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 and walked through the Kaneff Centre at U of T Mississauga. After everything I’d been through, I’d 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, and 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’d 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 hadn’t had in years. One day in October I was walking to the campus bookstore to buy textbooks. Just around the corner, outside the health and counselling centre, 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 don’t have a voice? Do you feel like you’ve lost your identity?" As my eyes ran quickly down the list, my brain screamed over and over again: yes, yes, yes. "Come in and make an appointment," the poster read. I opened the door and walked inside.
A few days later, I sat across from a counsellor, describing what was going on at home. "I don’t know what to do," I told her. "I’m trying to keep my husband happy and I’m still not good enough. He keeps telling me I’m 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’t live without you."
One January night in 2011, he picked a fight. I wasn’t doing enough housework, he said. As he loomed over me, tightening his fist, I picked up my phone. "If you touch me, I’m going to call 911," I shouted. And then he spat out the word divorce, in Urdu, three times: talaq, talaq, talaq. According to some Islamic scholars, uttering those words means the marriage is over.
I thought I’d be thrilled when he left, but I was terrified. I’d never lived on my own, and 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 and the kids with three 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, and a woman overheard me lamenting my situation. She suggested I look into campus housing; luckily, the university had one family unit left. Two days later, I had the keys to my very own shabby three-bedroom townhouse.
I couldn’t afford movers. I packed all my belongings into garbage bags and made 10 trips back and forth every day for five 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.
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 and reported everything. I gave a three-hour-long videotaped statement, offering as much detail as I could about the decade of abuse I’d endured. The officer said he likely wouldn’t be able to lay charges because there weren’t any bruises on my body. But it didn’t matter. Just telling the authorities was a huge relief. It was my way of acknowledging everything to myself, of finally saying, it wasn’t my fault—none of it was my fault.
The officers interviewed my doctor and counsellors, and two days later they arrested my husband for assault. He pleaded guilty. We finalized our divorce, and 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’d made a mistake, that I couldn’t 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’d 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’re in the wrong, that your dreams aren’t valid, you start to believe that. And there were many times that I’d fall into those sinkholes.
To be continued....