Hannah Shah, The Imam's Daughter
by Esmerelda Weatherwax (April 2009)
When I bought this book on Amazon in early March the usual “you might like this” selection popped up. Not Infidel or the Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but a selection of true gloom of the sort I described here. Don’t let that put you off reading it because Hannah Shah’s book is an important autobiography. The Rt Revd Michael Nazir Ali, Bishop of Rochester is said to have had her experience in mind when he made his recent decision to leave Rochester to work for the persecuted church.
Her name isn’t Hannah as a Christian and wasn’t Hannan in childhood and she didn’t grow up in Bermford. Bermford is a made up name for a real town in Northern England. She disguises real names for obvious reasons.
As well as the restrictions of being born into an inward looking and rigid Pakistani Muslim community Hannah had the added burden of being the daughter of a wife beater and child molester.
Her father gave up his factory job and became an Imam, the leader of his mosque. He lived on benefits, which in his opinion were his by right, and whatever contributions his congregation gave. No training required as an Imam, only an ability to control the flock, and her father was an expert at intimidation and control.
Hannah was the middle child. She has three older brothers but as the oldest girl was unwanted and ill treated. Her younger sisters who came later were more dutiful and commanded a little more affection and, no apparent, abuse. The Imam hated anybody who was not a Pakistani Muslim. White people were “goray - Godless heathen fornicators”. Hannah was not allowed to visit her school friends and on the occasions they impulsively visited her Mrs Shah dare not let them into the house; they played outside while the family listened in terror for the return of the Imam.
The Imam would beat Mrs Shah if his curry was not to his liking or he found a speck of dust. Her sons would ignore this and she would pretend that nothing had happened.
Hannah attended the local Church of England primary school which she loved. Then Mrs Shah took the opportunity to take English lessons from one of Hannah's teachers in a home learning scheme. Miss Smith came once a week when the Imam was at the mosque and Mrs Shah kept her notebook hidden inside her sewing machine. One day the Imam came home early and found a gori infidel in his house and gave his wife a memorable beating.
A few weeks later Hannah tried to protect her mother so her father turned on her. She was 6 years old and from that day was punished regularly for her evil in tempting her father. Her punishments included regular rape and periods locked in the cellar. If she were to tell of what he did he threatened to kill her, and then such an evil dirty little girl like her would go straight to hell.
Her mother dealt with it by pretending it wasn’t happening. She found nothing odd that Hannah had so many “nosebleeds” in such an odd part of the bed. She seems to have been relieved that she was no longer being beaten and troubled so often herself.
Hannah began to escape into a world of Lavender fields where her friends the loneliness birds kept her company. She had to do more and more of the housework. If she did not chop the onion to her mother’s standards she got a beating from her.
One afternoon when I was nearly seven years old, I was watching a children’s cartoon called Button Moon. It was about a moon that these odd little characters lived on, which was really a giant shirt button. I loved that programme. I laughed at one of the jokes when suddenly I heard Dad’s voice from the doorway.
“Shut up!” he snapped. I don’t ever want to hear you laughing. I don’t even want to see you smile. Or else.”
But in that instance I made a vow to myself. I am going to laugh and smile. I’ll never stop, no matter what you do to me. Laughing gave me strength and helped me to be brave. It was a part of my soul that he couldn’t totally darken or destroy.
Hannah went to secondary school and sometimes she played truant and other times her teachers had difficulty persuading her to go home after lessons. They realised something was wrong and Hannah told them that she suspected a marriage was being arranged for her and that she was sometimes beaten. This is where the particular horror of being the daughter of an Islamic family comes in. Her teachers were sensitive to her “cultural needs”. They got her a Pakistani Muslim social worker, Omer. He spoke to her father. Her father tied her up with cord and beat her. She was locked in the cellar for several days. She contemplated suicide but didn’t.
Back at school she saw Omer.
I looked him in the eye. “You’re a real bastard . . .”
I could see the shock on his face. “Hey I was just doing what I thought was right – it’s not right to betray your community”
“Don’t you ever come near me again. You know what, you’re shit at your job. You know that? Totally shit”
Hannah made friends with another rebellious Pakistani girl called Skip and she moved on to Sixth Form College where she grew to know and trust Mrs Jones the Religious Studies teacher. When she found out that she was being taken to Pakistan for her arranged marriage Skip helped her escape and Mrs Jones (a shrewd woman) took her in. This time the social worker allocated to her was a trustworthy Englishman named Barry.
Her father came to the college with Mosque elders, weeping about his shame and begging her to come home but she could see his cold heart and lack of remorse so she stood firm.
Then while living at Mrs Jones house she started to attend church. At infant school she always liked the stories that the vicar told but she found Mrs Jones’s church to be a revelation.
How could there be a loving God? It didn’t seem possible. My parent’s god was one of punishment and damnation – a god I could never be good enough for.
Her descriptions of her first Christmas and doing normal things like attend a football match is very moving. The time where she cooked a fundraising curry lunch which 100 people thoroughly enjoyed was a contrast to her punishments for thick cut onion or misshapen chapattis. Barry helped her talk to the police and child protection team. She wouldn’t press charges against her father but the child protection team were able to check that her sisters were not being abused in their turn. She continued to telephone her brothers from time to time. Eventually Hannah became a Christian and passed her A-levels well enough to get admission to university.
Then she invited her family to her baptism.
At this stage I had never heard of the word ‘apostasy’. I didn’t know that it says in the Hadiths that anyone who converts out of Islam and refuses to return should be killed. I didn’t know that converting out of Islam was considered one of the greatest sins of all. But even had I known this, I would probably still have invited my family. I wanted them to see where my life was going and where freedom’s journey was taking me.
So she phoned her favourite brother who put the phone down on her. A few days later the Imam turned up with a mob of 40 men armed with hammers and knives. Hannah feared that if they succeeded in breaking down the door she would die. She doesn’t know how they found her in a white working class area and what made them suddenly go away again. Skip warned her that she was now in serious danger and that Skip was under pressure herself. So she had to move house again and again.
While she was studying Theology at Lancaster University she began to read the Koran in English.
She entered into discussions about Islam with Muslim students. That chapter is particularly interesting for its insights into how they thought and what they were getting out of their study. Their resistance to knowing what the Koran really says. One of these girls told Hannah's family where she was living and she had to move again, this time to the south of England which she hoped would be far enough away.
Then she became ill through post traumatic shock. Once she recovered she met a young man, of all romantic situations, on Christmas Eve at midnight communion. They fell in love and married in a beautiful wedding with lavender butterflies and balloons. Now she works with women’s and young person’s organisations. She has worked with the victims of forced marriages, girls at risk of honour killings and other converts from Islam.
She quotes Aayan Hirsi Ali and speaks highly of her. She differs from her in two ways.
First she retains her belief in God, but not the cruel and capricious Allah of her childhood.
Secondly, she believes that her father’s version of Islam was warped and that if only the peaceable verses in the Koran were heeded, things would be better. She sees it as a cultural thing, not the fundamental tenet of the ideology. In this I fear she may be too idealistic.
She runs a website giving advice to those working with vulnerable Muslim women. She is firm that cultural sensitivity means being aware of the danger of honour killing, forced marriage, violence and deceit.
She still loves her family and hopes that one day they will be reconciled. Her brothers are no longer the football and music loving boys who watched Neighbours when the parents thought they were performing the prayer rituals. Gentle Raz suffered in a Pakistan madrassa and has stalked and threatened her. Baby Aliya doesn’t want to be in the same room as a dirty unclean infidel.
Hannah has taken the Christian duty to forgive to a level I could not achieve.
Her book ends with John 14.27
I leave you peace, my peace I give you . . . so do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
If this book is good enough for Bishop Michael I can recommend it without hesitation.
Published March 2009 by Rider & Co. ISBN 978-1-8460-4147-1
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