From 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.


Readers Respond



just finished the book. great job! it's heart-breaking, and yet hopeful. you end with hope, and that's good. a great story. gripping and revealing. and i love how you end not demonizing the muslim faith, but reinterpreting the koran to demonstrate a rooted love ethic that male-dominated societies have ignored 

Now available on Page Readers:


My Sisters Made of Light is a brilliant book made of beauty and an honest look at brutality, deep insights and soaring lyricism. It is fiction based on the harsh realities of the culturally and socially accepted  honor crimes against women in Pakistan.  We watch in horror as a father lights a disobedient daughter on fire. We read in disbelief as a mother escorts a hired assassin to a meeting with her daughter and watches as he shoots her child dead. We hold our breath as a Muslim woman escapes her family to marry a Sikh man whom she adores. Theirs is a love of historic significance.  The author encapsulates a long and bloody history into unforgettable images:

        In 1958 the air was still sour with the stench of the slaughters that had occurred eleven years earlier when the British ran like dogs and India cracked. The blade that slashed the map also partitioned the bodies of the people, etching fear in their bellies and revenge in their hearts. . . . . . If a trainful of Hindus was murdered by Muslims from Lahore (and they were), then a trainful of Muslims would be murdered by Sikhs and Hindus from Amritstar (and they were).  Entire families were butchered and their body parts were delivered by horseback to their villages. The people emptied baskets of breasts and pails of penises onto the ground  - even the stubs of baby penises with scrotums like tiny figs. The soil was soaked with all the lost futures and when it was done, when the trauma finally subsided to abide in the bodies of the people, they had to plant seeds in and eat the fruit of that same earth. Sikhs and Muslims alike knew the taste of each other’s blood well and they kept to their own.

        Kulrag and Nafeesa in London. Romeo and Juliet in Verona. A Muslim and a Sikh in Pakistan.  All of history conspired against them, but no matter. They would find a new way.

This book is about the courageous women who risk their lives to teach a new way to the young women of Pakistan.  Interspersed in the rich mix of their stories are passages of pure poetry:

I knelt before the shrine for long periods. I read no textbooks. Poured no oil on the doorstep. Took no milk in my tea. No tea. No dusty sandals. No laundry. No letters. No toothbrush. No prayers. No songs. No memories. No soft sisters. No tough sisters. No purpose. No me. For days and days I faded away.

The author has sought and achieved recognition and success in the fields of law and literature in order to further her agenda of making the world safer for women. She donates half the proceeds from sales of the book to a grassroots organization building a safe shelter for women and children escaping abuse. Even if it were not a great read, buying this book helps people in need. The bonus to the reader is that it IS a great read.

Sandra Shwayder Sanchez, reviewer

author of Stillbird, Three Novellas, A Mile in These Shoes

"Loved your book, especially the parents' love story and, biggest surprise, the prison superintendent.  She and the guru-like father got into my heart."
"I'm enjoying your book.  Hard to get into at first, with its grim subject matter, but powerful, with wonderful descriptions and uplifting sense of passion, for justice, yours and the characters'.  I really loved the parents' story, the Sikh father and the "sloppy Muslim" mother.  I can't believe you left us hanging there, at the Shalimar gardens!"
"I stayed up late to finish your book, tearing running down my eyes and unable to stop.  You write so well and tell the story powerfully.  Thanks so much for sharing these women's lives.  We hope to pass the word to all we know.  May the book travel wide..."
 “I wanted to let you know that your book was my book club's selection a couple of months ago and is a future selection for a second group I'm in. . . .The reason that I'm emailing you is that the first group wants to ask if the scene in which Faisah and Lea share the sugar cane and sleep on the roof has lesbian implications.
The book was received quite well.  The ending was met with some skepticism as being too simple and happy with no one "paying" for the escape.  I personally thought it was good and especially so for being a first novel.  I also learned a lot.”
"I absolutely loved the book--very powerful--told by families one can relate to.  Excellent character development, and I learned a lot."
"I LOVED your book - very moving and captivating. Well done."
“. . . I had begun My Sisters Made of Light having been pulled in by the strong cover and the title. I was totally enamored  from beginning to end--the story, the geography, the culture. And having come from a family of sisters, I loved seeing how a mother's passion could affect her female offspring in such a significant way. . ."




LISTEN to my recent interiew on public radio  with Ryan Warner about the novel, honor crimes in Pakistan and the safe shelter in Pakistan.|colorado_matters

LISTEN to discussion of honor crimes in Pakistan and to my reading of a short excerpt from my novel, My Sisters Made of Light from public radio broadcast WAMU-FM, Washington, D.C. on internet website: Click on Play Show and drag the timer to 22 minutes to hear my portion.

LISTEN to my interview with Craig Barnes about women in Pakistan for KSFR-FM, Santa Fe public radio.  Available online: Go to, look for Radio Interviews, click on "Listen" and scroll down to find "St. Joan."

Cut and paste this radio interview--"Tuesdays with Maureen"


Published Reviews

By  Susan O'Neill, author, Don't Mean Nothing

I met the author in Manhattan by pure chance and, as I usually do when I meet an author, I bought her book on the spot. I figured I'd read it...I dunno...sometime. I have a busy life and a huge list of books I'm slowly eating my way through, and this would take its place in the back of the line. 

The subway back to Brooklyn from Manhattan that night was deadly slow, so I pulled the novel out of my bag and--what the hey--started to read. Just a taste before I hit home, where I'd stick it on the shelf for now and... When I looked up again, it was my stop; I had to scramble to get out before the doors slammed shut. 

Three days later, I'd finished this well-written, fascinating interloper. It's an important book, one that places a vital issue squarely on the table, makes it understandable and sympathetic, more than a sad fact of life in a far-away country. It's also a gripping read, hard to turn away from, hard to discount. Or to put on the shelf for later. The characters live and breathe; they are weak, brave, human; they can get under your skin and keep you awake at night. 

In My Sisters Made of Light, Jacqueline St. Joan has taken up the mandate that her protagonist's mother gave to her daughter: Teach Them. This she does, to her credit, deftly; she "shows, not tells" the terrible truth: Honor Killings might take place half a world away, but they strike at the heart of woman's position in the human race. When any religion or cultural system is twisted to force subservience, shame and violence upon half its population, Humanity in general can not consider itself whole and healthy. Such horrors as these stain the considerable good in holy books and contort the images of Prophets and God Itself. 

Read this book: it's good. And don't just borrow it: buy it, because St. Joan has pledged half her profits to help shelter victims of abuse in Pakistan. It's the least we can do for our sisters.

Read the  whole story (click on this link for a web-optimized PDF) Sing Out, Sister.  It was published in Pasatiempo, New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture


Read the review here

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