Note: The name has been changed, but the facts have not.
Warning: This story contains potentially traumatizing descriptions of violence.
Aisha grew up in a small, religiously conservative town in Pakistan, the youngest of five children. Her family taught her that a woman’s voice should never be louder than a man’s, literally and figuratively. She was reminded of this in arguments with her brother, who told her she should not speak at all, lest she end up like Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star who was murdered by her own brother.
Aisha recalls a great deal of abuse beyond her brother’s threats. Punishments at home included regular beatings with plastic pipes, sticks, or brooms. She recalls once, when she failed to get a math problem correct, being choked until she vomited and passed out. Another time, her mother held her by the throat, threatening her with a stick, until a neighbor intervened. Another common punishment was to stand barefoot on the scorching roof tiles for hours.
At age 11, locked in a room after a particularly brutal beating from her mother, Aisha drank bleach, desperate to end her life to escape the hopelessness and abuse. Her older sister discovered her, gagging and retching, and rushed her to the hospital.
To make matters worse, Aisha’s father began threatening a forced marriage, or to send her to the religious Madrassas (schools) to re-indoctrinate her with rigid Islamic teachings.
Despite Aisha’s bleak home life, she thrived academically and received a scholarship to a top school in Pakistan. Supported by her sister, Aisha was awarded a scholarship to Spokane, Washington.
Aisha took her studies seriously and learned many new subjects, including women’s rights and liberation movements. She learned that her voice mattered.
One year later, after completing the Spokane program, she returned to Pakistan sporting jeans and a T-shirt. Aghast, her mother forced her to change into full-coverage clothing and reminded Aisha of her place in Pakistani society and their family.
Aisha decided she couldn’t keep living with no voice. She secretly packed her clothes and took a taxi to the airport. She flew to Cyprus and enrolled in school. Her sister, who had helped her escape, was forced to marry a man she did not know. She warned Aisha not to return to Pakistan.
In Cyprus, Aisha fell in love with a man and lost her virginity. Her roommate, another Pakistani, found out and threatened to tell Aisha’s family. This was now a life-or-death situation; if her family knew she was not a virgin, or if they married her to a man who discovered it, she could be ostracized or killed.
Aisha obtained a temporary visa and fled to the U.S. in August 2015. She received a call from her brother, who berated her for dishonoring the family and told her she deserved to die. He told her not to return to Pakistan; there was no place for her.
With the help of LCSNW’s Safe Route Immigration program, Aisha applied for asylum status in 2019 and is currently awaiting an interview. Faced with prolonged uncertainty, she spoke to her Safe Route representative a few years later about returning to Pakistan or reuniting with her sister overseas. She took courage from the conversation and decided to keep waiting.
Aisha lives in Washington state and is attending college.