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new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989


The sari's curse
Maria del Nevo recalls the personal
tragedy of some friends in Pakistan.

When I became a friend of Saleem Farhat's eight daughters, I was not to know that I had been unofficially adopted. But it didn't take me long to find out, and after a while I couldn't conceal my pleasure whenever Saleem Farhat introduced me as his ninth daughter. Alone with him I used to tease him about it. 'Don't you think you have enough to cope with, Farhat Sahib?' We would laugh together as if he really were my father.

Saleem Farhat was a tall, distinguished man who had served in the Pakistan Army for 35 years and afterwards worked in government offices. He eamed 1,500 rupees ($70) a month - the standard wage, but still a small amount for a man who had no sons to contribute to the family earnings. Yet on my frequent visits to the small, overcrowded house I detected no hint of stress: instead there was always that infectious 'Farhat laughter'.

When Nasreen, the eldest daughter, was married, Saleem Farhat relaxed visibly and for a while there was an expression of self-satisfaction on his face. I and the six youngest sisters all turned to Kesra. whose turn it was next. At our hinting and giggling she would turn away shyly, hiding her blushing cheeks.

It was several months before I noticed a quiet change of mood and a year before I was told of the concern about Kesra's future. A boy could not be found, or at least not a suitable one. Saleem Farhat seemed to be ageing before my eyes. There is always anxiety when parents are searching for their child's life-partner. But it was not until Saleem Farhat came specially to visit me that I realized how serious the situation was.

'Kesra is ill,' he began. and dropped down in the chair across from my desk. She has a rash on her scalp and her hair is falling out.' I didn't have to ask the cause and anyway Saleem Farhat talked on. 'She is 26 and not yet engaged. She believes she is doomed to be a spinster. Oh. my poor Kesra. It is a terrible situation. Even if I find a boy and his family make a proposal. I cannot see how we could accept.'

Saleem Farhat raised his eyes to meet my puzzled expression. 'Ah no, my daughter,' he continued, 'you know little of our real troubles. But you must know. For 35 years I served my country. I fought in two wars and received these scars which are a reminder of the horrors I witnessed. At 54 I was nearing retirement and my wife and I looked forward to receiving a good pension of 75,000 rupees ($3,600). It was a time free of worries. Yes, we had longed for a son in the old days but instead God had blessed us with eight beautiful and obedient daughters and after a lifetime of hard work. I was to be in a position where I could prepare them, materially, for marriage.

My oldest and closest friend visited us a lot in those days. He would come every couple of days and eat with us. I always welcomed his visits - 'another man in a house full of women!' I would say. Azad Hamad had set himself up in business. He was an agent for people who wanted to work in the Middle East. These people paid him to arrange their visas, travel and contacts at the other end. It was a lucrative business, he said, and he felt he was helping the Pakistani people.

'Azad Hamad asked me to recommend him to my relatives who had sons wishing to go overseas to Dubai and Kuwait. Because these families respected and trusted me, they followed up my recommendation and in total Azad Hamad received 60,000 rupees from three families. But the weeks went by and Azad Hamad didn't come. Yes, you may guess the rest: we never saw him again.

'Well, my pension was due and I had to repay all the money that the families had lost.' Saleem Farhat covered his brow with his hand. 'All that money . for 35 years' service . and for my daughters' dowries. What a fool I was. So you see we were still poor and knew we would stay that way. My wife would go and eat dust outside the mosque believing that when God saw her He would take pity on us. I had 15000 rupees left and that paid for Nasreem's dowry. Now there is nothing left.'

I sat silently, and so did Saleem Farhat, shaking his head slowly until he continued. 'I am a victim of poverty, corruption and the desperation which causes friend to steal from friend. And the dowry, that is my curse. But I cannot ignore it. Who am I to make my daughters social outcasts, and who am I to leave them unmarried, unprotected and scorned'?'

I had no words of comfort or encouragement. It was too late for that. And it was almost too late for Kesra, who in anguish saw her one option rapidly drifting away from her. She would soon be labelled unmarriageable. Saleem Farhat's pension had been tragically lost and seven dowries remained. A curse, and there was no way out. No escape from the price that had to be paid to dress a daughter in the red and gold wedding sari.

Maria del Nevo is a former NI co-operative member who recently returned from two years in Lahore, Pakistan.

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New Internationalist issue 198 magazine cover This article is from the August 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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