Shakespeare had rightly said ‘what is in a name?’. Call her Rabia, Shabana, Musarat, or Saira but in the end, she was just a girl. She was just fourteen when Mujtaba, a boy from Malakand, sent her a marriage proposal through his parents. Her parents refused, keeping in mind her age. This was unacceptable to Mujtaba. It was a disgrace for him, something against Pashtun norms. He left the area in shame because a girl had refused his hand. After all, he was a Pashtun and he had a house, a car, a shop, so what else did the girl need? It was difficult for him to be seen in town for a while. So he decided to go to Karachi, where he had many relatives and friends.
After refusing Mujtaba’s marriage proposal, Shabana’s mother asked her father whether they had made a wrong decision.
“Abdullah, even if Shabana does complete her education, she would still become someone’s wife.” She was standing close to bed where her husband was taking nap.
“Shabana can become a doctor; a teacher and can make money. Men would prefer her because she would have an income. So right now, Kashmalo, just let the girl study.”
“But she could study after marriage too. Mujtaba is earning a lot anyway.”
“Shabana is still very young. Why do you not understand?” Her husband finally hushed her by musing that Shabana’s fate, like everyone else’s, was in God’s hands.
Shabana’s sixteen-year-old brother, Jehanzeb, was also not pleased by his father’s decision. After all Mujtaba was a kind person and he was probably the only shopkeeper who gave him things on credit when he was short of money. Shabana was unaware of the marriage proposal. She first heard about Mujtaba being in love with her from her friends. She also learnt of his quick departure after his proposal had been rejected. She suddenly felt sorry for him. Like all the other girls in town, she also want to be loved by someone and become a bride, dressed in wedding finery, but her father wanted her to study.
Her father had always asked her one question right from her childhood – “Tell me, what is your name?” And whenever she replied “Shabana”, he would shake her gently by her shoulders, “No, say Doctor Shabana” and she would repeat, “Doctor Shabana”, and would immediately be rewarded by her father’s joyful expression. She liked the idea of being like the lady doctor who wore a white gown and examined patients. So whenever she dreamt about her marriage, the fantasy always ended with the words – “No, Doctor Shabana”; then she would imagine that she was a lady doctor with patients asking for her help. This supplanting idea was so fascinating that it always overpowered the idea of marriage.
Unlike his father, Jehanzeb was always against Shabana being educated. Whenever he was asked by his father to accompany his sister to school, he often replied with excuses to avoid this task. “O Daji, I feel ashamed. It is bad for me to walk with my sister when my friends are looking at me in the streets. She is a grown-up girl now, so why doesn’t she just join the madressah in our neighbourhood and get some religious education instead?” Jehanzeb would argue. Hearing this Shabana always commented, “Daji, forget it; I will go with Benish and the other girls.”
Their father always surrendered and so Shabana went with her friends. It took them an hour to reach the school. Their school was located in the foothill of the valley. When they passed through the green meadows, the butterflies always attracted her. Dozen of butterflies flew over the flowers looking like moving petals of flowers themselves. The river close to the path led to their school. The sound of the swiftly-moving river was the background music to their determined march.
Shabana was getting ready for school when a huge blast rocked the valley. Certainly it was a bomb blast. The explosion was loud enough to make her wonder if it had happened at their doorstep. The mother rushed to the middle of lawn and her father, buttoning up his shirt came out of the bathroom.
“What happened?” he asked his wife.
“I don’t know. But the sound came from the mountains.” She pointed towards the north.
After the Red Mosque episode in Islamabad and the emergence of Taliban in Malakand, blasts had become common in town. The people of Malakand had witnessed the Taliban’s Tehrik-Nifaz-e-Shariah (Black Turban) Movement for more than a decade but the latest political gathering had non-locals. With every passing day, the reaction to the Red Mosque Operation in Islamabad intensified and schools, bridges, offices, and check-posts in Malakand were blown up. Shabana would ask questions about the violence but everyone answered with silence.
Making her way to school after a tense breakfast, she was about to cross the road next to her street when she found some of her schoolmates returning home.
“What happened? Is it closed?” She asked the group.
“Yes, it is closed forever.” One answered among them. Then she asked the other girl who lived on her street.
“Husna, what does this mean?”
“Somebody has bombed our school. The policemen have blocked the way down, near the stream. They tell us that that it was the Taliban.”
Shabana felt like the earth move like a swiftly-rolled carpet. Back home then, she thought, but she held back, walking slowly behind all the other girls. She entered her home, with her head hanging down, as if she had done something wrong. Her mother was the first to see her.
“Militants have blown up my school.”
“Don’t call them militants; they are Taliban. Didn’t I tell you? School is not for you. It is haram for girls,” said Jehanzeb.
“Just because you are not interested in school, doesn’t mean I’m not. Why don’t you go with Daji and help him with his business?” said Shabana, for once upset enough to reply to her brother’s taunts.
“And I am not going to the shop either,” said Jehanzeb, before he beat a hasty retreat.
Those were the worst days for Malakand. Everyday there was strike, suicide attacks, curfew, or search operation and soon the business of the town dwindled and shrunk like a diseased animal. As things turned from bad to worse, Abdullah decided to share his worries with his wife late one night.
“Kashmalo, everything is finished here. Nobody is interested to do business in this area.”
“Then what have you decided?”
“I have decided to go to Karachi. My elder brother can help us out. I have talked to him. He said there is a good job in the local shipyard.”
A week later, Abdullah left for Karachi while his family stayed at home. Mujtaba came back from Karachi with a long beard on his face. The day he arrived, a friend, Ikramuddin, now a Taliban commander, welcomed him in the market now ruled by the Taliban.
“Welcome back, my friend. Soon you will know why I called you back.” Over lunch, Ikramuddin informed Mujtaba about the situation in Malakand.
“Now my friend even the birds need our permission to fly.” He ended with smile.
“You don’t know Ikram… my wounds, they opened up again when I saw the streets of this town.” Mujtaba told him morosely.
“I know, I know. Allah will make everything better,” said Ikramuddin.
Next morning Ikramuddin arranged Mujtaba’s meeting with the local Taliban commander known as “Amir Sahib”. Mujtaba knew he had met Amir Sahib before and he cried out loudly when he remembered: “O, you!” But before he could utter another word, Amir Sahib had pulled him into a tight hug, “Yes, yes but don’t say any other word.”
Amir Sahib was Anwarrulah, a local vendor, but now he sported a full beard and his loose clothing gave him the air of someone more mysterious. He had more than a dozen armed men around him and a few vehicles. They sat down in a thickly-forested foothill area, close to the town. Their discussion ran for hours. Mujtaba informed Amir Sahib about his disgrace. He was assured that he had the full support of the Taliban and they would help him regain his lost honour.
“Don’t worry. The government will soon kneel to Taliban and then, there will be no law except our words,” Amir Sahib promised. “But why don’t you try once more. Send a fresh marriage proposal and see what happens…”
Mujtaba agreed. This time, instead of going through his parents, he sent his aunt. But he did not know that his aunty wanted Mujtaba to marry her own daughter. So Mujtaba’s aunt visited Shabana’s home but came back without discussing the proposal. As soon as she returned, Mujtaba asked her eagerly, “What happened? Did they agree?”
“No, they are not interested in you. They were so arrogant that they compared your education with Shabana’s. Her father is in Karachi, but my son, let her go. Any other attempt is useless.”
Furious at his proposal being rejected the second time, Mujtaba ran towards Ikramuddin’s shop-turned-office.
“What happened?” Ikramuddin asked him, worried about his friend’s wild appearance.
“Nothing yet but it is going to happen,” Mujtaba replied coldly.
“What is going to happen?”
“If she is not mine, I will ruin her life. How dare they refuse me again? Now I will show them who am I,” said Mujtaba, clenching his fists.
“O, I understand. Let us go meet Amir Sahib then.”
A few minutes later, Amir Sahib was listening to the whole story. He kept stroking his beard as he tried calming them down.
“Okay, okay, wait a minute, look we cannot do anything against Sharia.”
“But I was following the Sharia. They hurt not only the Sharia laws but also my Pashto pride.” Mujtaba insisted on retribution. After a brief discussion, they drew a plan.
It was the first of April when a short circuit disrupted the electricity at Shabana’s home. Her mother asked Jehanzeb to go and call an electrician. As his father was not at home, he agreed reluctantly. Just before leaving, he said he had to meet his friends, so he would just direct the electrician to drop by at the house and that he wouldn’t be home before dinner. After half an hour, somebody knocked at their door. Opening it, Shabana found a middle-aged electrician with some tools in his hands. She was just about to guide the man into the house when a few armed men entered, following him. They were Taliban.
“So this is what you are doing when your men aren’t around,” one of them commented, aiming the gun at the electrician’s head. Kashmalo and her daughter instinctively moved closer to each other, before Kashmalo began speaking in quavering voice, “My husband is in Karachi and my son Jehanzeb just went out. He may be near the town market by now.”
“Call him then,” said the same man.
The neighbours gathered at their door, trying to look inside over each other’ shoulders. There were many eyes. Kashmalo called out to one of the known faces.
“Sardar, will you go and get Jehanzeb,” Kashmalo pleaded. A few minutes later, Jehanzeb arrived, making his way through the crowd. When he saw what was happening, his face turned pale and a terrible foreboding bloomed in his mind. He had nothing to say. He just heard the verdict.
“Jehanzeb, your sister was found guilty of liaisons with a stranger. She should be punished as this is what the Sharia laws demand.”
Jehanzeb was confused. He didn’t know if the statement was an order or a charge that could be refuted. Mustering the only words he could as his legs shook under him, Jehanzeb said, “Perhaps we should ask Amir Sahib, as he knows Sharia.”
“Okay, Amir Sahib is coming,” the Talib agreed.
Soon Amir Sahib appeared on the scene. Shabana was still standing with her mother, clenching her fingers around her mother’s cold hands.
“We knew it and we were monitoring and investigating the issue for many days and at last we caught you red handed. As the girl is virgin so she will be subjected to a flogging. Her brother should bring her out and everybody should watch her get the justice she deserves,” said Amir Sahib, before turning to leave.
The gunmen forced Jehanzeb to bring his sister out. Two of them also held the arms of the electrician, who was still shocked by the bizarre development. Kashmalo and Shabana started crying and pleading, but their entreaties were ignored. Jehanzeb, fearing for his own life, dragged Shabana out of the house to the square outside, as the Taliban had directed. When the flogging started, she was lying on the ground. Her hands were held down by her brother. She looked down. She recognised Mujtaba holding her feet down. She was flogged thirty-seven times. Every time, her scream triggered a mad joy within Mujtaba. Amir Sahib then announced that the electrician had to marry her to complete the sentence. Only then, he said, would true justice be served according to God’s will. When Shabana stood up, she felt her blood dripping down her back, staining her clothes. What she did not understand was why she had been flogged thirty-seven times when she was just seventeen years old? She had been punished for the years when she wasn’t even alive.