Words Matter: How Little Women Saved Shemyla

 By   Shlomo Maital   

     Ira Glass is the founder of This American Life, a podcast about great stories. If you visit the podcast website, you can find all 700 episodes, each of them comprising a fascinating story.

   This is about Shemyla, recounted in a recent episode titled “The Weight of Words”. Shemyla’s life was saved, literally, by a book written by Louisa May Alcott and published 150 years ago, in 1869.

    As recounted by Robin Bates, in his blog *:

 “As is apparently sometimes the custom in Pakistan, Shemyla was given by a younger sister to her elder when the latter, living in America, appeared incapable of having children. When the adoptive parents went on to have two sons, however, Shemyla’s birth parents kidnapped her on a 1989 trip to Pakistan when she was 11. As the original arrangement had never been formalized, the adoptive parents could do nothing.

     “Imagine an early adolescent raised in suburban Maryland suddenly finding herself in an ultra-traditional Pakistani family, with all the expectations about a woman’s subordinate status and a woman’s reputation.  Shemyla’s books and cassettes were confiscated, she was kept under virtual house arrest, and she was regularly lectured on what her wifely duties would entail, including her sexual duties. Her hair had to be covered, she couldn’t make eye contact with others, she was not allowed to speak English or Urdu, she had to eat after her brothers (one of whom sexually abused her), she was kept on small portions (so that she would stay slim), and she was occasionally beaten.

“At one point, her father determined that women shouldn’t write and burned her stories in front of her. Books that she smuggled into the house were invariably confiscated.

   “Through a friend, however, she obtained a copy of Little Women, which she remembered reading while still in America. To hide it, she broke it into eight sections so that it wouldn’t show under the mattress. Whenever the family left the house, she would grab whichever section of the book came to hand and read it. “It was the book of my life, the only book I had to escape,” she says. She had parts of it memorized.

   “She had multiple responses to Alcott’s novel. Sometimes she saw things that she fantasized about, such as Meg and Jo’s relationship (she didn’t have someone comparable to confide in). At other times, she saw scenes she could relate to. As her own parents would dress her up and show her off to other families in the hope that she would be able to marry up, she identified with the “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” chapter.

   “As the interviewer notes, Little Women functioned as both a “how-to” book and a survival guide. Not surprisingly, Shemyla identified with the ambitious, rule-breaking Jo, which helped her hold on to the identity her family was trying to squash.

   “Shemyla even had her own version of Jo writing stories in the attic, although her situation was more severe. When she was forbidden to write, she would go into the bathroom and write secretly before carefully washing the ink off the paper.

   “Figuring that the only way she could escape her life was to get married, she began a correspondence with a friend’s brother, whom her friend said would treat her well. This only served to panic her parents, who would have been horrified by the relationship between Jo and Laurie. Instead, they settled on a 30-year-old man. Then, to make sure she acquired certain skills that would increase her bride price (like being able to swim and to drive), they sent her back to America to live with her adoptive parents. Shamyla had succeeded so well in convincing them she had turned that they were willing to take the chance.

   “As she flew away, however, Shemyla knew she would never return. Although she suffered severe culture shock and required much therapy, 30 years later she is now a therapist who specializes in trauma cases. Every year on her birthday, she reads the corresponding chapter number (corresponding to her age) of Little Women to see if has any predictive value.”

     Shamyla hopes to find love – and to marry, like Little Women.