Nadia is four years old. She bites her tiny self, and the marks are so severe, they need bandages. When I gently take her hand away and tell her not to hurt herself, she looks at me and fiercely replies, “I will!”
It takes a long time for her to be calm enough to be able to talk again. When she does, her words pierces right through me painfully.
“Is it okay that baba hits me?”
Of course it isn’t, I say. But she expects my answer, for she merely nods and says, “But he does it anyway. So why shouldn’t I hurt myself?”
When a child’s words wound you without even meaning to, you realize the depth of the darkness they’ve faced.
Normal. What’s normal and what’s right are often one and the same. But even when they’re not, we still manage to tangle them up.
For a person to be put in any abusive circumstance is wrong by both moral and legal standards. It cannot be considered the norm to live in such a way, and yet the paradox remains: far too many families do. They live the rest of their daily lives with some semblance of normality. They go to school or work, and then to their church or temple or mosque. What happens at home stays at home.
Those who have lived in an environment as toxic and debilitative as that of domestic violence will easily understand this absurd juxtaposition.
Domestic violence can be physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and economic. Victims usually face two, if not more, forms of abuse at the same time.
People often think victims of domestic violence are unaware of their plight or, worse, that they simply accept it. They aren’t. They don’t. Even if the abuse is routine, it is hardly indicative of it being condoned by the victims.
One woman is beaten every nine seconds in the U.S. alone. It used to be every 15 seconds.
A moment of silence for progress.
Nur is six. She watched her father severely abused her mother for four consecutive years before her mother left.
Now, Nur has forgotten how to speak English, her first language. She does not communicate with anyone, and her sleep is disturbed.
Her mother tells me about how she wakes up screaming on the rare occasion she does manage to slip into deep sleep.
The abnormal/normal paradigm in the daily lives of victims conflict directly with their ability to be able to do something constructive and permanent about it. Pay attention to that word – “permanent.”
Unless there is a safe place for victims to reach out – where they know there are no time constraints on their stay, where they are armed with a step-by-step recovery and thorough rehabilitation process – the reality remains: the victims, mostly women, will stay.
Financial stability and a reliable support system are vital to helping victims take the initiative to leave.
When it comes to South Asian communities affected by domestic violence, though, even these two factors are insufficient. Even if there is a small but reliable support system available, women fear being ostracized by their communities.
Such communities will respect a widow, since she did not choose her circumstance. But a woman who opts out of marriage through divorce, regardless of how unhealthy or even deadly such a toxic environment is, has dug her proverbial grave.
Neighbors, friends and family members will consider it their right to inflict emotional injury. “Unlucky is the woman who leaves her husband’s home,” some will say over dinner, looking pointedly at the lady in question. “Such women should not sit next to the bride,” they will say during wedding ceremonies. “She spreads misfortune wherever she goes,” others will pipe up, shaking their heads.
Perhaps the most insulting: “I pray every day that you get back with your husband.” Prayers that a person continues to live a terrible half-life – where is the sense in that? Life for these people becomes simplistic and reductionist, almost like a math sum. Two plus two equals four. They think of nothing beyond what society will see and say.
Ask them, though, if they would continue to make these unholy prayers if it were their daughter and grandchildren that were being affected. You’ll more likely be branded as “rash” and “disobedient” than get an honest answer.
Hawa had been a normal kid. The three-year-old couldn’t get enough of monsters and cartoons, and she had to be torn away from her friends. Following her parents’ divorce, her mother gained custody of Hawa and her siblings.
Hawa’s father kidnapped her thrice in a space of six months.
Each time I saw her, she was sitting silently, staring into space. The only way I knew I had not completely lost her to the demons haunting her was when she would wrap her arms around my neck and hug me for a long time.
She would cry so quietly that you could barely hear her. It was as if her voice, her strength, her spirit had been vehemently crushed. I was left shattered every time.
While domestic violence has become endemic in all spheres, the hypocrisy ingrained in our social fabric is equally threatening.
It is common for men who are abusive, whether verbally and or physically, to justify their actions through quoting scripture. Christian men often use Biblical verses to defend their abuse; Muslim men use verses of the Quran, and bizarrely, even sayings of the prophet Muhammad, to point out the “duties” of a wife.
It’s a perfect foil for their hypocrisy. Feel free to tell these men what you deem fit; my response is to remind them how much God loathes hypocrites.
Despite the overwhelming verses urging charity and soft-heartedness in in the scripture and religious text, many abusive Muslim men disregard them, cherry picking the verses which can be twisted to serve as ammunition. Women who support, encourage and condone such men by victim-blaming or making excuses only add to their destructive behavior.
A group of my co-workers and I were chatting during a chai break when a girl burst into tears, telling us how her fiancé had mistreated her. Before she could finish her sentence, her closest friend said, “Well, you must have said or done something to provoke this reaction.”
I was stunned. No matter how many times I hear this pathetic excuse I will never cease to be amazed at women and their ever-ready willingness to overlook men treating women appallingly. The day it ceases to shock me I’ll take it as the norm, accept it and furthermore internalize the abuse. There is never any justification – never, at all – for a man to mistreat his partner or children through verbal, emotional or physical harm.
“Your heart and body are sacred lands,” Yasmin Mogahed once said. “They were made for GOD – not to be anyone’s punching bag.”
There is no concept of accepting oppression in Islam, or any faith. Open your eyes: Islam highlights justice. The pursuit of justice means fighting for and defending your rights as well as those of others. Advocating for justice begins at home and should be in our routine lives, whether it’s school or work.
There’s Urdu maxim I think about often: “Without calling out an oppressor as an oppressor, you don’t pay justice to those suffering.”
To advocate for the marginalized and oppressed, learn to call a spade a spade.
It’s not rocket science.
Editor’s note: All names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy and safety.