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.
At the age of 28, with two girls in tow, I moved to U of T campus housing, finished my education as a single mother working multiple jobs, and achieved more success than I ever imagined was possible. That’s when I knew that I had to do something with this I had a purpose. So I started sharing my story because I knew that my story was not just mine.
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 me. For the past five years, I’ve been sharing my story everywhere that I possibly can. Every day, I wake up to hundreds of messages from people all over the world. I get hate messages.
I even receive death threats. But for every one of those negative messages, I receive thousands of messages filled with love, support and encouragement. My biggest award so far came to me three months ago, when a man in Pakistan wrote an email to me 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 article on Toronto Life.’
That’s when I knew that I had my purpose. Today, I consider myself to be a strong, successful, independent woman, in my own right, and I very pompously thought, ‘You know what? I know all there is to know about abuse. It cannot possibly happen to me again.’
But I was wrong. Very recently, a few months ago, in fact, I found myself 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. But when I was vulnerable, when I was weak, that mask dropped, and I was shocked at the onslaught of humiliation and insults coming at me. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God! How did I end up here again?’
Again, knowledge is what gave me the power to be able to stand up for myself and walk out. I educated myself on the types of emotional abuse and learned what was happening to me was beyond my control and not my fault. Physical abuse is easy to detect, right? There’s bruises. Someone slaps you or kicks you, you’re like, ‘Game over. I’m walking out.’
But emotional and psychological abuse, verbal abuse, is insidious. It’s hidden. 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?’ 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 a hugely under-reported stat because, as we all know, it’s very ‘unmanly’ to admit that you’re being abused, one in three women and ten percent of men in North America will have faced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. That’s a lot of people. And that’s under-reported, and that’s only physical abuse.
So the real number is much higher. All the support that exists out there, whether it’s police, shelters, therapy, counselling, 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.
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 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.
As Brené Brown so beautifully says in her TED talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability‘, 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, date, 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 anyone, anywhere and anytime. Last year, my 15-year-old daughter came up to me and said, ‘Mum, I think my friend is in an abusive relationship.’
And I said, ‘What? What do you mean?’
And she 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 my heart went out to that girl, I was so proud of my daughter for being able to recognize abuse for what it was, and stand up for her friend.
And I know that she was able to do that because I’ve had those conversations with her 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 is 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’ll be judged, I’ll 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.