Jacqueline St. Joan on fighting the injustice of
"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.