by Huma Munshi

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a stirring piece on the power of forgiveness this weekend. In the article he writes of the guilt he carried as a child witnessing the violence perpetrated by his father against his mother, which he was powerless to stop. He realises now that this guilt is unfounded and has been able to forgive his father and forgive his younger self.

As moving as his piece is, it fails to acknowledge the power of anger as a survival mechanism for victims of domestic violence because of the institutional and wider forms of oppressions we face.

I have written elsewhere about fleeing a forced marriage ; having survived abuse it is anger which I readily turn to in times of crisis. My subconscious sees anger as a survival mechanism which was previously denied to me. The anger I felt in the months leading up to a marriage I had never acquiesced to was suppressed; in any case I soon realised that it, like I, was not heard; being silenced broke a part of me. 

In Archbishop Tutu’s piece I wondered long and hard about his mother and how she dealt with the violence. I wondered if, like me, she supressed her anger. That’s the thing about violence perpetrated by a partner or a loved one: it somehow shames you into silence because admitting you are victim feels utterly humiliating. Her absence from his piece, juxtaposed with the centrality of the father, was troubling.

Forgiveness is a not an emotion a survivor of violence can easily embrace. Though reading this from Archbishop Tutu, I could see its value: “No one is born full of violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or me. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.” Whilst it resonated, there is a world of difference between forgiving intellectually and embracing that forgiveness on an emotional level.

For a woman of colour who is also a survivor of honour based violence, the repeated emotional fight for survival is compounded. I must also survive the multiple forms of oppression I will experience in a society dominated by the ideology of the white man. Tutu unwittingly misses out this perspective. Forgiveness is a luxury in these cases that we cannot all afford.

If there is one point where I agree with Tutu is forgiving myself. Like many other survivors (before my consciousness was raised) I was conditioned to accept the ideology ofhonour”, which is not dissimilar to the values of any other patriarchal society. In these societies a woman is always to blame: her skirt was too short; she was too drunk; too reckless. Or in my case: I was not chaste enough; not virtuous or modest. In patriarchal culture, women take on these values as well. Indeed, it was my mother who was the key proponent of my oppression. 

Jasvinder Sanghera, Activist and Founder of charity Karma Nirvana has spoken about overcoming guilt and shame after she flee a potential forced marriage
Jasvinder Sanghera, Activist and Founder of charity Karma Nirvana has spoken about overcoming guilt and shame after she fleed a potential forced marriage

Reading Archibishop Tutu’s piece I realised that I was angry at myself for not being able to walk away before the façade of the marriage took place. I realise that the values of honour/patriarchy had led me to victim blame. So if there is one valuable lesson I take from Tutu it is to forgive myself.

But, like many other survivors our battles are hard fought. It will take me a long time to let go of the roaring lion within that wants to fight her corner.

Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change. She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here

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7 thoughts on “Archbishop Desmond Tutu, forgiveness and survival

  1. Dear Huma,

    I wanted to let you know how profoundly your article and our brief dialogue affected me. As we touched upon notions of forgiveness I found myself stepping back and questioning the idea of how necessary forgiveness is to healing. If forgiveness is something we’ve both struggled with and found difficult maybe the problem didn’t lie within us but with the entire notion. After some reflection I’ve decided to reject that forgiveness is necessary to get to a place of healing and release. I’ve decided to forge my own path, one that circumvents a notion of forgiveness that for many years has felt oppressive to me.
    I’ve written an essay about my thoughts which you can read if you’re interested:

    I know you’re busy but I just wanted you to know that even though our exchange was short it allowed me to rethink ideas that had been holding me back. I’ve finally been able to let go of 13 years of anger and bitterness in a way that doesn’t feel like a surrender. So thank you. I wish I could find better words to express my gratitude but those are all I can think of.



    1. Jessica, thank you for your words, your honesty and sharing your journey, it is a courageous act. I read your article and was particularly moved by your dialogue to the person that has hurt you. Taking that stand is hard, it is right (for me and you) but it is so damn hard.

      I think concentrating on self-care and not focusing on forgiving the perpetrator is a way of loving ourselves and forging our path. We somehow look outside the fog of pain and see the objective facts for what they are. In that moment we decide that we matter, our life matters and our healing matters. The people that hurt us no longer have power over us as you so eloquently stated.

      Thank you for this dialogue. It has moved me. x


  2. Thank you so much for your moving piece. This line especially resonated with me:

    “having survived abuse it is anger which I readily turn to in times of crisis”.

    I often struggle with trying to find a balance between the anger which has served me so well in dysfunctional situations and letting that anger go in my functional relationships. Forgiveness may be a gift we give to ourselves but there are still some things I’m not ready forgive. Maybe learning to live with our anger in a way that is healthy and productive is a better gift than forgiveness.


    1. I love this line: “forgiveness maybe the gift we give to ourselves”. That’s important learning for me and something I constantly struggle with.


      1. I think when we have been affected by violence and/or abuse it makes sense to not forgive so readily. It keeps us wary, in a way that is protective. Sometimes I wonder if forgiveness is as divine as people say. Your article got me thinking about whether it’s possible to hold on to the residual anger left from those who have harmed us in a way that is positive, if that makes sense. Maybe there is something better than forgiveness. Something that allows us to still hold that person accountable but forgive ourselves and not be burdened by what they have done. Thank you again for your article. I look forward to reading more by you.


        1. You speak the truth! I agree about the power of forgiving ourselves. Accepting that emotionally is a hugely important part of recovery and lays the foundation for loving oneself and letting love in.
          Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. X


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