(content warning: partner violence & marital rape)
When people think of domestic abuse, they usually think of its most explicit manifestations. It’s physical. It’s loud. There’s glass breaking, slaps landing, and eyes turning blue from a bruise. It is, in a word, dramatic. The kind we see in TV dramas, movies, and depictions of domestic abuse in most media forms.
But for my grandaunt, domestic abuse was the sight and smell of kerosene, the disappearance of jewellery, the violence of words, and, the excruciating turning of each day. It was being so desperate that she left her own children in the dead of night.
My grandaunt is past 50 years old now, but she was young once, and was young during a time when to be unmarried in your mid-twenties was considered a mark of shame. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was worried when her daughter was still unmarried though she was approaching 30 years old. She thus match-made her daughter with the friend of a neighbour’s son (yes, take a minute to figure that out) from a previous kampung. Perhaps the fact that nobody even really knew this man should have been the first red flag, but it wasn’t.
They met a couple of times and they were quickly engaged. The first red flag occurred during the engagement: He specifically asked my aunt for gold jewellery as part of the betrothal gifts. Something within her was (rightfully) uncomfortable with a man who felt no qualms asking for precious items while they were just little more than strangers and still unmarried. She was so uncomfortable, in fact, that she did not want to proceed with the engagement. But my great-grandmother, still compliant to the pressures of societal shame, felt embarrassed to stop proceedings– to “putus tunang.” So the first red flag was buried, and they proceeded with the marriage.
My grandaunt was a simple person. She needed time to learn anything new, and she had always been close to her mother. She was unprepared to live so abruptly as a wife and a daughter-in-law with a completely new family. She had been sheltered and doted on as the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother for a long time. Her father died when she was 6 months old and she grew up without a man in the house. Now suddenly she was placed in a household where she was a wife and the presence of men demanded that she behave according to strict gendered expectations. She was out of her depth. She was clueless.
For one, she did not know how to cook at all. The in-laws felt that they had been cheated. They had not known this fact about her, assuming that the food cooked during the engagement was by her, when it was in fact cooked by my great-grandmother. They were unhappy when they saw her whiling hours away in front of the television. One would say that perhaps my grandaunt should have known better than to have behaved “inappropriately” in her new home, but regardless of her behaviour, she did not deserve what would happen during those years of marriage.
Unhappy with her and feeling “cheated” that they had gotten her as a new family member, she began to endure emotional abuse. From both her husband and her in-laws, my grandaunt began to weather daily insults that were meant to hack away at her self-esteem. She was seen as unintelligent, useless, and she was reminded of it. They would make snide remarks about her, or make cruel jokes and laugh at her expense. She was called stupid, crazy, useless. She began to feel excruciating anxiety living in that house and having to please her husband and his family.
The irony of insulting her was that her husband was not even close to a perfect man himself. At the time, he had two jobs: a full-time job as well as driving a taxi part-time. Yet, he was still riddled with debts due to loans he had taken with loan sharks. Nobody knows why he had those loans. At one point he and his family forced my grandaunt to put her name as a guarantor on the form, holding her hand to force her to sign it. We don’t know what that form was for but she suspected that it was from loan sharks, thereby putting her at great risk. He began taking her jewellery, pawning them in order to get money.
Bereft of her valuable items, he then began borrowing money from my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother, pained by the distress her daughter was going through, always gave in to giving her son-in-law the money. She was not rich at all, she was in fact, quite poor. But it was her hope that in giving him what he wanted, he and his family might begin to treat her daughter better. But of course, abusive people do not function that way. They feel little difficulty in taking without giving while making you feel guilty at the same time. They feel entitled to whatever they demand of you. Even while they are subjecting you to degrading treatment and giving little love, they would somehow manipulate your sense of guilt, lack of self-esteem or any vulnerability, to convince you that you are at fault. My great-grandmother lost thousands to her son-in-law, and she never got those thousands of dollars back. My grandaunt continued to be abused.
Every day was torturous for my grandaunt in that household. Her eyes would water, her heart was never at peace, and she would frequently talk to herself. She was constantly having imaginary conversations where she was able to express fully what she could never express in real life to the cruel people, foremostly her husband, who had broken her to a point of near powerlessness. Once, in retelling her trauma, she mentioned how she had looked at a bottle of kerosene and seriously considered drinking it to end her life.
My grandaunt had two children with her husband, but the presence of children did little to soften the heart of her husband or her in-laws. In their view, she was viewed as an inadequate mother. They had not considered that their persistent abuse of her had contributed to her instability. In an especially cruel moment, she recounted how after the requisite amount of period had passed, before the pantang had finished, he wanted to have sex. She did not want to, but he went ahead. Today we would have no qualms calling that marital rape, especially when it happened during a moment when the body is trying to heal after the great physical trauma of childbirth.
The night she left, she waited for the family to be asleep. She left the house in the dead of night in her nightgown, carrying nothing with her. She flagged a taxi and told the driver that she had no money, but would give him her ring as payment for the fare. She arrived at her mother’s home in her nightgown, her hair crazed, and her hands empty. Nobody gets to that point without having suffered tremendously. I don’t believe any mother would leave her own children unless it was past every point of desperation.
She was encouraged by her family to file a police report, so she did. With the statement that was recorded at the police station about the abuse that she went through, she was able to file for divorce. Thankfully, the Shariah court was understanding of her distress. Though her husband (like many abusers and manipulators) claimed to love her and tried to employ loving language to justify not wanting to divorce her, the Shariah court persistently asked him to explain further when all evidence was against him. With the help of a good lawyer, she was able to get him to pronounce the talak (a repudiation from the man that automatically results in divorce) and get a divorce.
When she stood in court to speak, she said how she honestly did not care about losing all her gold. She could have given away all her gold if it meant helping her husband. She did not mind being poorer in her possessions if it had meant that she was in a loving relationship and had a happy family. But instead, she received emotional torture from him and his family. That was what hurt her most.
My grandaunt had been emotionally and psychologically depleted by the marriage. She did not win custody of her children, who remained with her ex-husband and his family. Growing up, I would sometimes see her sitting on the couch, and her two children would be sitting on the next couch, their body language awkward. This sight grew rarer as time passed, until it stopped happening at all. It is likely that they have only really known their mother as someone unstable when they were younger, and in their older age, as an estranged woman. They would have received their own stories from their father and his family about their mother. They might think that she did not care about them, knowing only that she had left them one night while they were asleep.
One of the final parts of abuse is the narrative that is held up after the person escapes. Having lost control over the person over whom they have exercised power, controlling the narrative of what happened is the last piece of power the abuser gets to have. It is unfair and painful, and sadly, you would often do better to not retaliate. The passing of time and people’s own experience of your being is what will decide their impression of you in the end.
My grandaunt spent long painful years in her marriage, but thankfully she managed to leave. Thankfully, she had a home she could escape to. Thankfully she had a support system who helped her lodge a report and take it to court. Thankfully the Shariah court was able to help mete out justice and she was able to have that closure. One can only begin to imagine how trapped and torturous the situation would be for a person who does not have anywhere to run to or anybody who would believe her. This is why the response to domestic abuse cases, not just from institutions but from the victim’s personal networks, are so important
My grandaunt’s life has not been the same since. She never re-married, and she no longer sees her children. In an alternate reality, she might have drunk that kerosene to end her life, or perhaps the taxi driver would not agree to drive her, or the legal systems in place might not have supported her. Such a possibility is chilling to even imagine, but it certainly is a reality for some women even at this moment. Or perhaps in an alternate reality, her being unmarried would not have been so shameful as to have had her married off to a man who would eventually bring her so much emotional torture. We depend on so much in this life, both in terms of the people in our personal lives, and the systems in place that we trust to help us when we are vulnerable.
My grandaunt would never want another woman to go through what she did, and to be able to leave such a situation as she was able to. I hope in sharing in her story, people would be more empathetic of the struggle of those who go through emotional and psychological abuse, which can be so damaging, though it may not seem as “dramatic” as physical abuse. It is just as real, and the pain just as lasting.
Sue is now past her mid-twenties and passionate about issues of gender justice and equality. She believes that Islam is inherently egalitarian and hopes those interpretations would one day prevail.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu