Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. —Winston Churchill
I am a domestic violence survivor.
As survivors, we are often reminded that telling our story can be the path to finding help and breaking free for the many other women, children and men who are victims of all types of family violence. However, we also fear that we will be judged, mocked, ridiculed, and, perhaps worst of all, not believed. No one’s story is what we could call “typical,” and no doubt for many readers, various assumptions and suppositions may have already registered in the minds of some. But, when survivors remain quiet, victims remain quiet and believe they are alone, and never get help. When there is no help, cycles of violence repeat in our children, and destroy lives. Perpetrators of violence primarily rely on that silence to ensure their behavior goes unchallenged. Speaking out can help break the cycle, bringing justice and healing. Not only must survivors have the courage speak out, but our communities also must have the courage to listen.
October is domestic violence awareness month. Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing my story in three parts. The first is my story of survival below —how I got to where I was, what I endured and how broke free. I don’t hold back in my narrative here, so please be advised that this piece will include unsettling descriptions of abuse. The second part will describe treatment and recovery, which while a lifelong process, is the beginning of a whole new journey. The third part will address patterns present in the Muslim American community, as well as services, resources and reflections on what Muslims can do to address domestic violence locally and nationally.
When I was young, all I ever wanted was to go on an adventure filled with passion, love and danger. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I came from a family with a history of struggling with abuse, addiction and illness. I was bullied constantly at school, sometimes even by teachers when I asked for help, (this greatly intensified after I converted to Islam in 1999 when I was 13 and after 9/11) and I struggled with making friends. I did not feel like I belonged or that I was loved, and I do not think that those who believe they loved me had a healthy understanding of love.
Many victims of domestic violence say their abuser first appeared to them like a knight or savior, and that was true for me. When I first began speaking with him online, I was 17 and saw him as an older man who could show me the love and understanding I desperately craved. He was handsome, seemed to understand how I felt and was fiercely passionate toward me. Very quickly, I saw him as a protector.
He made grand romantic gestures, playing me love songs and singing to me, drawing me stunning pictures, and making promises of the beautiful life he would provide for me, but his rage and violent behavior were also evident early on. If he didn’t like my friends or I wasn’t immediately accessible, he would scream at me with an intense rage that seemed to shake the room. His words were threats and accusations that bit and bruised me, but were always followed by explanations that he only became so angry because he loved me so much and could not stand to be away from me. Being a fiery woman myself, I believed that this is what madly passionate men were like and that he would never really hurt me.
Over the next two years, these verbal assaults varied. At times, he would deliver harsh, cruel words in a slow, quiet tone and fewer physical threats. When he became verbally and emotionally violent, he would claim that I had caused it by behaving disrespectfully, the quintessential, “Look what you made me do.” I began to believe it was my role in life to be his counterpart, to keep things calm and to help him face his own personal demons, which seemed to me more responsible for his behavior than was true to his nature.
I married him when I was 19, during my second year in college, and it became immediately evident that his threats were not empty. Claiming that I offended him in public, he would stand over me with his hand in the air, threatening to beat me until his spit splattered my face and he turned so red that I thought he’d faint. If I tried to get away, he would pull my hair or hold me forcefully until I bruised. The most frightening moment was when, in a small rural village, I reminded him that the money he had bragged about spending was mine. Seeing that he was flying into a rage, I attempted to run into the mountains, despite having nowhere to go, but he caught me and forced me into a locked room. I remember cowering on the floor, burning with pain, while he held a dagger up to my face and threatened to cut out my eyes. The entire house could hear him screaming and had seen me try to escape. No one intervened. When his rage was exhausted, he became so ashamed of what he had done, so he said, that he began beating himself. Later that night while I sat for dinner with his family, they told me not to hold it against him because that is what men do and it is a good woman’s job to soothe and forgive them. If I did not forgive him, I was being a vengeful and sinful person, I was told.
This event is illustrative of what the next seven years were like. I believed I loved him, that he needed help and that I could save him. After a few months of marriage, I returned to the US without him, having begun work on his immigration from the Middle East. With greater physical distance between us, I felt more courageous and confronted him about his behavior many times. Sometimes he said he was sorry, and other times he accused me of trying to use guilt to manipulate him and I was, in fact, the abuser. When we were together, I developed habits like locking myself in bathrooms to hide, or making myself sick or drugging myself to sleep for days at a time, which sometimes thwarted his anger. At times, the abuse wasn’t physical beatings, but rather sexual assault and rape. He would demand to use my body like an appliance, and if I refused, he would accuse me of using sex as a weapon, and would guilt and manipulate me into doing things I hated, and often hurt me. When I complained, he would accuse me of being ungrateful because other women wished their husbands lusted after them so badly, even as he admitted that he thought my face was my only attractive feature.
Over time, his abuse became less physical and more psychological. He learned that if he used love as a weapon, he could get me to do almost anything. Because this was similar to how it had been in the beginning, I was fooled into thinking that he was improving. After his fits of violence, he would get on his knees and plead for me to help him, claiming that only I could save him, and beg for my forgiveness. He refused to get a job, claiming that any “low job” would be an insult to his tribe and that he was unable to get a better job because he was “too honest.” While he expressed guilt and gratitude over using my money at first, he slowly began to demand it and even give it away (as he said, to charity). By the end of our marriage, I had accrued over $100,000 in debt. Throughout our marriage I visited him in his country and would then return to the U.S. where I continued to fight for his immigration, which proved to be extremely difficult. When it wasn’t going according to plan, he would scream and curse for days over the phone about how I was purposely trying to ruin his life. Even from a distance, he had such a tremendous hold on my mind that he may as well have been right there.
I worked extremely hard to keep the people around me from knowing what was happening, in part because I was also in denial about the reality of the abuse. My health declined, my relationships suffered tremendously, my finances were in shambles, and I was failing several classes. Despite him and my failures, I was able to succeed and move forward in many ways that in the end, he always took credit for. He claimed that he had raised me, taught me what honor and love were, and that everything I accomplished, including my admission to graduate school, was really his own achievement. In this way, he also convinced me that I owed him my life.
When I began graduate school, he slowly became aware that his immigration was going to fail. He did not simply divorce me as one may expect, but instead began to demand that I move to his country and behave like a good woman, leaving my friends and family, my career, and, I knew, my safety, because he had done enough of letting me have my way.
The last time I was with him, I began to understand that he would never change. At night, laying in bed and praying he would think I was asleep and leave me alone, I realized I hated him, but believed myself too weak to leave him. I was also extremely ashamed at the idea of people finding out I was a victim of domestic violence.
On the day I defended my dissertation, the last step toward my master’s degree in Islamic Studies, I called him (still in his country) elated and bursting with a brand new confidence that quickly dissipated as he took credit and reminded me that I could never know more than he did about anything. A few days later, after praying for help in the choice I knew in my heart I had to make, he began his abuse again over the phone. His voice echoed and when I hung up, the phone vibrated with his constant messages, threatening to force me to leave my home and demanding my service and submission. At that moment, a dear friend of mine came by, and seeing my face, asked if I was OK. For the first time, I told him the truth and, nodding wisely, he took my phone, shut it off, and it was never turned on again.
I wish I could say that this was the end, but the divorce was simply the moment when I had to admit to myself, and the world, that I was a battered woman. Suddenly my raw wounds were open to the world. I was suddenly aware of my own psychological state and was filled rage, depression, anxiety, fear and grief. I had lived so much of my life with this person in it and had no idea how to live without him. I felt consumed by darkness, yet stayed there because even while it was painful, it was familiar. I became suicidal, seemingly unable to cope with my own memories and reality. Nothing and no one had prepared me for life after DV, but this was the beginning of recovery.
It is not enough to say that it took me 10 years to escape an abusive relationship because I loved him. I held on because I was desperate for that sense of belonging, love and safety. I also feared how people would respond. I was an outspoken, fearless young woman who seemed, or tried to make it seem, like I had a wonderful husband who would support me in everything I did. I was educated, devoutly religious and terrified that if people knew the truth of my life, they would publicly proclaim that they had somehow always known that I was just foolish, confused, a pathetic liar who deserved none of their respect, and all, or even maybe none, of their pity. Indeed, there were some who did take that opportunity, both Muslims and non-Muslims, but in the end and despite them, I broke free. Slowly, I am learning what healthy love looks like, what it means to heal, and how to get my life back. It has been three years since my divorce, and I still have nightmares, I still have panic attacks and flashbacks, and I am still in the early stages of recovery.
My hope is that by telling this story, it will help others to recognize some or all of it in their own lives. Sometimes we think of abusive relationships in a very Hollywood sense, in which the abuse is painfully obvious and the victim somehow breaks free in a single moment, but this is misleading. Abuse is multi-faceted, and can take many forms. At its core, all abuse comes from a single place — the desire to control another human being. Some victims, like me, fight very hard to keep their abuse a secret.
But the solution is not a simple matter of walking away, or of exercising human reason over emotion. The story of recovery is just as varied, full of triumphs and failures, as that of abuse. While there is no universal solution, my next piece will be about my healing journey, in hopes that it will provide a sense of comfort, solidarity and support to other victims of abuse and survivors.