Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men, Souad

This book is advertised as the memoir of a victim of an attempted honour killing from the West Bank, Palestine.  Souad, the author and protagonist, is the daughter of a relatively wealthy villager in an undisclosed village. She is one of many daughters and has only one brother. Her life consists of subservience to the will of her father and brother, working daily in the fields, tending to sheep, cooking, and cleaning. She is, essentially, a servant, waiting until the moment when a suitor will come and ask for her hand in marriage. This cannot occur until her older sister is married.

The book describes this period of waiting, the anticipation and expectation that comes with that and the drudgery of Souad’s life in her father’s house. She is never allowed to leave the house, unless accompanied by her father or brother. She is terrified of being labelled a ‘whore’ and of bringing dishonour to her family … although, ironically, she stays silent when she realises that her mother is, in fact, having an affair with another man. (This is just one of several inconsistencies in this text.)

Souad’s life changes when she discovers that someone has indeed expressed interest in marrying her and she goes out of her way to catch a glimpse of this man while she goes about the many tasks which constitute her day. The man in question gathers her interest and proceeds to engage her in illicit discussion and then sex. Souad, in her innocence, believes that this man is going to marry her and deliver her from her downtrodden existence. As soon as she reveals her pregnancy, the supposed suitor disappears and Souad is left to deal with the dishonour she has brought to her family.

The story itself is quite simply: Souad’s brother in law elects to ‘take care of her’ and he does this by dousing her in gasoline and setting her alight. She is almost 7 months pregnant. Miraculously, she does not die and although she wallows in a local hospital, uncared for and in agony, she survives and is eventually discovered by an aide worker and saved.

What makes this book interesting, is that there is some disagreement about the validity of the author’s narrative. Indeed, Thérèse Taylor, a lecturer at an Charles Sturt University in Australia, has spent some time investigating Souad’s story and claims that it is filled with inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies. Taylor argues that this book is much like Khouri’s earlier book about the same issue and is basically constructed upon lies.

As someone who has lived in Israel and spent considerable time studying the Middle East, the position of women there and the nature of societies across the region, I too found some elements of this story inadequate. In fact, from my understanding, the incidence of honour crimes in Palestine is quite low in comparison to those in other Muslim countries. However, one of the challenges of investigating this issue is that the rate of these crimes is often undisclosed and uninvestigated by authorities as they are considered locally as the business of the family or families involved. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the practice of gendercide is prevalent in many countries like Pakistan, Jordan and elsewhere.

Despite this fact, I think that the driving truth of this text is in the way that the relations between men and women are depicted and few will argue that the author has misrepresented this. Souad clearly describes the manner in which her father govern his household of women and the way in which all members of her family look up to her brother. For me, this aspect of the text rang true and it is this that is part of the strength of this book.

The legitimacy of Souad’s story remains under debate and from the research and reading that I have done, there are aspects of Taylor’s article which are justified and other aspects which sound quite petty. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any response from Souad herself about this matter so it remains up to the reader to justify for him or herself the validity of this text.

If it is indeed a fictitious memoir, then it will join the long list of other fictitious pieces of autobiography – A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, The Angel at the Fence, by Herman Rosenblat, and The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko, amongst others.

If it is all true, then Palestinian society, as a whole, has to account for a great deal of pain and suffering on behalf of its women.

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One response to “Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men, Souad

  1. amazing book.

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