by Sanam Mahir
In Shimshal, they still talk about the night the quietest girl in the valley disappeared.
On June 6, 2021, 21-year-old Adiba Parveen visited her mother’s house for a cup of tea. She could not stay long, she told her mother, as her husband was leaving the next morning to return to his post in the army and she had to pack his things. Her sister-in-law was pregnant at the time and even though Adiba was in a rush, she lingered to wash the dishes to make sure her bhabhi would not have to. She had always had a naram aadat, a gentle disposition, like that.
Adiba’s older sister Ghazala chatted with her before she left. “How are you?” she asked. “How is everything at home?”
“It’s OK,” Adiba said.
Even though she said this with a small smile, Adiba’s mother felt an uneasiness creep into her heart. She stood in the doorway of her home and watched Adiba walk down the road. She remained there until the girl faded from view in the evening light.
The next morning, Ghazala received a text message from Adiba’s husband Nadeem. He had messaged her in the past to ask how Adiba was doing. “I have heard she is looking quite weak,” he wrote one time, “and she is not taking care of herself.”
On that day, he had one question: “Where is Adiba?”
‘A good girl’
A family friend had named her Adiba, meaning ‘the cultured one’, ‘refined’ or ‘the educated woman’. She was the youngest of six children, with three brothers and two sisters.
A place of only 2,000 or so people, Shimshal is located in the Karakoram Mountains in Gilgit-Baltistan. A farming community, it is revered for the mountaineers it produces. While Hunza, a four-hour drive away, has been described as “Shangri-La” and the “Switzerland of Pakistan”, the remote Shimshal, the last stop on the Chinese border, a place where, legend has it, the royal family of Hunza banished prisoners. Until 1970, it would take Shimshalis up to two days of walking to get to neighbouring Pasu village. Even when the Karakoram Highway was completed in the 1980s, the village could only be reached via a single-track dirt road with hairpin turns cut into the mountains. It took 18 years for this road to be developed and connected with the highway. By 2003, Shimshal opened up to the world and trekkers who wanted to conquer the peaks. Internet services would take another 15 years to arrive.
Adiba’s father tended to the family’s land, and from April until October, he worked as a porter for trekkers. Jobs outside the tourism sector are hard to come by here. To live in Shimshal is to know that leaving is often the only way to forge a life of one’s own. In 2010, Adiba’s brother Rahat left for Karachi and while many of the men he knows found jobs at call centres in the bigger cities, he was hired as a receptionist at a prestigious private hospital.
Adiba’s father died in 2012. Her brothers Jaffer and Bakhti Baig worked as cooks at guesthouses, and she lived at home with them, her mother, Jaffer’s wife and their child. Her older sisters Najma and Ghazala were married and lived in their own homes.
Sajina Mirza, now 22, remembers an idyllic childhood with Adiba. The girls were neighbours and grew up together, spending their days at school, the jamaat khana (religious centre), or dreaming up plans for their future. Sajina loved to play football and anytime she would fret that she was not good enough, Adiba would chide her. “She would say, ‘You have so much potential,” Sajina recalls. “And I would reply, ‘You’re no less than anybody, you can do whatever you want’.”
In 2011, when Ghazala got married and left the family home, all household chores fell on Adiba. Sajina began to see less of her friend. Adiba was too busy for picnics or extracurriculars like sports. Her mother was elderly and she felt a great responsibility to help her. She would make breakfast for everyone, clean the home, wash clothes, prepare meals and help with her brother’s child, all while managing her schoolwork. When she would get a break, she and Sajina would make chai and parathas and wander over for a chat. Sajina wonders if all the work became difficult to manage. Adiba was a clever girl and enjoyed her studies – her favourite subject was Urdu and she loved to read novels like the romantic Pir-e-Kamil by Umera Ahmed – but the following year, while Sajina left for further studies in Hunza, Adiba had to stay in Shimshal to repeat a grade.
“People in the village would say Adiba was an example for us,” Sajina says. “They would refer to her when they would scold us, reminding us, ‘She is so shareef, so quiet and polite, she does not gossip or waste her time with idle chatter.’”
When friends and family members talk about Adiba, there is a common refrain: she was a good girl, a well-behaved, responsible, polite girl. But she loved to sing – even when she did not know the lyrics, even when she deliberately changed them to make people laugh – and the only times this good, well-behaved girl seemed to do exactly as she pleased was when she was singing.
“She had this habit of standing outside her house and singing very loudly,” recalls Sajina. She knew her neighbours laughed at her. Sometimes, Sajina would join in. The girls would stand outside and sing at each other, scrambling lyrics and singing through their giggles, their voices spilling over into their neighbours’ homes. “Tu hai pagal, tu hai joker (you’re crazy, you’re a joker),” Adiba would shout to Sajina, a lyric from one of her favourite songs, from the Bollywood film Raja Hindustani.
There was another game the girls loved to play. Like most of the homes here, they did not get running water, and every day women walked to the Shimshal river to fetch water. When it was time to head there, one of the girls would stand outside her home and whistle a tune. “That’s how we would summon each other,” Sajina says. The neighbours learned their code: the sweet, clear signal followed by the girls’ chattering voices as they traipsed off.
The river is a five- or six-minute walk from Sajina and Adiba’s homes.
“That’s where they found her on that day,” Sajina says.
‘It takes time’
When she learned that Adiba was not at home, Ghazala called her mother’s house. Adiba was not there. She went to Adiba’s home with her aunt, where they found Adiba’s father-in-law Sameem Shah alone. “He didn’t seem too concerned that his daughter-in-law was missing,” Ghazala says.
She did not like being in that house. She knew her sister had been unhappy there. A few weeks after her wedding, Adiba had called her. She was finding it difficult to “adjust” to life with her in-laws. They found fault with the way she cleaned or cooked. She was expected to manage all the duties of the house, and she started her days walking 30 minutes to the river alone to carry 35 litres of water back home. If she took a moment to rest and have a cup of tea, her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law would chide her.
“It takes time to settle into a new place,” Ghazala consoled her.
Adiba’s in-laws had promised that she could continue with her studies after the wedding. They had not spoken about it after that.
“Be kind and they will come around,” Ghazala promised.
“Baaji, they do not even give me soap to bathe with,” Adiba replied.
After the ninth grade, Adiba travelled to Hunza to study. She was reunited with Sajina there as the two were roommates in a hostel. Their time was finally their own once more, with no household chores to attend to. Adiba’s younger cousin Hasina Parveen came to Hunza to study as well and they would spend nights watching Marathi movies. “We have a great deal of freedom in Shimshal, to dress, wander, and live as we wish,” Sajina explains. “But there is so much work for the girls to manage in their homes that we don’t get a lot of time for ourselves.”
While her roommates all had phones, Adiba did not care to get one. When her brothers needed to get in touch, they would call one of her roommates. “We would hand Addu our phones and remind her to message or call her family,” says 23-year-old Samana Rahim, one of her friends. “When we got to the big cities and could use the Internet, we joined Facebook or watched videos on our phones. Addu wasn’t interested in any of it.”
She always had her nose in a book and when the girls would ask her to come to the bazaar with them, she would stay in and study. The few times she accompanied them, she did not care for what was in fashion. She refused to wear Western clothes like jeans, and would not buy more makeup than a light lipstick.
Adiba and Sajina would sleep in the same bed, whispering stories and plans at night. There are only two universities in Gilgit-Baltistan, and no engineering or medical colleges, technical or vocational institutes. They would travel to other provinces. Jobs would follow and they would finally earn some money. They would not have to return to Shimshal. “We know that if we go home after university, we’re going to be doing housework again, except this time with a degree in our hands,” Sajina explains. Almost all the girls they knew from Shimshal made similar plans. The ones who did not were just not interested in their education or were too conservative and old-fashioned, the girls felt. Adiba told Hasina she was thinking about becoming a teacher.
By 2018 Sajina was at university in Lahore on a football scholarship. She expected she would soon hear of Adiba’s plans for further studies. Instead, she was taken aback when she was invited to an engagement in Shimshal. Adiba was getting married.
Bakhti Baig was at work on the morning of June 6 when he received a call from his brother, Jaffer, saying Adiba was missing. Adiba’s father-in-law said he had not seen her but an elderly neighbour had spotted her doing chores outside the house the previous evening. Bakhti Baig felt worry gnaw at him. Adiba was their laadli, the baby of the family. When she was younger, the brothers would accompany her if she had to go anywhere rather than send her off alone.
Bakhti Baig returned home and set out with his cousin to scour the area. They did not have to venture far.
Soon, the calls began to ring out, in Shimshal and then further. In Adiba’s home, Ghazala’s phone buzzed. “Come back,” her sister-in-law instructed. In Hunza, the hostel’s warden received a call. A message needed to be relayed to Hasina. In Gilgit, the phone rang in 36-year-old Mehrunissa’s home. Her husband, Adiba’s cousin, was on the line. His voice quavered. “Mehru, I have some bad news,” he said.
In the autumn of 2020, Adiba visited her bhabhi Mehrunissa in Gilgit to shop for her wedding, scheduled for November. Her brothers urged Mehrunissa to spoil their sister. She should have whatever her heart desired, no matter how expensive. They did not want anyone, especially Adiba’s in-laws, to say that they had not been generous with the new bride. But in the shops, Adiba deferred to Mehrunissa. “You choose for me,” she insisted. “You can’t be so timid!” Mehrunissa scolded. “You need to be bold. You’re going into someone else’s house and you need to speak up for yourself.” Adiba laughed. She chose warm clothes, things she could wear at home, refusing heels because they would be wasteful.
Mehrunissa teased her about her fiancé. Nadeem had spotted her at a wedding and sent Adiba’s mother a proposal of marriage. “So it’s a love marriage?” Mehrunissa asked. “She was too shy to do anything but giggle,” Mehrunissa recalls.
At the wedding, Adiba was aglow with happiness. She looked regal in her white embroidered clothes, the traditional silsila atop her head like a crown. As the bridal party made their way to Adiba’s new home, her husband Nadeem called out to his sister, “Look! I’m bringing my jaanu home!”
That is what he kept calling Adiba – “my beloved”.
Mehrunissa smiled. “You must always be this way, this loving with your jaanu, okay?” she said to him.
“Of course,” he promised.
By the river
In the summer, the river swells, carrying anything in its path away in its churn.
They found her by the riverbank, her legs in the water. She would have been washed away were she not pressed against some stones. For a moment, Bakhti Baig believed his sister lay there sleeping.
A crowd quickly gathered and whispered amongst themselves. It was all too common, they knew, for young men and women in the region to commit suicide. While they had not dealt with this in Shimshal, it was so prevalent in Ghizer, Gojal, Chitral, Baltistan or Gilgit, that in 2017 a government committee had been formed to investigate. There were a range of contributing factors: unemployment, mental health issues, domestic abuse, despair at the lack of economic opportunities. The villagers knew that in most instances, families did not bother to report the deaths and quietly buried the victim.
It took the police a few hours to arrive from Hunza. Bakhti Baig was bewildered, unsure of what to do next. The police told him the body needed to be taken to Gulmit, three hours’ drive away. Someone would have to stay with the body overnight until samples for a post-mortem could be collected in the morning and sent to Lahore for processing. There are no facilities to conduct a post-mortem in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Bakhti Baig waited for someone to tell him what “post-mortem” meant.
‘Stop creating problems’
“I met Adiba two months after her wedding and asked her if she was happily married,” says Samana, her friend from college. “She replied, ‘You have to try to be.’”
Five months after her wedding, Adiba returned to her mother’s house. Nadeem was away and she refused to live with her in-laws alone. She would wait till her husband returned to Shimshal on a break a month later. Adiba told Hasina that her brother-in-law threatened to kill her. The younger girl, confused about what advice to offer and scared about what might happen, remained quiet and soon returned to college in Hunza.
Ghazala asked her if she wanted a divorce. She could move to Karachi and continue her studies. “She was scared about what people would say about her if she got divorced,” Hasina says. But Ghazala insists, “We didn’t care about gossip. Adiba knew she had our support.”
But girls also know they must be patient. “We tell girls to tolerate bad behaviour, to be kind and gentle,” Mehrunissa says. “You become part of another family when you get married. Think of it as an attempt to attach a new limb to an existing body. It takes time to mold together, to become something new. That’s what we are taught.”
When Nadeem returned to Shimshal, he came to meet Adiba. He promised her brothers and mother that he would sort out any problems with his family. He apologised profusely.
He took his jaanu home with him. “Then he took her phone away,” says Ghazala. “He said she needed to stop complaining to her friends and family. She needed to stop creating problems.”
‘Justice for Adiba’
By the time the samples collected at Adiba’s post-mortem made their way to Lahore, they were entirely unusable. There was no conclusive report on the cause of her death.
“Adiba was not the kind of person who would kill herself,” Rahat explains. “We want the tasalee, the gratification, of knowing this for sure.” The brothers filed a First Information Report (FIR) with the police, accusing Adiba’s father-in-law Sameem Shah, mother-in-law, husband, brother-in-law Fahim and sister-in-law of killing her and attempting to dispose of her body in the river. The suspects were arrested, but by mid-June, all except Sameem and Fahim were set free. On August 9, they were also released on bail. The accused all denied responsibility for Adiba’s death.
Adiba’s family refused to stay quiet. “I received a message from one of her brothers asking me to write about the case,” says Noor Muhammed, founder and editor of Pamir Times, an online news service covering Gilgit-Baltistan. Muhammed’s wife, Amina Bibi, is one of the administrators on a strictly private Facebook group for women from the region. She decided to reach out to the members and they organised protests against the Shahs’ release.
In August, people gathered in Shimshal, Gulmit, Islamabad and Karachi to call out, “Justice for Adiba”. “When I saw the number of women at the protest in Gulmit – young and old, their children with them – I began to weep,” Amina says. “I have grown up seeing women with bruises, blackened eyes, making excuses for how they got the injuries, being told, ‘Bardasht karo’ (you must bear it). But that day, the women didn’t want to be silent any more.”
Noor Muhammed says he was “pleasantly surprised” by the protests and the determination of Adiba’s family to get her story out. “We are a tribal culture – we live in close-knit communities and when you take a stand against someone in your community, you risk being cast out,” he explains. “This generation is no longer taking the vow of silence our elders did for the sake of the family or tribe’s honour and respect.”
By the end of August, the Shahs’ bail was cancelled. The victory has come at a cost for Adiba’s family. “I have spent Rs500,000 so far on legal fees and the expense of travelling for every hearing,” says Bakhti Baig. “We sold whatever we could. I am so tired, I don’t know how to go on.”
They persist as it is the only way they can make amends to Adiba. “I wish I could tell her, ‘This will not happen to another of our girls’,” Rahat says. “We want this case to be a lesson for people in Shimshal.”
Mehrunissa’s children saw the protests for their aunt Adiba. They do not understand what happened to her, but in the days after, they played a new game: they would march through the house mimicking the calls they had heard, chanting, “Justice for Auntie Adiba!” The case did not receive much media coverage outside Gilgit-Baltistan. “But at the protests, even strangers had Adiba’s name on their lips,” says Mehrunissa. “If it weren’t for them, who would know about her? Adiba was an ordinary girl. She died. That’s it. Why would they care?”
This feature was originally published in AlJazeera pages.