Burned Alive: A story of grief and resilience

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Shucheesmita Simonti:

“ It’s like building a house: You have to put one brick after the other. If one brick isn’t solid, what will happen? The other bricks fall.”- Souad, from Burned Alive.

When I saw the title of the book, and the cover depicting a woman hiding her face behind a white mask, I instinctively knew the book is about honor crime. It is a topic close to my heart as a feminist from South Asia. I grew up reading newspaper articles about honor crimes happening in my country and beyond. I read tons of articles about women who lost their lives as a result of an honor crime. But most of the women I read about never made it alive. Very few did. When I was 11 or 12, I read an article about Mukhtaran, who was gang-raped as a form of honor revenge. She was one of the rare women I read about who survived and tried to rebuild their lives. Before a few months, I also listened to a speech by Jasvinder Sanghera, who founded Karma Nirvana in the UK to help women and men who are subjected to forced marriages and honor-based abuse. But this is the first time in my life I stumbled upon a book on a survivor of honor crime while surfing through the library collection. I was intrigued and I immediately picked it up. I wanted to read the book, even though I knew it will leave me with tears.

By the time I finished reading the book, I was crying but I was also inspired- inspired by the resilience of Souad who not only survived but also managed to carve out a brand new life for herself in Europe. Souad who grew up in a village in a West Bank, belonged to  a family where girls were treated as burdens. Souad’s life was confined mostly within the surroundings of her father’s house. She grew up and longed to get married. She believed if she would get married, it will get her rid of all miseries. But she fell in love with Faiez, her neighbor and got pregnant. He ran away from taking any responsibility and Souad’s family found out about her pregnancy. Her fate was decided. She had to die.

“ I suddenly felt a cold liquid running over my head and instantly I was on fire. It is like a movie that has been speeded up, images racing past. I start to run in the garden, barefoot. I slap my hair, I scream. I feel my dress billow out behind me. Was my dress on fire too?”-Souad

In Souad’s village, when a girl is believed to commit a crime that compromises the honor of her family, usually a male relative is given the task of killing her. In her case, it was Hussein, her brother-in-law who was entrusted with this task. And he did what was decided. He set her on fire. But she was rescued and taken to a hospital. Soon, she gave birth to her son whom she named Marouan. She was fated to die as she was in a terrible condition. But destiny intervened and Jacqueline, a European aid worker came to know about Souad. She with the help of a few others managed to bring Souad and Marouan to Europe. Souad’s medical treatment began. Souad was extremely young when she became a mother and she realized she could not take the responsibility of her son, so she gave him away for adoption.

The way her life changed was overwhelming. She was traumatized, depressed and overwhelmed with information, linguistic and cultural barriers. To build a new life, she tried to forget about her old life: “ I wanted to be someone else in this country, to be like these free women I saw all around me and to fit in here as fast as possible. To achieve this, for many years I buried memories.” She met Antonio with whom she fell in love and eventually got married. They had two daughters. But the trauma kept recurring from time to time, and the suffering was not limited to Souad alone. Souad’s story bears testimony to how trauma can be intergenerational, as her plight deeply affected her children too. But eventually, Souad decides to speak up as a survivor, to raise awareness along with Jacqueline, who takes up the cause with utmost zeal and passion, to save women from honor crimes.

It is a story of unbearable grief and trauma, and at the same time, it is a story of resilience and reconciliation. The work is invaluable for many reasons, as it gives insight into how patriarchy can diminish women’s right to live, and their freedom. The book also bears testimony to how much strength it can take to survive and rebuild a new life. This book is all the more important as it draws attention to the fact so much work is yet to be done, even in 2020 to protect women from honor-based crimes. Often humanitarian organizations or authorities in the Western countries overlook honor-based crimes and dismiss it off as cultural issues. As a result, women’s rights and safety are pitted against the cultural rights of their communities. 

To conclude, I will leave anyone curious to read the book with a note of caution- this is not for the weak-hearted. If you have an ounce of compassion in your heart, Souad’s story will make you cry. Her story may even haunt you for days. But if you feel you can deal with the pain the book can inflict on you, and/or if you too are a survivor of violence and want to seek inspiration, this is a book you should read. If you are someone who wants to make a difference to the world and contribute to making the world a little more just and fair, you should read this book.

Cheers to Souad for her resilience! I salute her!

Simultaneously published in the writer’s personal blog.

The writer is part of the core team of Women Chapter. She has completed an M.A. in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, the Netherlands.  Her passion includes inter-faith peacebuilding, refugee rights, women empowerment, etc. She is one of the young leaders of the Women Deliver Young Deliver 2018 Program. When she is free, she likes to write, travel or make quilled art/crafts.

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