*trigger warning for sexual violence
I remember lying in my bed staring out the skylight window, after my former husband would have had his way with me, wondering to myself what my parents might be doing this moment? Were they sleeping soundly in their beds?
Like many young Pakistani American women, I married a man my family ultimately approved of. We were from two different countries, but were set up by acquaintances we had in common. It was an extremely traditional courtship – his visits were supervised. With occasional exception for a dinner at a restaurant, we were not allowed to be alone – even in a car. Even then, things depended on the whims of my parents who may have thrown a kebab-mein-hadee (literal translation bone in kabob, aka third wheel) into our dinner plans in the form of my brother, cousin – or cousins.
Our long distance courtship was relatively smooth. Aside from my family’s occasional mild critiques or inquiries into his professional background, he checked all the required boxes: he was well educated, from a seemingly decent family, most importantly, he was an observant Muslim. Our families spoke to friends of friends for references and, like that, his family’s proposal was accepted.
While our courtship was smooth, things were not always perfect. We were guilty of a variety of social faux pas, like incessantly chatting on instant messenger, to everyone’s ire. Once, we were caught with his arm around my shoulder; another time, standing too closely together while casually talking. In those instances, we were gently reminded that too much proximity between us as an unmarried couple might only hurt us in the long run. We understood well that these safeguards were meant to protect us and ultimately we respected them. On top of everything else, we had several interests in common, such as our mutual penchant for social and political justice, and oddities like kickboxing. After my period of istikhaara, (special prayer for guidance) things came together even smoother. It was a good sign.
Unlike the old image of the sorrowful Desi (South Asian) bride, I was happy on my wedding day. I treated myself quite generously to massages, facials, and lots of shopping. I was also incredibly meticulous with planning. Aside from the food that was much spicier than it was supposed to be and the florist who did a dreadful job with my flower arrangements, everything came together rather effortlessly on the day of. My entire family gave me away in a picturesque way. And while my bouquet wound up being a third of the size it was meant to be and looked ridiculous in photos, I managed to overcome the minor flaws, centered in the belief that I had sensibly crafted my destiny down to every detail of the wedding – the family favorite caterer, the music that was cultural but without lewd, suggestive lyrics, and my most beloved Imam.
That my fiancé and I were well matched was undeniable. I knew for certain that I was marrying the right man and had no doubts about it, nor that we had courted inappropriately. Marriage is serious business and it was important to us that we enter into it with as many blessings as possible. Sweating the small stuff by that point was well beyond my sense of bliss.
When things began to go wrong so early into our marriage, I didn’t necessarily see it as a foreshadowing of what was to come. I wanted to believe in the values and ideas I was taught about marriage: that it takes time for a newlywed husband and wife to get to know one another and for their marriage to settle into peace. We had gone about our marriage with what felt like boundless blessings from our families and communities; I was convinced that he and I were destined to succeed. So I put in the work and I made myself entirely emotionally and physically available to my new husband, with the hope that things would inevitably work themselves out.
It didn’t take long for me to start seeing the red flags. Two weeks into our marriage he began yelling at me in public. A month in, instead of enjoying my very first Eid as a new bride, I hid in the bathroom at the local mosque away from the inquisitive eyes of the community, controlling my tears after he spent the entire morning screaming at me about socks. Despite his habitual outbursts of uncontrollable rage, I very rarely pushed back on my husband in the first year and a half of our marriage.
Everything was incredibly confusing. Only a few months earlier, this same man had been doting on me, calling me the prettiest girl in the world, vowing that he wanted to help me reach paradise and making the promises all hopeful brides-to-be want to hear. Despite the very prudent nature of our courtship, to my shock and horror, I sensed very quickly that my new husband was a completely different man than the one who came to visit me and my family during our courtship – a fact that I was to remain in denial of the whole of our marriage. By the time I had come to learn of his true nature, we were already married. Hence, I spent four wretched years of my life haunted by my own denials. Instead of enjoying married life, I anguished daily, tormented by a futile search for even a hint of a specter of the gentleman who courted me. I was desperate. And despite what everyone around me tried to tell me about family, I was alone.
On full availability mode, I also very quickly became the default go-to person to get things done at home, on top of having a job of my own. It also meant that I was expected to be available to his family, no matter the time of day. It’s not that I was unhappy about carrying out a traditional role, it’s that rapidly over time, in spite of my attempts to try and make things work between my husband and I, I got less and less from him in return. Four months into our marriage, he stopped sleeping with me. From that point until the very end of our marriage, the man I called my husband and his entire family, remained complete strangers to me.
As if navigating the world as a new bride isn’t bewildering enough, being thousands of miles away from home and family only serves to exaggerate the day-to-day commotions of newlywed life. As situation would have it, my husband and my in-laws were the only people I knew in this new life that I lived and I wound up being wholly reliant on them. I often felt as if my life had been left to chance and I was forced to operate in this new world purely on trust – trust that the people who now considered me “family” would honor their duty to care for me. My fate did not account for other outcomes.
Thousands of miles of distance between people conceals our daily nuances from one another – the details of which are powerful enough to alter perspectives.
My ex-husband began to rape me about a year into our marriage – often on a nightly basis. On some occasions, I believe he violated me out of sheer boredom. Our chemistry was extremely short lived and boredom set in approximately six months into our marriage when it became evident that our life together was never going to be as important to him as his unremitting need for video games and nightly outings with friends who had fancy cars and reckless driving records. Nevertheless, every time he violated me, I believe he did it simply because he could.
My ex-husband also regularly taunted me by insisting my family didn’t care about me. It was the one thing he said to me that I never could devise a retort for. Not from a rational perspective. It’s not that I believed him. I know for a fact that my family would have been outraged if they learned about the abuse. It’s that underneath it all, there was a rather thorny truth: it was that our marital arrangement worked somewhat like Russian roulette. From his point of view, my loving family placed me into the fateful pass of probability and then disappeared from my life. In the end, did it matter how he turned out? To them, he checked the necessary boxes that made it probable that he was a good match for me. However, I quickly realized that you can never know a person truly until you are married to them, as most abusers do not show their nature to the outside world. They are more often than not, charmers.
Despite the fact that it is obviously counter-intuitive to place a child’s life into the hands of complete strangers, culturally, it is normal practice when it comes to our daughters and their nuptial destinies. Sometimes I can’t help but to wonder if our families actually grasp the hazardous messages some of our day-to-day norms convey – that our daughter’s lives, for instance, are insignificant enough to leave to probability; that our daughter’s lives matter less than a set of rules – or at least the appearance of one. Yet, these traditions, these systems, is all that they know, and ones that have served generations successfully. In the end, in the name of upholding our traditions and expectations, our daughter’s lives, despite her biggest dreams, her many achievements and countless talents, are reduced into oblivion. It was the reason why my mother-in-law took credit for my qualities, erasing my entire upbringing in the process. It was the reason why even my in-law’s friends repeatedly insisted that my in-laws should be more important to me than my own family, because a woman ultimately belongs to her husband and his family. My education and employment were swiftly reduced into conversational details, significant enough to exhibit to members of their community, yet trivial enough to become a nuisance in a conflict of interest.
Even my ex-husband grasped the fact that under the guise of traditional marriage, my foundational structures of support had been entirely stripped from my life, as he frequently liked to remind me, often verbatim, there were no consequences for his crimes against me. In this new life I lived, there was no accountability – not for him, not for his family. It was in that vacuum that a group of perverse and cruel strangers had their way with me.
My ex-husband carried out the worst of it all in the small hours of the night when his crimes against me would be completely concealed from the world. In those hours, there was no one I could reach out to, nor any place I could go. The only option I had was to wait for the arrival of the morning when he and I would both rise and get ready to go to work.
Over the course of our marriage, it was in those few hours of duress that eventually my mind atrophied over compulsive thoughts that this was what my life had come to. In those moments, those thoughts often led me to wonder about my parents. There was always a strange overwhelming sadness I felt, one that I can’t quite describe, knowing that they were sleeping peacefully in their beds while this was happening to me. Ultimately, my parents entrusted my life to a stranger because they genuinely believed in a system that was designed to keep me safe and happy. Right or wrong, when it comes to marriage and relationships, it is the only system they have ever known and one they presumed to have worked well. Nevertheless, it wound up being the most dangerous experience of my life.
The author of this post has chosen to write under a pen name.