By: Rabia Ali
KARACHI: Once upon a time a young girl left her family and religion for the man she loved. After getting married, her husband flew her off to his land. This land, however, was not far, far away and there was definitely no happily ever after: she, now, lives in Landhi, Karachi, locked away in a small room on the top floor of a house for the past 13 years.
All the terrible things that happen in fairy tales seem to be Shabnam Gul Khan’s reality.
Previously named Shirley Ann Hodges, she met Gul Muhammad Khan, a Pakistani money lender, in Ahmedabad, India, in the summer of 1997. They fell in love and got married. Three years later, Gul flew Shabnam and their newborn daughter to meet his family in Pakistan, assuring her that they would return to India within six months.
However, as soon as Shabnam landed in Karachi, she was abruptly introduced to the nightmare her life would become: she was introduced to Gul’s first wife and six children; her Indian passport was seized; she was gifted a burqa and locked away on the top floor of her in-laws’ house.
Thirteen years since, Shabnam remains confined at the top floor of the house, and is not allowed any visitors. Her only contact with the outside world is through the internet and her mobile phone.
“I am a prisoner and this is a hell. For years, I have not gone out from my room. I want to go back to my family in India,” she said in a hushed voice.
Meanwhile, inside the five-story house in Landhi, Shabnam’s sister-in-law dodges questions, saying simply, “Shabnam observes purdah. She cannot meet anyone.”
“I don’t know why my husband did this to me; why he fooled me. What was my fault?” Shabnam told The Express Tribune by telephone. “My daughters are not allowed to go to school. We are beaten with sticks and hurled abuses. Our life is very suffocating.”
For years, Shabnam was forced to hide her husband’s cruelty from her family as she could only speak to them in front of him. But a few months ago, she managed to get through to her family independently via Skype.
Speaking from Ahmedabad, Shabnam’s brother Noel Hodges said he was shocked when he saw her after all these years. “She weighs 100kg now. She keeps crying all the time. We are very worried for her.” Since then, Shabnam’s family has made frantic efforts for her “release”. Letters have been written to the Indian home secretary, the Indian high commissioner in Pakistan and human rights campaigner Asma Jahangir.
In Karachi, Abdul Hai of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says they have also received letters and are seeking legal help.
Meanwhile, when the Quaidabad police questioned Gul about his wife, he filed a petition in the Sindh High Court last month, accusing them of harassment.
“We observe strict purdah in our family, which is why Shabnam is not allowed to go out,” said Gul, a man of Afghan origin, who owns an electronics shop. He further claimed that he had done a “great deed” by converting a non-Muslim to Islam.
“I am a heart patient. When I become alright, I will take her to India but for now she has to take care of me,” he added. Shabnam, however, knows well that her husband is not her knight in shining armour and his promises to take her back to India will be broken once again.
“I regret marrying him, and the day I come out, I will file a case against him and make him suffer the same way,” she said right before hanging up the phone, as the clock in her room chimed: it was time for her husband’s return and for her to get back to her less-than-a-fairytale life.