I can see clearly now the pain has gone: Sweet are the uses of adversity, said the Bard. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown meets four women whose sudden suffering brought them freedom

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The Independent Online
OLIVER'S DEATH WAS MEANT TO WAKE ME UP TO A NEW LIFE

Maggie Kafton enjoyed an affluent life until the sudden death of her baby son. She lives in London with her two children.

'I fell in love, got married, had two children and fell into the various roles without too much thought. And I did enjoy the trappings of that life. But when I look back, I had a vague sense that I wasn't being nourished, that I was watching myself living a wealthy life.'

All that changed when she fell unexpectedly pregnant for the third time and had Oliver a few weeks before her 40th birthday. The whole family was enchanted with this child and completely devastated when he was a victim of cot death just six weeks later.

'I fell into this deep abyss. Nobody could say or do anything to help me. Inside, I felt that I must have been a pretty rotten mother, that my other children blamed me for Oliver's death. My husband withdrew, and even my close friends kept away because they couldn't handle my anguish.

'That level of pain led me to develop a heightened awareness of what people were feeling around me. Slowly I felt a gentleness and depth come into my life. The trivialities began not to matter at all. Looking back, I feel strongly that the real purpose of Oliver's short life was to wake me up, to push me into changing things.'

At this point Maggie decided to leave her husband. 'I didn't want all the possessions, that life. I felt exhilarated. My spirit came back, and I knew I was doing the right thing.'

Then came another blow. As they were coming to terms with their separation, her husband learnt he was dying of cancer. Maggie supported him through the experience, and, for a while, they managed to recreate a new kind of love.

A few years on, she is living in a flat in west London with her two adolescent children. 'I don't need all that affluence I lost. The people I mix with are genuine, not superficial. After our many tragedies, only one couple from all the people we used to know has bothered to keep in touch.'

She recently went to see a couple who are renting what used to be her marital home, to tell them that the bank was going to repossess the house. 'When I told her - this very attractive, expensively dressed young woman - tears welled up in her eyes. And I thought, that is exactly how I would have reacted. I was looking at me as I was then, before Oliver and before my husband died.'

HE LEFT ME, AND I WAS SUPPOSED TO ACCEPT IT

Sally Moon, was once Lady Graham-Moon, who took revenge on her unfaithful husband by ruining his suits and car and giving away his vintage wine collection.

When her husband left her two years ago, Sally Moon said: 'I feel very frightened . . . I don't want to be left on my own for the rest of my life . . . I am an unqualified, untrained, middle-aged woman.' She says now there were reasons why she felt so 'pathetic'.

'You don't realise how women from my class background lack real confidence. Beneath that arrogance, that autocratic attitude, I knew very little. I was inadequately educated, expected to marry. Life without a man was unthinkable.

'Now I would not let anyone walk over me. I am not an aggressive women's libber. But I am glad I did what I did. 'The foul little bastard,' I thought, 'I will not let him wipe the floor with me.' It wasn't easy: I used to get disgusting phone calls and letters from men. Rejection is so incredibly painful and women are just supposed to take it.'

Sally now has to put up with the disapproval of her children, who resent both her media exposure and the loss of their lifestyle. She scorns her previous 'ridiculous life, where somebody felt he needed 120 shirts. And under this veneer was this great bloody hole] All this has made me understand other people's pain. I was dreadfully indifferent to that sort of thing before. I was selfish.'

IN PRISON WE FOUND INDEPENDENCE

Rani (not her real name) and Usha spent several years in prison for drug offences.

'It was only in prison that I understood freedom,' says Rani, a middle-aged woman with grown-up children who was convicted in 1986 of drug smuggling offences. 'We Asian women always think of ourselves as daughters, sisters, wives . . . and then suddenly you are in a situation where the only way to survive is to think about yourself: it's like breathing fresh air for the first time.

'Prison is not easy. For seven years I really suffered - especially as in our community, izzat, family honour, is so important. I wanted to die. I was in prison because I had been with my husband, a dealer - but the people put the blame on me. It was only when I was away from him, in prison, that I found my independence.'

Usha served five years for drug offences, initially with Rani, in Cookham Woods, a tough prison for serious offenders (inmates include Myra Hindley).

'Before this experience, I thought I was dashing, secure and ready to conquer the world. I used to believe in people. Now I am more cynical, though I am also stronger. But men don't come near me now, and you miss that.'

Usha says, however, that this is a price worth paying: 'I went to India recently, and saw how insecure the people are. They cling to their social positions; they have no idea what life is about - especially the women. They are like dolls - pretty, unthinking.'

According to Rani, both women also developed in other ways: 'We are misfits in our community because we don't consider religious differences, or caste, and we don't try to be saints. We can see through all the hypocrisy that our communities are built on.'

They also learnt to discuss and express their sexuality. Usha took up painting erotic pictures in prison and these have been selling well. 'You see, you can always come through,' she says.

THE WAR OPENED UP A PATH TO MY EDUCATION

Khaltun Ali came from Somalia five years ago to escape the war. She lives in London with her young son. She was brought up in a comfortable middle-class family.

'My family looked after everything. When I was 16 they found me a husband. There was a big, beautiful wedding. I had no worries. I never finished my education because they thought, and I thought, it was not necessary. Then at 17 I had my baby. Life was easy until my baby and I had to come over here.'

She can hardly bear to recall the first year after her arrival: 'I cannot explain to you how I felt. You feel like you are just born, that you know nothing. And always afraid: will they deport me and my baby? I couldn't speak any English; I was staying at a bed and breakfast. Every night I used to cry and wish for my old life again.'

But that, says Khaltun, is the past. She started going to English classes, leaving her son in a creche. She then went into adult training and obtained basic qualifications in business administration and the use of computers. Five years after arriving in Britain without a word of English, she is now a student at South Bank University.

As she flourished, her marriage deteriorated, mainly because her husband couldn't accept the changes Khaltun was going through. She began to question his expectations of her: 'He even thought that he should marry a second wife. I could not accept that at all. Not any more. Even here, so many of my friends accept that a man can treat them badly, even beat them. I can't any more. I have changed.

'Some of the men will not let you take the Pill: they say it is against the religion. So women have to have all these children - this is a nonsense. And I reject this idea of circumcision for girls. I have suffered from it. These things have nothing to do with Islam.'

Khaltun has changed so radically that other Somalis keep well clear of her. Her divorce caused some consternation and her ideas alarm both men and women who feel change threatens the very existence of their culture. But for Khaltun there is no going back: 'I am so proud of myself and my life. I know people from around the world, I respect myself. If I was not a refugee I would still be uneducated, doing what other people told me to do.'

(Photographs omitted)

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