The narrow room in the old hostel in this Central Asian city is too small for the four women who live there: 23-year-old Sameda*, her mother, sister, and little daughter. Although they are in the capital, their room has no access to water or gas, and the authorities refuse to give them alternative accommodation because of their Christian faith.
Sameda was once married to Rashid*, a good, serious, hard-working young man; that’s what she liked about him. And while Rashid was a Muslim and she had become a Christian three years before marriage, she did not think it would be a problem as he did not seem to mind her faith. Her mother Ariza* was against her decision, though. “My dream for my daughter is to marry a Christian, but Sameda made her own decision,” she said.
There were just very few Christian men where they lived and Sameda had grown weary of her relatives’ rebukes about the fact she was still not married. At 20 she was at risk of becoming an ‘old maid’, as, in their culture, most girls marry between the ages of 13 and 17, especially in rural areas. There also are girls who marry at 12 or even at 11 years of age, sometimes to old men.
So as soon as Rashid asked her to marry him, Sameda said “yes”. After their wedding, they moved from the capital to his parents’ house in the country. Rashid was not a devout Muslim. “Initially we were very happy until he became more interested in my faith,” she says. “Certainly, I didn’t hide the fact that I’m a Christian and told him that God had touched my life. After this, my husband seemed to change.”
Slowly but surely Rashid discovered how serious Sameda was about her faith, and it started to irritate him. Moreover, the attitude of his parents and relatives towards her faith influenced him. He began to pressure her, demanding she return to Islam.
With every day the pressure increased. Rashid also beat her several times, even when she was five months’ pregnant. After Sameda gave birth to their daughter, Rashid gave her an ultimatum: either reject Christianity or he would divorce her and take the baby away.
It is common in Central Asia that – after a divorce – men take the children from their wives. For Christians like Sameda the ‘law of the land’ does not give any options to challenge and resist.
Women experience similar problems in several other countries. In Yemen, for example, there is the story of Nadeen, who decided not to tell her family about her Christian faith for fear of being ostracised.
Christian women and their children in Malaysia do not have any protection as long as the law allows for ‘unilateral conversion’ in front of Sharia courts. It means that one parent can convert children, born into a different faith, to Islam, as the appeals of the other, usually the mother, are brushed aside by Islamic authorities who espouse the supremacy of Islam.
As World Watch Monitor reported in March, women in conflict situations are particularly vulnerable, as they are increasingly targeted as a deliberate strategy to rob them of their faith and identity.
Central Asian means Muslim
Sameda, however, refused to give up her faith. “I can’t imagine my life without Jesus any more,” she said.
In the end, Rashid forced her and the child out of the house. With nowhere to go, she moved to her mother’s place in the capital. “It was so hugely stressful and such a tragedy. My beloved husband, who always seemed so kind and caring, kicked me out of his house with a one-month-old baby, without any means of subsistence. I could barely reach my mum’s home,” she said.
There, she and her family face poverty and bad living conditions. A few weeks ago, her mother had a stroke and, although recovering, she still is very weak and cannot walk normally. They have no-one to help, as there is no church in the city and their family have cut all ties because they are seen as betrayers of Islam.
“People say that as I am Asian-born, I am a Muslim and should be this all my life,” Sameda explains. “Now they call me a betrayer of the ‘pure religion and true prophet Muhammad’, but how can I betray something or somebody I never knew and understood? Yes, I am a Christian, but also – still – an Asian woman.”
(*) Not their real names