Denver Post 2/18/2013 Denver author reaches out to help Pakistani women

Women supporting different political parties shout slogans for the empowerment of Pakistan's election commission at a rally in Islamabad on Feb. 4. (Mian Khursheed, Reuters)

When Jacqueline St. Joan traveled to Pakistan to research"My Sisters Made of Light,"her novel about honor killings of women who shame their families, she stayed in people's homes, connected with human-rights activists and visited a women's shelter in Lahore.

But she went nowhere without a male guardian.

"You are considered to be fair game if you're not with a man," she said.

Women's need for protection can be acute in countries where violence against women is endemic, as it is in Pakistan. In her novel , she writes about three women who suffer the type of violence directed against real-life Pakistani women and girls —

Jacqueline St. Joan reads from her novel "My Sisters Made of Light" to a southeast Denver book club for women this month. St. Joan, a former judge and law professor, is donating half of the book's proceeds toward construction of a shelter in Pakistan for women escaping abuse. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)
such asMalala Yousafzai, the teenagershot in the head by Taliban gunmen last year after she dared speak out in support of education for girls.


Since the book was published in 2010, St. Joan has spoken at more than 100 events hosted by libraries, book clubs, civic clubs and community centers across Colorado, and raised $19,000 to build a shelter in Pakistan for women with children who have no place to escape from abuse.

"Busy, professional women feel connected to these issues and care about these characters," said St. Joan, a Denver lawyer passionate about human rights. "That's one of the values of literature, that it can connect us to a world we don't experience because we don't walk in the shoes of someone on the other side of the world."

Two days after Malala made her first video appearance since being shot, St. Joan continued to convey the tales of violence against Pakistani women to people in Colorado.

She spoke at a book club in Cherry Creek — invited by Ellen Berrick, who met her at the book club

Malala Yousafzai, 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls' education in Pakistan. She continues to recover. (APF file)
of former state Sen. Suzanne Williams. St. Joan was a huge hit.


"She explained the laws and customs to us in a way that made perfect sense," said Berrick. "She's given so much of herself to this cause, and I really admire that."

It started for St. Joan more than a decade ago, when she was washing dishes in a Denver kitchen with a Pakistani teacher after a small gathering of women had just watched a film about honor crimes in Pakistan.

"I'd heard the term but didn't really understand it," she said.

St. Joan listened as the woman revealed her secret rescue efforts in Pakistan to protect women in danger of beingkilled for something as simple as looking at a boy.

St. Joan had long been interested in women's rights. She had worked as a lawyer, county judge, children's rights advocate and domestic-violence activist. She also taught "Women and the Law" at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and in 2002, the conversation included women in the Muslim world, which is how she was introduced to the Pakistani teacher.

"When she showed that film to a small group at my home, I felt a mix of both my experience with family violence as a lawyer, and also my experience when my own parents essentially turned from me when I had an interracial marriage in 1967," she said. "My parents didn't know to handle that, and it did bring shame on the family as far as they were concerned."

Over years of research, she studied cases like that ofMukhtar Mai, who was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council as punishment for her brother, then 12, who was said to have offended a powerful clan by allegedly having an affair with one of its women.

To write about honor-crime trials in the Pakistani civil and Shariah courts, St. Joan immersed herself in the work ofAzizah al-Hibri, a legal scholar at the University of Richmondwho has written extensively on women's rights in Islam.

Honor killings are on the rise in Pakistan, having increased nearly 17 percent in the past three years: to 705 in 2012 from 604 in 2009, according to data fromthe Aurat Foundation, a women's advocacy organization in Pakistan.

To help, St. Joan is building a women's shelter in Pakistan with the help of the teacher she met a decade ago. Half the proceeds from book sales go toward the building fund. She is about $4,000 short.

"It will meet the needs coming from a variety of tragedies," she said. "Some women have been physically and emotionally abused for a long period of time, from beatings to burnings.

"Others could be accused of dishonoring a family or a community. A very precious life is in immediate danger."

Colleen O'Connor: 303-954-1083, coconnor@denverpost.com or twitter.com/coconnordp


Jacqueline St. Joan can be reached through the contact link at mysistersmadeoflight.com.



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Interview with Pattie Welek Hall on Joy Radio 30 minutes You can listen anytime.



"Such a great choice...stayed up all night and finished it,.haven't done that in years! Could not put it down. Wonderfully woven. Everyone should read this book."


"This book haunts me -- I pick it up to reread sections; to revisit Nafeesa and Kulraj and the “she-lions of Punjab.” There is pain and there is beauty in it. St. Joan gives to Kulraj Singh words that fit all our stories, “Pleasure and pain are a set of robes a man must keep on wearing.”

Mainly, Adaila Prison is the stage where Baji Ajala’s story unfolds as she tells the stories of her life to a tough but curious prison director. Ajala’s stories are hard but beautifully told with the light of hope, although hope is frequently very dim.

The author’s descriptions, dialogues, and characters pull you into the story. You feel surrounded by the presence of the people of Pakistan. You also feel the anachronism of the ancient culture and the use of cell phones and the fact that one of the character’s favorite TV show is “Friends”.

I felt the presence of the culture of Pakistan as I did of Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s books. However, I am awed that this book is written by an American. She must love the people and the place that is Pakistan with the love of a daughter of the soil. She seems to suffer with the plight of the women but also the harsh demands the culture has bred into the men. She sees how difficult it is for a man to see another way.

The main parallel I sense of this story and the stories of Khaled Hosseini is the sense of destiny or the life spiral that continues to move out as do ripples in water.

Roberta Hudlow, National Catholic Reporter


****star review on Barnes and Noble



This fictionalized story based on real facts gave me a peek into the culture of Pakistan. Overall, I found the book easy to read and it captured and held my attention. I really appreciated the maps and family tree at the beginning of the book. As I struggled with unfamiliar names and the jumping from time to time, it helped me stay focused on the story. I did wish for a small glossary of vocabulary so I didn't have to stop to look things up or just make a best guess and go on. I appreciated the tones of this book as it dealt with very sensitive issues. Although it does describe the various honor killings, they were handled respectfully and without unnecessary detail that would turn it lurid. Ms. St. Joan's depiction of the American journalist and her interaction with the community is noteworthy and, I suspect, very accurate. The reader's ability to think and come to healthy conclusions was also respected. It is truly unfortunate that the current political climate will keep me from visiting this vibrant country. I hope peace is restored between us all in my lifetime.


From Examiner.com/Denver May 8, 2011

Jacqueline St. Joan on fighting the injustice of

'honor killing' 

"Honor killing." It's a concept so alien, inhumane, and stupifyingly unjust that it's almost impossible to take it in.  So naturally, when the issue first came to her attention, Jacqueline St. Joan felt compelled to do something about it.

"It's a cultural practice rooted in tribalism, patriarchy, and economics," she explains. "If a woman violates the sexual mores of the culture, her family becomes dishonored." A girl may be said to have violated her clan’s sexual mores for dressing inappropriately, or resisting an arranged marriage, or in one particularly egregious case, for chatting with a boy on Facebook. "To restore their honor, the family – usually a brother or the father – has to kill her."

St. Joan got involved in the issue almost by accident when, in December of 2002, she was invited to a party where the guest of honor was a 41-year-old Pakistani woman whom she calls "Aisha." For the past 25 years, Aisha had been teaching girls to read – itself a revolutionary act in a country where more than half the women are illiterate.

At the party, Aisha showed a video about honor crimes which, she said, accounted for an estimated 20% of all homicides in Pakistan. The practice, however, is not limited to Pakistan, nor is it exclusively Muslim. Christians and Hindus are also guilty of it, and in most Middle Eastern countries, perpetrators are seldom brought to justice.

Deep in conversation for the rest of the evening, the two women found they had much in common. Like Aisha, St. Joan had spent her entire life fighting for the rights of women and children. As a Denver County Court judge, 80% of the cases she heard had involved domestic abuse. As a DU law professor, she was able to secure a federal grant to allow her students, with the help of some mental health professionals, to represent victims of spousal abuse in court

There was, in addition, a deeply personal side to St. Joan’s interest in the honor killings question. "When I was 21, I married a black man," she says. "My parents didn’t speak to me or meet their grand kids for fifteen years. I had been punished for breeching the social mores."

Of her encounter with Aisha, she says, "There was a heart connection. We spoke the same language. We understood each other.  We didn’t have to explain. When she told me that she’d helped a number of her students escape, I realized that here was the Harriet Tubman of Pakistan. I knew then that I had to write her story."

Aisha agreed, and St. Joan set to work immediately. "I’d never written a novel before," she says. "So I broke it down into manageable segments.  I’d write twenty pages, and every two weeks we’d meet to go over the manuscript." To protect Aisha from reprisals back home, St. Joan fictionalized the story.
In January of 2004, she went to Pakistan to gain some firsthand knowledge of the country. "I called it my ‘human rights tour,'" she says. "I visited schools, human rights offices, and bonded labor camps. I interviewed a couple in hiding, and talked with women who’d escaped families bent on killing them. I came away with a lot of stories and an enormous respect for the people there willing to risk their lives to stand up for their rights."

She also emerged with a more nuanced picture of the country and its people. "There’s something very beautiful about a culture where people stop to pray five times a day," she says. "I found them to be gentle and soft spoken. I wanted to do justice to that in my book."

Her book, My Sisters Made of Light, was finished in 2006 and published in 2010. Since then St. Joan has been touring the country both to promote the book and to raise awareness of the plight of women and children in the Middle East.

"The book is really an extension of what I’ve been doing for a long time," she says. "I have a strong sense of injustice and a deep need to cure it."

Jacqueline St. Joan will speak at Pomegranate Place, 750 Clarkson Street, Denver, on Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 pm. Phone 303-832-2222.