I was Geeta's age, 13 (left) when I came to Canada, and Zainab's, 19 (right) when I first fell in love.
The entire Turkish community of Montréal was surprised when they received invitations for two weddings set one week apart. One of the brides to be was aged eighteen, the other nineteen, and both still in school were getting married out of the blue. What was even more incredible was that the grooms' names were neither Turkish nor even recognizably Muslim. Bruck and Heckrotte sounded – definitely Christian!
The younger girl had just entered metallurgical engineering. She was the first to get married to her nineteen year old, philosophy major husband in the Eastern Townships at the farmstead of the latter's parents, who hailed from Austria, with old European values. They had met at an elective course and became friends. The friendship turned into a lot more and in a short time rendered them inseparable.
The older was studying chemical engineering at McGill University – one of the six girls in all of the engineering classes. She was noticed by the tall, dark, handsome American GI from Delaware, who was attending architecture after his army stint in Hawaii. He had selected Canada, because tuition fees were unaffordable in the States. Here he could live in a rooming house on Peel Street, and afford food and education on his GI pension. He had a cutting wit and sharp mind, in addition to his brown puppy eyes.
There was a third sister too, but she wasn't getting married. She too was in school though, and she also had her own sweetheart, but unlike the others, she had managed to keep him a secret from her parents. Perhaps just the fact that one has to remain silent, when a fire is burning inside her heart, bellows the flames out of control, because even though her heart was flowing over with love and she wanted to shout out her feelings, she could not. So she muffled her voice and convinced herself that love was meant to be celebrated quietly through poetry and literature; and got herself involved in her sisters' joy.
But in truth, neither of these weddings was actually planned and both were far from the ideal - as much a shock to the parents, as they were to the their guests. It was the only honourable step they could take, the sisters decided. Because as soon as their parents found out that they had given their hearts to young men outside of their culture and religion, their parents saw that the only way to save their honour was to take their daughters back to their mother land. They cared not that it was the middle of winter, or half way through a semester, or even a loss of a year. . .
"You can continue at a Turkish university from where you left off here," they said. Honour, to them, was more important than any schooling, education, or degree. No matter how much the girls did beg and plea, the decision was made. It was back to the motherland for all, before the family name was sullied.
It was that strong sense of honour, woven into the psyches of the young girls, that made them take the final, desperate step. Marriage was the only way that would not dishonour their family. Marrying infidels would certainly devastate their parents, but it wasn't like death and there would have to be a compromise. Thus, the nineteen year old married her twenty-three year old sweetheart at the Christ Church Cathedral on St Catherine Street, on a sunny May day in a no brand-name religious ceremony, after which her mother held a reception at their home for the guests who drove in from Delaware and New York.
After they “lost” both of their daughters in a backlash just like that, the parents were left adrift in the middle of a tornado-swept life. Their dreams crashed big time with the reality they faced, and in their wake there was left nothing but a sense of loss, emptiness and defeat.
The sisters, although they parted from their country and way of life at very impressionable ages, and were married outside of their own faith under unplanned circumstances, never forgot their roots, their language and the values their parents taught them. Their marriages were only a side track to stay and complete their education, but also not abandoning the loves of their lives. Their actions were honour-motivated on both fronts.
I thought of this story when I watched a program “The House of Shafia” on Fifth Estate, a weekly documentary shown on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) last week. The murders of three sisters and a first wife have been the source of many investigations and questions, looking closer at the existing support, shelter, and protection systems in place.
I cannot help but, in some way, identify with the plight of the young girls aged 13, 17, and 19, who were so strictly controlled by the heavy, iron fists of the males in the family and their ideas of honour.
My parents also believed in honor and that a young girl should not be touched by a male before she was married to him. And they did all they could to keep my sisters and me distracted from the awakening of nature by taking us to ballets, concerts, cultural expositions and various celebrations within our national community. Only one thing was out of the question: Having a boyfriend or dating.
Naturally, when I think of those two young girls, who married at age 18 and 19, to consider their parents' honor - although they loved the people they married - I cannot help but think of them as heroines in their own rights. For standing up for their beliefs and stepping into the unknown with no backup, no rope to reach for should they sink. I admire them for putting up with all the hardships they faced, and yet keeping focused on their goals.
I am deeply saddened that the father and mother of Geeta, Sahar and Zainab had no conscience, feelings, or humanity when they planned the murders of their daughters in cold blood. Québec police who were unto them within three weeks of the unfortunate incident placed listening devices everywhere, including the car Mr Shafia drove. One could hear his words (translated), saying such things as he hoped that dogs would pee on the graves of those girls whom he considered whores, (because they wanted to live more like the people of their age in the new society). This man and his son did a most dishonourable thing by taking the lives of four women in the name of honour. Although they appealed their verdicts, I hope the decisions will not be changed and that they will serve the rest of their lives in regret and learning.
Back to the other three girls I started with. . . I know they would never be subjected to anything remotely close and heinous. Yet they still acted out of their sense of respect and honour to their parents and married before leaving their parental homes. They lived marginally until both their husbands and themselves completed their degrees and moved on to lucrative employments. Their lean years of getting by on GI bills and scholarships made them even stronger and more understanding toward others.
Yet life is unpredictable. Like a house built on sand and fog, each marriage eventually collapsed – after six and twenty years, respectively. But who is to say life could have been better had they packed up and gone back in the middle of an education process? We all come upon many interjections in our lives, and eventually we have to chose one over the others. Each road we follow leads to another cluster of opportunities and choices, which might not have been possible had we chosen another crossroad. The thing to be grateful for is that we are alive and can make a selection without the fear of such repercussions. How horrible it must be to live in fear of one's life every day and not having one's cry for help heard!
My heart goes out to the three Shafia sisters and the woman they called aunt; and I wish their souls peace in their final rest.
As for the story of the other three sisters I started with? Each completed their schooling and graduated with honors. They brought the joy of six grandchildren to their parents. The youngest entered a second, happy and lasting marriage. The middle one is the primary caretaker of their declining mother. And the eldest . . .
She stayed at her parents home after her sisters left. She lived witnessing the sadness of her mother - daily. After three years, when she moved out to be closer to her work, and a year after that when she accepted the hand of a colleague in marriage, her parents, already broken hearted with the previous two and having lost their final hope with her, didn't even show up at her wedding. She and her fiancé got married in a non-denominational ceremony at the McGill Chapel for religious studies among the company of their friends and their siblings.
In some way, she became the historian of her family.
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © Will of my Own - 2012