In the afternoon, I went Christmas tree shopping with both my sons. We went to a local garden centre, where they’d lit a gorgeous, pine-scented fire of tree ends, and a big cat sat and purred on the counter. We chose the perfect tree and loaded it into the car. “Smell that,” I said to Ted, “Doesn’t the tree smell lovely?”
“I want to eat it,” he said.
We brought it home and it did that magic Christmas thing where a tree that looked quite small in the garden centre becomes enormous in our rather compact living room. We then spent ages decorating it. Matt did his best to make the tree elegant and artistic, and Ted “helped” in toddler fashion by removing as many decorations as he added, and constantly demanding chocolate and presents.
Tom came home from work and we played the cheesiest Christmas tunes we could find on YouTube and drank bubbly as we finished the tree. It really was a brilliant day, and I can’t think of anything I would rather have done, or anyone I would rather have done it with.
Nevertheless, wherever I went yesterday, I felt that there were two shadows with me – that two women walked with me through my publisher’s offices, through the shops we visited, through the coffee shop where I sat alone and read my book. The women are Gulnaz and Hawa Akther Jui. They are both just 21 years old.
Gulnaz, an Afghan woman, was raped by her cousin’s husband, and as a result was jailed for two years for adultery. When she appealed her sentence, it was increased to twelve years. Following an international outcry, she, along with the daughter conceived in the rape, was released, but it seems likely that the only way she can live a life free of shame and out of hiding will be to marry her rapist.
Hawa, a Bangladeshi woman, signed up to study at a further education college while her husband was away in the Gulf. Upon his return, he said he had a surprise present for her. He tied her up and blindfolded her, then taped her right hand to a table and hacked off her fingers. She was rushed to hospital, where doctors said they could reattach the fingers, but the husband refused to give them the digits, and a relative of his threw them in a bin. By the time they were recovered, it was too late to sew them back on, so Hawa is maimed for life. She is learning to write with her left hand and is determined to continue her studies.
I’m sorry if those two stories are a massive downer on your Christmas spirit. But stop for a moment and think of all we have that we take for granted: our freedom of movement, our education, our right to work, our right to love the person of our choice freely, our right to determine a path for ourselves and our children, to earn our own money and spend it as we choose. I exercised every single one of those yesterday without even thinking about it.
My Christmas wish is this – that in 2012, we do all those things with love, with fervour and with constant gratitude that we can. That we grasp every opportunity with both hands, with all our ten fingers intact and strong, and we live our wonderful lives to the fullest.
I hope the angels of your choice walk with you and yours this festive season.