Elevate Difference

My Sisters Made of Light

When I attended the book signing for Jacqueline St. Joan’s novel My Sisters Made of Light, I knew nothing about the book aside from its inspiration: a chance encounter between St. Joan, an American domestic violence activist, and Aisha, a Pakistani activist. St. Joan was moved by a shared sense of purpose to write Aisha’s story—the story of a teacher who has orchestrated secret efforts to rescue women condemned to death for so-called honor crimes in Pakistan for the past twenty-five years.

Due to the sensitivity of the issue, St. Joan ultimately chose to fictionalize Aisha’s story. She takes readers on an intimate journey into the lives of four emboldened sisters—the “mother” of the family, Uji, and her sisters Reshma, Faisah, and Meena—as they confront the beauties and betrayals of their culture. The resulting novel is a moving portrayal of the violence women in Pakistan experience, the widespread impact, and the courageous individuals who are fighting to eradicate these life-threatening human rights violations.

Traversing the diversity of Pakistan’s distinct cultures and classes, My Sisters Made of Light successfully weaves past and present, foreign and familiar, and personal and political to create a compelling account of the devastating suffering and extraordinary heroism that exists in ordinary lives. In addition to vividly illustrating the risks and successes of human rights activism in Pakistan, My Sisters Made of Light depicts the heart-wrenching complexities that rest at the core of familial allegiances and alienation.

Together with Uji, readers encounter woman after woman, injustice after injustice: Bilqis, burned to death by her uncle; Taslima, shot and killed by an assassin hired by her family; Chanda, a girl child whose nose was sliced off by her father. What seems like a never-ending compilation of injustices reads just as it should: overwhelming and deeply unnerving. Each incident is one woman’s story and one part of a larger narrative—that of the insidious and ubiquitous legacies of violence that extend far beyond boundaries of culture and country.

At the book signing, St. Joan emphasized that, although written for the women of Pakistan, My Sisters Made of Light is ultimately intended for a Western audience. Careful not to reinforce all-too-common stereotypes of victimized Muslim women, the book’s strength is the universal: what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and a sister. The tears I shed at several points while reading the book speak to its success.

To this day, Aisha is struggling to ensure women’s human rights are respected in Pakistan. Her most recent undertaking is a safe shelter for women and children escaping abuse. Aisha has the land for a shelter and the contractors are even lined up to build it; she just needs the cash to pay for it. St. Joan is dedicating half of the proceeds from the sale of My Sisters Made of Light to help Aisha. Although the book ends, the struggle for women’s human rights does not.

Written by: Alicia Simoni, January 26th 2011