I met him end of freshman year of college and he immediately pulled me in. The charming, funny, attentive types always get me. We hit it off and began skipping classes together, going to parks in D.C. instead, where we whiled away the afternoons chatting, laughing, and even chasing each other among the pink cherry blossoms. He told me about a box that reminded him of me inscribed with the words, “To those we love the most, we say the least.” I felt flattered by his declaration of love and by this sweet expression of all the things he failed to say. He was the one.
A few months in, he threatened me for the first time–he would walk away from our relationship if I continued to dress the way I did. The rush he gave me was enough for me to ‘reform.’ I justified his ultimatum by telling myself that my parents would be pleased to see me adopting a more modest dress code. I did my best to amend my wardrobe, but it seemed that my pants were never baggy enough, my sleeves long enough or my necklines high enough. In fact, my necklines had to sit no more than an inch below my clavicle, and when I dared to wear a V-neck shirt with a white tank underneath, he struck me, shouting that the white tank was “see through.” Strangely enough, he convinced me I was in control of the relationship because my behavior could either improve or worsen his. I never wore a camisole again.
My mother picked up on these changes and warned me that his controlling behavior would only worsen, but I didn’t heed her advice. Over time her complaints became less about his domineering personality and more about how we, as Muslims, should not be dating.
When he returned from a trip to Pakistan, he brought me back a beautiful maroon shalwar kameez. I excitedly bought lip liner to go with the expensive dress and even watched YouTube tutorials on how to use the pencil to define my lips. When I wore the shalwar kameez and matching liner to a wedding, I was expecting him to be pleased. Instead, he said I looked like a whore. The next day he came to my apartment, trashed the place, snapped the lip liner in half and left.
I tried so desperately, so earnestly, but I always seemed to slip up and when I did, he would scream, “How the fuck can you be so dumb? Stop being a slut!” I would dissolve into tears and that would only anger him further. “You’re always crying you stupid bitch,” he would say with disgust. Even then, I would whimper an apology, pleading with him to stay. And he would, but only to yank at my hair, throw punches at me, slap me across the face, choke me and then hurl me as far as he could. I never fought back, latching on to him like he was a Demi-God. My situation bore an uncanny resemblance to Stockholm syndrome.
For those who wonder why I didn’t leave at this point, I don’t have an answer for you. By now I maneuvered the relationship in a numb state. No matter how tyrannical he became, I didn’t fight his demands, acquiescing to his every whim in the hopes of avoiding the pain that was sure to follow if I resisted. His abuse knew no bounds. I prefer not to disclose the details, only that it didn’t stop at the verbal and the physical.
Then things changed. He seemed to return to the sweet boy I had first met. We became engaged and I chalked up our ‘trying times’ to his anxiety about whether or not our relationship would go the distance. His family showered me with attention, flashy clothing and jewelry. I felt like a queen.
The period of respite didn’t last long. I planned to attend law school after we married, but one day he ordered me to defer my enrollment. How did I expect to learn how to cook and clean from his mother if I didn’t remain at home for a stretch? For the first time, I protested.
You know when you’re gasping for air during a panic attack and you grab hold of the nearest physical thing to know you can still feel something other than the violent sensation of being suffocated? That’s what this felt like.
When my father found out about this new demand, he asked to speak privately with me in my room. He sat me down and said, beta, my child. I began to weep. He used to tell my mother, “tellyour daughter” when he was upset with me, severing my blood-ties to him. Today, though, he wanted to be the one to counsel me. I looked at him — my poor father. His beard grey from decades of toil, the bags under his eye heavy from the thousands of hours he had spent driving to and from New Jersey and Virginia for his work, and his nose, once sharp and thin, now wide and swollen from allergies. He looked at me tenderly, “Beta, this is not for you.”
It was then that I wept like never before. I thought of the abuse my fiancé had heaped upon me for so long and I thought of the abuse my father had doled out to his wife and children for all those years. And then I thought of my father’s miraculous reform. When he uttered beta, I was done.
My father, who follows Islamic rituals to a T, will never admit this, but more than Islam, education is his religion. He reminded me, “Becoming a lawyer is the dream and your fiancé is just an after-thought. It doesn’t make sense to give up a dream for an after-thought.” What match is any man in a daughter’s life when her father helps to empower her?
In that moment my father was to me what Malala Yousafzai and Mukhtar Mai’s fathers were to them–a pillar of support and strength. Malala’s father said he refused to “clip her wings” and “let her be [as she was].” Mukhtar’s father wrapped his daughter in a shawl after she had been gang raped, and throwing out entrenched notions of ‘honor,’ supported his daughter throughout her court case. Malala and Mukhtar took that parental support and used it to hold fast to their convictions, ultimately speaking out against atrocities on an international scale. Look what a love like their fathers’ did for them. It allowed them to soar.
I left the room with a steadfast decision to end it. My mother sat outside in anticipation, my poor mother. Every freckle on her soft face stood out to me that afternoon — each one representing a struggle she never wanted her daughter to bear: beatings, verbal stings, and men in her family dismissing her desire to be a doctor. She pulled me in for a tight hug. “I don’t care how much money I spent on this wedding, they will not take my daughter!” What match is a man in a daughter’s life when her mother supports and inspires her?
Without my parents, I would likely never have ended the four-year long abusive relationship I had found myself in. My father, in particular, was far from an ideal, loving parent when I was young. He made serious mistakes both as a husband and as a father for many years, but he reformed, and the same man I feared as a child became the one in whom I sought refuge as an adult. .
When children begin their lives, a parent is God-like in their eyes. You decide if they eat, where they go and how they gain knowledge. As years reel forward their world becomes bigger and you become smaller. That doesn’t mean you stop mattering. Your actions during their developmental years echo on into their future. But if you got it wrong back then, it isn’t too late to make a positive impact now. You can mitigate the harm done even if you can never rectify it. That’s a good enough reason to try. My story is certainly a testament to that truth.
(Photo Source: Wikimedia)
Samara Yusuf is a law student.