Here is the full transcript of Samra Zafar’s TEDx Talk: I Was Abused as a Child Bride and This is What I Learned at TEDxMississauga conference.
Samra Zafar: I’d like to invite all of you to take part in a little exercise with me. Don’t worry, you don’t have to get up.
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.
Now please open your eyes. I’m Samra Zafar, and I’m a survivor of abuse. I grew up in a small town in Abu Dhabi, in many ways a brash, rebellious teenager, a girl who always liked to push the envelopes and challenge the stereotypes. While my friends dreamed of weddings and bangles, I dreamed of going to Harvard or Stanford. The founder of the girls’ cricket team, editor of the school newspaper, a straight-A student.
But I was also a girl who was growing up too fast. My body developing into that of a young woman, I was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. And one day, when I was 16 years old, I was told that in a few months, I was going to be married to a man 12 years older than me, who I’d never met before, who lives in a faraway country called Canada.
A year later, I arrived in this country as a child bride in a forced marriage with only one dream; the dream of getting an education. I became a mother right away.
I gave birth to my older daughter at 18 – I had no idea about birth control – and that dream of education was snatched away from me. I was told that now that I was a mother, I was someone’s wife, I was someone’s daughter-in-law, it was inappropriate for me to go to university, or even go to high school. I was not allowed to go out of the house, make any friends, or have any independence whatsoever, but it was for my own good.
I was being protected from the corrupt Western society. I was humiliated every day, called bad words. ‘You’re useless’ ‘You’re worthless’ ‘You don’t deserve to be loved or respected’ ‘You’re not worthy of respect’. And when I asked why, I 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 my face and body, I thought I deserved that too. I spent years trying to fix myself, thinking, ‘Maybe the secret to perfect wife-hood is somehow eluding me. Maybe if I cooked better food, washed clothes better, didn’t express my opinions, didn’t have opinions, talked less, didn’t watch cricket, this would change.’ But nothing changed.
I made mistakes and I suffered the consequences. Throughout this entire time, there was this tiny voice in my head that just wouldn’t be quiet.
The voice that said, ‘Maybe I do deserve better. Maybe there are options out there. Maybe this is not the way that things are supposed to be.’ Education was something. I was not willing to give up on, so I finished all my high school through distance learning at home, and after ten years of struggle and many, many hard-fought battles, I started university at the age of 26 as a mother of two children.
I still remember the day when I got my first mark for my Economics 100 exam. I got one-hundred percent. And my professor announced my name in front of the entire class of 300 students, and everybody turned to look at me. And I, instead of feeling proud and accomplished and excited, I was petrified. I wanted to crawl into a dark hole and never come out. I didn’t want to be seen.
I didn’t want to be known. I wanted to be invisible. And after the class ended, a lot of these students came up to me 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 me study?’
And I remember standing there and thinking to myself, ‘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 me, they still wanted to be my friend. So I started thinking, ‘If I am this amazing, why am I being treated so badly at home? And if I’m that bad, why do all these people shower me with respect and admiration at school?’
And one day, as I was in my dilemma and in my confusion of thoughts and everything, I was walking to the bookstore, and right beside the bookstore was the health and counselling center. And 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 I answered ‘yes’ to each and every one of those questions. ‘Come in and make an appointment’, it said.
So I walk in, make an appointment, and a few days later, I’m sitting across from my counselor and the floodgates opened. I started pouring my 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 me for an hour, said the one sentence that shifted my entire world. She said, ‘It’s not your fault’. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me: ‘It’s not your fault. No matter what you do, you do not deserve to be treated with disrespect and abuse and humiliation.’ That was the first time I heard the word ‘abuse’.
I said, ‘What? Am I being abused?’
‘Yes, you are’, she said.
The next few months, I spent researching all I could find on abusive behaviors – reading articles, journals, looking at charts of abuse, the cycles of abuse, the types of abuse – and that’s when I 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 I 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 I started standing up for myself 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 I started speaking up, my abuser was losing control and the abuse got worse. It took me another two years of gathering knowledge, awareness, realizing my internal strength and power, and then, finally, being able to walk away.