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From sexual harassment to an independent life

Mariam, an almost fifty year old tells her tale of misfortune, and how it has changed her to bring up her children in a different way than other maids. She is now a school maid in Karachi and lives with her second husband, two daughters and a son.

At the age of fifteen, Mariam was married to a man almost the age of her own father. Who left her later on, blaming Mariam, of allegedly having an affair with a neighbour. While inquiring about the real interests of Mariam, I asked her to elaborate the actual scene a bit. To which she shrugged, got uncomfortable, but then continued, being the strong lady that she is.

‘My husband had left the house early morning for work. Qayyum was one of our landlords, the kind that your husband would love and respect. He often came to have a cup of tea. But this day, something was odd about him. He was staring at me as if I was his property. I served tea and went inside, but only to see him standing next to me the very next moment. Trying to take my dupatta off, pulling it away from me, he tried to harass me. I struggled with all my might and ran outside our shanty, banging the iron gate behind me. As I cried and shouted for help, our neighbours gathered around me in a circle. I still remember that day as if it happened yesterday!’

Her words trembling from her mouth, her eyes welled up as she continued. ‘I remember my khala, mamu jan and bari aapa shouting at me, reprimanding me, as if it was all my fault! I remember all those words they said about me having a lose character. No one even thought of giving me a chance to speak amidst my tears. In that moment, my husband arrived and I looked at him with a silver lining of hope, but all in vain. He struck me hard in front of the whole crowd that had gathered to enjoy my demise! I kept imploring, fallen in his feet, trying to tell them all that it was not me, it was Qayyum who had tried to harass me inside my own house.  But they ended up doing what I had feared the most. My people of Khanpur, abandoned me. And this is the story of how I came to Karachi.’

The next question that automatically comes to mind is how exactly did Mariam survive, as she was still a teenage girl, pregnant, and not at all aware of the ways of a city life! Her conversation was indeed heart wrenching. ‘I lived on the streets, while I tried to look for work. I knew how to stitch and embroider because I was brought up in a house where skills mattered most for a girl. Twelve days passed and no luck. By now I had met different kinds of people: prostitutes, beggars, drug addicts, little girls and boys who ran across the traffic signals, looking for a chance of selling roses or cleaning car mirrors and etc. among these people, I met a maid who was old and also belonged to Khanpur. Though I didn’t know her from back home, but she introduced me as the cleaning lady or ‘nokarani’ at a huge bungalow in Jauher. She also gave me place to stay at her house but her only condition was that I had to marry her son, Shaukat; who was a gambler, probably double my age and paralyzed from his left hand. So I did not have much choice but to marry him.’

Mariam somehow convinced Shaukat to leave gambling and focus on earning in the Halal way, as she was a devout Muslim. After two miscarriages, she had a son and two daughters with him. Mariam tells us that when she started earning, she developed a certain sense of individualism, though the money was from cleaning peoples’ toilets and sweeping their homes off dirt.

That self-sufficiency made Mariam realize that only in one way her daughters can earn money and have respect at the same time, and that was through education. So with the changing lifestyle she decided to get her daughters into a school. Also, she thinks that the condition of government schools is very coarse so she is struggling day and night just to get her little girls into a better school.

Talking of the city life, she also told us that this was the very first time in her life that she voted. Voicing her opinion in the shape of a vote made her feel significant, like the other members of the state.

In a nutshell, she framed her idea of inequality between men and women as: “Some men get to work and earn money and some women. Women in our society take jobs as a burden, but the money they are earning actually gives them empowerment and changes them for the better days!”

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