Escaping Child Marriage to Create a New Beginning: Talking With Samra Zafar

"You cannot choose what happens to you most of the time, but you can choose how you come out of it. You can choose to come out of it better instead of bitter."

Samra Zafar is an award-winning internationally renowned speaker, and bestselling author, who advocates for equity, mental health, and human rights. She has been recognized among the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada. Her book, A Good Wife: Escaping The Life I Never Chose, is a national bestseller and named among Washington Post's Top 10 Books and CBC's Best Books of 2019, and is soon being adapted to a premium TV series. Her work has been extensively featured in global media and her speaking portfolio includes three TED Talks, and many leading non-profits, corporations and universities around the world. 

SWY: Would you mind telling us a little bit about who you are and what your story is?

SZ: I grew up in a small town in Abu Dhabi. I was always a very rebellious, break-the-stereotypes kind of girl; the odd duck of the family. I was always playing cricket outside, and when I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys, I started my own girls cricket team. I was 16-years-old when I was forced into marriage. It came from a very cultural, acceptable place – I was the eldest of four girls, so I always heard people say to my parents, “Oh, you should get her married because four girls are a burden,” and “You should think about their marriage soon.” Even though my parents always stressed the importance of education, they were very much bogged down by the cultural hang-ups. So, I got engaged when I was 16, and just after my 17th birthday, I was married off to a man who was a virtual stranger. He was 11-years older and lived in Canada. That’s how I came to Canada, as a child bride. The marriage was very abusive. It started off with a lot of non-physical abuse, like verbal, emotional, etc. And then it eventually led to a lot of physical abuse as well. It took me about ten or so years to fight my way out of that. Initially, I finished my high school through distance learning and then I started a daycare to save enough money for my tuition fees. I started university after nine years of marriage and two children. When I would go to university, I started to go to counselling, and that’s where I learned about my rights in this country as a woman, as a human being, and as a Canadian. Two years later, when I was in my second year of undergrad, I left the marriage and moved to campus housing with my daughters. I was working multiple jobs to make ends meet, raising my girls, and going to school full-time. I eventually graduated as a top-student at the University of Toronto. At that point, I knew that I couldn’t just stay silent about this. I needed to speak up and raise awareness, so I started to share my story in little ways, in blogs and events here and there.

Seven years later, here we are. Now, I have a book being turned into a tv series, I’m working on a second book, and am the recipient of awards and all, but ultimately, the whole thing is that I always believe that these are all platforms to do more work and touch more lives. We’ve come a long way, but we definitely have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality, especially in a lot of backgrounds that are affected by cultural patriarchy and deep-rooted misogyny. That’s sort of the mission that I’m on. In terms of who I am, at heart, I’m a nerd and an academic. I love learning, teaching, and travelling. I often term myself a social justice warrior - I’m really passionate about social justice and equity, and it pains me when I see injustice and inequality around me, and people being treated with any type of injustice based on who they are, where they came from, or the colour of their skin, and we’re seeing that so much in this world, it’s heartbreaking. I’m super passionate about helping people break free of those shackles and be truly themselves; an authentic version of themselves. We all have the right to do that.

SWY: Can you discuss honour-based structural abuse for our readers who may not have heard of the term? What does it mean, and what is its effect on individuals?

SZ: When you think of the word honour and you think of honour-based abuse, people think about honour killings. They think it’s the acid attacks and the murders that happen in the name of honour. Those are the things that make the news because they’re the newsworthy, horrific crimes that happen. But, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. This idea of honour, which is associated with a woman, her gender role and her body, it’s so deep-rooted and so ingrained in mindsets and communities that there’s a whole stigma and shame around a woman who chooses to veer off that supposedly honourable path. That idea of honour is debilitating, constricting, and it takes a lot of freedoms away. The woman carries everybody’s honour in her hands, but she’s never honoured for who she is. It’s so twisted. Your honour is in staying silent and tolerating, being subjugated and giving up who you are, and fitting into some sort of societal, acceptable box. We need to move the dial from a woman’s honour being defined by her dressing choice, marital status, ability to bear children, etc. to a woman’s honour is her own to define based on who she is as a person, her beliefs, her systems, and whatever she chooses to be.

We try to, as a society, put women into these certain boxes. The way it’s implemented is this whole shame and stigma that’s inflicted upon women. When a woman speaks up, she’s the shameful one. When a woman leaves an abusive relationship or a marriage where she just doesn’t love the guy or whatever her reason may be, she’s the one who is termed as shameful or a homewrecker; a woman’s job is seen as staying home and making it work. Even though violence against women is a universal thing, but because of this whole stigma and shame and honour thing, it’s much more difficult for a woman of colour or a woman from a South Asian background, a woman who is from those honourable, honour-based communities, to leave the violence or abuse than it is for someone who doesn’t have that honour-system in the back of her mind. You find that so much especially in the South Asian community. We’ve been taught that from a very young age as we’re growing up, “It’s not honourable for a girl to dress this way,” “Dream, but don’t dream too big,” or “Colour within the box.” I remember I’ve always been a tall girl, and people actually gave advice to my parents to go and get some medicines to stop me from growing so tall because otherwise, how would I find a guy and that would bring shame to the family honour. When girls are being sexually abused, they are told to stay quiet for the sake of protecting the family honour. That’s the thing that we need to break up because there’s no honour in silence, shame, and all of that. In fact, silence and shame are the biggest allies of abuse. Shame lies only with the abuser, and never the victim.

"That’s the thing that we need to break up because there’s no honour in silence, shame, and all of that. In fact, silence and shame are the biggest allies of abuse. Shame lies only with the abuser, and never the victim."

SWY: In your memoir, A Good Wife: Escaping The Life I Never Chose, you mention that your mother-in-law had a major role in the emotional abuse you endured and belittlement of your character. Would you be able to discuss this intergenerational aspect of abuse and the way it pertains to your story?

SZ: That is such an overlooked thing. People think that was previous generations, so we’re fine now. But, it’s not like that. That intergenerational trauma carries on. The intergenerational cycle of abuse carries on. I saw my father being an abuser, so I tolerated it from my husband. The biggest reason I left my marriage was because I did not want my daughters to grow up normalizing it and tolerating it in their lives too. It’s not just about the intergenerational cycle of abuse. That’s there; a lot of kids who grow up watching abuse and normalizing it will either tolerate it or inflict it. But, it’s also the trauma. Kids don’t just witness abuse, they experience it like it’s happening to them. That trauma is there. For me, the trauma of my childhood when I saw my own father being an abuser, the trauma from my marriage when I was being abused, it carries on. There’s more and more research being done in psychology that trauma actually carries on from generation to generation even as part of your genes. When people don’t learn the right mechanisms and skills to heal and deal with that trauma or manage it, then they go into inflicting it onto the next generation.

My mother-in-law was married off at 14. She was abused in her marriage, but she obviously never realized it was abuse or healed and dealt with it. Because she normalized it, she also used to abuse me in return. Her mother-in-law used to hit her, so she thought she was being a great mother-in-law. Similarly, my own mom wasn’t able to leave my dad. Her family didn’t support her, so when I left my marriage, even though she was supportive from a verbal sense, I never felt that level of support that I should have felt from a mom. My mom still continues to justify what happened to me in the name of culture and religion. That trauma that I lived with is just magnified when I talk to my mom and she justifies it. As if my life was nothing more than checking a box on some kind of cultural checklist. It’s not just about the women who experience it, it’s also about the next generation. It’s the kids, their frame of reference as they’re growing up; that’s going to be their normal that they’re making decisions based on it. Kids grow up and don’t want to get into relationships because they think every man out there is an abuser, which is wrong. I had and still do have issues when I think about dating again because I saw my father and my ex-husband being so horrible. Now, even when I do meet people, I’m always extra-vigilant and sometimes it’s exhausting to live with that. That trauma carries on and it carries on in two ways: One, the cycle of abuse continues, and then the trauma gets passed on as well.

SWY: What do you think was your turning point to leave the abusive relationship, and where did this strength come from?

SZ: There were a few turning points. I call them inflection points. At the very beginning, it was all the high school courses that I did through distance learning. When I would get really good marks and the feedback, everything that I succeeded in gave me more courage to do more and develop more. Courage isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you develop. It’s like strength training for your emotional muscles. The more you lift, the more you’re able to lift later on. So, it’s small wins that enable you to get bigger successes later on or take bigger risks.

"Courage isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you develop. It’s like strength training for your emotional muscles. The more you lift, the more you’re able to lift later on."

Then, the daycare gave me confidence and being able to make some money on my own. Eventually, when I started university and I learned what was happening to me was abuse; that was when things really started to change for me. On one hand, when I was at school, at university, I was being treated with tremendous kindness, empathy and championship. Then, I would go home and be treated with humiliation, insult, and assault. That really just put it into perspective for me. I started to really think, “Why is this happening? Who am I? Am I this rockstar that everyone at school seems to think I am or am I this good-for-nothing worthless creature?” When I started to go to counselling, I learned that what was happening to me was abuse and was not okay, and that I deserved better and had rights. That knowledge is what gave me my power back. The ultimate catalyst was learning about the generational cycle of abuse. I did not want my daughters to grow up thinking this was normal, and I didn’t want the cycle to be repeated with them. I could see through counselling and after doing all this work how the cycle was repeated with me, and I didn’t want that to happen to my daughters. That’s what ultimately drove me to be able to leave.

SWY: Statistics have shown that those who have been victims of abuse are more likely to become abusers or be revictimized themselves. What are some things individuals can do to defy these statistics and change that trajectory for the future?

SZ: We, as human beings, whether it’s abuse or another kind of trauma, we always go through adversity. I’m not justifying abuse that, “You have to go through it because that’s life,” but I’m just saying that we often can’t control what happens to us. But, we can control our response to it. One thing in my journey that I was absolutely clear on was that I did not want to end up bitter. My mom was the example for me. She went through abuse with my father, and she has become bitter and hardened. She doesn’t show her vulnerabilities and wants to present this image to the world, and often times, there’s a wall. And she has this cynical view of the world, that the world is a battlefield, a testing ground. When I came out of my marriage, I was determined not to end up like that. I did not want to deprive myself of love, future relationships, friendships, the relationship I want to build with my daughters, or being able to put myself out there and pursue my dreams; things like that. I knew that I needed to do my healing. I didn’t run away from the fact that I was traumatized from the abuse. I didn’t run away and hide. I knew that he affected me, I knew that I was struggling, I knew that I was traumatized, and I knew that I wanted to heal from it. So, I leaned in instead of leaning out. I pursued counselling. I went to counselling and still am in therapy, even after 9 years. I’ve been very mindful of this is what I’m feeling, this is where it’s coming from, and I need to work through it, and I need help. I’ve always been able to raise my hand for the professional help or been able to talk to my friends and reveal my emotions. That’s what I did in the book too. I wanted to be as real and vulnerable as possible about my emotions and the mistakes that I’ve made. I didn’t want to come off as superwoman who has it down to a science. That has enabled me to develop a healthy perspective of the world, of future relationships, of feelings, and of being able to put myself out there and try one more time to be in a healthy relationship.

All of those things have really come from the fact that I’ve been able to lean into my vulnerability and take responsibility of my healing. That’s the lesson that I give to people. When you have gone through trauma as a victim, get rid of that victim mentality and take ownership of your life and healing. “Yes, I’m going to heal from this.” You cannot choose what happens to you most of the time, but you can choose how you come out of it. You can choose to come out of it better instead of bitter. You can choose to come out of it more loving instead of hateful and resentful. You can choose to come out of it more resilient and stronger rather than giving into unhealthy coping mechanisms. That’s where your power lies. Lean into therapy, ask for help, and raise your hand. Be kind to yourself in the process. Leaving is very hard but staying away and the recovery after that is often harder, and it’s like giving up some kind of drug addiction because you get trauma bonded to your abuser and you're always like, “I want to go back to him. How am I going to make it?” Part of this is because it wasn’t always abuse. Abuse always has a lot of romance and love in it too because that’s how the cycle continues and that’s why the victim stays because she has so much hope that things will get better. There’s resources out there. There’s a lot of help out there. In fact, I’m building an online course right now to help women heal from the after-effects of domestic violence and trauma and really come into their own.

The other side of it for abusers that come out of it and because of intergenerational cycles have become perpetrator themselves, there’s also a lot of hope there. Being able to look within and understand, “Where is this coming from? My idea of being a man? My idea of putting the other person down?” People often paint abusers with this villainous brush, as monsters, psychopaths, and sociopaths. Most abusers, however, are actually people with good in them, but they, themselves, are struggling with unhealed trauma or very deep insecurities, normalized gender norms or stereotypes, their own hang-ups, and things like that. Although there are some very bad people out there, for most people, there is hope. Even for my ex-husband, I think the big reason I stayed was because I had that hope and saw that good in him. I knew that he wanted to try and get better, and I had that hope that maybe if he got help, he would realize that what he’s doing is wrong. He would realize that he doesn’t need to control me and put me down in order to feel good about himself. When that happens, it’s a little bit harder. Abuse isn’t a switch that you can turn on and off; abuse is a symptom of underlying issues that are going on with the abuser. Those issues are harder to heal from or change from, such as deep-rooted misogyny or patriarchy, and growing up in a culture where all that is normalized and being validated for that by your family, etc. Those are deeper issues, but I’m an optimist, and I’m a firm believer that if you put in the work and change your mindset, you can absolutely conquer those insecurities. But, it starts with you. It starts with you as abusers. If you realize there is something you’re doing wrong, something sparks that in you, and you want to become better, there is help out there and lean into it. Not just for your family’s sake, but also for your own sake.

On the flip side though, I’ll also say to victims: Don’t stay because of that hope. That healing and changing is the abuser’s responsibility. A lot of women stay because they think they can fix him. “If only I could take him to therapy. If only he would realize what he’s doing is wrong.” I did that for years. That’s where I think women really need to put their stick in the ground and realize that it’s not our responsibility to fix an abuser and make him better. By staying, you are giving him an unspoken message that it’s okay for you to treat me this way, and I’m not going anywhere. Yes, it’s possible for abusers to change but that doesn’t mean victims should stay because of that hope and possibility. Your life is worth way more than that. For survivors, I’d say take responsibility for your healing; you can choose to come out of it better instead of bitter.

SWY: In your Toronto Life article, you share that you did not want to isolate your daughters from their father after your divorce, despite the way he treated you. How did you come to this decision and what role did that play in your healing?

SZ: The reason I wanted them to have their father in their life came from a lot of cultural hang-ups too. This idea that he’s their father, they deserve to have him. I thought that it wasn’t like he abused the kids, but now I’ve learned, even exposure to abuse is child abuse. Even though he wasn’t directly abusing the kids, it was child abuse what he was doing to me and the way he was treating me in front of the kids. I wanted them at that time to have a relationship with their father and I would pressure them, and then one day, my daughter said to me, “Mom, if he was just a random person, he was not related to us and he was the way he is, the misogyny, patriarchy, deep-rooted beliefs about women, all of that, would you really want someone like him to be a role-model for me in my life?” And I said no. So, she said, “He doesn’t get a free pass just because he’s my dad. I don’t want him in my life; he’s not good for me. At that point, I was like “You’re absolutely right, I’m going to support you wholeheartedly.” They cut him off and I supported them, so my kids don’t have a relationship with him anymore.

SWY: You founded a non-profit organization, Brave Beginnings, that helps “Women rebuild their lives after abuse.” This mentorship program is based on establishing a human connection with others to aid in healing. Why do you think this human connection is lacking from society today, and why is it so vital to the healing process?

SZ: Human connection is the absolute cornerstone of resilience. When you feel you are not alone, that there are people who will catch you when you fall, when there are people around you who are supporters and champions of you, it automatically makes you more resilient, confident, and courageous to step out. That was the catalyst in my life. When I started going to university and making friends and developed relationships with my counsellors and professors, I realized that there’s all these people that believe in me. That helped me believe in myself and that’s when I left my marriage. I tried leaving five times before, but I went back or I was sent back because I didn’t have that support system. The final time I left and didn’t go back; I was able to move forward because of that safety net and the hands that I had behind me pushing me forward. That’s how human connection is essential to resilience and courage. That’s what Brave Beginnings is based on. On average, a woman goes back to her abuser seven times before she finally leaves. It’s because of that, “I’m alone, I’m intimidated, I don’t know what to do” kind of feeling. We are trying to bring that number down and to create a community based on human connection and friendship that enables survivors to heal and build better lives.

"When you feel you are not alone, that there are people who will catch you when you fall, when there are people around you who are supporters and champions of you, it automatically makes you more resilient, confident, and courageous to step out."

SWY: If you could say something to your 17-year-old self, what would you say? Is there anything you would have done differently?

SZ: No. If I say she should have done that differently, I’m taking away from what she has done, and I’m putting the blame on her and the shame on her. The only thing I’ll say to her is, “Thank you for not giving up and for fighting because I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done that, and I’m proud of you.”

We would like to sincerely thank Samra for taking the time to speak with us about her path towards escaping child marriage and becoming a fierce advocate for abuse survivors! Samra's story is an inspiring testament to courage and resiliency.