It isn't easy to get out of an abusive relationship, especially when it seems like there's really no escape. But the founder and students at Yalla Yoga, a studio in Heliopolis, have united to help one woman and her son start a new life.
by Sandra Shama Kaur
What is your first reaction when a young woman tells you she’s getting married? Is it fear? Shock? Disbelief? Pity? Doubt? Or simply joy?
When Fatma* first told me she was getting married, I felt a little tug in my heart. It was a feeling of uneasiness. There was something about the look in her eyes that left a mark inside me.
When she spoke, she sounded very convinced. She described her soon to be husband as a man who genuinely loved her. He proposed twice already, and she declined. But this third time she accepted, even though she did not love him.
She accepted because she was almost 26 years old, and in her small village this age suggests that she’s getting old. She feared that no man would want her as she got older. And her parents reinforced her fear. What is a woman to do but surrender to the commands of her family?
Fatma described this man as a kind, hard-working and open-minded man. He knew about her job and ambitions, and he supported her fully.
I have known Fatma for almost 6 years. I first met her at her workplace, and over the years we became friends and maintained contact.
I was always blown away by Fatma’s progressive zeal to learn, grow and better herself. Perhaps her will to persevere no matter what reminded me of myself, and I was keen to support and encourage her.
Despite working 9 to 10 hours a day, she enrolled in various courses and training to further her career. She developed her own flyers and business cards and was keen to grow and become something big.
Fatma was the main breadwinner in her family. She paid for her 21-year-old brother’s schooling, her fathers’ debts, and mother’s medical bills and for toys for her nephew, the son of her recently divorced sister.
Leading up to the wedding day, Fatma began preparing tirelessly. She worked extra shifts, saving money, collecting items, accepting gifts and borrowing from everyone she knew. She prepared her dowry, which included blankets, linen, kitchen appliances, heaters and clothes.
The big day arrived, and she was the most beautiful bride I'd ever seen. She looked so happy and wild, like fire. She settled for a small wedding and danced on top of cars in the street, sending me pictures of the big day.
About 10 months after the wedding, Fatma delivered her first child, Youssef*. Soon after Youssef’s birth, I saw Fatma less frequently. When I saw her, she seemed tired as if she carried a big weight on her shoulders. She remained respectable and did not talk much.
Until one day, I saw a big mark on her forehead and asked what it was. I wish I hadn’t.
Fatma unloaded her troubles and told me how her husband changed after the marriage. He comes home past 3am in the morning and demands Fatma to wake up and prepare his dinner and eat with him. If she is not hungry, then it means she ate too much during the day so he bans her from eating unless he is around. He tells her she got ugly and fat after the wedding and that he was tricked in choosing her. When he walks around the house, he points his finger at parts on the floor that need to be scrubbed and tells her to obey his command. When she talks back at him, he tells her to look at the floor while speaking to him, and asserts how he's the man of the house and she's got no right to talk back. And the list goes on.
When I heard this, I did my best to remain calm and sensitive to Fatma's need for compassionate listening. I asked her what are you planning to do about this?
She said she wanted to ask for a divorce and went back to her parents crying almost every night, but still they sent her back to her husband. Her father said he won't accept having two divorced daughters. And her mother told her to endure the pain and suffering for the sake her son, just like she endured the beatings from her own husband. And so Fatma agreed. And I remained quiet.
In our next meetings, Fatma’s typically light spirit was now weighed down by a barrage of verbal and physical abuse and mental degradation. She complained of increased headaches, dizziness, fainting, numbness, indigestion and many other physical symptoms.
This was my queue to take a stand. I told Fatma that physical pain is a reflection of our mental and emotional pain. I talked to her about her rights as a woman, mother and wife. I talked to her about breaking the pattern of submission and being a powerful woman that stands for not only her rights but the rights of all woman in this country.
Still Fatma’s broken spirit could only worry about what she'd lose. She said she didn't want to lose all her dowry, which cost her close to 100,000 LE. She told me her parents would throw her out, just like they do every night when she goes to them crying and begging to let her stay with them.
I saw how Fatma's fear got in the way of her power, so I invited Fatma and her son to stay with me for as long as she needs. I told her she's like a sister and my home was open for her. I asked her to forget the dowry: to pretend it all burned to ash in an earthquake or fire. And suddenly she was filled with a contagious spirit, energy and power. A power to make the impossible, possible.
With a renewed sense of energy, Fatma went back home and demanded a divorce. When her parents realized she'd leave whether they agreed or not, their attitude changed and they started supporting her. She told her father she was prepared to stay in a new home he was building, even though it was still bricks and mortar with no water, electricity, doors, windows or bathrooms. Her father agreed.
When I heard this, I vowed to help Fatma build her new home so she and her son would have a decent and respectable life, one that honors the life of a woman and mother.
Fatma has lost all her dowry and needs our help. Her new home needs a lot of work, and when complete it will need furniture, appliances, bathrooms and so forth. Fatma’s baby is now 6 months, and he also needs toys and clothes. If you want to contribute to help Fatma build her new life, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandra Shama Kaur is a lifestyle and wellness specialist.
*names have been changed to protect privacy