The Daughter of the Doctor who Sterilized Women

Vihanga Perera

A racist newspaper that happened also to be the country’s bestseller accused Mohammad Hafeez – a doctor of the national health service – of singlehandedly carrying out sterilization surgeries on 4500 Sinhalese women. A Muslim man, Hafeez was the father of three girls, whose second daughter and I were in the same class in primary school. When this charge that shocked a country came out, we were 9-year-olds in the 4th Grade in the town’s most popular school. Ours was a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority school in which non-Sinhalese like the Hafeez family were given a ten percent quota of classroom space. Along with Shafinur Hafeez, there were two other girls who were Muslims. More often than not, they sat together (or maybe they were made to sit like that – I cannot be sure) in the corner of the oblong room.

Though it sounded preposterous, the charge against Shafinur’s father was quite serious. 4500 shady surgeries that grievously and irreparably hurt 4500 Sinhalese wombs. If each of those women were dreaming of giving birth twice, that came to 9000 potential pregnancies destroyed. But it was more serious than even that, the paper said – against humanity and all forms of accepted decency, it was a heinous crime. Every day for a few weeks, the rag carried reports of this superhuman feat. Electronic media with a Sinhalese-Buddhist bent picked up the scent from the capital. They came down to our provincial town and began to conduct interviews. Seated in front of mics bearing the emblems of these news stations, a senior man connected to the hospital where Shafinur’s father worked gave a statement incriminating his co-worker. This allegation needs thorough investigation, he thundered. There is no reason to believe such sterilizations cannot happen, he emphasized. In fact, in the past, there have been various complaints against Shafinur’s father, he concluded enigmatically.  

Stepping up on their own, some other health officials and specialist doctors cautioned that there was no way a single person could carry out 4500 sterilization operations in an operating theatre. Not unless the whole team in the surgery was in on it as a group, they said. The other doctors, the men and women who carried the syringes, and the nurses who handled the operating tools and the cotton wool. This second theory was quickly forgotten. Then, an uncle (whose subject was Agriculture) from a rural university that had no name came forward and started a movement against Shafinur’s father. I am a Science man, this uncle said. And I know for certain that fallopian tubes of women can be squeezed mid-surgery. By doing so, they can be made infertile for life. There was much we didn’t know then and we certainly didn’t know it at the time, but this university uncle harboured big political dreams. He was a nativist and a very outspoken Buddhist nationalist. Uncle was soon going to contest an election. In interviews conducted by strange YouTubers and media personnel from mainstream papers, the uncle swore in outrage that Shafinur’s father was planning genocide.  

Then, there was our tuition uncle who had a habit of YouTubing asides from his mass class. Deviating from his subject (which was high school Electronics), tuition uncle held forth like Mark Antony on a pulpit on controversial political issues that were furthest from electrodes. Then, he uploaded them on YouTube and shared them for mass circulation. One day, tuition uncle spoke expertly and at length about sterilization surgeries. On a white board on which he did illustrations, tuition uncle drew a diagram of the female reproductive system. Mic in one hand, his voice suitably sombre, and marker pen in the other, tuition uncle showed how fallopian tubes were twisted mid-surgery so that the woman – when she woke up – went infertile. Tuition uncle’s diagrams always clarified many things for us.

The police of our little town came in two jeeps to arrest Shafinur’s father. Later, someone said that Shafinur’s parents were getting ready to go to the police anyway – they felt unsafe of an evil plot which they realized was being hatched to destroy their lives. From the susurrus in the bazaar, the parents had gleaned that something big was being planned against their very existence. So, Shafinur’s father was taken away in a jeep. It was all in the news the next day. In all the papers and the breaking headlines of the hourly news. A grainy photo of cuffs on wrists, with an imposing-looking man next to him, Shafinur’s father was sitting in a police jeep. To get a close-up like that the camera lens must have been very powerful. It was a professional shot. Mohammad Hafeez looked tired and disoriented. 

The day her father was arrested was also the last day Shafinur came to school. Until school was over and the news was dished out later that evening, we knew nothing about what had come to pass. That day, like all of us labouring littlethings, Shafinur too was there at her table pouring over Math and Science. As usual, there were five girls at every desk. The three Muslim girls and two others. During the day, teachers from other classes came to see our teacher from time to time. They spoke in hushed whispers. After an exaggerated stay with serious faces, the visitors left one by one. At that time, I couldn’t have known, but now I think that the teachers were all discussing Shafinur’s father. Since she was the daughter of a genocidal murderer, I think they came that day to take a close look at Shafinur.  

There was a robed priest in Sri Lankan politics whose head was the shape of a round door knob. Having lost his popularity somewhat, the priest was thinking of ways to boost his image for the next election. After Shafinur’s father was arrested, this priest came to our little town to stage demonstrations and give sound-bytes to the nationalist media. He brought with him supporters and with his fiery speeches, the priest appealed to all the right-thinking people of Sri Lanka to wake up. Citing from a long list of nationalist zealots the country had produced since the great Don David Hewavitharana alias Anagarika Dharmapala, the priest waved an angry forefinger as the media clicked and recorded his impressive show, our provincial sun reflecting off his head. It was, indeed, a time of great tumult in our small town.    

Ten years later, it was now after my Advanced Level examination. I was home, browsing the internet for part-time jobs that were suitable for a Sinhalese-Buddhist girl of my age. I offered tuition in Political Science to two girls who were junior to me in school. It was good for some pocket money but not much more. We had forgotten the sterilization fiasco, its outcomes, and – this was the strangest thing yet – we had totally forgotten Shafinur Hafeez. Of all that I remembered, soon after the sterilization stories set our world in flames, I recalled that the Hafeez family took their children away from our school. Where they went thereafter, or as to whether the girls were schooled at all, we didn’t know. Shafinur’s father was indicted. He went through a long haul in police custody before he was given bail. The case against him was heard in a court. It was a painfully long court procedure. Later we learnt through the papers that Mohammad Hafeez was being prosecuted for making a lot of money in a short time. Some said that the money came from terrorists. Others said Shafinur’s father had side businesses which made a good profit. But even after the door knob priest lost the election, the case against Shafinur’s father continued. 

If you ask me now, I don’t remember Shafinur – by that I mean, things like her face, her manner, and the texture of her speech have all disintegrated with my memory of the longago girl. Shafinur doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s Facebook friends list either – not even those other Muslim girls with whom I studied in primary school. I tried other social media platforms – Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin. No luck. But my search for Shafinur did bring me to the particulars of the Mohammad Hafeez case. What survived on the internet were news reports, articles on her father’s business of Persian rugs, the chequered history of carpetmaking and terrorism: menacing pieces written in the language of innuendo and conspiracy to create panic and outrage among people. Other articles – often in English – tried to restore some sanity. Related news of the Special Crimes Division chief officially cleared Mohammad Hafeez’s name. Counter-views challenging the SCD’s impartiality and the Chief being fed Muslim money also popped up. Then, the transfer-cum-demotion of the SCD chief. The reopening of the Mohammad Hafeez case under a new investigation team. As Shafinur receded from my personal memories, Hafeez remained in the corners of public memory via newspapers and webpages.

Media being my second subject, I tried to read these news articles by applying on them the fundamentals of journalism they taught me at school. The ‘5 Ws’, plus the ‘H’ and the ‘B’: the who, what, when, where, why, and the how, and the background. Among the newspapers, one particular paper was venomous – it was clearly out on a personal vendetta against Hafeez. The paper oozed poison, line after line. I thought about the Ethics in Journalism chapter and the part where they taught us to confirm and reconfirm a piece of news. Question the sources, our teacher said. Do a background screening of your sources (in fact, this issue on sources was a popular exam question for many years). On the internet, there survived footage of the Mohammad Hafeez scandal being debated in the parliament, and of it being a bone of contention on political chat shows telecast on live TV. In time, reports emerged that some of the women who claimed to have been sterilized – their fallopian tubes, all twisted and sliced, like how tuition uncle showed with his marker pen – later conceived and gave birth to children. 

On our Whatsapp school group, I posted asking if anyone was in contact with Shafinur or had her number. The response was discouraging. Why did I want to contact a genocidal mass murderer’s child? I was asked. For what her father did, may that bitch rot in hell, someone said. 


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