Rosina Rehmat Ali, Baldia Town, Karachi

RAA_JIP_10252012_BaldiaTown_0042 (small)There is a sudden, unexpected turn in the conversation. I hear her voice quiver, and I see her entire body shake. Was it from fear, or from anger? During our conversation she had shown both; the fear that comes from being a mother of one, and pregnant with another, alone, without any financial means, and sitting in a two-room house in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city; the anger that comes from being a young mother of one, and pregnant with another, alone, and left without any financial means or social protection after the death of her husband. When we were introduced, she had greeted me with confidence, looking straight into my eyes. She was observing Iddat – a Muslim ritual of mourning that a widow observes for 150 days after her spouse’s death, but had agreed to meet me to talk about the death of her husband. As our conversation proceeded, and as she explained how her once normal, ordinary life was unraveling before her eyes, her gestures became more anxious and her glances more furtive. I could see that she was struggling to hold herself together. She pulled at her chador, thrown across her shoulders and head, tighter and tighter around her body. Sitting on the floor of the living room – there is no furniture, only a carpet, under rays of light streaming in from the gaps between the wall and the tin roof, she was tracing the fragile threads that had once held her life together, and emotionally collapsing as she does so.

On September 11, 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory, in Karachi, Pakistan. A major industrial operation, Ali Enterprises had just weeks earlier been given a prestigious SA8000 safety certificate by the industry funded Social Accountability International (SAI). The fire led to the deaths of nearly 300 workers, and left many thousands of family members homeless and penniless.

The stories of the families of those killed that night reveal the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also give a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have weakened worker organization and resistance, and created a vulnerable and exploitable workforce to serve specific economic and political interests.

Rosina Rehmat Ali’s husband, Rehmat Ali Ghulam Murtaza, was killed in the fire that night. He left a 10 month old daughter, Urooj.

It was just over a year and half ago that she became a young bride from Chiniot, Punjab, and married a man making his future in Karachi. Murtaza worked at one of Karachi’s major textile factories and a technician. Though he earned little more than Rs 7000 a month ($70), he could still promise her a decent and secure future. Their first child arrived ten months after the wedding, and a second was now on its way. A small two-room rented house was found. Using his experience working with textile machinery, and hoping for a slightly higher salary at Ali Enterprises, Murtaza changed jobs and joined the factory just four days before it burned down. She had encouraged the change; the household expenses, the second child on its way, their single income meant that things were financially tight. It was the right thing to do, and it was a promising thing to do. Ali Enterprises was a major textile manufacturer, and with Murtaza’s experience and skill, he would certainly do well there. For at least four days, it had all seemed to come together. And then it was all gone. The threads that held her life together were fragile, and by the time she realised that,  she was too late.

Rosina had misread the details of her life. Within hours of her husband’s death the very people she had once trusted, became the very people she most feared. They not only severed their interest in this girl from another biradari (brotherhood, clan), but the lure of the compensation money erased any ethical concern for her. They began suggesting unthinkable things.

“Greed has overcome them.” She declares as her hands reach up to cover her already chador covered mouth. I sense her discomfort as she tells me about these intimate and private humiliations.

“They want me to abort the child.” Her voice trembles. Her hands are shaking, but there is rage in her eyes. “They want me to marry my husband’s younger brother.” She catches her breath.

“Their looks have changed. Men I considered as my brothers, now looks at me in ways that…” She stops abruptly, perhaps to hide the disgust in her voice. “I will not give up his baby.” She says angrily.

“Murtaza was so good to me. I refuse to give up his child.”

She wasn’t prepared for any of this. A single mother, alone, and in the care of her husband’s family in this teeming city twenty-four million people, she had believed that she had people to rely on, and a family to trust. She was wrong. Left to her devices, she was also desperate.

She had spent days searching for Murtaza’s body, running from one hospital morgue to another, from police station to an Edhi emergency centre, carrying her ten-month old child in her arms, dragging her pregnant self onto public buses across this huge city just to find some evidence of his remains. But she had not found any.

“I need him.” I hear her say slowly, clasping her hands, gently rocking her body. She looks tired and I sense her receding into herself. As I look at her, sitting quietly on the floor in this large, unfurnished room I see a woman under siege who is too young to understand what to do, too weak to face the responsibilities that are foisted on her and too vulnerable to the familial forces gathering around her. “He was good to me.” She says finally.

As I leave the house, I look back and see that she is still where I had left her: a small, frail, lone figure sitting on the floor, breathing heavily, looking at nothing. The light is no longer streaming in through the gaps between the brick wall and the tin roof. I have a regret in my heart, and a sense of having wasted her time.