As a woman, it’s hard not to be affected after reading Burned Alive.
Told as a memoir, it chronicles the life of Souad, a victim of an attempted honor killing. As a young girl growing up in 1950s Palestine, where the rule of men was law and the women were sometimes treated worse then animals, Souad quickly learned that daughters had zero standing in the eyes of society. She witnessed first hand how her mother murders several girl babies once they were born, and understood that she must lay low, be subservient and never talk back – or she might be next. It was in this state of fear and humiliation against constant beatings that Souad and her sisters grew up in, while their brother Hassan ran around freely and did as he pleased. Their only hope of being free from the family was to marry a man, and bear him sons. But since violence often begets violence, and having grown up in households where women were treated with little respect, the husbands were often just as abusive as their fathers.
After falling for her neighbour, she has secret trysts with him that end with her falling pregnant – the ultimate shame for conservative Palestinian families where ‘honor’ is more important than anything else. With the consent of her parents, her brother-in-law doused her in gasoline and set her on fire. Left for dead, she was miraculously rescued by European humanitarian workers and brought to live in Europe together with her child. She was only 20 years old.
There, she underwent extensive surgeries and skin grafts – and had to learn to fit into a new culture from scratch. It was extremely difficult as she had lived in her small village all her life and only spoke Arabic. Souad’s greatest regret was giving up her son for adoption, but she was almost a child herself and it was necessary in order for her to start a new life.
From Souad’s narrative, you can tell that despite the extreme pain and suffering her own kin have cost her, she does not blame them entirely. In one part, she says that she is lucky to have gone to Europe and be exposed to a culture where it is not acceptable to do such things to women – but admits that if she had stayed on in the West Bank, she probably would have done the same to her own daughters. It’ is a vicious cycle that never breaks.
I am horrified by her account – but I know this is just one of many happening in many parts of the world. In Pakistan alone, there were over 1,100 honour killings in the past year. Women are not allowed to make choices for themselves – sometimes even refusing to marry a man picked by the family warrants an honor killing. That is some fucked up BS. And the sick thing is, strong-rooted ‘tradition’ and culture gives these killers a license to kill in the eyes of the local authorities. The few brave ones who have attempted to challenge the system have faced death threats, being ostracized by their communities, etc.
Compared to women in these countries, I feel blessed to be living in Malaysia, where (most) women are allowed liberties: education, job opportunities, choices, and freedom.
It is sad that in today’s world, where we call ourselves ‘civilized’, evil things like this still happen. Although a painful read, Souad’s story helps to shed light on the issue of women’s rights and the abuse they suffer even in modern times.
As the book was released under an alias (reason given that she might still be in danger as families have been known to track down their victims even to other countries), some people have questioned the ‘authenticity’ of the book. Some reviewers have noted that some things seemed impossible – such as Souad’s claim that she survived without medical assistance for so long, despite having burns on over 70% of her body (apparently it’s impossible in the medical world?), as well as memories of her sister being strangled by a telephone cord at a time when Palestinian villages did not have telephones. Whether Souad exists or not, her story is one that can, and might be happening to any girl in any part of the world at any time. And I think that’s the most important thing that the book is trying to highlight.