Dreaming of escape: The Pakistani women fleeing domestic violence

Pakistani women who fled abusive relationships share the dreams that inspired them to leave.

Mariam, above, left her abusive husband in 2019. Photographer Shazia Khan has always been drawn to taking photographs of those overlooked and living on the fringes of society [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

When my mother was two years old, she was given as a “gift-child” to a wealthy widowed aunt who did not have any children of her own. Three years later, her birth mother, who was just 26 at the time, died of leukaemia.

My mother rarely saw her siblings or father, who eventually remarried, and – looking back now at my own upbringing in Odense, Denmark, I can trace the trauma I absorbed from my mother back to her own childhood.

But, as a child, I did not know why my mother was so cold and strict; why she never showed me any love or warmth. I did not know about her childhood or the feelings of loss and rejection she carried with her and passed on to me. I did not know any of this because feelings were not something we shared or discussed in my family. In fact, the only emotions my mother seemed capable of expressing were anger and sadness.

Shazia Khan, third from the right, with her mother and siblings on Eid in 1980 [Photo courtesy of Shazia Khan]

As a teenager, I rebelled against this, as I rebelled against so many of my family’s plans and expectations – the Quran lessons, the restrictions on my freedom, but none more so than my father’s plan to move us all to Pakistan, the country both he and my mother were from.

He had built a large house there that he intended for us all to live in with his ailing mother. Instead, aged 15, I ran away. At first, I stayed with a friend, before making my way to Copenhagen.

After a few weeks in the capital, I moved into Freetown Christiania, a commune that was established by squatters on the site of a former military barracks in 1971. The year I spent there in 1991, changed my life forever.

I met artists and activists, people who looked out for me and helped me whenever I needed it, and a photographer who introduced me to what would become my profession.

Shazia Khan’s friend’s house in Freetown Christiania, photographed in August 2021 when she stayed there for a month doing a photo project [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

During this time, I also began to look back on my childhood and understand that it had been shaped not only by the anger and guilt I had been raised with but by the ways in which I had used dreams as a means of escape from it.

My dreams, which often involved me flying through the sky like a bird, seeing places that felt safe and meeting people who seemed loving and kind, had helped me to stay afloat and given me hope. They had become my safe place.

I remembered how my mother and her friends had often interpreted their own dreams, believing they had seen in them visions and predictions for their futures.

In Islam, there is a practice called “Istikhara”, in which someone will say a particular prayer before sleeping when they have an important decision to make. They consider their dreams to be a form of guidance from God, helping them to make the right decision.

As I learned photography and spent countless hours in a darkroom, seeing the images I had captured being revealed on paper, it felt like watching dreams come to life.

Shazia Khan photographs “the unseen”, capturing the details and forms not immediately obvious. This photo was taken through a stained glass window in a mausoleum at La Recoleta Cemetery in Argentina, October 2007 [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

I was drawn to taking photographs of the people I called the “unseen” – those overlooked and living on the fringes of society. I photographed homeless children and transgender people in Argentina, Indigenous people in Bolivia and Columbia, residents of the favelas in Brazil. The most important thing for me was always to see and capture people as they are – so that their inner personality shines through their photographs.

As I travelled the world doing this, visiting places I had seen in my childhood dreams, I realised that my dreams had become my reality. It renewed my interest in dreams and the subconscious and I decided to train as a psychotherapist, specialising in dream interpretation.

Just as I wanted my photographs to capture the truth of who someone was, I wanted to establish a similar understanding of those I worked with as a psychotherapist. I found it fascinating to learn how a person’s trauma and dreams intersect and how, if treated right, dreams can help someone heal.

It reminded me of a documentary I had watched about Pakistani women who had endured domestic violence and sought refuge in a shelter.

The shelter called Dastak was located in a quiet neighbourhood of Lahore and had been started by AGHS Legal Aid Cell in 1990, a legal aid organisation co-founded by sisters Hina Jilani and the late Asma Jahangir, both renowned human rights activists and lawyers.

It provides free temporary accommodation for women and their children, as well as legal, financial and psychological support.

I was curious to know more about these women. So, in 2004, I travelled to Lahore for three weeks to photograph some of the women at Dastak, for a project with Amnesty International.

It was my first visit to Pakistan since I was five years old, and I was surprised at how easily I could immerse myself in the culture and relate to the women at Dastak.

For years I had distanced myself from my Pakistani roots, but when I had my own children, it suddenly became important for me to understand my culture and where I came from.

More importantly, I was keen to explore what I had been carrying inside of me. As a psychotherapist and a young mother, I wanted to make sure to not pass on any of my trauma to my children.

The photographs that I took of the Pakistani women during that visit were displayed in an exhibition in cities across Denmark, highlighting the abuse they had suffered.

From the moment I first met the women at Dastak, I had felt an instant connection with them.

The women at the shelter had long intense conversations with Shazia Khan about the dreams they had had after performing ‘Istikhara’ [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

As the years passed, and I gained more experience as a psychotherapist, I often thought of returning. But this time, I wanted to explore the lives of the women from a different angle – that of the dreams they had had before leaving their abusive marriages.

Eventually, on March 11, 2020 – the same day the Danish prime minister held a news conference asking all Danes to return home as soon as possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic – I made it back to Pakistan.

I stayed for as long as I could, having long and intense conversations with the women at the shelter about the dreams they had had after performing Istikhara, before leaving on the very last plane out of Pakistan on March 18.

The stories they shared with me touched me deeply. Here are some of them.

‘I dreamt of a safe place with kind people’

Mariam* has an effortless elegance as she moves around her room on the first floor of the shelter. She invites me to sit on the bed beside her and smiles when she hears me speak Urdu. She had been expecting a foreigner, not someone who would speak her language, albeit with a bit of an accent.

She seems relieved and is curious about my family background. Telling her about my life in Denmark helps break the ice, and I feel an instant connection with her.

As she begins to share her own story, her voice is calm and her gaze strong. She left her abusive husband with her four young children in the summer of 2019, she explains. She had endured years of beatings and being burnt with cigarette butts. Some nights her husband would tie her to an electric heater and electrocute her, she says. Sometimes he would beat the children, Mariam adds, her voice cracking as she starts to sob.

We take a break from the interview to talk about other things. I am conscious that my questions could retraumatise her.

When we continue, she tells me: “My husband would drink a lot. I was earning money working in a sewing factory. He would take all my salary and sometimes my children and I didn’t have food for many days.

“It was an arranged marriage. I was in love with another man, but my family didn’t approve of him.”

One day her husband beat her up so badly that she could barely walk. She managed to make it to a rickshaw and returned to her family home. There, she told her brothers that she wanted a divorce.

“My brothers wanted to go to my house and beat up my husband. I told them not to. It would just cause more violence and bloodshed,” she recalls.

“Then my brothers said I could stay with them and keep working in the factory but I must leave my children with my husband. I couldn’t do that.

“A cousin had told me about Dastak so I came here to seek advice.”

Mariam was determined not to leave without her children [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

A few days later, she returned to the house she had shared with her husband to take her children. When she arrived, her husband and brother-in-law attacked her. But she was determined not to leave without her children.

She told them that if they did not stop beating her, she would report them to the police. They finally relented and let her leave with the children.

“I never learned to read or write. All I want for my children is that they get to study and make something of their lives,” she says, explaining that that is why she has sent her seven-year-old daughter to a boarding school run by Dastak.

“I know she gets a good education and I get to see her every week,” she says, adding: “My husband didn’t allow my children to go to school.”

While we are talking, her youngest daughter, who is just four, comes into the room and hugs her mother.

“She never lets me out of her sight. Witnessing the violence has affected her a lot,” says Mariam.

Mariam also has two sons, aged eight and nine. They are still affected by the violence they witnessed, but they are attending an informal school at the shelter and are doing better, she says.

“My eldest son has frequent nightmares that his father has come to kill his mother. And he is afraid of what will happen to him, who will take care of him?” she explains.

As for the dream Mariam had after doing Istakhara and before leaving her marriage, she says: “Before I even heard about Dastak, I dreamt of a safe place with kind people. I saw this house. The dream came true [and] I felt as if God had given me [the] strength to escape and find this place.”

She still has recurrent nightmares in which her husband comes to kill her, but she says: “I feel strong, and I want to take care of my children. I feel safe here and I am not afraid of him any more.”

‘I’m running, escaping’

Laila* is 23 but seems much younger. She rubs her hands together nervously as we talk.

Her family forced her into marriage a year earlier, she explains.

“I didn’t want to marry this man, but my mother and brothers arranged it. I told them many times, ‘I don’t want to get married’ but they had made their decision,” she says

“When I got married and moved into my husband’s family house, my in-laws blamed me for not bringing enough dowry. I told them I didn’t want to get married to their son in the first place and I didn’t want to stay with them.”

When I ask Laila what life was like with her husband and his family, she looks down at her hands. I notice she is holding a small needle that she keeps pricking herself with.

She seems reluctant to share the details but eventually tells me that she fled their house after just eight days. Her aunt, who used to live at Dastak, had told her she could find refuge there.

Laila’s family forced her into marriage when she was 22 [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

After leaving her husband, she started praying a lot and doing Istikhara.

“I dreamt that my sister brought me to a burial yard and put me on a chair on an unknown grave. She watched me from a distance and then laughed and laughed at me,” she says of the dream she had soon after leaving her marriage. “My sister and I are not talking to each other in this dream. I ask myself in the dream, ‘This is strange, why am I here, what is it?’ I felt really scared after this dream.”

Laila says she is not very close to her sister but that she misses her mother and brother. “They have refused to talk to me since I decided to get a divorce,” she explains.

Laila has had another dream since moving into the shelter. “I’m running into the forest, and I hide under the huge trees,” she says. “It’s as if I am running, escaping.”

Her body language changes as she remembers it. She looks up and smiles, hopeful.

‘I can’t stop looking at the water, it’s so beautiful’

Yasmeen* insists we eat breakfast before we begin. She smiles and laughs a lot, particularly when discussing her daughters.

She is only 25 but her face strikes me as that of someone older.

When she was 13 years old, her father arranged her marriage to a much older man.

“The first year of our marriage went ok,” she says. “Then he started to yell at me and would become very angry.

“When our eldest son was born, and then the other children came, I thought it would get better with time, so I put up with it for many years but it didn’t get better. It got much worse. He would often be physically abusive and threaten to kill me. I felt that one day he would actually kill me. It was as if my mere existence triggered his anger and violence.”

When they married, Yasmeen’s husband worked as a rickshaw driver but would give all the money he earned to his parents.

“He’d come home with all kinds of excuses to me like, ‘My rickshaw broke down’, leaving me with no money to buy food for the children. So, I decided to find work. I started cooking for a family, but my husband would take all of my salary,” Yasmeen explains.

Yasmeen says it is important to her that her daughters remain safe and get educated [Shazia Khan/al Jazeera]

The woman she worked for suggested she leave him and take her children to a shelter. When Yasmeen finally felt ready, her employer drove her and her daughters to Dastak. But she had to leave her two sons, aged 10 and 2, behind with their father.

She explains why: “I know they will get a good education. When they get older, they will come back to me. I wanted to make sure that all my children including the girls get a good education, not like me.”

Some women leave their sons behind because they feel their husbands and in-laws will take better care of boys than they would of girls, who are often treated as a burden.

Yasmeen’s eight-year-old daughter wants to become a doctor while the seven-year-old would like to join the army.

“My daughters stayed with me here for two months. Now they have moved to a boarding school, where they have much better school facilities. They like it at their new school and have already made new friends,” she says.

Yasmeen, who gets to visit them once a week, says it is important to her that her daughters remain safe and get educated. Still, she has found it difficult to be without them. Her family, she adds, has not supported her decision to leave her husband.

“They even came here to Dastak to take me back to him. ‘He won’t beat you again’, they said. I know for a fact, that I can’t go back. He would kill me,” she says.

Since she came to the shelter she has had the same nightmare twice. “I dream that my father is coming to get me,” she says. “We fight and eventually he beats me up and cuts me into small pieces.

“That dream scares me a lot. After a nightmare like that, I pray a lot and it gives me comfort. I ask to see some sign that I have made the right decision,” Yasmeen adds.

The nightmare prompted her to do Istikhara, in the hope that she would receive a sign that she had made the right decision.

“Recently, I began dreaming of water. I’m sitting at the sea, just sitting there and thinking ‘this is immense’. I can’t stop looking at the turquoise blue water, because it’s so beautiful and it makes me happy,” she says. “I’m filling my bottle with the water several times – and I keep drinking the water.”

She has felt at peace, she says, since having this dream and feels it has given her the strength to hope for a positive outcome.

‘I’m dying here, please let me out!’

Assia* is 18 years old and her hands are decorated with intricate henna patterns.

When I ask her questions, she answers promptly and precisely.

“Our families arranged a marriage between me and my first cousin,” she says. “Soon after the wedding, I found out that he was in a relationship with a woman who lived next door.

“I confronted him and asked him to stop. He got angry and started beating me up. He said that he would keep us both. For six months I stayed and watched him seeing the other woman. The beatings continued.”

Assia prays a lot and it gives her comfort [Shazia Khan/Al Jazeera]

She told her family about the affair and the abuse, and that she wanted a divorce.

“They didn’t believe me. He is my uncle’s son, he is family. So, a divorce was not an option,” she tells me.

Her family convinced her to return to her husband. When she did, he beat her up again. She endured a further two months of abuse before she left for Dastak, where her cousin had stayed a few years earlier.

“My family still tells me to go back to my husband,” says Assia.

When she was still with her husband, she did Istikhara. Her body stiffens as she remembers the dream she had. “I dreamt that my parents locked me up in a closet in their house. I screamed, ‘No, I can’t live in a closet, I’m dying here, please let me out!’ I faint because I can’t breathe, and then I wake up.”

Assia tells me that she prays a lot and it gives her comfort. Back when her family were arranging her marriage, she says she had dreams about witches.

More recently, she has had a dream that gives her hope for the future.

“I dream I’m running, and the witches are coming for me. I’m scared and I’m screaming. I see a tent and I go inside. There is someone good there. I hug him as I cry. He asks me, ‘What is wrong my child? Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen to you’.”

“It is like evil has been left behind and something good will come my way. Now I understand this dream. My family is behind me. I’m not going back again, I am looking at the future now,” she says, adding that she recently received her final divorce papers and is excited about being able to make her own decisions and live her life on her own terms.

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.

Source: Al Jazeera