Documenting the plight of women in war-torn regions of the world is not a new subject for literature, by any means. Authors have written on the topic from many, predominately sympathetic, perspectives. But some writers, such as Jacqueline St. Joan, approach their storytelling with the intention of promoting activism and involvement in women’s issues. Her recent novel, “My Sister Made of Light,” does just that — in a very literal sense, in fact — with half the proceeds of all book sales going directly to funding an organization in Pakistan working to provide a safe haven for abused women.
The inspiration for St. Joan’s book clearly comes from experiences within her own professional life, with the author having worked as a lawyer and an activist for the prevention of violence against women. The novel is very much a treatise on women’s issues, in particular the precarious nature of the lives of women in Pakistan, as they try to cope with the outdated absurdities of Sharia law.
The novel is a woven tapestry of one woman’s life in Pakistan, a young advocate languishing in prison for fighting the country’s many abuses toward women at the hands of their conservative and controlling fathers, uncles, brothers and sons. The narrative moves between those details that landed Ujala in her cell in the first place and the friendship that blossoms slowly between the prisoner, Ujala, and the prison matron, who becomes very attached to the story Ujala has to share.
Raised in a forward-thinking family, by a Sikh father and a progressive mother, Ujala is a teacher with the Women’s Aid Society, helping to train other female teachers across Pakistan. It is through these connections that Ujala begins to witness the abuses that many of the country’s women and girls face on a daily basis.
St. Joan utilizes the story-within-a-story framework to highlight the vulnerable nature of women in Pakistan, where the female guarding her prisoners feels more of an affinity with her incarcerated “sisters” than with her fellow, predominately male, prison administrators. As Ujala narrates the tale of what led her to the prison, the reader is given beautifully vivid snapshots of a panorama of everyday life in Pakistan, encompassing several generations, which helps illustrate the challenges women have faced in that region of the world since the Islamic Revolution.
Ujala serves as a brave national symbol of progressive thought in an otherwise antiquated system of patriarchy. St. Joan integrates stories that could come from today’s headlines about women suffering from acid and machete attacks, with so many of the anecdotes involving male family members inflicting unspeakable violence on women within their own families.
A thread runs through the book, binding the lives of these women together, these “sisters made of light,” who share the common and unfortunate experience of discrimination and violence at the hands of the men in their lives. In a society where tradition governs conduct and behavior, “tribal customs and feudal law ruled, and a woman’s transgression was taken up by her father, brother or son. Family honor was paramount, encased in the bodies of the women, treasures protected in cloth and hidden away.”
Also interlaced into the book are tales of love and romance, serving as a poignant reminder of the basic human condition for which the women are fighting, that being the right to love who they wish and to marry for that love.
One gets the sense that St. Joan tells about these fictional women because she has met many real world ones who have shared a similar fate. When talking of a journal Ujala kept, the author writes, “For every page of victims, I wrote a page of victors. I wrote about every woman I had known who had run away, faced down, healed, spoken out or outsmarted those who would have made her less able, every woman who not only survived, but lived a life, her own life.”
“My Sisters Made Of Light” is an homage to those women who have fought and who continue to fight for their rights around the world, and to those — both men and women — who risk their lives to aid them.