She woke up next to him every morning with a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, dreading what the day would bring. He would wake up every morning making every effort to not even look in her direction. She’d watch him with his back towards her and wonder what she had done wrong. It was always the same. There was no reason and yet, there was always a reason. There was always a reason for him to be mad at her or to belittle her or to try and deny her existence entirely. Nothing was ever good enough, everything she did was wrong. But why… what did she do wrong? Why couldn’t anyone just give her the damned answer, one reason, one explanation, anything to make her understand what it was. But no answer ever came and it never would. Eventually she realised that it wasn’t her, and to this day she doesn’t know what it was that made her think that, where she got the strength, the determination. But it was the fear, fear for her life and fear of losing her baby. That fear made her walk out of there and never look back. But what if she hadn’t been pregnant, would she still have walked out? It’s something she dares not think about.
For a lot of women around the world, even that fear is not enough to make them walk out because there’s the fear of what might happen to them if they did. Will he come after me? Will he take my child/children away from me? How will I survive?
In this week’s Panorama report, Domestic Abuse: Caught on Camera, we hear from a few women who have been victims of domestic abuse and have been faced with all of the questions posed above. The report attempts to highlight the seriousness of the issue of domestic violence and gives viewers a very tiny glimpse of what victims of domestic abuse go through.
I was looking forward to watching the report but failed miserably on my first attempt, mainly because just a week prior to that I had watched this TED Talks video by Leslie Morgan Steiner, a survivor of a violent, abusive relationship and the author of ‘Crazy Love’. The video was a massive trigger for me and left me feeling physically sick, I stayed up pretty much all night (thank goodness for friends who’ll chat to you regardless of what time it is). So when Panorama aired on Monday night all I could take was two minutes and I had to stop, but I watched it the next day and I’m glad I did.
While I appreciate that Panorama finally did a report on domestic violence and gave a lot of facts and figures, which will hopefully help people see how serious this issue actually is, I do feel like it wasn’t enough. All the victims they interviewed were white women, probably all aged between 40-60 years, and all in heterosexual relationships. And anyone who knows anything about domestic abuse knows that it can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, race or religion. I would have liked to see a more diverse group of people, but to be fair to the show, it isn’t always easy to get victims to come forward, especially if they are from a South Asian background.
Which is why I’m writing this, because I feel like there isn’t enough being said or done about domestic abuse within the South Asian community. I personally know quite a few more women who are going through or have gone through abuse but they won’t come forward. Several people reached out to me after I shared my story and they all said the same thing, they were grateful I had shared it because it gave them hope, either for themselves or for the women they knew who were experiencing something similar, hope that if I could do it then maybe so could they. They wanted to keep in touch with me because they felt like they needed someone to talk to, as they had no one else who understood. As honoured as I am by this, it’s also extremely worrying and unbelievably sad. The shame attached to coming forward or walking out of an abusive relationship and being stigmatized when you’re divorced is still too widespread, too common and too easily done and it needs to stop.
We have people (by people I mean South Asian people) condemning the oppression of the Palestinians and the Rohingya and speaking up against and raising awareness about the Shia genocide in Pakistan and the ethnic cleansing of the Hazara, there are sit-ins and candle light vigils and protests being organized for all of the above and yet, we won’t talk about the oppression of our own women – our mothers, sisters, daughters, who are being abused and oppressed right under our noses. We choose to turn a blind eye to this.
Why don’t we openly talk about it, in our religious or community centres? Are there any measures put in place for women who might like to come forward and seek help? If so, what are they? Are female members of organizing committees at centres being given the opportunity to provide counselling and support to the victims? Do they even think of offering these services to women in the community? Does the topic even come up? Where is the sisterhood amongst South Asian women? Shouldn’t we all be uniting against men who abuse us? Then why do most women choose to ignore it or deny it or judge and/or alienate the women who do come forward? I’ve been going to mosques and centres since I was a baby and I don’t ever recall a single lecture or discussion educating us about this issue, but maybe, hopefully, that’s just because I haven’t gone to the right ones?
I know that when I was going through whatever I was going through, after I had come back to my parents house, I sought help through various religious “scholars” in the hope that they’d be able to guide me and maybe even be willing to try and talk some sense into my husband (because my parents still felt like it was worth a try, I went along with it). I was sorely disappointed. Two of the scholars disappeared entirely and I never heard from them again. A third suggested that my nickname Ruby didn’t “suit” me and that I should be called Rubab Zaidi, not even just Rubab. I mean, really? I have been called Ruby since I was born and now that I’m married the name suddenly clashes with my husband’s name and I should change it? That sounded to me like he was saying: it was all your fault you were having issues, if you would just change your name or be called by your full name for the rest of your life all your domestic issues will be solved. Well that wasn’t an option, this guy’s suggestion just made me angry. All I could think was ‘What an absolutely ridiculous suggestion! I come to you for help and guidance and you turn it all around on me?’ Clearly the thought that I may not have been to blame, never crossed his mind, clearly he was like many other men, refusing to recognise that domestic abuse was a serious issue.
Coming back to my original point, where do South Asian women go when their own families and friends and their ‘community’ refuse to help them? Who do they turn to?
There are several charities that are doing some amazing work to help victims of domestic violence, donations can be made, funds can be raised, and voices can be heard. Back in 2005, the Muslim community in Philadelphia took the initiative of naming and shaming perpetrators of domestic violence. Mosques in the community were made aware of who these men are in order to stop them getting married again and repeating the cycle with other women.
I think this is a brilliant initiative and we need to see more of this because my real concern, above all else, is that while there is help and support for women after they have become victims of domestic violence, what are we actually doing to prevent it?
It’s also great to see a programme like Panorama giving domestic violence the attention it deserves even if it was a very singular view of a very multifaceted problem. But we need to see more of it so we can make sure people know what domestic violence is, what the effects of it are, who does it affect and what help is available to the victims. Because most domestic violence is not caught on camera. Towards the end of her video Steiner says “Abuse thrives only in silence. You have the power to end domestic violence, simply by shining a spotlight on it” and I agree with it wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m doing, shining a spotlight, talking about it regardless of how uncomfortable it makes anyone. I’m not an expert and I don’t claim to be, but I am a survivor of an abusive relationship and I’m here to talk about it and to offer my help to whoever needs it and in any way that I can and I sure as hell will keep talking about it because…well because why not?
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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 at @Ruby2805.