We would like to request you to participate in a little exercise.
Please close your eyes for a few moments and imagine yourself in a dark box. A confined space with no light, no sound, except that of your own breathing, enough air that you can breathe, but not enough that you can breathe freely.
You feel trapped, suffocated and helpless.
Now imagine you’re going to be in that box forever. That is what abuse feels like.
Initial Years. Samara was a brash, rebellious teenager, a girl who always liked to push the envelopes and challenge the stereotypes.
While her friends dreamed of weddings and bangles… She dreamed of going to Harvard or Stanford. The founder of the girls’ cricket team, editor of the school newspaper, a straight-A student but…
She was also a girl who was growing up too fast.
Her body developing into that of a young woman.
She was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
And one day, when she was 16 years old and was told that in a few months she was going to be married to a man, 12 years older than her… Who she had never met before… Who lives in a faraway country called Canada.
A year later, she arrived in this country, as a child bride, in a forced marriage, with only one dream “the dream of getting an education”.
She became a mother right away and gave birth to her older daughter at 18.
She had no idea about birth control and that dream of education was snatched away from her.
She was told that now that she was a mother… someone’s wife… someone’s daughter-in-law… and it was inappropriate for her to go to university, or even go to high school.
She was not allowed to go out of the house… make any friends… or have any independence whatsoever…
But it was for her own good, as she was being protected from the corrupt western society.
After a few days, she was humiliated every day… called bad words like ‘You’re useless!’, ‘You’re worthless!’, ‘You don’t deserve to be loved or respected!’, ‘You’re not worthy of respect!’.
And when she asked, “Why?” Then she was told, “Because you deserve it”.
When you hear that on a daily basis, you start believing it.
So, when the first bruises appeared on her face and body, she started thinking that she deserved that too.
She spent years trying to fix herself… thinking, maybe the secret to perfect wifehood is somehow eluding her…
Maybe if she cooked better food… washed clothes better… didn’t express her opinions… or worse didn’t have opinions at all… talked less… didn’t watch cricket… this would change.
She tried to play a game called “Forced and Compulsive Marriage” with all permutations and combinations… but nothing changed!
She made mistakes and she suffered the consequences.
Throughout this entire time, there was this tiny voice in her head that just wouldn’t be quiet.
The voice that said maybe she did deserve a better life…
Maybe there are options out there…
Maybe this is not the way, that things are supposed to be.
Education was something she was not willing to give up on.
So, she finished all her high school through distance learning at home. And after ten years of struggle and many, many hard-fought battles, she started university at the age of 26, as a mother of two children.
She got her first mark sheet for an economics exam. She scored 100% and her professor announced her name in front of the entire class of 300 students, and everybody turned to look at her…
and she, instead of feeling proud and accomplished and excited, she was petrified…
she wanted to crawl into a dark hole and never come out…
she didn’t want to be seen…
she didn’t want to be known…
she wanted to be invisible.
After the class ended, a lot of these students came up to her and said, “Oh, my gosh! you’re amazing.”
“Can we go for coffee tomorrow?”
“Can we hang out at the pub and eat chicken wings?”
“Can you help me with this question?”
“Can you help study?”
And she stood there and thought to herself, “Oh, my gosh! These people are not supposed to be talking to me… They don’t know that I’m useless, worthless piece of scum, stuck at the bottom of someone’s shoe. In a few days, they’re going to find that reality about me, and they’re not going to want to talk to me, anymore.”
But that didn’t happen.
They still wanted to talk to her, they still wanted to be her friend.
So, she started thinking, “If I am this amazing, then why am I being treated so badly at home 24×7?”
“And if I’m that bad, why do all these people shower me with respect and admiration at school?”
And one day, as she was in my dilemma and in her confusion of thoughts and everything, as she was walking to the bookstore, and right beside the bookstore was the health and counseling center.
There was a sign there, that had a bunch of questions on it.
“Do you feel intimidated?”
“Do you feel like you’ve lost your voice?”
“Do you feel you’re always living in fear, walking on eggshells?”
“Do you feel that you cannot express your opinions, thoughts and feelings?”
And she answered ‘yes’ to each and every one of those questions.
Come in and make an appointment, it said.
She walks in… made an appointment, and a few days later, she was sitting across from my counselor and the floodgates opened.
She started pouring her heart out and saying, “This is happening to me, I don’t know what’s going on, can you please help me figure this out?”
“Can you please help me and shut that voice up that goes on inside my head all the time?”
“Can you tell me how to fix this? I don’t know, am I going crazy?”
And my counselor, after listening to her for an hour, said the one sentence that shifted her entire world. She said, “It’s not your fault.”
It was the first time anyone had ever said that to her. It’s not her fault.
No matter what you do, you do not deserve to be treated with disrespect and abuse and humiliation.
That was the first time she heard the word ‘abuse’.
She exclaimed, “What? Am I being abused?”
“Yes, you are!”, she said.
In the next few months, she spent researching all she could to find out about abusive behaviors…
Reading articles, journals, looking at charts of abuse, the cycles of abuse, the types of abuse and that’s when she realized, “Oh, my god it’s not me, It’s something bigger than me, It’s something that’s out of my control, It’s something that I cannot fix, and I only have two choices, either stay and accept it, or stand up for myself and walk away.”
But somehow she thought, “You know, if my abuser only knew that this was abusive, what he’s doing is wrong, maybe he’ll change himself. Maybe he’ll fix things.”
So, she started standing up for herself at home and then guess what happened?
The abuse got worse.
Because at the end of the day, abuse is just about power and control. It’s someone’s need to feel powerful and good about themselves by controlling another person and making them feel bad.
That’s all it is about.
So, when she started speaking up, her abuser was losing control and the abuse got worse.
It took her another two years of gathering knowledge, awareness, realizing my internal strength and power, and then finally, being able to walk away.
At the age of 28, with two girls in tow, she moved to U of T campus housing.
Finished her education as a single mother… working multiple jobs and achieved more success than she could ever imagine was possible.
That’s when she knew that she had to do something with this.
She had a purpose.
So, she started sharing her story because she knew that her story was not just hers.
It was the story of millions of people around the world, who continue to suffer in silence… because they feel they don’t deserve any better.
They feel they don’t have choices… they don’t have options… and they don’t have rights… and it infuriated her.
For the past five years, she has been sharing her story everywhere that she possibly can.
Every day, she wakes up to hundreds of hate messages from people all over the world.
She even received death threats but for every one of those negative messages, she also received thousands of messages filled with love, support and encouragement.
Her biggest award so far came to her sometime back, when a man in Pakistan wrote an email to her and said, “I have a 17-year-old daughter, who’s supposed to get married next month, and I’ve decided to turn down that marriage proposal and send her to university instead, after reading your story.
Every lady needs to be a strong, successful, independent woman, in her own right.
With all the knowledge gained about abuse and abusive marriage, she assumed that such mishap cannot possibly happen to her again… but she was wrong.
Very recently, a few months ago, in fact, she found herself in another abusive relationship.
It was not physical this time. It was emotional… it was psychological… it was verbal and it was filled with love and affection.
And she thought to myself, “Oh, my God! How did I end up here again? Again!”
Knowledge is what gave her the power to be able to stand up for herself and walk out.
She educated herself on the types of emotional abuse and learned what was happening to her was beyond my control and not her fault.
Physical Abuse. Physical abuse is easy to detect, right?
There were bruises… someone slaps you or kicks you… you’re like game over, and you are walking out.
Psychological Abuse. But emotional and psychological abuse, verbal abuse, is insidious.
It creeps up on you.
And before you know it, you’re looking back and thinking, “Oh, my god! how on earth did I get here?”
Statistics. The stats are staggering. One in three women every year, one in three women in North America, and ten percent of men, which by the way is hugely under-reported stats… because as we all know, it’s very unmanly to admit that you’re being abused.
That’s a lot of people.
And that’s under-reported… and that’s only physical abuse. So, the real number is much higher.
Available Support. All the support that exists out there, whether it’s police, shelters, therapy, counseling, crisis lines, it’s all reactive.
It all happens after the abuse has already happened, and it does little or nothing to bring that one in three or ten-percent number down.
But how can we prevent abuse from happening, rather than curing it, after it has already happened?
The answer lies in education and awareness, because, remember… knowledge is power. We need to start educating our children and youth about healthy relationships, healthy boundaries, and early signs of abusive behaviors and tendencies.
Defective Parenting. We spend so much time on making our children book smart, but not enough on making them life smart and relationship smart.
We talk to our kids about physical health, sexual health, even mental health, now.
Why don’t we talk to them about relationship health and emotional health?
It’s important for us to teach our children from a very young age, regarding the importance of empathy, compassion, giving back, paying it forward, asking and receiving help, being yourself truly and unapologetically, asking and receiving connection, authentic connection, because that’s what we’re here in this world for… Love, connection and relationships.
It’s not our job to hold our kids and say you’re perfect.
It’s our job to hold them and say, you’re imperfect and you’re beautiful, and you’re absolutely worthy of love, respect, connection, and belonging.
It gets trickier, though, as kids get older.
We live in a world where children are starting to date at younger and younger ages. 16, 15, sometimes even 14.
They’re starting to have feelings, go on dates, form romantic connections, and abuse is not something you want to talk to them about, right?
It’s better, if you just brush it under the rug, keep it behind closed doors, bury your head in the sand, and pretend it doesn’t happen, because, obviously, it cannot happen to our child.
But guess what? We live in a messy world, and abuse is hidden, but a harsh and cruel reality. It can happen to anywhere, anyone and anytime.
One day, her 15-year-old daughter came up to her and said, “Mom, I think my friend is in an abusive relationship.” And she said, “What? What do you mean?” And the daughter said, “You know what? Her boyfriend… he seems so perfect, showers her with crazy amounts of love and affection, buys her flowers and chocolates and gifts, but then when they’re having a fight, he calls her crazy, he calls her bad words, and he says she’s useless and worthless, he treats her badly, and he makes her cry, and I think that’s abusive, mum.”
While her heart went out to that girl, but she was so proud of her daughter for being able to recognize abuse for what it was, and stand up for her friend. And she knows that she was able to do that because she had those conversations with her daughter on a daily basis.
There are many, many signs of abusive behavior and tendencies that we can talk about because remember… abuse doesn’t happen in good times.
Just because someone buys you flowers and chocolates, showers you with love and affection and gifts, does not mean that they have the right to disrespect you and humiliate you and treat you with any less than a hundred percent respect when times are bad.
Because that’s when abuse happens, when times are bad, in times of disagreement.
There are many early signs that we can talk about.
If someone’s rushing you into commitment, into having sex, into doing anything that you’re not ready for, that’s not a good sign.
If someone’s showering you with insane amounts of love and affection and romance without even taking the time to get to know you first, that’s often a cover for underlying behaviors of jealousy and control that you don’t even see coming your way, until it’s too late.
Jealousy’s a natural human emotion, right?
All of us want to have an element of possession and jealousy in us.
You know we like it when our partner is jealous of the people, we hang out with to a certain degree. But there’s a very fine line, between healthy jealousy and unhealthy, controlling behavior, and it’s so important to be aware of that.
When you’re constantly thinking “I want to say something but I don’t know how to phrase it, if I should say it this way or that way, use this word instead of that word to get the message across, because if I say it in the wrong way, I will be judged, I will be misunderstood, and I will be disrespected and humiliated.”… That’s not a healthy sign.
If you feel, you always have to be perfect in order to be loved and respected, you always have to be up on some kind of a pedestal and the moment you fall down you’ll lose that love and respect, that’s a sign of abusive behavior because guess what?
We’re humans… We’re imperfect… We’re meant to be imperfect… We’re meant to have flaws.
But that does not mean that we deserve any less than one hundred percent respect when we are flawed when we make mistakes.
No one has the right to do that to us.
Being imperfect and having flaws is what makes us beautifully and unapologetically human beings.
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