The Forms of Voicelessness

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Dr. Majid Sadigh, Trefz Family Endowed Chair in Global Health at WCHN, and Director of the Global Health Program at UVM Larner College of Medicine

As a medical resident, I traveled to a site that will be forever living in my mind, in a tiny hospital in the South of Shiraz. This land was home to the Ghasghaei, a multi-ethnic nomadic tribe of roughly 1.5 million who live in Iran and the surrounding countries. Possessing neither archives nor a written history, the Ghasghaei pass their legacy through a rich oral tradition. The scene that first comes to mind is one of family members gathered around a blazing fire. The light danced on faces entranced by the slow cadenced words of a community leader and elder. These evenings were a time for older generations to hand down the traditions and values, beautiful and singular, that have taken shape over thousands of years. In an effort to preserve their own life history and to perpetuate the story of the ancestors without whom their own would not exist, the elders filled the air with one image after another. With an eye for detail and an open heart, they formed a landscape of humanity and the Iranian nation that could not be forgotten by their listening children, allowing them to survive for another generation.

I was called to this beautiful land one afternoon to see a patient in the emergency room. As I approached the door, a noise stopped me in my tracks, casting me back to the first time I brought my wife home to my father’s small town. In keeping with our traditions, my parents sacrificed a goat at our feet. Its violent thrashes and the butcher’s final cut through its throat vivified in my mind. This sound – of air funneling through a freshly exposed windpipe – is the same one I heard outside the room. I took a big breath and opened the door.

The room was dimly lit. Pulling back the curtain surrounding the bed, I unveiled a girl whose nightmare was now my own. The gape of her open neck cocked back along the jagged line made by a knife, leaving her trachea completely bare and unprotected. Though the knife had sawed through flesh, it had somehow spared the arteries. After taking in the scene, I noticed the color emanating from the myriad layers of fabric making up the long freely flowing dress that distinguishes tribal women. My gaze immediately shifted and found her eyes, still warm and full of innocence, and then down to her abdomen, swollen with pregnancy. Only then, through wordless dialogue, did she offer me a window to understand her story: a landscape whose richness was only matched by its brutality, traditions that in one breath created her but also brought her to this bed, in this condition.

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A Poem For My Little Sister, canvas, by Reza Derakhshani

Questions streamed through my mind. How did you, at such a tender age, become pregnant in a culture in which virginity is the expectation? Will I be saving your life if you are shunned by your tribe and destined to certain death? Who assaulted you? Was it your brother, your father, your uncle who cut your throat? How can you seek justice in a system that protects offender? How will you walk among your tribe with this indelible shame? Will your relatives be forced to a life of isolation, turning their hands against themselves? Won’t every step to fetch water, to milk the goats or harvest crops be heavy with the threat of another knife?

But there was only one thing I could do. I put her in an ambulance and carried her for four hours to another hospital in Shiraz, searching for a plastic surgeon who could repair the wound. Without any verbal exchange, I held her right wrist, monitored her pulse, and looked into her eyes for assurance that this was the right decision. With our eyes bound, she shared the narrative of all women crossing all generations and cultures, a narrative of abandonment and injustice.

When my own eyes cast down, her expression hushed me. I have been laid by the corpse of my husband and buried alive in the deserts of Mongolia. I have been cast aside and banished after the death of my husband in India. I have had acid thrown in face by my husband in Pakistan. All over the world, since the beginning of time, I have been killed for being raped. For centuries, my body has received the brunt of inequality, of violence, of oppression. Do you not know, the many forms of voicelessness?

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