10th February 2015
It isn’t often that I feel any emotion when reading the newspapers. Usually, I just quickly scan the articles, bored by the predictability of some, apathetic to the sensationalism in others. Yet, today, as I was reading a story about a database for female victims of violence in the Guardian, I was intensely saddened by a small detail in the case study of a murder, a detail which struck a raw chord in me.
The woman who had been murdered was Mumtahina Jannat, who was killed by her abusive husband, Abdul Kadir, on 5 July 2011. Her husband, who was twenty years older than her, had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, which works out at a minimum of 17 years.
Jannat, known as Ruma, was only 16 when she married Kadir in Bangladesh. Beginning with her very wedding night, she suffered near continual abuse until her death. She and her husband moved to the UK in 2002.
Her insecure husband Kadir became more and more angered by her independence in her new country. Jannat told her family that he had drugged, beaten and raped her. He forced her to give up a college course and driving lessons. The level of brutality she was subjected to is shocking. Shortly after the birth of her second child, which required a caesarean section, her husband kicked her in the stomach, causing the stitches to open up.
Jannat endured her husband’s abuse for years, because of the harsh ideals of ‘family honour’ and stable marriage that came from the world she had come from. However, when her husband turned his violence towards her children, she finally realised that she had to escape from his brutality and she fled to a refuge in 2005.
Her husband, however, would not let her go. If her growing independence was what had exacerbated his violence, then the idea of a final break between him and her was inconceivable for him. He orchestrated a three-year battle over his contact with the children, which was a constant source of worry and trouble for Jannat. Whenever she attempted to break free again, he would threaten her family or use the children to force her into contact.
Her husband was able to force his way back into her home. And then, the abuse continued. In the beginning of 2011, Jannat made what was to be her ultimate attempt at freedom. She told her husband that he couldn’t return. Two days later, she was found dead. Her husband had strangled Jannat with her own scarf.
This tragic history of an arranged marriage that had gone sour resonated deeply with me, undoubtedly because, as a British Asian man, I could understand the sad plight of Jannat and the stark choices that faced her, because we shared a similar cultural background. I knew how alone she must have been and what kind of strength she had to summon in order to decide on the break with her husband (and indeed, break with the culture she had come from).
The little detail in this sordid history of abuse that was so resonant with me was the motivation for Jannat’s break with her husband. When it was just her that had to endure the abuse, she had made no complaints. She had bowed down to those harsh cultural ideals of ‘family honour’ and the stable marriage. But when her husband threatened her children, then the mother in her could take no more. What Jannat had done, she had done for her children, not herself. All her bravery, her bid for independence and safety, her bid for survival, all this had come from her selfless love for her children. She would not let her husband do to them what he had done to her. And the sad irony was that her husband had manipulated this very love for her children to force himself back into her life. Jannat had died out of love.
And as this small detail punctured my heart, I wondered to myself how many sad lives were blighted by the casual violence and selfish insecurities of such brutes as Jannat’s husband. I wondered why her parents had married her off to such an older man. I wondered what kind of life she had lived, what she had been like. And I wondered why it was the small detail that had made me, the jaded scanner of the news, take such an interest in her. Was I merely reiterating the empty rhetoric of India which celebrates the ‘selflessness’ of the ‘Good Mother’ and is unable to accommodate this idea with ideas of independence and self-realisation? Was my sympathy simply reinforcing a long-held idea of womanhood? Why was the figure of the mother in Jannat exercising such a powerful interest in me?
The answers to these questions would take a great deal of self-analysis and questioning. But the fact remains – Jannat’s story is one of bravery, love and self-sacrifice. And it is a story that I will find it hard to forget.