When I was a kid, my only goal was to get a good education. I dreamed of attending Harvard or Stanford & planned to become a doctor one day. I was the eldest of 4 daughters in a Pakistani Muslim family. We lived in Ruwais, a small town in the United Arab Emirates, where my father worked in an oil plant & my mother was a teacher. At school, I always stood out among the girls in my class. I was brash, clever, outspoken. I took pride in acing every test. When I brought home top marks, my father would celebrate by handing out sweets.
One day, when I was in Grade 10, I was in my bedroom doing my math homework. My mother walked in. She told me I had received a marriage proposal. I laughed. “Mom, what are you talking about?” I asked. She didn’t crack a smile & I realized she was serious. “I’m only 16,” I said. “I am not ready for marriage.” She told me that I was lucky. The offer came from a nice man who lived in Canada. He was 28 years old & worked in IT. His sister was a friend of hers. The woman thought I would make a perfect match for her brother—I was very tall & he was 6″2. “They are going to look so great together in pictures,” she had said to my mother.
For weeks, I pleaded with my mom not to make me go through with it. I would sit at the foot of her bed, begging. She would tell me it was for my own good & that a future in Canada would give me opportunities I would not have here at home. She assured me that she had spoken to his family about my desire to continue my education. “You can go to school in Canada & we do not have to worry about you being alone,” she said. The next thing I knew, his parents were measuring my wrist for wedding bangles. The date was set for 5 months later, in July 1999.
My friends would talk about their own dream weddings—the gowns they would wear, how they planned to be dutiful wives & homemakers. When I told them about my doubts, they thought I was crazy, that I was a fool, that Allah would punish me for being ungrateful. Marriage was their ultimate goal in life. But I didn’t want it. I just didn’t know how to get away.
Samra Zafar at top centre, at age 7, shown with her father & 3 younger sisters at their home in the United Arab Emirates.
For the next few months, I had recurring nightmares about my impending marriage. In my dreams, I was trapped inside a house, watching from the window as students made their way along the sidewalk to school. I would wake up sweating & scared in the middle of the night. My mother would try to calm me down, telling me I was being hysterical. One night, when I woke up screaming, she decided to do something about it. She phoned my future husband in Canada & allowed me to speak to him for the first time. All I knew about him were those few details my mom had shared with me the night he proposed. When I picked up the phone, I was meek. I only had one question: “Will you let me go to school?” He reassured me: “Yeah, yeah, I’ll let you go to school. Don’t worry.”
The first time I saw him was on July 22, 1999, the day before the wedding, at his family’s home in Karachi. As we sat sipping tea, I snuck furtive glances at the man who was going to be my husband. I felt dwarfed by him.
The next day, we were at my grandfather’s house for the wedding. As my mother adjusted my gown, I pulled back. I told her I wanted to run away. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “All the guests are here.” Someone put the marriage licence in front of me, I was told to sign it & I did. Later we held a celebration at a high-end restaurant in the city. Strings of lights & red ribbons decorated the room & 200 of our parents’ friends came. There were piles of food & everybody laughed, sang & danced long into the night. I wore a long red lehenga sari. I was told to sit there quietly & look down at my hands, playing the demure bride.
This was the first of 2 ceremonies—we had to make it official so that my husband could apply for my sponsorship in Canada. The second ceremony was still months away, as was my wedding night. In the meantime, I continued to live with my parents & attend school. My new husband stayed in Pakistan for a month. We saw each other a few times, but never for long & usually with others around. One evening, we went to Pizza Hut with his older brother & his brother’s wife. It was my first date & I was so shy I barely spoke. We talked regularly online, over MSN Messenger & occasionally on the phone. Slowly, I grew more comfortable with the marriage. Nothing about him struck me as special. He was not smart or funny or warm, but he was a normal enough guy. He told me how pleased he was that his wife was so smart. He suggested university programs I should consider in Canada. He agreed to wait to have kids until I finished school. He said all the right things.
When my immigration papers came through in August 2000, we both flew to Abu Dhabi for our second, smaller celebration. After it was over, we slept together for the first time. I was petrified. I knew nothing about sex or birth control & neither did he. My aunt had told me about ovulation, explaining that I could not get pregnant if I had sex on certain days of the month. I thought our wedding night was one of those days. I had never even seen a condom before.
Later that week, we flew to Canada and I moved into his two-bedroom condo in Mississauga. I missed my parents, my friends, my school. I was so unhappy that I stopped eating & I spent most of my days watching TV while my husband was at work. I stopped getting my period right away. At first, I thought it was because of the move, the abrupt change in environment. But a month passed, then another. I was getting sick every morning. My nausea was so severe that I was afraid to go outside in case I fainted. Finally I told my husband that I needed to see a doctor. I sat in the doctor’s office, listening to him ask me if I understood what being pregnant meant. All I knew was that it meant I could not go to school. This can’t be happening, I thought. This isn’t happening. I was only 17.
During the first few months of my pregnancy, my husband was kind & thoughtful. He took late-night trips to the grocery store to satisfy my cravings. He would call a couple of times a day from work to ask how I was feeling & every night we cooked dinner together. I discovered an adult learning center near our condo & enrolled in an ESL course. I thought our marriage was going well. Then, 2 months before our daughter was born, he told me his parents would be moving to Canada & staying with us. He had planned for them to live with us all along, but this was the first I had heard of it. We moved out of the master bedroom into the smaller one so his parents would be more comfortable.
Everything changed when they arrived. My husband & I stopped spending time alone together. His mother got upset when he paid attention to me, so he did not show me any affection. When I would ask if I could call my parents in Ruwais, he or his mother would tell me we could not afford international calls.
In May 2001, I gave birth to our daughter. When we returned from the hospital, my husband slept on the couch while I stayed with the baby in the second bedroom. I had never felt so alone. I fantasized about stealing money from my husband’s wallet & taking a cab to the airport, calling my parents & asking them to buy me a plane ticket home. But I did not want to leave my daughter behind.
When she was a few months old, we bought a 4 bedroom house in Streetsville with his parents. I was rarely allowed to leave. I never had a penny to my name. My mother-in-law gave me her cast-off clothing to wear. I did not have a cellphone. I was not allowed to go to the grocery store on my own. If I did not iron my husband’s shirts or make his lunch or finish my chores, he & my in-laws told me that I was a bad wife who could not keep my family happy. I walked on eggshells all the time. If I asked my husband something, he would reply, “Bitch, get out of here.”
2 years in, the abuse got physical. He would grab my wrist & shove me around. I would be sitting on the couch & he would slap me upside the head, or grab me so hard on my upper arms that my skin would bruise. Once he tossed a glass of water in my face; I slipped on the floor & threw out my back. Another time he punched a hole in the wall next to my head & told me, “Next time, it’s going to be you!” On several occasions, he picked up a knife & said he was going to kill me & then himself.
I was having suicidal thoughts all the time. I was convinced my life was over. One time, I took a razor blade into the shower & thought about cutting myself, stopping only when I heard my baby cry. I believed my unhappiness was my fault—that the secret to perfect wife-hood was eluding me. If I had just done the dishes better, been quieter, anticipated that he wanted a cup of coffee or a glass of water, then none of this would have happened.
When my daughter turned 3, I learned about a parent drop-in center called Ontario Early Years, funded by the Ministry of Education. Located in a Streetsville strip mall, the space was bright & cheerful. My daughter would make crafts or play with Play-Doh & the parents would gather in a song circle with their children & recite nursery rhymes. My husband took my daughter & me there a couple of times. Eventually, he let me walk over on my own. I looked forward to those 2 afternoons a week, when I would be allowed to step outside by myself without fear, when I would feel fresh air on my face.
The woman who ran the center was Pakistani & she recognized some of the signs of abuse even before I knew what to call it. She saw how jittery I would get if the sessions were running long, or how I would have to ask permission from my husband if there were any changes to the schedule. She let me use the phone to call my parents. I tearfully told my father what was happening, that I felt imprisoned & helpless. He was horrified, but advised me to wait until I got my Canadian citizenship. “That way you would not risk losing your daughter,” he said. So I waited another year. Throughout this period, I resumed my education, taking high school courses by correspondence. I applied to university several times. I was always accepted, but my husband would never pay the tuition.
In 2005, I told my husband that I wanted to go home to visit my family for 4 months. It had been 5 years since I had last seen them. When he told me he did not have the money, my father sent plane tickets for me & my daughter, who was 4 by then. On my way to the airport, I asked my husband for $10 to buy myself a coffee & my daughter a snack. “Bitch, go ask your father for that too,” he told me, as he dropped me off at Pearson. When my parents picked me up at the airport, they almost did not recognize me. I had lost so much weight I looked skeletal.
My family were shocked. The bright, confident girl they knew had been replaced with a skittish, scared young woman. It took a couple of months for me to realize I could go to the mall on my own, or to the grocery store. These were small triumphs, but they helped build up my confidence. By the end of my visit, I was resolved not to go back to Canada. As soon as I delivered the news to my husband over the phone, he unleashed a flood of apologies. He told me he would never hurt me again. He promised we would move out of the house, that we would live alone together like we used to.
He wore me down. In August 2005, I returned to Canada. We moved into a new apartment & my husband was paying both his parents’ mortgage & our rent, leaving little money for anything else. At first, he was kind again. But within a few months, I got pregnant with our second daughter, & the abuse resumed. I needed an escape plan, so I began tutoring & babysitting children in our apartment building, slowly saving money for 5 months until I had enough for my daughter & me to fly to Karachi, where my sister was getting married. This time I was not coming back.
My father had been diagnosed with kidney failure before I had arrived in December & over the next few months I watched helplessly as his condition deteriorated. One day, I sat with him in the ICU. “Papa, if something happens to you, what am I going to do?” I asked him. “Realize the strength you have inside of you,” he told me. “Go back to Canada & find a way to get out of your marriage.” He died 2 days later. My husband arrived in Karachi that week for the funeral. Sex was the first thing he wanted. It was not until he had finished that he asked me how I was feeling. I said I was fine, got up & walked to the bathroom. I turned on the shower so he would not hear me cry.
When I asked my mother what to do, she told me I should go back with him. After all, she had 2 more daughters to marry off, she said & she did not have the money to support me. I could not work. I had no education or experience & I was pregnant. Resigned & defeated, I went back with him. While I had been away, he had moved back into his parents’ house. This time I got a small room in the basement, with bare walls & a little window in the corner. My daughter slept in her crib in the room next door. In June 2006, I gave birth to my second daughter. I was miserable.
And yet my father’s words had ignited something in me. I knew I was smart & I knew the only way out was through school. I studied in my room every night, finishing the last course I needed for my GED, a Grade 13 economics credit. A few months after my younger daughter was born, I earned my diploma & decided to apply to university again. I knew my husband would never let me leave the house to earn money for tuition, so I resurrected my babysitting service, telling him I was earning money for the family. I co-opted my mother-in-law with the promise that she would earn easy money taking care of kids & my husband even let me buy a van to drive my charges around. I was making between $2,000 & $3,000 every month & though I had to turn over my earnings to my husband, I managed to sock away a few hundred dollars here & there. It took me 2 years to save enough for 1 year of school.
In 2008, I applied to U of T’s economics program. I was accepted. Nothing was going to stop me from going. “Who’s going to pay for your tuition?” my husband asked. “I am,” I responded. My in-laws were so angry about my decision that no one in the house spoke to me for 6 months. I did not care. This was my chance to get out. It had taken me nearly 10 years, but I had gone from victim to survivor.
My first day of school in September 2008 was one of the best of my life. I got to school 15 minutes before my class started & walked through the Kaneff Centre at U of T Mississauga. After everything I had been through, I had finally achieved my dream. I sat in the hall, tears running down my cheeks. If only my father could have seen this, I thought to myself.
I thrived in my new environment. I aced every class & other students gravitated toward me, asking to study or socialize. My success changed my thinking. If I was the scum on the bottom of my husband’s shoe, like I had been told all these years, why were my marks so high? Why did classmates want to be my friend? I could feel vestiges of confidence I had not had in years. One day in October I was walking to the campus bookstore to buy textbooks. Just around the corner, outside the health & counselling center, a flyer on a bulletin board caught my eye. On it was a list of questions. “Do you feel intimidated? Do you feel like you do not have a voice? Do you feel like you have lost your identity?” As my eyes ran quickly down the list, my brain screamed over & over again: yes, yes, yes. “Come in & make an appointment,” the poster read. I opened the door & walked inside.
A few days later, I sat across from a counselor, describing what was going on at home. “I don’t know what to do,” I told her. “I am trying to keep my husband happy & I am still not good enough. He keeps telling me I am worthless. All I want to do is fix it.” She grabbed my hand. “It’s not your fault,” she said. It was the first time anyone had said that to me. As I continued my counselling, I realized that what had happened to me was wrong. My agency had been stripped away. I learned about the cycle of abuse that characterizes so many unhealthy relationships.
Our marriage was becoming more toxic every day. He once bought me a cellphone as a present, but installed spyware on it so he could monitor my calls. He kicked me in the stomach. He kept threatening to kill me. A year after I started counselling, I told him I wanted a divorce. “What are you talking about?” he asked me. “I love you. I can not live without you.”
One January night in 2011, he picked a fight. I was not doing enough housework, he said. As he loomed over me, tightening his fist, I picked up my phone. “If you touch me, I am going to call 911,” I shouted & then he spat out the word divorce, in Urdu, 3 times: talaq, talaq, talaq. According to some Islamic scholars, uttering those words means the marriage is over.
I thought I would be thrilled when he left, but I was terrified. I had never lived on my own & I was bracing myself for the shame I believed I would bring to my family. He sold our house out from under me, leaving me & the kids with 3 weeks to pack up. We had nowhere to go. I even registered at a couple of shelters, expecting to be homeless. One day, I was at the U of T tuition office & a woman overheard me lamenting my situation. She suggested I look into campus housing; luckily, the university had one family unit left. 2 days later, I had the keys to my very own shabby 3 bedroom townhouse.
I could not afford movers. I packed all my belongings into garbage bags & made 10 trips back & forth every day for 5 days, in the van I used to drive the kids who attended my home daycare. I used my last $100 to pay a couple of students to help me move my furniture. I was relieved not to be out on the streets. I slept in 1 room with my youngest daughter. My eldest had the second bedroom, with enough space just for a single bed. I rented out the third room to a Pakistani student who watched my girls while I worked in the evenings. It was tiny, but it was ours. That year, I juggled 5 jobs to stay afloat. I worked as a TA, a researcher with the City of Mississauga & a student mentor. I did night shifts at the student information center on campus. I even ran a small catering business out of my apartment.
One day it dawned on me that my husband was a man willing to put his own kids out on the street to teach me a lesson. I drove to the police station & reported everything. I gave a 3 hour long videotaped statement, offering as much detail as I could about the decade of abuse I had endured. The officer said he likely would not be able to lay charges because there were not any bruises on my body. But it did not matter. Just telling the authorities was a huge relief. It was my way of acknowledging everything to myself, of finally saying, it was not my fault—none of it was my fault.
The officers interviewed my doctor & counselors, and 2 days later they arrested my husband for assault. He pleaded guilty. We finalized our divorce & he got joint custody. My older daughter refused to see him, but my younger daughter visited him every other week.
There were many times over the next year that I thought I had made a mistake, that I could not do it on my own. I thought the shame would never go away. After my marriage ended, none of my old friends would speak to me. My mother refused to tell people back home. I had no family in Canada, no friends at school who knew what was going on. I was completely isolated. I had always been told that women are responsible for upholding the family’s honour. A woman living alone is a sin. A woman travelling alone is a sin. When everybody around you says you are in the wrong, that your dreams are not valid, you start to believe that & there were many times that I would fall into those sinkholes.
A few weeks later, I got an email saying that I was one of five finalists. I arrived for my interview on February 6, 2013. The committee ran through questions about my academic record and leadership experience. I had written about my abusive marriage in my application, too & at the end of the interview, the panel asked me how I go on after everything I have been through. My polish wore off in that moment. “Every day I feel like giving up,” I told them. “But I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that being abused is normal.”
45 minutes after my interview concluded, I got a phone call. John Rothschild, chair of the selection committee & the CEO of Prime Restaurants, was on the other end of the line with a few other panelists. “Congratulations,” they said. “You are our winner this year.” I could not believe it. I grabbed my daughters’ hands & danced wildly around the house with them. I wanted to tell the whole world. Since then, John has become a friend, a mentor & the closest thing I have to a father figure. He taught me how to believe in myself again. He says if I ever get married again, he wants to walk me down the aisle.
Around the time of my graduation, I was named the top economics student at U of T. At the award ceremony, a journalist introduced herself to me (her daughter was in my class). I told her my story & she published an article about it in a Pakistan newspaper. As my story circulated through the community, I received hundreds of messages from women all over the world trapped in forced marriages & looking for help. So many of them sounded like me 5 years earlier, isolated & helpless. Women who show up at shelters or call assault hotlines or leave their homes find themselves completely alone. Without any help, they return to their abusers or fall into new relationships that are just as bad. Once, while I was TA-ing at U of T, a father barged into my office yelling. “You are pushing my daughter to get her master’s degree!” I could not believe it. To me, it was natural to offer encouragement—his daughter was the top student in my class. “She’s supposed to marry a boy in Egypt. Stop poisoning her with your Canadian bullshit,” he barked.
Years ago, a woman wrote to me asking if we could talk on Skype. She was a Canadian university graduate whose parents forced her into a marriage in Pakistan after she finished school. Brutally abused for 3 years, she returned to Canada to have her baby. She wanted to leave her marriage. After we finished talking, I drove to her house & encouraged her to do it. “No one will ever love me again,” she said. 3 years later, she graduated from a master’s program & got a job working full-time in Toronto. I realized I could not stop abuse from happening. But I could offer friendship to women in similar positions to my own. I started a non-profit called Brave Beginnings that will help women rebuild their lives after escaping abusive relationships. John Rothschild, my mentor, provided our start-up funding, and we are piloting the project this year.
For the past 3 years, I have lived in a 3 bedroom condo in Mississauga with my 2 daughters, who are now 15 & 10. I serve as an alumni governor at the University of Toronto & I speak about my experience for organizations like Amnesty International. I m happier than I ever imagined I could be. I want women to know that they deserve a life of respect, dignity & freedom, that it Is never too late to speak up. It infuriates me that many women are expected to uphold their family’s honour, yet they do not have any themselves.
Last April, I called my ex. I wanted to help him repair his relationship with our older daughter. It had been 4 years since we had spoken in person. I decided to meet with him. Despite everything, I believed that my girls deserved to have their father in their lives. I sat in a coffee shop at Eglinton & Creditview Road, desperately hoping that I was no longer scared of him.
I saw him walking across the parking lot & waited for an avalanche of fear to hit me. It never came. Sitting across from me, he was just another person. To my surprise, he apologized. “I cannot believe after everything that you are still willing to help me repair my relationship with our kids,” he said. That day in the coffee shop, I finally felt free.
A few weeks ago, I lay in bed cuddling with my youngest daughter. Every night, we snuggle for 10 minutes before she goes to bed, just the 2 of us, unpacking the day. Out of the blue, she said, “Mom, I think Daddy’s family picked you because you were only 16. They thought you were just going to do whatever they told you to do & they would be able to make you into whoever they wanted you to be.” And then she paused. “Man,” she said. “They picked the wrong girl.”
Copied from Toronto Life.