by Aliyyah Zubair
(Content Warning for Partner Violence and descriptions of abuse)
An abusive marriage/situation sucks, no matter with who and how it happens. But as believers, there’s that added dimension of our faith and spirituality that can make things that little bit more tricky. I cannot count the number of times warning bells set off in my head and instead of seeking for professional help, I turned to the praying mat instead.
I’m not saying it didn’t help. I’m very sure my prayers were answered in the way only God knows and provided great relief amidst the madness. I am so lucky my teacher detected the signs of abuse, otherwise, God knows how long I would have gone on deteriorating without realising it.
Things Muslim Victims of Abuse Tell Themselves
I fully understand how people, especially people of faith, might stay in abusive marriages. I, for one, kept telling myself “This world is temporary and even if I suffer for the next 70 years of my life, that is nothing compared to an ETERNITY with my Lord who loves me and will make it all worth it.”
Or “God can change ANY situation. Supplication is the weapon of a believer.” So pray I did, harder and longer when things got bad. When I moved back in with my ex I told myself not to look out for signs that things were getting better or worse, because my ex could change in an instant, any instant, so I should continue praying and wait for that moment to come…..whenever it did.
I placed that responsibility fully on God – You are the One capable of miracles. You are the One I’m depending on (#tawakkaldonewrong). I truly thought that it was a proof of the strength/weakness of MY faith in God, instead of putting the blame where it belonged: my abusive ex-husband and making sure he was doing good on his promises of reform.
Another constant in my head was “marriage is half of faith” and that your spouse in this life was chosen by God. So many times I ‘comforted’ myself by saying that our marriage couldn’t have been a mistake. How could it be since God chose him for me? Surely no believer wants to question God’s Decisions. I want to hug all the women who are in such marriages and who (like I did for a time) believe that God chose that for them, that this life really is meant for suffering, that people can get away with anything while using religion to prop their flimsy masks, that they deserve what they’re getting. That’s the most heartbreaking of all.
We all have sinned, and ask for God’s forgiveness constantly. I told myself that if what I’m going through is a way to purge myself of sins, then surely it’s a generous trade-off? I’d take punishment in this life any day, you know what I mean?
But that’s not who God is, or what God intends. I don’t want to speak for Him obviously, but abuse has to be called out and really properly dealt with in our faith communities. I really did get lucky, but so many people out there are just silently accepting this and the society lets them believe that they deserve it.
There’s a lot of reasons why victim-blaming is pervasive and abusers are defended but I’m not going to go into that. I will talk about why it’s so difficult for people of faith to talk about it or acknowledge it instead.
Abusers Can Be Religious Too, It’s True
My husband never missed his prayers. Every Ramadan since I knew him, he’d take leave from work for the last 10 days of Ramadan to increase his worship. I saw how he gave charity every single day. We had a box near the door to our home and he’d put in his change or other amounts every day before he left for work and we’d empty it when it was full and give it to a mosque or charity. He read the Qur’an well, attended Islamic events regularly and was basically, for most people, an outstanding Muslim.
These were the very reasons I didn’t want to seek help. I honestly believed that his prayers, charity, devotion to God would cure him of his cruelty and abuse. Because I NEEDED to believe that MY prayers and MY charity and MY devotion to God would also have an effect on my spiritual heart.
I understand when people don’t believe me if I told them he was an abuser. Because for the longest time, I couldn’t either.
When things were bad, I didn’t tell anyone because “spouses are a garment for each other” and if I “covered the aib/shortcomings of your brother, God will cover your aib/shortcomings in the Hereafter”.
There are layers upon layers of religious justification that a victim of abuse has to uncover. When word got out that I had moved out, he started spreading rumours that I was having an affair and asking for a divorce. Well-intentioned, pious old ladies I had known for years from our community whispered to me “God hates divorce. I love you and don’t want you to not get to smell Paradise.”
I didn’t know where to even start. Should I tell her that within a few months of marriage, my ex-husband initiated sex when I was dead asleep and I woke up to a handwritten note by him saying “I hope the angels weren’t cursing you last night”? How does one even verbalize the kind of shock and horror I felt?
Once, we were on holiday with my family and he wanted sex but I pleaded with him to either let me give him a handjob or wait for the next day because we had been out all day and I was tired, plus it was the middle of winter (2 degrees Celsius). I was unwell and really didn’t want to take a shower at 3am before fajr (plus we were staying at a family friend’s house and not at a hotel). His response: “Okay sure. But don’t blame me if I have wet dreams of all these beautiful white chicks.”
I didn’t know it then but these were threats (once using angels to back him no less!) and it ensured that I never fell asleep before he did, never refused him sex even if I was tired or unwell thereafter.
Emotional Abuse Is As Traumatic As Physical Abuse
Many times, as fearful as I was, I really wanted him to hit me. It would be far easier to turn up at a police station or go to my parents with a bruise than to tell them he was a bully. Even though it got physical at the very end, for years, he never laid his hands on me.
When I tried to get my in-laws to speak to him, they said “You know he’s always been difficult. We can’t talk to him because it will make things worse. You guys are married now and need to find a way to work things out.”
I then approached my sister-in-law. She was intelligent, mature and always seemed to have a cool head. “If there was someone who could help me, it would be her,” I thought. There is no one way to talk about emotional abuse because it is a whole pattern of behaviours. Which one should I choose? I didn’t know but told her of several incidents of him cutting me emotionally or using subtle threats to get his way and she said, “Look, I know he’s difficult but those are nothing. Don’t be so dramatic.”
When I finally spoke to a counsellor, she said mine was a textbook case of abuse. How is it so clear to one person and “nothing” to another? Because it’s so hard to pinpoint when there’s no blood and cuts to show for it.
In case you wanted more real-life examples from my life,
- My ex constantly talked about how I deserved a better job. After a while, I decided to quit my job and find something better. He said “You should take 1-2 months off, you deserve the break.” Great! Which wife wouldn’t want to take a break from work and since my husband suggested it, even better! After I quit, he said it was nice having me home and he enjoyed our time together. Aww, that’s really sweet. He kept delaying me from taking another job, making excuses on the day of interviews so I would miss them. He was working shift hours then and said if I took an office-hour job, we’d spend less time together. Wanting to be a good wife who’s available to her husband, I tried to find jobs I could do from home. Notice how he never demanded I quit my job. He just kept repeating stuff and leading me to make decisions aligned with what he wanted, disguised as something “for my own good.”
- Gaslighting and manipulation are an abuser’s greatest weapons. They speak in opposites, confounding the victims and leaving us constantly trying to figure them out and do the right thing. I have always been skinny. I enjoy food as much as the next person but was blessed with a great metabolism. When we were married, he would sometimes praise my body. Other times he would say “You look like an Afghan prisoner of war.” Wanting to be desirable to my husband, I would eat more. When I was enjoying a meal, he’d say “Why are you eating so much? You eat like a fat man.” I never gained weight when I was married to him. In fact, I lost weight because I was stressed all the time.
- I, like most people, valued honest feedback from my nearest and dearest. “Believers are a mirror to each other” and I was pro-active about my self-development, especially spiritually. I would sometimes ask my husband how I could be a better person. I wanted so much to not just be good enough for him, but for God. Once, when I asked him this (we had been fighting quite a bit but this was during a ‘good’, calm period), he looked at me with a straight face and said, “You know this hadith? Prophet Muhammad said, “The signs of a hypocrite are three: when he speaks he lies, when he gives a promise he breaks it, and when he is trusted he is treacherous.” You know you are a munafiq right?” I had never been more broken in my life.
I have so much more examples but we have a word count.
Pro Tip: Don’t Blame the Victim
When I first spoke out about my ex’s abuse, the most common reactions were:
- “But what did you do that made him do it? Surely you must have done something.”
- “Maybe you didn’t use the right words.”
- “Maybe you should have waited till he was well-fed and well-rested before bringing up anything”
- “But did you make du’a for him?”
What did I do? I never provoked him to receive such treatment. And I sure as hell did not ask him to call me a munafiq when I asked for sincere advice. Even if I did do something that angered him, he has a choice on how to deal with that anger. He could do 1001 things that is NOT abuse.
The second most painful, insulting thing that people said to me:
- “I would never allow him to do/say that to me.”
- “You never told him not to do/say that.”
- “If it was me, I would have slapped him. You’re too soft. You didn’t draw boundaries.”
I didn’t ask for the person I love to call me any of the degrading terms he used on me. One does not expect someone who loves you to say such things. When you receive it, you are in too much shock. After I had read about emotional and verbal abuse, I would reply with something like: “Don’t call me stupid. I’m not stupid.” Instead of apologizing and retracting as one would expect, he listed down the reasons why I was indeed stupid, only hurting me even more than if I had ignored it. It is not my fault that my ex is incapable of talking like normal adults.
The most difficult thing about victim-blaming is that you’re only saying what victims are already thinking all the time. I constantly wondered what I could have done better, what words to use, what not to do to provoke him. I already believed I am stupid, ugly and lucky to have married my ex and am sinful to God. I already have a mental list ready on why this fight is my fault and why I was wrong to not have anticipated or stopped it.
I know my weaknesses and my ex regularly reminds me of them under the guise of “needing to stay humble” and “not letting our ego rule us”.
It took my counsellor telling me repeatedly it isn’t my fault before I would believe her. (And I still have days when I wonder “Maybe I wasn’t patient enough”, “Maybe I really am difficult to love”, “Maybe I really am stupid & ugly & lucky to have married him”.) And when outsiders echo my self-blame and doubts, you are only undoing her work, and it takes me another week or month to tell myself that abuse was his choice and not something I deserved.
No one deserves to be abused, and I’m still telling myself that, 4 years since the divorce.
Aliyyah is a survivor of domestic violence who currently does peer support for other Muslim women experiencing abuse in their marriage, or those going through a divorce. She hopes to do a Masters in Counselling one day.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu