Providing for the family at age four
LAHORE: Life for a 4-year-old girl doesn’t get much tougher than this. To earn a living for her family, tiny Pakistani street performer Sonia Hussain lies down on broken glass.
In front of a small crowd by a Lahore riverside, she peels off her shirt and gingerly stretches over shards scattered on the ground. Then, to gasps from spectators, her 34-year-old father Iqbal stands on Sonia - one foot on her chest, the other on her thighs - his full weight of perhaps 154 pounds bearing down on the girl.
Her small body is pressed to the ground, and her face and eyes betray the pain she’s feeling. But she keeps her mouth tightly shut to stop herself from crying out.
When Iqbal gets down, Sonia’s back is reddened but the skin isn’t broken - although two scratches lined her back from earlier performances, and a half-inch cut was still healing on her neck.
During the stunt, several spectators threw money on a plastic mat spread out on the dusty ground. Afterward, Sonia and her father went among the few dozen onlookers to collect more money.
Some among the crowd patted Sonia on the head or gave her hugs. Others muttered criticisms at the father: “You shouldn’t do that!”
“Poor child. Why are you punishing her?” It’s not unusual for children in impoverished Pakistan to be forced into dangerous occupations to support their families - labouring at brick kilns, begging or racing camels - but Sonia’s job is blatantly painful.
“Putting innocent children into such a business is indeed very cruel. More cruel are those who watch and enjoy such acts,” said Husain Naqi at Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission.
He accused the government of neglecting its commitments under the UN Child Rights Convention, and said Pakistan’s civil society isn’t strong enough to put pressure on the government to take action against abusers.
The father Iqbal was unapologetic, however. He was dismissive of the ordeal Sonia goes through, largely because he went through it himself as a child, as did two of his five brothers after their father picked up the trick from a circus.
“It’s our family business,” Iqbal said. “We make our children tough from a very early age. We make them learn how to bear pain.”
To demonstrate, Iqbal unceremoniously grabbed one of Sonia’s little feet and bent the leg backward so the foot touched the back of her head. The girl burst into tears.
Sonia, whose short cropped hair makes her look boyish, has been performing the broken glass stunt for about a year. Her 2-year-old sister Sakina will start training in a few months time, Iqbal said.
Before starting a performance, Iqbal jokes with Sonia, massages her body and motivates her with praise. “You are my brave boy,” he says. “You do not have any fear. You will excite the people. You will make the people happy. You will make your parents proud of you!”
Sometimes he scolds her and lightly slaps her when she answers back.
Iqbal comes from a wandering family of acrobats who have performed in cities around Pakistan for years. Now, they live by the Ravi River in this teeming eastern metropolis. Their home is a tent with a charpoy - a bed with strips of rope set in a wood frame serving as a mattress - out front.
Along with Sonia’s glass stunt, the family’s act includes balancing tricks and contortions. In one manoeuvre, the girl perches on a stool and bends backward to pick up a currency note with her mouth from the ground behind here.
The family can earn up to Rs 800 a day with the act - a big wage for most workers in Pakistan – although Iqbal said some days they earn nothing at all.
Asked about her performance, Sonia smiles and seems to parrot her father’s words. “I get money for this pain. I enjoy it. Sometimes I get injured, I just apply oil and it is healed,” she said.
Her mother, Rafia, can’t bear to watch when Sonia performs, but says it’s necessary her daughter does it. “You know well that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like just to nourish our sinners’ bodies,” she said, carrying Sakina in her arms.
Iqbal said that in some places, police bar them from performing the broken glass stunt, but when that happens, they just move on. Spectators also offer money to try and persuade him to spare his daughter from the ordeal.
The father appeared hardened to such pity. “It is a routine. I do not care,” he said. ap