(I have changed names and details to protect identity)

Zahrah knew she would soon be dead if she didn’t leave. She pressed her one-year-old son to her breast, while the two-year-old clutched her clothes. Zahrah shuddered with the memory of that morning. In a fit of rage, her father-in-law chased her around the mud-walled compound with a butcher knife. She fled into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Shouting abuse, he put the hose under the ill-fitting door flooding the room. She realised her predicament and stood on an empty crate as he hooked up an electric wire to electrocute her. It got quiet after awhile, and someone came to the door, “Are you all right? He’s left.” She stepped back into the courtyard to resume cooking for her husband’s younger siblings.

Later that day, Zahrah heard a knock at the gate. One of the teenage boys opened it and she heard her brothers’ voices. “Where is Zahrah? We want her now. We are taking her home with us.” Zahrah had no time to pack. She reached to bring her two little boys with her, but the others in the compound said, “The boys don’t belong to the mother. They belong to the husband’s family.”

The in-laws whisked her boys away. Zahrah’s brothers took her by the arms and led her away sobbing, “My boys, my boys. Let me have my boys.”

In the car, Zahrah wept uncontrollably. Three years ago her parents organised her marriage to the oldest son of a successful businessman. She met her husband for the first time at the wedding and was taken to his home on the outskirts of Quetta in Balochistan to begin her new life as a member of his extended family. Her status as the bride of the oldest son changed to shock as she entered the family compound. Instead of a decorated room to welcome them, she saw broken cups, clothes ripped, and things strewn around. Zahrah discovered that her mother-in-law had gone on the rampage, taking everything of value and breaking what she couldn’t take. Actually, Zahrah found out she had four mothers-in-law, as her father-in-law had four wives. One of his wives seized the opportune moment during the wedding to vent her anger and ransacked the family compound, before escaping.

More shocks followed. Her husband sniffed heroin and sold drugs to support his habit. Her father-in-law made his income smuggling goods from Iran. Neither men hung around home much, nor did the mothers, and it fell on her to care for her husband’s seven younger siblings.

The next years passed in a blur as she made the best of the fate Allah had written for her. Her husband cared for no one and nothing, ruled entirely by his cruel master, heroin. The police arrested him and his intermittent spells in jail became part of life. In the meantime, she gave birth to two sons. All the while she obediently cleaned, washed clothes, and cooked, looking after the house, and caring for her own children as well as her sisters and brothers-in-law. In her spare time, she embroidered garments, hoping to supplement the scant provisions her father-in-law provided. Whatever money she received, she carefully hid lest her husband steal it for his habit.

Some six years after Zahrah’s wedding I visited her brother’s home. Entering the compound she embraced me warmly, but I hardly recognized her worn out face, with bad teeth and dark circles around her eyes. I thought back to when I first met her 14 years earlier when our family moved to Balochistan to begin Christian medical work. As a shy, giggly girl, she knocked on our gate, “Here’s a dish of rice Mummy cooked. Welcome to our neighbourhood.” She and our daughter Heather became good friends, spending many happy hours playing together. Heather went on to boarding school, while Zahrah left school in fourth grade. When Zahrah turned 15, her family followed the local customs and looked for a suitable husband for her. Knowing how many parents accept a marriage proposal with little investigation, I begged the mother to use wisdom and carefully check both the family and groom for character. However, Zahrah’s parents accepted this promising offer as qismat (Allah’s will/her fate).

Zahrah explained her circumstances, “I haven’t seen my boys for 3 years. I’m a shame to my family. Everyone blames the wife for a divorce. My mother calls me a wicked woman and constantly berates me for causing the troubles. I hate leaving the house and visiting other homes because the women join in mocking and condemning me. I fill my days looking after my niece and nephews. When I help them put on their shoes and wash themselves, I long to do the same for my own boys.” Wiping away tears from sunken eyes, she continued. “At night, I dream about Tariq and Jahangir. I often lie awake troubled by the abuse others might do to them with no one to love and protect them. My brothers want to find another husband for me, but I don’t want it. So far they have listened to my insistence.” 

Zahrah made a cup of chai for me and continued. “An ‘auntie’ dropped in to visit me last year and said, ‘Your five-year-old Tariq lives in a Baloch village outside the city. He runs around barefoot in grubby clothes. No one takes responsibility for him. They tell him his mother didn’t want him and ran away. He needs a good bath, clean clothes, and discipline.’”

I cried and told Auntie, “I’d love to give him clean clothes and a good meal.”

She told me, “I can arrange for you to see him. However, conditions apply. You must tell no one, nor reveal your identity to him.”

Zahrah told me, “I couldn’t believe my ears and wondered if it was possible. But she said she would make arrangements. For the next weeks, I managed to earn a little money by embroidering clothes for neighbours. My brother gave me some money, and I went to the bazaar and bought my son a shalwar-qamiz suit, a pair of shoes, and a bag of lollies. When the day arrived, I donned my burqa and slipped into the car Auntie sent for me. The driver took me to a village, dropping me off at someone’s compound. My heart throbbed as I walked in. No one was home. A short time later, another car drove up and Auntie walked in, holding Tariq’s hand. When she saw me she said, ‘I invited Tariq out for the day and told him about a nice lady who wanted to see him. I’ll come back later to take him home.’”

“She left and I said, ‘Tariq, I have some surprises for you.’ I pulled out my presents and helped him take off his dirty clothes, put on the new ones, and did up the buttons. He put on the shoes and I tied them. For several hours we played together nibbling sweets. I asked about himself and what he did. Towards the end of the afternoon when Auntie came back, I took Tariq in my arms and gave him a kiss. Then he slipped off my lap, took Auntie’s hand and walked away. Just before he passed through the gate, he turned and looked. I don’t know if he saw the tears streaming down my face. I’d just had the most beautiful day of my life.”

With tears spilling over, Zahrah looked at me. “Oh, that I just had my boys. They need me. I would send them to school and keep them healthy. They will grow up. They will seek me and will find me. They will want to know who gave them birth. They will stop believing the lies about me. They will seek me out and choose to come to me. I live for the day I can see them.”

I cried as I listened to her. But another picture came into my mind. I wondered if Zahrah herself wasn’t like her lost son in God’s eyes? Did she know how valuable she was, made uniquely in the image of God, to be a child of God? She was meant to be transformed by the loving care of the Heavenly Father who gave her life. Did she know about her unseen enemy whose hidden intention was to keep her from the one most important thing, a relationship with God made available through Jesus? This enemy spoke into her life: “God is distant, bad, and doesn’t care.” Believing the lies she lives with an emptiness that longs to be filled, never reaching her full potential, not realizing that her Creator longs for her to seek him out and find out the truth about him.

And then I saw a cosmic picture: a hard world filled with orphans caught in a battle of “survival of the fittest”, with no standard of right and wrong. They are people following their feelings and dictates of society, not knowing who they are, where they have come from, where they are going, what the purpose is for their lives; people deceived by the god of this age who has blinded them to the goodness and love of God. It would make so much difference if these orphans would follow that inner uneasiness, search for truth and find the answers that bring them home to the Heavenly Father. As the Bible speaks about God:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:26-27).

– Dorcas Denness