South Asian culture is known for its food, fashion and films. We stand proud and tall when we hear bhangra in mainstream society or see Indian prints at New York Fashion Week. But what no one likes to talk about is the dark side of our culture. Issues such as family violence are a huge problem in our communities. Domestic violence survivor and mother of five, Fatima Omar Khamissa is one such example of a woman who found the courage and strength to leave her abusive marriage after 21 years.
Khamissa grew up in Canada and attended high school in Toronto. When her family decided to move back to South Africa, then 20-year-old Khamissa chose to stay and get married to the boy she thought she was in love with. Her wedding was as grand and opulent as South Asian weddings can be. Although both of her parents were hesitant, they knew their daughter was determined and thus, supported her wishes. Two weeks after her wedding, Khamissa knew she had made the biggest mistake of her life.
Khamissa is one of millions of women around the world who endured the pain and suffering for decades. She knew things had to change and describes her marriage as constantly walking on eggshells, “It made me depressed, withdrawn, fearful. There’s this thing called liquid fear that will come up inside of me and strangle me when he was around.” Because of this fear, Khamissa stayed and tried to constantly put on a brave face.
It’s because of women like Khamissa that Toronto’s Social Services Network has decided to bring light to such a big problem in the South Asian community. Their second annual Family Violence Conference: A South Asian Perspective, garnered attendance from politicians, media and leading international women. Director of the SSN, Nad Khoja believes in the value and need of such a conference. He says, “It’s important because it highlights all the issues in the South Asian community that are taboo, hidden and culturally driven and brings them to the forefront in Canadian society.”
Co-chair of the Family Violence Conference Advocacy and Advisory Committee, Aruna Papp believes that honor killings are the tip of the iceberg in an extensive problem that is surrounded by fear. She says, “Once a woman starts talking
badly about her marriage and saying I’m being beaten, the husbands and in-laws will prevent the other women from associating with her, so she then becomes very isolated.”
Khamissa agrees with this and remembers how she was immediately shunned from her own community the moment she left her husband. She says, “The men wanted me to have nothing to do with their wives as I might empower their women. Then the women turned against me because I was going to steal their husbands from them. Women would call me and say, “Fatima, I hate my husband and he hates me but we’re together for the kids.’”
Conference keynote speaker and co-founder of Manavi, a New Jersey based women’s rights organization, Shamita Das Dasgupta describes how hesitant many women are to leave their marriages because of the humiliation and rejection they fear from their community. She says, “We must make changes so that immigrant South Asian women will go to the community for help. We must hold batterers accountable.”
Das Dasgupta works with women who refuse to leave their husbands because of the shame they will feel from their communities. She believes that we must no longer maintain our community pride by sacrificing our daughters, sisters and mothers. Das Dasgupta focuses on three ways to help eliminate family violence:
1- Support women and girls who are victims.
2- Hold the perpetrators accountable.
3- Change the community’s attitudes and practices.
Director of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women and another keynote speaker at this year’s conference, Alia Hogben spoke about the importance of eliminating patriarchy. Hogben believes that if patriarchy stands for males being powerful and having to look after women, it makes women appear to be childlike and weak.
“That means we don’t know any better, we are emotional, we have periods and that means we are not as smart as they are, we can’t be leaders. So when you keep on closeting people, then you take away their rights.”
Community pressure, patriarchy and honor killings were strong topics at this year’s conference and all three were lead with passionate debate and discussion.
Khamissa knows she made the right decision but recognizes that she helped to maintain a fairy tale in her own community until she could do it no longer.
“I created this image. We had two lives. We had our life outside. The life of the masjid, the life of the Muslim family with all our beautiful children, and then we had our life at home, which was vicious and violent. I wanted to keep that image.”
Because of this image, she waited 21 years to leave her husband, until both her parents were deceased. She could not do it while her parents were alive. She knew the gossip and speculation that would arise in their community and the harassment her parents would endure.
She remembers being at the peak of her depression.
“We become, in our own minds, worthless. We start believing the words that they use against us and how are we ever going to cope in our own way if this man walks out. So we start protecting our abusers.”
Khamissa also knew that she needed to set an example for her children. Not with her words but with her actions. Feeling worthless was not something she wanted to pass on to her daughter.
Now, Khamissa is a successful leader in a community that welcomes and accepts her for who she is, not what they want her to be. She is a public speaker, life coach, entrepreneur and talk radio host. Most importantly, it’s made her a better mother.
If there’s one thing she wants other women who are going through this to know, her favorite quote by Anais Nin sums it all up: “There comes a time when the pain to remain secure in the bud becomes so bad that it’s worse than blossoming.”
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