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Tuesday
Feb192013

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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