Sardani Kausar

 (Asim Rafiqui)Sardarni Kausar was accused of the murder of her husband, and sentenced to death. She spent nearly six years on death row before her case was thrown out because of a lack of evidence. Today she is the elected counselor in her district, and fights for other women facing unjust criminal cases.

His own children killed him because they were afraid that he would leave me his wealth and lands. They killed him, had me sent to death row.

As our car pulls out from the village, its tires raising clouds of dust, I look back and see her standing there. A figure in white – strong, singular and proud. I think about the life of this woman I have just spent some hours with – her childhood, her years with her family, her dreams of a settling in her own home, a love affair, a moment of possibilities, and then the catastrophe which spiraled her to imprisonment and out of which she built a new place for herself in this community. I think about her courage, her inner strength of which I only got a glimpse during the two hours we spent talking. I think about the horizon of her life, and what it has in store for women like her – widowed, dispossessed of her inheritance, a former death row prisoner. Alone.

She disappears from sight, obscured by fields of sugar cane, and men yielding machetes.

 When we arrive in Dipalpur we ask a man for Sardarni Kausar, and directions to her home. The labyrinth like alleys of the village, and homes without any numbers, make it impossible for us to find her without help. He smiles – yes, of course he knows Sardani Kauser and excitedly tells us which way to go. I trace the arc of his hand as he stretches it out and extends his finger and as I look in the direction he is pointing, I see her.

She is standing at the far end of the narrow lane and looking in our direction. Dressed in a white shalwar-kameez, her head with a thick cotton dupatta, her hands carefully wrapped around each other in front of her. She has the self-possessed and self-confident air of a person used to being in the public eye – a politician or even a lecturer. As we walk towards her she remains there without moving a limb, simply watching us approaching her. The lane is narrow, and the high, red-brick walls of the homes make it seem a tunnel.

As I come closer her hands extend outwards and offer to shake mine. Her face betrays a careful smile. I feel the calloused hands – the hands of a woman who still works in the fields, and the strength of her grip. There is nothing apologetic, or shy, about her demeanor. This is not an ordinary, rural village woman and that is clear from the confidence with which her eyes meet mine, and the assertiveness with which she invites us into her home.

We step inside a wide, clean courtyard with what looks like a neem tree in the center. A bicycle stands in one corner, and a girl is crouched in front of a water tap washing clothes. As we enter, she drapes her dupatta over hear head, and quickly disappears into one of the rooms. A clothesline hangs heavy, with drying bed sheets and pillow cases waving in the sunlight. Sardarni Kauser apologizes for the humbleness of her home, but it is clear that she is quite proud of it.

The living room is decorated with a traditional wooden sofa and two chairs, a small Persian run, a rectangular glass-top coffee table, wall mirrors with hand-painted frames and glass vases with flowers. It is put together with some care – the colors of the rug and sofa play off each other, the curtains match the colors of the walls – a pale yellow. It is tastefully done. As we sit, she calls out to someone in the next room – I presume the girl I saw earlier washing clothes, and asks her to prepare some tea. I am conscious of being a man alone with a woman in her home – a rather unusual social circumstance in these parts of the country, but Sardarni Kauser betrays no discomfort as she settles down in one of the chairs, adjusts here dupatta and says

Welcome to my home.

And it feels like a home – I say. She smiles – it dances on her lips for a moment, and then disappears.

It has taken years and a lot of work to make it feel like one.

She looks around the room, obviously with some pride. I can only imagine the care and effort it has taken her to put all this back together – a life, a small family, a career, and a place in the community. As if reading my mind, she adds:

They took everything from me. My home, my lands, my property. Even today they have it all – the house my husband gave me, the lands that I should have inherited, and even the things that were inside the house that I had bought. They took it all.

Sardarni Kausar had spent 7 years in prison – nearly 6 years on death row, for a murder she did not commit. She was sent to the women’s prison in Multan, where, from the way Perwaiz had described it to me earlier, she had undergone a transformation as a woman. I ask her about her time in prison, and how she managed to survive it. She collects herself before answering, as if trying to decide where to start, or what to start with.

I saw terrible suffering in the prisons – life is very difficult there. But perhaps what I saw most where the dozens of innocent women trapped by their husbands, zamindars or just vengeful men, in criminal cases they had nothing to do with. I saw women exploited, deceived or simply charged and indicted for revenge.

Her face is taut and it is clear that she is not speaking merely about others, but also about what happened to her in her own life.

It was during my time in prison that I decided to do something more with my life. That if I was able to save myself and be released, I would do more to help the women in our communities who are vulnerable and exploitable.

She is sitting upright – certain rigidity in gestures and features takes over her. As if the discussing about her public role requires a more publicly presentable posture.

I ran for local counselor elections soon after I was released from prison. My years in prison opened my eyes to the suffering of the poor. I saw from my experience the cruelties inflicted on prisoners, and on the families of the prisoners, in our prisons. I wanted to do something for these families, using my experiences and knowledge of the bureaucracy of the state here, to guide them as best I could.

I can hear the sound of cups and saucers being placed on a tray. Someone – perhaps the girl I saw earlier, is preparing the tea.

I do a lot of this kind of work now, helping the poor to settle disputes before they get out of hand, to appeal to zamindars who are harassing them to come to some negotiated agreements, to navigate the bureaucracy at the karcheri and deal with the police and other local authorities. When I came out of jail I saw that they were preparing for counselor elections in the area, and I went and put my name down in Dipalpur and ran for this position.

Her voice is assertive as she tells me about her new public role in the community. A look of pride gleams from her face. A sense of achievement that is clear in the way she sits now – hands over her knees, knees next to each other, the dupatta carefully draped to cover her hair, the straight back. She looks at me directly, speaking her words quickly, as if she wants to get through this description.

I figured that it would give me greater authority, and a leverage to do the work that I wanted to do to help the people here. I appealed to the women in the area that a women representative could be far more effective in getting their issues and concerns across to the authorities, and for fighting on their behalf. That rather than face the men at their deras they could come to me, and I would step forward and represent them, or at least stand along them and give them strength. They respected my argument, and voted for me.

She waits for me to acknowledge her ambition. To see her pride in what she had achieved.

I won that election and am today the local counselor in the area.

Her daughter brings in the tea. There is a rush of activity as she gets up to take the tray from her, and set it on the table in front of us. There are biscuits and some dry fruit. Sardarni Kauser carefully pours tea into the cups, asking us about the amount of sugar we wish. After serving us – she does not take any, she sits back.

What does she do for these women? How does she use her experiences in prison to help them?

There are so many cases here of false cases – husbands looking to get rid of wives, or deprive them of their rightful property, men trying to exact revenge on women who had spurned their advances, local zamindars trying to extort payments or deals from weaker parties, drunks taking out their anger on their wives or daughters, and murders that have wrongly been blamed on girls – I met so many innocent girls stuck in prisons at the behest of men who made false accusations against them and had cases filed against them. I started to work with these women while I was in prison – it was there that I heard their stories, and began to see the broader struggle of the women against the society here.

But what about the fact that you were in prison, on death row? Doesn’t that hurt your credibility here?

People here know that I am innocent. It is why I have been able to return here.

Her face softens. I see her sit back in her chair, pull the dupatta tighter over her head.

My husband was already married, but he decided to take a second wife. There were already rumors that he had his eye on me, and people would speak behind our backs about it. He asked me to marry him, and I agreed out of my volition. I was in love with him. But his decision created severe rifts in my husband’s family – between his children and him, between the family of his first wife and him. And there was the question of the inheritance – of the lands, and of property. She convinced them that they would lose everything to me.

She is speaking softly now as if in thought. Her voice is not as clear, and sharp as it had been when she was speaking about her public work. The clarity, and confidence remains, but her voice has taken on a new tone: something mildly remorseful, perhaps even apologetic. I notice her shoes – cheap imitation leather sandals, worn at the heels, frayed at the straps. Covered in dust. There is a thin line of dust on the bottom edges of her shalwar.

He built me a separate home, to avoid further conflicts, but it did not help. He was killed by his own children – they were jealous, and angry that he had taken another wife. They were also afraid that there was the question of property which they were averse to allow me to inherit. His own children killed him because they were afraid that he would leave me his wealth and lands. They killed him, had me sent to death row.

She looks up at me.

Everyone here saw my humiliation, saw my desperation during those years. But they know that I am innocent. It’s why I can come back here, and why I can do the work that I now do.

The powerful interest in depriving women of their share of land and inheritance was one of the reasons why Shari’ah law was not practiced in the region and why customary law persists. I remember reading about this in the work done my Mathew Nelson in Punjab. Perhaps this determination to maintain family lands and property was also a driver of many a murder cases?

Now I fight for other women, but of course, I have no means to fight for my own rights. I have a right to my husband’s property, but they have taken all the land, the house that my husband had built for me, and all my things. But I don’t have the means to fight these cases. I have no money to even take on this fight, and they know this.

In a way, they finally did win.

There are no photographs anywhere in the room. I did not notice any in the other rooms we walked through. None of her parents, nor of her current or murdered husband. Perwaiz had told me earlier how her mother had slowly sold all their lands to pay for the legal fees and trips to the prison. It had broken the financial back of the family.

My mother paid for my defense by selling most everything we had. This is my brothers home and I live here only because he died two years ago. I have nothing that is in my name.

She turns towards me – I see her eyes light up, and her adopt that upright, proud posture once again

We were landowners – zamindars. My father proudly named me Sardarni – princess. It’s all gone now.

But there is this home, and a new husband, and two children. I know this from talking to Perwaiz earlier, but I do not ask about them. She has not mentioned them once. Perhaps the memory of what was lost has as yet not been overcome. Perhaps the scars remain deep and definitive of her sense of her self.

The wind is picking up and I can hear its roar as it cuts past the door ways and into the living room. The curtains covering the windows spread out lives ocean waves, allowing sunlight to come pouring across the room. It illuminates millions of specks of dust moving chaotically, randomly indifferent to the world around them.

What would she want now? What does she hope for tomorrow?

Justice. Compensation. Acknowledgement of the wrong done to me.

She looks at me directly as she says this, and there is no hesitation in her voice as she answers. Clearly she has thought about this question many times before.