Virtue Above All Else

Updated: Dec 10, 2020


| This is the 547th story of Our Life Logs® |


I made a choice. I knew it would cause the world around me to crumble. But, it was the only choice I had if I were to save the people I loved most.

My name is Sumaira Idrees, and I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, to a church-going protestant family. My mother was very caring and loving, but my father had a separate space in my heart. My father, a truck driver, didn’t make much, but he made enough for my mother, sister, and me to survive.

When I was 14, my father’s health began to decline. His diabetes and kidney problems worsened until he was unable to work. My mother would stitch clothes or work in others’ houses to keep us from going hungry, but it was never quite enough. My mother tried to teach me how to stitch, but I could not focus on her hands, nor the thread, nor what little money we gained from the hours spent. I wanted to earn us a lot of money. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford to send me to school past fifth grade, so finding a good-paying job was nearly impossible.

It was just a few more years until my father passed away in 2014. For months, I struggled to speak. I would cry and cry until I fainted.

By then, my sister had gotten married. Since I was the eldest, it should have been me to get married before, but I was adamant to take care of my father. After his death, my mother and I struggled to get by. My sister had wound up in an abusive marriage and would come crying to us about it. But there was no way we could take care of her and her three children.

I asked my mother if I could work as a maid. I did the math and figured that we could just barely get by with what I would earn. My mother’s furrowed brows answered me. She was incredibly old school and a protestant, she thought that a girl’s virtue was the most important thing. But what did my virtue do for me during the next few years of hungry nights? My mother started working at a house as a maid while I would stay at home and prepare meals for us. I would teach The Bible too at times. Although, I never wanted to charge them for it, as my number of students grew, I charged a small amount. We needed the money to survive.

In December 2019, we started hearing about a virus that was spreading rapidly and causing whispers of panic. It didn’t mean much to me, until my mother was fired from her job in January after a massive outbreak of the virus. My students stopped coming; we were left vulnerable and penniless. We ate lentils for every meal, and those soon would run out. We cut off our electricity. We hope for someone to help us—pity us—but they had shut themselves away from us to protect themselves.

My mother’s brows furrowed again. She was adamant to protect my virtue, but with how desperate we were, she eventually gave in. Even so, I struggled to find work. People kept refusing because of COVID-19. I was cautious; I would wear a full burka (a black gown that covers the whole body made only for women) whenever I went out to put my mother’s mind at some ease.

One day, as I was on my way home, hungry and with a broken heart, I came across a car station looking for car washers. In our society, this type of job is not meant for a woman, but then, neither is starvation. Perhaps my sad story made the manager pity me because he gave me the job even though I wasn’t qualified in the slightest. He even offered an advance. I went back home with this good news, but I lied and told my mom the job was for a sweeper at a school. If I had told her the truth, she would have thrown a fit.

As I continued working this job, I was horribly mistreated by my male co-workers who liked to humiliate me for working a “man’s” job. Still, I kept at it for the sake of my mom.

In February, my sister showed up at our door, eight months pregnant with her three kids tucked behind her. Her husband had kicked her out after beating her badly and informing her that he’d remarried. I watched the eyes of her children as she said this. All the hospitals were flooded with patients of the virus, and I had no idea where to take her for help. My mother wouldn’t stop crying, but I assured her I would fix everything. With the little savings we had, I took my sister to a private hospital.

My sister had a ruptured placenta from the beatings, and now she needed blood transfusions in order to save the baby and herself. As they rushed to her, a deep fear ran through me that I would lose my sister too. The way to save her was to get her treatment. To do that, I needed money—loads of it. Only I had no idea how to get it.

My sister said to my mother and me, “Let me die. Just look after my kids when I'm gone.” At this, my mother was inconsolable, dripping in tears and in hysterics. The next day, I found her passed out in her bedroom. Oh no, not you, too. I immediately rushed her to the same hospital. Where they told me that she had suffered a stroke and needed a bypass. Treatment for my mother and sister would be thousands and thousands of rupees, let alone the advance the doctors needed. I was running out of time before I even began to fix this mess. I wanted it to be a bad dream.

I tried reaching out to family for help, but this was happening in the midst of a virus outbreak, so everyone’s businesses were suffering. They were only able to give a small amount, but it was enough to begin my mother’s treatment. Still, I would need more.

I had to think of something quick or I was going to lose my family forever. Now, what comes next, some may judge me for. But you must remember, my mother and sister were on their death bed. What would you have done if you were in my position? Anything, right? That’s exactly what I did.

Word on the street was that prostitutes made a lot of money, especially the ones who spend nights at the Diamond Market in the Walled City of Lahore. The Old City is the oldest bazaar in Lahore, which was made at the time of kings and emperors. The Diamond Market is hundreds of years old. I knew that hundreds of men went there every day, both rich and poor. If I was lucky enough to entice a rich one, maybe I could make enough in a day to help my family.

I know what you may be thinking. How can I talk about this so coolly? At this point, explaining all this feels like reciting a speech. I needed money and fast, and even though it went against everything I had been raised to think, I didn’t have any better options, and truthfully, Virtue had never done me any good.

I left as soon as the sun set. My legs trembled. My hands shook. I wanted to turn back. I wanted to run and figure out a different way. My whole life, my mother taught me the value of virtue, purity, and relying on God to provide. I was going to shatter all of it in seconds. But God was quiet and the pain roared.

I can’t really express the experience in words. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know anything about what was going to happen to me. All I knew was that I was going to lose my virtue. I passed flats spilling with people. Women were everywhere dancing to music, dressed well. There were men there too—some drunk, some not. Some looked at me with hungry eyes. Finally, I got the attention of another prostitute.

“How did you end up here?” She asked.

“I’ve come for a job,” I told her.

She laughed. I could tell she felt bad for me, but she took me to her boss anyway. The headquarters was at the top of an average-sized building. The place was full of prostitutes dancing and entertaining men. The woman whom I was introduced to owned the KOTHA (place where prostitutes work). She didn’t ask me much before telling me I was hired.

After giving me a makeover, they presented me to a rich businessman. He offered me a big chunk of money, so I focused entirely on that. I can’t talk about that night any further, as it hurts to remember. All I can say is that it was painful and very overwhelming. I hated myself. It was the night I had lost my soul.

The next morning, I went to the hospital with money. I came to know that my sister’s baby had died in her womb and they had to operate immediately to save her. Thankfully, my mother was stabilizing, but she needed another stint in her heart. I deposited all the money I had made the previous night, and I asked them to start my mother’s operation. But it wasn’t going to last. I needed thousands of rupees for her treatment to continue. I had to go back to the Old City. I had to sell my soul.

The second night of prostituting was the same. Perhaps more painful. I went to the Diamond Market six days in a row, going to the hospital each morning to deposit more money. This rigorous schedule was putting a strain on my body, and I fell ill, but even though it was difficult work, it felt good to be able to bring in so much income overnight.

After a couple more days, both my mother and sister regained consciousness. I was so happy that I was able to save them, and in that moment, all the pain was worth it. But then…my sister asked me where I got all that money from. My stomach dropped at her question. I stalled for days, I sidestepped the truth. But I knew I couldn’t keep a secret forever.

A week later, they were discharged and able to come home. My sister, still grieving, began asking about the money again. I tried avoiding her questions, but when my mother started asking, I knew I was going to have to come clean. I didn’t want to lie to my mother.

When I told them the truth, it felt like the air had left the room. My mother fainted. My sister screamed at me, calling me a whore. When my mother woke, she slapped me so hard that my skin grew hot and tingled. It was like lightning. Here were the two most important people to me, whom I had risked everything, and they were cursing me and wishing ill upon me. I was devastated. Tears began falling down my face as I yelled, “I couldn’t have let you die!”

With a straight face my mother replied, “It would have been better if you had let me die.”

Her words felt like lashes. They refused to understand. But this was my mother, a woman who raised me to value my virtue above all else—above hunger and death—and I had abandoned those morals. I had become someone she didn’t recognize.

My mother threw me out of the house and broke all ties with me, insisting that her elder daughter was no more. “I don’t want something as impure as you in my house,” she said to me. I looked to my sister; her eyes were cold.

As I walked further down the empty street of my childhood, I let my tears fall into shallow pools of hope. I told myself that they would look back on what I did and be grateful. It may not be today, or tomorrow, or even five years from now. I willed myself to believe that they will take me back into their lives. They will understand the virtue I possess.

Until then, I will continue my new life in prostitution. I’ve even found solace in it. I miss my family, but I have no regrets about what I did to save them. That, above all else, is virtue to me. As long as they’re alive, I will be happy.

This is the story of Sumaira Idrees

Sumaira continues working as a prostitute to support herself and has now found solace in the profession. COVID-19 changed her life forever, but she thinks she’s happier this way. She was able to save her family and, with this steady income, she can spend the rest of her life in peace. She wants to attain success in whatever she does. If that’s in prostitution, then so be it.

This story first touched our hearts on October 22, 2020

Writer: Noor Pasha| Editor: Colleen Walker

#COVID19 #coronavirus #Pakistan #death #loss #grief #jobloss #pandemic #family #sickness #illness #sexworker #desperation #virtue #toughdecisions #daughter


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