Parveen Khan will probably never forget the horrific events of March 29, 2009, when her estranged husband walked into her room and bit her face in an act of revenge.
It was a Sunday afternoon when Khan, then 33, went to take a nap after working two jobs to support her two daughters. Her daughters, Bulbul Fareen and Saniya Shaheen, were playing outside with the children from the neighbourhood.
“He gave the girls some sweets and said ‘I will meet your mom inside’,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
“He jumped on me when I was sleeping, grabbed me and chewed my face off … He chewed on [me] like an animal. I screamed so hard but no one came to help me,” she said.
Khan says her husband came with the intention to bite her nose off, which “[in] our society is a punishment for giving him a bad reputation”.
A cycle of abuse
Khan first spoke about what happened to her publicly on Satyamev Jayate, a talk show anchored by Bollywood star Aamir Khan, when it premiered on May 6, 2012.
“She was someone who actually really inspired a lot of people when the show came out and they heard her story,” Aamir Khan recalls in an Al Jazeera documentary Witness: The Snake Charmer.
Hameed, 46, was Khan’s second husband. At the age of 12, her family married her off to a man twice her age, despite laws prohibiting child marriage.
Born in the remote Morena district in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, Khan was never encouraged to go to school like other girls in her neighbourhood. Khan’s father was a low-paid worker. She grew up being reminded of what her marriage would mean to her parents: one less mouth to feed.
“I remember I was very happy to be a bride. I was dressed in a bright red dress and had red lipstick on,” Khan said.
“But deep down, I was nervous about being with someone who was twice my age and who I hadn’t met before.”
Within weeks, Khan realised she was living with a man who did not love and respect her. She was regularly beaten.
|Khan was married off when she was 12 years old to a man twice her age [Courtesy of Parveen Khan]|
Then she met Hameed and the two fell in love when she was 16. Khan told her parents she was not going back to her husband – a decision that did not go down well with her family, who threatened to disown her for demanding a divorce. Khan went against their wishes and married 21-year-old Hameed. She never spoke to her parents again.
“I experienced love for the first time and felt alive. Hameed was someone who proclaimed his love to me every day and promised to take care of me as I had no one left in my life after walking out of my first marriage,” Khan said.
But within four months, the marriage was in shambles and the cycle of abuse – psychological and physical – began.
Hameed frequently reminded Khan of her “infidelity” towards her first husband and suspected her of cheating on him.
I was shattered, heartbroken and could not recover from the trauma of two innocent babies being murdered just because of their gender
Three years into her marriage, Khan got pregnant with her first child. Hameed was not very excited about it and expressed his wish for a son.
“Nine months passed and I gave birth to a baby girl. Hameed stormed out of the hospital when he looked at our daughter,” Khan recalled.
When she was expecting for the second time, Hameed insisted the baby should be aborted if it was a girl.
“Three months into my pregnancy, Hameed took me to the hospital to find out the gender of my baby. I screamed and cried, but he pulled me from my hair and dragged me to the hospital to find out,” Khan said.
“Without asking me, he forced me inside the hospital to get the baby girl aborted.”
Her husband forced her to abort for the third time after finding out that it was a baby girl.
“I was shattered, heartbroken and could not recover from the trauma of two innocent babies being murdered just because of their gender.”
Two back-to-back abortions in one year weakened Khan and a year later she suffered a miscarriage. In the course of two years, she had lost three children and the mental trauma and physical exhaustion took a toll on her.
“I hated myself for a very long time, could not be happy and kept mourning for my lost children.”
12 Million missing girls
The gender ratio in India is skewed and the latest government data shows that female foeticide remains a serious problem in the country.
Traditionally in Indian society, a son is preferred because they are considered as the main breadwinner of the family and are expected to take care of their parents when they grow old. Daughters, on the other hand, are expected to get married and adopt their husbands’ family, and also seen as a burden due to the widespread practice of dowry.
The government banned prenatal sex determination to monitor the scourge of female foeticide, but critics have questioned the effectiveness of the law in a country of 1.3 billion people. Between 1991 and 2011, the gender ratio fell to 914 girls for every 1,000 boys born in India.
A recent report, Youth in India, by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation predicts that the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys is likely to decline further to 904 by 2021 and 898 by 2031.
Despite the tough abortion laws, up to 12 million girls have been aborted over the past three decades by parents. These incidents are not only prevelant in remote areas, but also in big cities and within more highly educated families.
Scarred for life
In 2006, when Khan got pregnant again she promised herself to keep the baby at any cost. She hid her pregnancy from her husband until she was six months along.
“We were arguing about something and he got angry at me, locked me in a room and started hitting me with a hockey stick,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
Hameed kicked her and hit her “with a full swing” on her lower back.
“I fell on the ground and started bleeding and that is when my husband found out that I was pregnant. My baby girl survived somehow and I gave birth to another beautiful girl.”
Khan demanded a divorce after she gave birth to Saniya, her second daughter, but Hameed refused. This went on for two and a half years, but to no avail. Hameed kept refusing so Khan walked out and started to live separately with her daughters.
‘Scarred for life’
She has been physically and emotionally scarred for life since the incident eight years ago.
|Khan was rushed to a hospital in Morena after her husband attacked her. Surgeons in Jaipur later treated her injuries [Courtesy of Parveen Khan]|
In the same year that Khan shared her story in Aamir Khan’s talk show, the brutal rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh shocked the world and highlighted the incidents of violence against women in India.
Singh’s rapists inflicted massive internal damage with a metal rod which resulted in her death two weeks later. The rape case sparked outrage, triggering massive protests across the country.
The protests resulted in the passing of a strict rape law, which includes a minimum 20 years prison sentence and the death penalty in cases where the victim dies.
Senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Indira Jaising, thinks that a lot still needs to happen in the country.
“India has a long way to go to be called civilised. I know rape happens everywhere, but you don’t see the kind of impunity for rape as you see in India,” she told Al Jazeera.
My daughters are my sons, they are studying and will do respectable jobs in future. I know they will take care of me
“There is a general tolerance of violence against women. Bystanders watch when women are being raped. I hate to say this, but [to them] it is almost like watching a sport.”
Jaising calls female foeticide an “Asian disease”. One way to perhaps get rid of it, she said, is to empower women economically and make them aware that “life does not begin and end with marriage and children”.
‘Daughters are a blessing’
Hameed was never prosecuted as Khan was tricked by his family into forgiving him and dropping all charges against him.
“I was told to forgive him and was told that if I do that, Hameed would file for a divorce and set me free. But when I did forgive him and took back my case against him, he refused to divorce me. He now threatens me every day,” Khan, now 41, said.
Years after being mutilated by her husband, she still fears for her life and the safety of her children.
|Parveen’s daughters, Saniya (left) and Bulbul, are college-going students [Courtesy of Parveen Khan]|
Khan’s eldest daughter, 20-year-old Bulbul, is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration and wants to make her mother proud.
She hopes to marry a man who will be able to take care of her mother.
Saniya, 11, Khan’s second daughter, is in seventh grade and wants to work for the government when she grows up.
“I no longer expect from the society to give me anything and I have stopped fighting with them. God has shown me a way, and I am following that. I am happy for who I am today and proud of my daughters,” Khan says.
“My daughters are my sons, they are studying and will do respectable jobs in future. I know they will take care of me.
“I want to tell everyone that daughters are not a burden, they are a blessing.”