Fleeing From Home, Fighting For Freedom; Pakistani Sisters Seek Religious Asylum In Sri Lanka
- Fear influential parents will pressure SL authorities to have them returned
- Relatives attempt to put girls on Exit Control List
- Azad Sally accompanies parents in mission to ‘find’ daughters in Colombo
By Roel Raymond – Photos by Gazala Anwer
Asmaa Azeem is 22, Fatima is 16. They are sisters from Pakistan, seeking asylum in Sri Lanka. Their parents are religious fundamentalists and the girls want out. They want an end to the abuse, they want an end to the old religious order and they want a life of freedom; freedom of thought, freedom of expression and more importantly, freedom of religion. The girls are atheists, and proud ones.
“From a very young age, the physical abuse began. My mother would hold a knife to my face and threaten to deface me, to cut my tongue, so no one would recognise me and I wouldn’t be able to talk.”
Asmaa is the oldest of three siblings. Her story began 14 years ago when she, her mother, and her two younger siblings – a boy and Fatima – moved back from Abu Dhabi to Pakistan, leaving their father, an engineer with the Pakistani military by profession, behind. It was then that the abuse that Asmaa suspects was fuelled by unhappiness and frustration began, leading to the siblings being verbally, physically and emotionally abused by a mother that wrapped tightly around her the comforting shroud of religious fundamentalism.
The result was enforced rules, threats, beatings and punishments. The siblings were locked up in a dark storage room, threatened mutilation with knives, told they would never amount to anything, that their dreams would never come true. Religion was the one way of life, and ‘Allah’ the only God. Everything must happen according to the Quran and their mother was always right. Naturally, the children rebelled, and Asmaa, the first to.
She said she began questioning the religious, cultural and social dogmas enforced on her life at about the age of 16. Why? was her first question. Why was a Muslim man allowed to have more than one wife (Her uncle has one in the UK and one in Pakistan) and a woman not? Why did the ‘society’ she was brought up in, choose to turn a blind eye and even deny issues and incidents that took place right in its face? (She describes the sexual molestation a cousin went through at the hands of an uncle) Why did women have no fundamental rights in her country? Why, why and more why?
At around the same time Asmaa had the good fortune to visit Malaysia for three months. Her eyes were opened even wider then and by 17, she said, she no longer believed in God; he didn’t exist, and she wasn’t interested. She details how she went through the motions of praying five times a day and continued to wear long clothes to cover her body in order to keep her mother at bay, but said that resentment had begun to burn deep in her heart. The girls had their own dreams: Asmaa wants to sing, and Fatima wants to write, but their mother will have none of it, it is not allowed.
At 18 Asmaa left to the United Kingdom on studies choosing a ‘useful’ major she didn’t even care much for, as it allowed her – for the time being at least — the freedom to live in a religiously, culturally and even socially liberal country. She spent her time studying and working part time as a waitress and was soon followed by her brother (who is still there). Fatima however was in still in Pakistan, and alone. In spite of her new found freedom, Asmaa said she worried about her sister. Fatima was depressed and even suicidal, and Asmaa spent hours on Skype, just talking, to her sister.
Fatima had by that time indeed slid into depression. She was alone and had virtually no relationship with her mother. Channels of communication between mother and daughter were closed; religious fundamentalism left no room for questions. And Fatima had plenty of them. Like her sister before her she had begun to question and inwardly rebel. She didn’t like the rules enforced on her by her mother, they made no sense. She spent much of her time on the internet, engaging in social media, talking to her sister.
Back in the United Kingdom Asmaa had decided that she wanted to pursue her dream of singing. She chatted to her sister about her interest in auditioning for the X Factor and toyed with the idea of dropping out of school and using the money her parents were sending for her studies in computer science to enroll in music school. Little did they know at the time, they say, that their mother had gained access to Fatima’s PC and that their saved conversations would be used against them.
On September 3, 2010 Asmaa was called back to Pakistan by her mother who said that her father was ill. Asmaa was more concerned about her sister; Fatima had sunk lower into her depression and begun to self-mutilate and self-medicate, all – at the time – unknown to her parents. She had made the mistake of telling a school friend she didn’t believe in God and the story had spread, as a result of which she was being shunned in school and many had stopped speaking to her. Fatima was afraid she would never be free and felt she had no reason to live, and Asmaa decided to use the opportunity that presented itself to go back.
Shorty after arriving in Pakistan Asmaa’s passport went missing. Initially helpful and concerned, their mother had helped the girls in their search for it, before telling Asmaa that she suspected the ‘jinns’ had stolen it and that ‘Allah’ possibly wanted her to stay back in Pakistan. Her father too suggested she finish her last year of study in Pakistan and not go back. By this time Asmaa was sure her parents were responsible for the ‘loss’ of her passport and was livid. She knew they were playing her and felt they insulted her intelligence by expecting her to believe that it was ‘Allah’ or the ‘jinns’ that had ulterior motives.
“It’s like an ‘Allah’ bandage” Fatima said bitterly, ‘ Every time anything goes wrong or in any way they don’t want it to go, they put on the Allah bandage; Allah said this, Allah said that.”
The sisters searched the house and found the passport hidden, ironically in the very storeroom in which they had often been locked in as children. Their confronted parents were quick to get physical and both girls’ passports were confiscated and they were grounded. Six people employed as help in the house were asked to keep an eye on them at all times, and they were not let out of the house. This lasted for about two months, Asmaa said, describing how she had her wallet and national ID card hidden on her body at all times, just to keep them safe.
In the two months they were kept under house arrest by their parents, the girls hatched a plan. Asmaa was 22 and so, at a legal age to leave. She realised that she would have to leave the country; there was no place for atheism or modernism or liberalism there, they would not let her be. But she couldn’t leave her sister behind; Fatima at 16 was still a minor. They would have to find a country that would not require visas to travel to. A quick search on the internet showed Nepal and Sri Lanka to be prime candidates. They chose Sri Lanka.
The girls had no money of their own and no way of earning any either. It was at this point that Asmaa decided that she would ‘take’ some of the gold her mother had always promised would be hers, to buy their way out. The girls left the house on a planned date — when their mother was out — and travelled to Karachi instead of using the Lahore Airport that was closer to home, so afraid that they would be followed.
After a number of hiccups the girls finally arrived in Sri Lanka on January 28. Visiting the UNHCR office at the BIA, they obtained papers validating their refugee status before picking up a Mobitel SIM at the counter of the BIA and travelling to Colombo. Days later their mother and an uncle were at the entrance of the rooms they had temporarily rented out, asking the landlord for them, and casually, if they had left any ‘documents’ behind.
According to Asela Rekewa, the criminal lawyer representing the two girls, the mother Qudsia Azeem (Khanum) and uncle Irfan Malik had arrived in Sri Lanka hot on their heels and had made an entry with the Tourist Police in Negombo, saying the girls were ‘missing.’ OIC, Tourist Police, Officer Jayaruwan had accompanied the two adults to Colombo in investigating the entry, but had found that the girls had papers issued to them by the UNHCR validating their refugee status, and that therefore there was nothing he could do.
The girls had next received a call from the UNHCR asking them to make an entry at the Women and Children’s Bureau at Fort. En route the girls learned – from the UNHCR themselves – their mother and uncle were at the Women and Children’s Bureau. At the Bureau the girls found that they had been called to make a statement in response to an entry made by their mother and uncle, and were not required to file an entry themselves.
Rekewa speculated if there had been any miscommunication between the UNHCR and the girls, and if there was any undue pressure on officials and authorities by their parents. He said the girls had spent two days at the UNHCR office making their statement to officials. “From what I know, these processes take a while,” he said. “I am truly surprised that the UNHCR has decided to question them this quickly and hope that it doesn’t result adversely on the two girls.”
He also voiced his concern on the parents being accompanied on at least one of their journeys in looking for the girls by former Colombo Deputy Mayor Azad Sally. How had the parents found out where the girls had been staying in Colombo? There are a number of unanswered questions.
Asmaa and Fatima are evidently worried. They say their uncle is extremely influential in Pakistan and has many contacts with top officials and the Ministry of Interior. They show me an email — sent to them on the very day they left home – to which a letter requesting the two girls be placed immediately on the Exit Control List to prevent them from leaving the country was attached. The email was from their uncle, saying: “I am just sending you this document to let you know that I’m not bluffing you…”
They worry that calls made on their Mobitel SIM have been traced and say that they hear the Ministry of Justice and the Pakistani High Commission have expressed interest in their case. They worry about their future; will they ever live normally? Would they be able to get visas in the future, to go abroad, to live their dreams, live free?
“We don’t know what will happen,” they say, “But we have decided that we won’t keep quiet. There are other girls and women like us out there, and they must know that they can be free. We are worried our uncle and parents will use what influence they have to pressure Sri Lankan authorities and officials to deny our application. But we hope that won’t happen. We have been lucky so far, and we don’t want to ever go back.”