By Manvi Pant
Turkish-British author and women’s rights activist Elif Shafak writes: Stealing people’s wishes was far more despicable than stealing their wallet. Every year, over 12 million girls are forced into child marriage globally, sexually molested, abused, raped, stripped of their dreams, and left to suffer in silence.
Amongst these women, there are a few who are stubborn, who refuse to give up on life. They fall, yet stand up again to fight back. These women become a voice of change for several others. This story is about one such woman.
Born in Pakistan and raised in Abu Dhabi, Samra Zafar was 16 when her parents arranged her marriage to a man 11 years older than her. Subsequently, she moved to Canada with him on the premise that she could fulfill her aspiration to attend University. It did not happen.
Instead followed years of emotional and physical abuse by her increasingly possessive husband. She gave birth to two daughters and tried to fulfill all the expectations laid on her as a wife, as a daughter-in-law, but somewhere always fell short. Every single day, she was humiliated, assaulted, isolated, disrespected, and repeatedly told that she was not good enough.
“I was told to give up on my dream of attaining an education because I was married, had two kids. I was told to accept that as my destiny. I was not allowed to go out of my house. I did not have permission to go to school, have any friends, or any independence,” recollects Samra.
But she mustered the courage to fight for her dreams. She would often stand in front of a mirror with a piece of paper rolled up and practise her graduation speech. “What’s happening to you is not your choice, but what you do with it is yours,” she says.
Desperate to get out of her marriage, she hatched an escape plan for herself and her two daughters. A compelling account of Samra’s life, her escape, and transition into the world of her choice is beautifully shared in her book A Good Wife: Escaping the Life, I Never Chose (Penguin Random House) co-authored with Meg Masters.
Writing a memoir makes you vulnerable, and presents you as human not a hero. “I had written blogs and articles before, done TED talks and speaking engagements, but those were high-level accounts of what happened. Writing a book requires one to go much deeper with an intense amount of vulnerability. I wanted to talk about my fears, uncertainties, and other things that held me back. I wanted to be very raw in the book. That also meant talking about my mistakes and where I went wrong, how I kept going back to him. It was a difficult process. I was nervous about what people were going to think. Would I be seen as someone trying to get famous by defaming her community?”
The first time Samra toyed with the idea of sharing her story in a blog seven years ago, she was afraid it would be seen as a sob story. “Then my daughter said to me, if every woman thinks it’s too shameful and no one talks about it, then how will this ever change?”
The blog got published on the same day as her convocation. “It was such an emotional moment for me because I had waited for my degree for 15 years and fought so hard for it. I came home and logged into my social media and was shocked to discover the number of messages and emails I had received from all over the world.”
Samra, now recognised as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, disagrees with the idea that everything happens for a reason. “What is the reason for a girl’s dreams to be snatched away? What is the reason for a young girl to be sexually molested by a family member or by her religious teacher or by anyone? What is the reason for acid attacks and women being treated as second-class citizens? If there is one, does it make it okay?” she asks.
As much as she feels grateful to have touched so many lives, she feels no girl should have to go through these atrocities, get subjected to child sexual abuse, forced marriage or violence.
What happened to Samra changed her entire outlook on life and filled her with courage and resilience. “Today, when I look back, I feel happy to feel this breeze in my hair, to meet all these wonderful people, to be a catalyst in their life, and instill hope and positivity in them. I am breaking the silence for the millions of silences still waiting to be broken.”
First published in eShe’s February 2020 issue
Syndicated to CNBCTV18