Souad Shares Her Story of Survival and Redemption

by spicyray

Iam a girl. A girl must walk fast, head down as if counting the number of steps she’s taking,” writes Souad in her book, Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men. “She may never stray from her path or look up, for if a man were to catch her eye, the whole village would label her a charmuta.”

A Bone-chilling account of what many women in Developing Countries Experience

Souad’s book is chilling, depressing, and inspirational. She grew up in an Arabic Muslim family in a small village in the Palestinian West Bank, where women were oppressed and not treated as human beings. She was never taught to read and write, and she is unsure of her real birthday and age.

Her father, Adnan, and mother, Leila, were psychologically disturbed at best, their behavior suggesting a total lack of human emotion. Souad recalled 14 siblings, but the only ones who lived with her when she was growing up were Noura, Kainat, Hanna, herself, and her brother Assad. Her other siblings’ whereabouts were a mystery, although Souad felt something sinister was going on.

“I see my mother lying on the floor on a sheepskin,” Souad writes. “She is giving birth… There are cries from my mother and then from the baby, and very quickly, my mother takes the sheepskin, and she smothers the baby. I see the baby move under the blanket, and then it’s over.”

The Impact of Abusive Parents

In her book, Souad recounts horrific events, describing parents who engaged in deliberate psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. Childhood trauma always has consequences. But when parents deliberately engage in such behaviors–rather than the behavior being a result of stress, leading to remorse afterward–the child is cognitively damaged because their brain is not built to thrive under such difficult conditions and is barely able to survive. This is especially true when the child is young when they are vulnerable to the delay or disruption of developmental milestones.

Souad’s emotional equilibrium was regularly thrown

off regularly thrown off because of the pain her parents inflicted on her. She recalled such time when she made the mistake of picking a green tomato when her father had demanded that only ripe tomatoes should be chosen. “It was half yellow and half red and was begging to ripen,” she writes. “I had thought about hiding it when I brought it back to the house, but it was already too late, my father had already arrived.

I know that I shouldn’t have picked it, but I was working too fast with both hands.” She recalls how her father reacted: “‘You fool! You see what you’ve done? You picked a green tomato! Majmouima.’ He struck me, and then he crushed the tomato over my head… ‘Now you’re going to eat it!’ He crammed it into my mouth.”

Souad writes that she worked hard to complete her household tasks before dusk to avoid her father’s beatings. She cared for the sheep and cut their wool, attended to the cows, and met other tasks as fast as possible. One time after milking cows and pulling heavy buckets all day, her arms became so exhausted that she dozed off while hanging a bucket. “As luck had it, my father arrived and shouted ‘Charmuta! Whore!'” she writes.

“He dragged me on the ground in the stable by the hair, and I caught a whipping with a belt… I begged him, and I cried in pain, but the more I said it hurt, the more he struck me and called me a whore… The cow and the sheep, as my father use to say, are worth more than the women.”

Her Borther’s abuse

Her younger brother, Assad, never received such harsh treatment. “My brother was the only son in the middle of girls, he dressed the way men do here, like in a big city, he went to the barber, to school, to the moves, he went out as he pleased, why? Because he had a penis between his legs.”

But Assad had a volatile temper too; one day, his anger at his sister Hanna turned into an uncontrollable rage, for reasons unknown to Souad. “I hear shouting. Then I see my sister sitting on the ground, flailing her arms and legs, and my brother, Assad, learning over [Hanna], his arms on the other side of her.

He is strangling her with the telephone, she must have been using the telephone, and he came up behind to strangle her. She is dead: I’m convinced she is dead. That day she was wearing white pants with a shirt that went to the knees. She was barefoot. I saw her legs kick, and I saw her arms strike my brother’s face as he shouted at us, ‘Get out!’… Rarely did I see the police. It’s nothing if a woman disappears. And the villagers agree with the man’s law.”

A little Girl’s lack of worth

Souad said that her parents did not care about the fate of their daughter. “I know why they kill girls and how that happens,” she writes. “It is decided at a family gathering, and on the fateful day, the parents are never present. Only the one who has been picked to do the killing with the girl who is the intended victim.”

The rules in Souad’s culture were clear: a girl must be married by age 15, and she must be a virgin. Souad was fully aware of this expectation, but at 17, she met an older man named Faiez. The two had a secret relationship. When Souad discovered she was pregnant, Faiez announced that he was no longer interested in her or the child.

Her pregnancy and assaulted

As her pregnancy became apparent, Souad tried in vain to get rid of the child. “What I ardently hope for, although I’ve been pregnant for three or four months, is that the [menstrual] blood will come back. That’s all I think about,” she writes. “I don’t even imagine that this child in my belly is already a human being.” Eventually, despite all she had done to prevent it, her parents learned that she was pregnant.

Souad was outside when her brother-in-law Hussein approached her. Hussein reassured her that he was there to take care of her. Souad writes as they talked, she kept her head lowered toward, looking at her feet. Then she noticed cold liquid running over her head. Hussein had poured gasoline on her, and as she ran around screaming, he lit her on fire. Thankfully, her neighbors were close by, and they put out the flames and helped her seek medical care.

She writes that she spent an extended amount of time in the hospital. But like her family, the hospital staff looked at her with disdain for having a child out of wedlock. One day, she writes, her mother visited her in the hospital. She was very insistent that Souad should drink what she had brought for her. She remembers her mother saying, “‘Drink this… It’s me who gives it to you,'” as she tried to help Souad drink the water.

“Never will I forget this big glass,” writes Souad. “Full to the top, with transparent liquid like water.” A doctor happened to enter the room just before she drank. “But I was lucky, according to the doctor, because I had been about to drink this poison.”

Souad’s new life

Souad gave birth to a son and named him Marouan, but social services removed him from her care and placed him in foster care. Eventually, a woman named Jacqueline, who was on a humanitarian mission for the Red Cross with her husband, learned about Souad’s situation. She and her husband developed a relationship with her, and later they all moved to Switzerland for a time, and Souad’s life improved.

Souad married a man named Antonio, and they had two girls, Nadia and Laetitia. Souad writes that she made a conscious decision to ensure that her children would experience a childhood like hers. She got them into therapy and made sure they attended school.

She eventually reunited with Marouan, who encouraged her to write her book, and although Souad was an exile from her homeland because of the shame she had brought to her family and community, that proved one of the most beneficial events of her life. She and Jacqueline appeared on radio shows sharing Souad’s story; Souad even found the courage to give public speeches, trying to help women in similar situations. And she and Jacqueline went on to develop a foundation called SURGIR, which means “arise,” to allow women to escape death and harsh treatment.

“If I had lived there [her homeland], I would have become ‘normal’ like my mother, who suffocated her own children,” she writes. “Maybe I would have killed my daughter. I could have let her burn to death. Now I think that is monstrous… When I came to Europe, I began to understand… that there are countries where it is not acceptable to set a woman on fire, that girls are valued as much as boys.”

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