August 25, 2019

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Cycle of abuse reached tipping point

What makes a good wife?

That’s the question Samra Zafar asked herself for the 10 years she felt trapped in an isolating, abusive marriage, fearful that any expression of opinion might cause her husband to unleash a tirade of insults that could then escalate to physical attacks. Over the decade she was labelled a whore and a bitch, she was almost convinced that the problems in her marriage were her fault — because she wasn’t a good wife.

Now a public speaker and activist on the topic of human rights, Zafar has penned an account of her journey from a 17-year-old schoolgirl, eager to pursue academic excellence and a career, to a humiliated and penniless woman unable to leave the house without her husband’s permission.

While her marriage was arranged in Pakistan, she says that statistically, her experience is no less true for love marriages anywhere.

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What makes a good wife?

That’s the question Samra Zafar asked herself for the 10 years she felt trapped in an isolating, abusive marriage, fearful that any expression of opinion might cause her husband to unleash a tirade of insults that could then escalate to physical attacks. Over the decade she was labelled a whore and a bitch, she was almost convinced that the problems in her marriage were her fault — because she wasn’t a good wife.

Now a public speaker and activist on the topic of human rights, Zafar has penned an account of her journey from a 17-year-old schoolgirl, eager to pursue academic excellence and a career, to a humiliated and penniless woman unable to leave the house without her husband’s permission.

While her marriage was arranged in Pakistan, she says that statistically, her experience is no less true for love marriages anywhere.

A Good Wife: Escaping a Life I Never Chose is a very readable memoir, crafted with assistance from freelance writer Meg Masters. Many readers, female and male, will recognize their own situations or those of acquaintances.

Divided into sections representing the phases of her marriage, the chapters are vignettes of hopeful moments and dashed hopes, the twists and turns as the relationship scaled downward.

Zafar says her mother groomed her to marry a man she’d never met, dangling the carrot of moving to Canada and going to university before her. Whisked away from her family to Toronto, she was quickly smothered by her in-laws.

Her husband, who claimed to be a progressive thinker, expected her to be "dutiful." Her expectations of going to university were dashed when she became pregnant and was housebound.

Alone and under constant scrutiny in a new country, allowed to socialize only with her in-laws’ friends and without any means of her own, Zafar fell victim to the cycle of abuse.

When she tried to be a "turtle," they accused her of not effusively showing her gratitude, evidence of her bad upbringing. When she feigned a cheery demeanour, they told her she acted like a whore.

Her husband’s initial indifference became degrading insults and later attacks, supposedly because she "disrespected" him — allowing a piece of hair to show from under her hijab or spilling a container of food. When his rage subsided he was contrite, telling her he couldn’t help himself because he "loved her so much."

Brittle honeymoon intervals were shattered by the next outburst.

Conflicted by the periods when he would fawn over her, fearful of approbation by her family and being labelled "damaged goods" by her community, she pretended the moments of bliss could replace the constant tension in the house, if only she were a better wife. Despite knowing intrinsically she wasn’t responsible for the unhealthy relationship, years passed, full of self-doubt, counselling and leaving her husband but then returning.

Zafar put on a positive face to hide her unhappiness from her daughters. But when her 10-year-old said, "Mamma, why are you staying with Daddy? We could do it on our own," Zafar realized she presented herself as a negative model for their future.

When she understood the university environment offered her supports and friendships, she was able to develop the confidence to accomplish her goals, even as a low-income single mother of two.

Zafar’s example reminds us we need education and programs to prevent and stop abuse. Her achievements prove that with help, others too can recover their self-esteem, attain their potential, be safe and, mostly, feel happy.

Harriet Zaidman is a writer and reviewer living in Winnipeg. Her middle grade novel, City on Strike, published by Red Deer Press, will be launched at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m.

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