After Iram Gilani nearly lost her life to gun violence, she found hope by building a community. Now she dedicates her life to helping others.
Iram Gilani is a Pakistani-American author. She faced abandonment, neglect, isolation, molestation, physical and emotional abuse, forced marriage, bullying, homelessness, and a violent gun assault that shattered her jaw. She has risen from the depths of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to be a voice for the abused and marginalized.
Dishonorable Acts in the Name of Honor
“Honor has always been important to my family since we belong to a Syed caste,” Iram explains. “Since neither of my parents have any male siblings, their goal was always to have a son.”
Iram’s mother gave birth to three girls, one of whom died, and five boys, three of whom passed away. The oldest son was born with cognitive-development issues.
A year before Iram’s birth, her mother lost an infant son. She was overwhelmed by grief. After Iram was born, her mother asked the neighbors of their joint family home to raise Iram as her own.
When Iram was four years old, her adopted family moved, leaving Iram behind with her birth mother. Iram was traumatized. She struggled in school. To help her, the family hired an older man as a tutor.
“I was about five or six years old when I was first molested,” Iram describes. “The perpetrator was my tutor– an elderly man from our neighborhood that my parents had hired to help me with my studies. A few years later, another older man in our family began to molest me.”
The Move to the United States
In 1997, when Iram was thirteen years old, she escaped her molesters when her family moved to the United States.
“I hoped to make new friends, create my own identity,” Iram says, “and rebuild my trust in others.”
Unfortunately, her rapid assimilation to western culture made her parents see her as rebellious. Her parents began to abuse her and her younger brother. Iram’s older sisters both fell in love with men who were not in Syed caste. My father grew anxious that I would follow their path. As the youngest, I paid the price for my sisters’ mistakes in life.
“My parents would kick me out of the house– at any time of day or night– if they didn’t like what I was doing.” During her senior year of high school, she was beaten severely by her younger brother.
To make matters worse, Iram became the target of bullying at school. “I started working at age 16, as it gave me an option to stay away from my home.”
Shortly after her high school graduation, her family took her to Pakistan. “They confiscated my passport and forced me to get married.”
At the end of that summer, she returned to the United States. Her new husband stayed in Pakistan and began the process of immigrating. Iram was heartbroken, depressed, and felt betrayed. However, for a time, Iram’s parents and siblings began to treat her better. “My value to them had increased since I got married. I was given more freedom to do as I wished, and my parents even paid for my classes when I went back to school.”
Two years later, her husband arrived in the United States. Shortly after arriving, he moved to New York, leaving Iram with her parents.
“After my husband moved away, our communication began to slow. Finally, one day, he answered my call, only to tell me I had the wrong number.”
Eventually, all communication ceased. “No one in my family suspected that my husband had been using my American citizenship, and our marriage, to immigrate to the United States.”
A Cycle of Abuse
After her husband disappeared, her family’s attitude towards her soured. They began to abuse her physically and verbally.
“I was forbidden from getting a divorce since it would only bring more dishonor to our name,” Iram explains. “My parents lied and told me, according to Islam, I would have to wait seven years to get divorced. To gain some independence, I used my savings to move to Maryland, where I began school again, and worked.”
Her independence was short-lived. In 2009, Iram was in a car accident that damaged her neck and spine. “I used up my savings, but eventually was forced to move back in with my parents. This extremely disheartened me. I lost all progress towards independence.
By 2012, seven years had passed since her marriage dissolved. “I was 28 years old and had spent almost a decade married to a man who played no role in my life.” She was finally divorced, but her family tried to find another arranged marriage. Iram refused.
“On March 8, 2014, I traveled to Pakistan at my younger brother’s request,” Iram told me. “During the evening, my aunts, younger brother, his bodyguard, and I went for dinner in Islamabad.
“Around 10:30 pm, my aunts and I dropped off my younger brother and his bodyguard at their car– parked off a secluded area of the highway. A few moments later, two motorcycles sped towards us, flanked the left side of the vehicle, and began firing gunshots into the front seat.
“One bullet shattered my lower jaw, gums, and teeth. The second bullet entered the left breast of my aunt, who was driving. My aunt and I were both taken to the Shifa International Hospital to undergo emergency surgeries.
“I remained in the hospital’s intensive care for almost a month. I have endured 14 major surgeries and many minor ones.
“My younger brother had taken out a one-million-dollar traveler’s insurance policy in my name. He named a few family members as beneficiaries, including himself.”
After returning home to the United States, Iram became even more dependent on her parents financially. “My mental health deteriorated,” Iram says. “I suffered from extreme depression, PTSD, and anxiety. At the time, I was unable to get any of the help I needed.”
To make matters worse, Iram’s younger brother moved into her family home. “His violence and anger towards me returned. I felt unsafe in my own home, and the tension became too much for everyone to bear. My parents told me I had 30 days to move out.”
Finding Healing in Community
Iram applied to George Washington University (GWU) and was accepted. “I struggled to find my place on campus as an older and non-traditional student. I longed to feel connected to a community. I learned that others felt the same way. So, I created the ‘Meet in the Middle’ organization at GWU as a way for individuals to come together. Regardless of our experiences in life, we unite and forge a sense of community.”
It was here, through this community, that Iram began to find healing. She wanted to share what she learned with others. So, Iram decided to write a book, Silent No More.
“I have come to understand how amazingly resilient humans can be. Each incident I’ve gone through has made me a better person. Although no one should ever choose to suffer, there are rewards of surviving. You learn tolerance and acceptance. You gain a greater understanding of others and yourself.
“I pray that by sharing my personal experiences, others will be inspired to reach out to me. I can understand their battles. I’ve fought my own, in my own shoes, with my own tools. But together, perhaps we can win the fight.”