Summit Daily book review: 'My Sisters Made of Light,' by Jacqueline St. Joan

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on women’s issues, in particular the precarious nature of the lives of women in Pakistan, as they try to cope with the outdated absurdities of Sharia law.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. 


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.