Recently hashtags related to domestic violence were trending on Twitter, #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed, asking women to come forward with their stories about why they chose to leave or stay in an abusive relationship. I thought it was incredibly brave of people to tell their stories like that – something I have not been able to do, until now. I’ve had a lot to say to the few people who have asked, but I think it’s time to share my story even with those who haven’t asked, especially those women who have gone through, or may still be going through, similar experiences. I know I had no one to help me or guide me, or even to just listen to what I had to say; I had my family of course, but I never got “proper” guidance or support because I just didn’t know it was there.
To give you a bit of background, I am a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent; I was married to a British Pakistani man and lived with him and his parents for a grand total of sixteen weeks, which seemed to me like sixteen years because of the mental state I was in. As naive and idealistic as I was back then, I went along with my husband’s decision to have a baby ASAP, and lo and behold, three weeks after getting married I was pregnant with my first and only child.
The abuse I endured was predominantly psychological and emotional, with constant threats of physical violence. At the time, like a lot of people I thought that it was only domestic abuse if it was physical, and that anything else was just in my head. What I didn’t know was that this is one of the most dangerous things about psychological abuse, that it isn’t as easily identifiable as physical violence, even by the victims themselves. I just thought it was me: ‘he doesn’t beat the crap out of me, just pushes me to the ground and then he apologizes, just punches the wall half an inch away from my face instead of actually punching me and bless him, he hurts his poor abusive hand in the process.’
It wasn’t all me. In fact, it wasn’t me at all, and although I walked out eight years ago, I have only just realised that what I went through was abuse. It had all the classic signs: the fear of physical violence (pushing, shoving, punching wall etc.), isolation (moved into the sticks from a perfectly normal apartment in the city, unwilling to take me to see my family, unwilling to give me money or a car to go see them or to even give me money to top up my phone so that I could call my mother), and depriving me of basic needs like proper food and healthcare. On that last point, I once got left alone at home from about 7am till 10pm with no electricity, no water, no gas, hardly any food and hardly any money; I was about eight weeks pregnant and really struggling with my health. I could only eat what I really wanted to eat and struggled to even keep that down, so I ordered a Burger King meal with the last of my money, and boy did I get told off for not eating what was in the fridge! Also, with no running water, I was left a very kind note saying I should use the neighbour’s bathroom because he wasn’t going to be home anyway! I obviously didn’t do that, and instead used our supply of bottled water and felt super-defiant and proud – short-lived but so worth it. In the three months or so that I stayed with them, I was taken to the doctor once and that was only to register at the hospital where I was to give birth.
So you see, all the signs were there, but because of various reasons – ignorance, zero awareness, cultural/religious practices – initially I put up with all of it. But it kept escalating to the point where I knew that if I stayed the life of my unborn child would be in danger, and that even if the baby was born safely it would definitely feel the long-term psychological effects because of the mental state I was in and would probably have remained in for the rest of my life. So I left, because when it came to choosing between saving my marriage and saving my life and that of my unborn child, I chose the latter. I chose to save myself and my son from a marriage that would have led to our destruction, psychologically and emotionally and maybe even physically, because domestic abuse can and does lead to depression, which can and does make people suicidal.
I have numerous examples of women in my extended family who have put up with all kinds of domestic violence throughout their married lives and are doing so even to this day. I have always failed to understand why a woman would choose to stay, and the one reason that screams out at me is the question “what will people say?” I know this is a big issue especially in Pakistani communities, the concern over what society, community, people, relatives are going to say. My mother was one of those people initially, but many arguments later she came around; other people are not that easily convinced.
I know that making a decision like this sounds all too easy on paper, and that people actually experiencing abuse, find it daunting to even think about leaving. I know I felt like I was a huge disappointment to my parents, and I was worried about the possibility that they might not want to accept me back into their home and look after me. But then there came a point where I realised that I was prepared to be homeless and live on the streets. I knew then I wasn’t going to wait eighteen or twenty or twenty five years for my son to grow up and protect me from his own father. I was not going to put my son through that and force him to grow up too soon and feel like he is responsible for me and my protection and not the other way around. And what if I had a daughter, what then? Could I still wait for her to grow up and do the same? Or do abused mothers with daughters have no hope? And why couldn’t I just stand up for myself and protect myself? Was that so hard to accept? I didn’t want to be one of the many women in my family who stayed, so I left. And as a consequence of my decision, I am the only single parent in my entire family, and my son has never seen his father. But I’m OK with that, because seeing my son as the happy, clever, funny, smart, healthy child that he is, is more than worth it.
There is a lot of shame and fear and guilt associated with walking out of, or even talking about, abusive relationships. I should know – even after eight years, I am still something of a social outcast because I’m divorced and a single parent; people tend to assume it was my husband who left me because there MUST be something wrong with me, or else WHY would a woman CHOOSE to walk out of a marriage, especially with a child on the way.
Huma Munshi said “#FuckHonour and #FuckShame when it silences young people reaching out.” I feel that is relevant even to adult women going through domestic violence, and I would just like to add to that and say #ScrewWhatPeopleSay because #WhoReallyGivesACrap? Your life, your happiness, your sanity and that of your children should be the priority, not what anyone will say or how the family will supposedly be dishonoured. And there probably isn’t a simple answer as to why women choose to stay or to leave, but for me, if you are forced to choose between saving your relationship and yourself, then save yourself, always save yourself because no relationship is ever worth risking your life over.
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Rubab Zaidi is a freelance writer who is currently working in Sales and Training. She loves shopping, fashion (especially the modest kind), and socialising over cups of tea. She is an eternal optimist and believes that good communication skills can make life so much easier. She is a single mum to a beautiful boy who is her biggest fan. Life has taught Rubab to prioritise her own health and well-being without paying heed to the opinions of others. She tweets @Ruby2805.