Burned Alive: a Survivor of an “Honor Killing” Speaks Out

You  are

  • female
  • uneducated
  • beaten, if you spill the rice
  • beaten, if you spill the milk
  • not allowed to go to shops
  • not allowed to go out by yourself
  • not allowed to look a male in the eye or speak to him
  • told that sheep are more valuable than you
  • told you are worth nothing
  • walled up

You live in fear.  Searing flames lick your delicate flesh. 

You are Souad.

“Every centimeter of skin on her chest and her arms is decomposed in a vast purulent wound.  The passengers can hold their noses and make faces of disgust to the flight attendants; it’s all the same to me.  I’m taking a burned woman and her child to salvation, one day they will know why” (149).

While working with a humanitarian organization in the Middle East, Jacqueline found the burned Souad in the hospital.  She had been left to die.  She had dishonored her family by having an “adventure” with a man and becoming pregnant.  Souad had been labeled as Charmuta (whore).  Her family took steps to remove this dishonor from their household by having her burned alive.

Souad was born and raised in a small West Bank village.  She knew nothing of the outside world.  Uneducated, she spent her days laboring away at household chores.  These chores included everything from milking the cows, shaking the rugs, and picking tomatoes, to tending the flocks in the field.  She was waiting, waiting for the man, her husband, who would set her free from this servitude and introduce her into another.  She should have married early, 15 years old, but was forced to wait.  Her older sisters must marry first.  Traditions must be taken seriously; they cannot be changed.  So she must wait.

“I did my work as usual.  I cared for the sheep, cleaned the stable, I brought in the flock, picked the tomatoes.  I waited for the evening.  I was so afraid that I picked up a bit of stone and struck my stomach with it hoping to make myself bleed and put things right” (89).  Souad had an “adventure;” she is pregnant.   “He comes toward me.  It’s my brother-in-law Hussein in his work clothes, old pants and T-shirt.  He stands in front of me now and says, with a smile, “Hi.  How goes it?”  He’s chewing on a blade of grass, smiling: “I’m going to take care of you” (105) .

“I suddenly felt a cold liquid running over my head and instantly I was on fire … I start to run in the garden, barefoot.  I slap my hair, I scream … I smell the gasoline and I run …”  Hussein had done it to protect the family’s honor, a perverse justice for Souad’s unpermitted love (106).  To live, Souad and her child must die.  This is Souad’s brief life, death, and her rebirth in a far away country.  Her second life “began in Europe at the end of the 1970s in an international airport … on a stretcher.” 

In the book, Souad says that if she had lived in a city, things would have been different.  I found Burned Alive horrifying.  Living in a world (the United States) with so much freedom to do, be, and develop my own female identity, Souad’s memoir is like a stranglehold on my consciousness.  It is painful to consider there is a world where women are still shut away, on bended knee to the dominant male, and if they step out of line, their punishment is swift, unforgiving. 

Do not be lulled into apathy even in the hallowed halls of our western world.  There are women whose freedoms are limited by the males that keep them.  As females, we must be careful to protect our freedoms and hold tight to our identities. 

For more information about the Swiss foundation that assisted in the rescue of Souad and continues rescuing victimized girls and women, please visit SURGIR.

Reviewed by Johanna McClay, Reference Librarian

This book is available at the BSC Library (HV 6197 .P19 S6813 2004).  Check it out!