Sabatina James: Why My Mother Wants Me Dead

Sabatina James.

When I was 18, my parents threatened to kill me. And they meant it. If they had their way, I would probably be dead today.

The trouble started when I was 15. At the time, my family was living in the Austrian city of Linz, a world away from our native Pakistan, where I had grown up in a rural village in the shadow of the Kashmir mountains. I loved the freedoms of my new life in Europe—the T-shirts and jeans, the lipstick and eyeliner. My conservative parents didn't. We fought about swimming lessons and acting classes, which my father said were for prostitutes. Tampons were an issue, too—my mother thought they would ruin my virginity.

When my mother found my diary one day and learned that I had kissed a boy in the park after school, she cracked me across the cheek, slammed me against the wall, and kicked my legs, calling me a whore. When she herself was my age, she was settling into an arranged marriage. She thought it was time for me to do the same.

I disagreed. Thus began a violent three-year battle with my mother.

In families like mine, rooted in tribal tradition, marriage is a daughter's fate. And fathers are not always the primary enforcers—sometimes it's the mothers. This is much worse, in my opinion. When you're becoming a mature young woman and your mother is beating you, it's very damaging. You have no anchor.

My mother began watching my every move. One day, when she found a T-shirt that she felt was too skimpy, she smacked me hard in the face with a shoe, splitting my lip. Still, I refused to submit. I didn't want to disappear into a forced marriage. I wanted my freedom.

To my parents, my rebellion was a source of deep shame. They felt embarrassed among their Pakistani peers in Austria. They became more determined than ever to marry me off and restore the family "honor."

When I was 16, my family visited Pakistan. I remember walking outside in an outfit I felt was perfectly modest—loose pants and a blouse. Others saw it differently. A crowd of men formed, hooting and catcalling. That day my mother beat me again, in front of a roomful of relatives.

And then she beat herself. I knew there were Pakistanis who flagellated themselves when they suffered, but I never expected to see my own mother doing it. I watched as she struck herself repeatedly in the chest with a rod, saying, "I have given birth to a whore!"

My parents shipped me off to an Islamic school, or madrassa, in Lahore, to "get educated," as my mother said. I lived in a room with around 30 other girls—no chairs, no beds, no ventilation. In that room, we did nothing all day but study the Quran, pray, and listen to lectures on the prophet from a mullah, who stood behind a curtain. If a girl spoke out of turn, she would be publicly caned in the courtyard of the compound. Flies and vermin swarmed the washrooms. There were no sanitary napkins, just blood-stained towels. The toilet was a hole in the ground.

After three months, I stopped eating, and got expelled. Eventually, I agreed to marry a man my family had chosen, so I could return to Austria during the engagement. Later, when my parents realized I did not intend to go through with the wedding, my father told me, "The honor of this family is more important than my life or your life."

That was a direct threat on my life. It sounds extreme, but it happens. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are murdered around the world each year for "shaming" the family by acting in ways deemed disobedient or immodest.

I fled, surviving by sleeping in a shelter and working at a local café in Linz. My parents harassed me at both places, showing up and ordering me to wed. Every day they closed in, like possessed demons, until I lost my job. I was 18.

I escaped to Vienna with the help of friends. There I started a new life, changing my name and converting to Catholicism. I wrote a book about my experience, and my parents sued for defamation. The court ruled in my favor.

Today I'm trying to break the marry-or-die tradition. I run a foundation called Sabatina, in Germany, where I live. My group acts as an underground railroad, helping women escape their families by finding them shelter and jobs.

I rarely go out alone. I often wonder if someone is lurking around the corner. I have always loved my freedom—but I have paid a high price.

As told to Abigail Pesta