education for them - all the way through college.

But today, nearly thirty years later, Shehr Bano faces the same dilemma as her mother once did. Now married, with two little girls of her own, she gives tuitions to earn extra money and put her children through school. However, her husband Abdul Karim, barely literate, a gambler and a bully, doesn't want his daughters educated.

Fed up with Karim's debts, his refusal to get a job and his gambling and staying out all night, Karim's mother and brothers support Shehr Bano. But every domestic dispute ends in Karim attempting to pull Inshra, now three years old, out of school. Ameena often discusses the situation with them, but they express their own sense of helplessness.

A few days ago, the last quarrel ended with him dumping the child, in her school uniform and bag, at Ameena's house while Ameena was out at work. A frantic Shehr Bano didn't know her whereabouts all day, until a cousin telephoned her. Shehr Bano rushed over with the baby Ayesha, a few months old and has been at Ameena's place since then. Karim comes round regularly threatening to divorce her and take the girls away.

On Friday he managed to take away Inshra, nobody knew where. Telephoned at her place of work by a nephew, Ameena rushed home. She found Shehr Bano's step brother Shakil (son of her husband's second wife) and asked him to help. He finally found Karim sitting near a mazar under the blazing sun, holding on to Inshra who was crying to go back to her mother. It was 10 pm by the time Shakil brought the feverish little girl back to Ameena and Shehr Bano, having given Abdul Karim a good thrashing.

The matter is now in the hands of the community of family elders, who will sit in consultation over it and pronounce a decision. It is unlikely to be in Karim's favour - but he equally unlikely to abide by it.

Ameena regrets bitterly having married Shehr Bano to an illiterate man -- a step she took for the sake of family honour, as her late father had given his word.

Shehr Bano, depressed and near-suicidal, feels she has limited choices. To remain in the present situation means constant stress and tension, not least for Inshra who is being pulled about in this dispute, and who wants to go to school.

The thought of giving in to her husband and not educating her daughters is unbearable. But the thought of facing the world alone, with two small children, is too awful to contemplate. Nor does Shehr Bano want to go back to her mother, who despite straitened circumstances, has always supported her and helped her out financially, including paying for the caesarian births of both daughters.

Ameena too, is conscious that she has been given space in the family house that she feels her brother has greater claim to -- she considers it a favour that he has let her live there all these years. "When my nephew gets married, he will need the room, and I will have to move out," she says matter-of-factly. "Once Hasina gets married, I can find a small place somewhere. But with two small children it will be difficult."

Twenty-five year old Hasina's marriage poses another dilemma. A teacher at a government school, she doesn't want to marry a less educated man, even if this means going against the community. "We don't marry outside our 'biradari', but it has no educated men," says Ameena sadly.

In the end, social pressures might yet mean another compromise. This is not Ameena and Shehr Bano's story alone, but that of millions around the country. If Inshra is not to face a similar situation another thirty years from now, the government must go beyond the lip service of announcing compulsory primary education. There must be a sustained, multi-pronged campaign at all levels to change the perceptions of people like Karim, and ensure that they follow the law.