It was a conversation I will never forget.
I knew Mariyam for a year before I learnt how she had once almost given up on life. A caring and loving person, I doubt I would have believed a word of her story if she weren’t sitting in front of me, telling it herself.
“It is happening again,” she said when I asked her why she seemed completely out of sorts that particular Thursday.
I asked her what she meant. “They’re going to marry me off to someone I don’t know, haven’t met, haven’t even seen.” It took a few seconds before I could mentally process what this girl, whose friendship I had begun to cherish in such a short span of time, was saying.
The obvious questions followed. Who will do this? What do you mean it’s happening again? And why would someone do this to you?
I could feel her carefully choosing her next words. Perhaps it had not been her intention to share this with me. It was possible that the stress of the situation made the words come out involuntarily. Either way she continued to share her story and I tried to remain calm as she shared one horrifying detail after another.
About six years ago, Mariyam’s father got her married to the son of a close friend’s business partner. She was about to turn 17 at the time.
“I think he believed he was doing what was best for me.” In reality, the marriage turned out to be anything but that for Mariyam.
Knowing she belonged to a very conservative household where all women were in strict purdah to the point that most family gatherings were also segregated, I didn’t feel the need to ask whether or not she was asked for her consent before the marriage was fixed. I knew she wasn’t. She was simply told.
Should we not then consider this a forced marriage? But let’s complete her story first.
She saw him for the first time after her nikkah, she had told me. And her first reaction to when she saw who she would be sharing her life with was a strong sense of discomfort, perhaps even fear.
Sadly for Mariyam, within six months of her marriage, her father unexpectedly passed away. At that time, Mariyam was three months pregnant.
Her husband had been verbally abusive before, but after her father’s passing, he grew physically violent. He only stopped beating her when his mother told him she might be carrying a boy.
She tried to share her ordeal with her mother but it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a widow in a patriarchal society, especially one belonging to a conservative household, to take a stand.
My mother would say that I should wait for the child to be born and his father will change and everything will be fine. “She said it so often, I started believing it,” Mariyam told me.
Change came, but for the worse.
Mariyam gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Her reward for that: her husband didn’t mercilessly beat her for a month. But after that grace period was over, she lived through some of the darkest moments of her life.
Everyone in the house knew, her father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, the servants, everyone. He wouldn’t hold back from beating her publicly over something like the drinking water not being the right temperature. But no one batted an eyelid.
She recalls seeing sympathy in her mother-in-law’s eyes just once when her husband flung her down the stairs six months after she had given birth to their son.
That fall landed Mariyam in the hospital with broken ribs and several fractures. Of course, everyone was told she slipped. Mariyam was too scared to dispute the story.
Somehow, her mother managed to convince her mother-in-law and took Mariyam home after spending about a week in the hospital.
Once home, Mariyam cried for days. Her husband now wouldn’t allow her to see her son. Eventually after two weeks, for the love of her son, she returned to her hell. And it was as fiery as she expected it to be.
Two months later, she decided she had had enough and began to think that suicide was her only salvation. But before she could do anything drastic, Mariyam found out that she was pregnant again.
I was almost certain he had raped her. I debated whether or not to ask this question, but she read my mind before I got the chance to speak. She had been, and it wasn’t the first time. Sometimes before and sometimes after he beat her, he would rape her to exert his power.
I felt my heart sinking — how can someone go through so much and still be standing.
Mariyam suffered an early miscarriage during her second pregnancy; the result of another torturous beating by her husband. After that, her brother, who was barely 15 at the time, came over one day when her husband wasn’t at the house, and took her home.
Demands for divorce were rejected by her husband who eventually agreed on the sole condition that Mariyam would give up all legal right to see her son again.
I can never forget how she looked at me and said: “It felt like someone ripped my heart right out of me.”
It had been four years since Mariyam had seen her little boy, but family pressure was building — she had a younger sister who was turning 16, and in order for her to get married, Mariyam’s divorcee status needed to change.
For the second time in her life, Mariyam was forced into marriage.
Now, over a decade later, she has four children from her second husband who while doesn’t beat her, keeps reminding her of her past and breaks whatever is left of her confidence and self-esteem.
Why don’t we understand what we are doing to our children especially our daughters in the name of traditions and customs? Child marriages and forced marriages remain dominant practices and not just in rural areas as many of us believe.
The cycle is vicious and unforgiving. Most children belonging to unhappy households do not grow up feeling the safety, security and confidence that should be their basic right. Watching their fathers beat their mothers has a lasting negative impact on sons as well.
Of course, I am not trying to generalise here. But as a country and as a nation, we must take steps and set standards so that no Mariyam ever has to suffer like this.