Allah & Eva
Betsy Udink has a gift few writers and journalists possess, the ability to describe atrocities in such a way that they have the power of satire. She does so without detracting from the dire seriousness of what she is describing, and without exaggeration, an approach that is both clever and effective: the message not only gets through but cuts to the quick.
Udink has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and lived in Pakistan from 2002 to 2005. Allah & Eva deals with her years there, a reportage series from a country in decline. She took long trips to terrible places and came upon incredible situations: a women’s prison in Peshawar where women and children, many of them innocent, live in inhuman conditions; a village in the Punjab where villagers sell their own kidneys to pay off their debts; and a conference on the family in Peshawar where it was explained to her how to be a perfect Muslim woman. On the prophet Mohammed’s birthday she sang ‘Happy birthday, dear prophet’ with a Catholic bishop and fundamentalist Muslims, even though the bishop had just shared with her his concern about the many accusations levelled against his fellow Christians, accusations of insulting the Koran (an offence punishable by death).
Wherever she went and from everyone she spoke to, she heard exactly the same refrain: that the convergence of Islam and the state always begins with the humiliation and torment of women and minorities. Honour killings, arranged marriages and domestic violence become the order of the day. Udink gives one particularly gruesome example: stove burning. There are regular cases of women being burned alive as they prepare meals for their families on paraffin stoves. ‘It in fact rarely happens by accident. These are murders committed by the women’s in-laws.’
Udink attributes the extremely skewed ratio of men to women in Pakistan to the serious neglect of infant girls immediately after birth and in the first years of life. If you add to this the fact that the Pakistani health service is the worst in all of Southern Asia, that there are almost no rural gynaecologists or surgeons able to carry out caesarean sections, that pregnant women receive no advice or support, and that 95 percent of them are anaemic, it becomes clear why mortality is so high among women and children. Family planning is regarded as unnecessary, a western conspiracy against Islam.
All this would be simply too depressing for words were Udink not such a skilled writer. She employs seriousness and humour, repressed anger and cool analysis by turns. This is a deeply disturbing book, essential reading for those who want to know where religious fanaticism can lead.