By Ayla Suraya
(Content Warning for Partner Violence and descriptions of abuse)
My mother’s experience of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) or domestic violence has definitely had an impact on me. Growing up, my mother would share problems that she should have confided in her spouse or a therapist and my parents’ marriage was the first model of relationship that I knew.
I will write about her marriage from my perspective as her child. That being said, I will write under a pen name to protect the identities of those I write about, especially the victims and survivors of domestic violence.
When I was young, she shared an experience that I would identify as spiritual abuse. “Aku haramkan kau keluar dari rumah!” — my father forbade my mother from going out, even if it was to shop for groceries. Later, she felt her knees gave way. She truly believed his curse worked.
She felt guilty for going against my father’s word and it doesn’t help that society has instilled fear and guilt in Muslim wives for “disobedience,” They are told to always listen to their husbands, even when it goes against their better judgement. If it that were true, it was unjust of God to let that happen to my mother. Why are experiences of violence against women merely a test? Why do we insist victims of violence will get their salvation in their hereafter, but not now?
It is frustrating to me how society uses religion as a blanket excuse and tool to “comfort” victims. It isn’t comforting. You are on the abuser’s side when you disregard the violence.
My mother had two miscarriages before she had me. My parents had been married for at least five years then. My father accused her of killing them so that he couldn’t have his first child. He claimed that she doesn’t care since she had two children from her previous marriage.
She recounted her feelings of extreme guilt after the miscarriages. She saw the hospital nurses write “abortion” on the medical records. I explained to her that technically, the procedure to remove the dead fetus from the womb is abortion, but the cause of the fetus’ death is still miscarriage. It is still an accident. The stigma on abortion didn’t make it easier on my mother.
Unrelated to the miscarriage, my mother visited the doctor after they got physical during an argument, more than 20 years ago. Her doctor advised her not to egg him on since traditionally, men have greater physical strength. Perhaps, her doctor meant well. However, he still victim-blamed my mother. His words have stuck to her when physical fights happen now with my brother and me. It further debilitates her from taking action. Medical professionals need better sensitivity training to deal with victims of violence if they haven’t already.
The sex tape
All of us got Personal Protection Orders (PPOs) a few years ago. My mother should’ve gotten it for all of us from the get-go. We found his sex tape when I was 15 – solid proof he was cheating on my mother.
My mother barged into my room, panicking. We watched the sex tape together till bile rose in my throat. My mother apologised but she desperately needed a witness. There were no other adults in the house, except for her and my father, the cheater. I had a plan: download the video into my laptop and drop the evidence at Sharia court. She can finally divorce him. Perfect exit strategy!
But my mother was scatterbrained. Guilt overcame her for snooping into his stuff. She couldn’t believe she found incriminating evidence.
So, she didn’t follow my plan. She couldn’t think straight and my patience wore thin. My father was awakened by my outburst. He was drunk. They argued. He hurled a standing fan at her and missed. I was in my room with the doors locked. I jotted down what I heard. Everything happened so fast.
Immediately, my mother called the police on him. She ratted him out for the sex tape, but the police were useless without a PPO. My father then blamed my mother for not “giving it” to him. He was at fault. He betrayed us all. Yet he had the audacity to play the victim card.
The sex tape divorce plan never worked out. My mother figured requesting for a maintenance order was better. But my father haggled with the judge. He doesn’t have a criminal record. So, we didn’t get much.
My father and our family were referred to PAVE for counselling. Our social worker went through the concept of the cycle of violence. She warned that though he may be in a ‘honeymoon phase’ (meaning: he calmed down), doesn’t mean the volcano is dormant and is not preparing for another eruption.
She explained how abusers have a distorted sense of right and wrong. Ask them: why do you hit your wife? Why not go one step further and kill her? and you’d be surprised at how they’d react to such a question. These abusers reasoned it would be too much; I’m not that cruel. Abusers don’t always see themselves or their actions as abusive. They would justify how their abuse can still be “ethical”. That is exactly how my father is and how he justified his actions to the police.
The systemic support ended there. I don’t remember an active follow up to check in on whether he had truly changed. Perhaps there isn’t enough manpower to rehabilitate abusers. The system disappoints me again.
Another marriage on rocks
My sister admitted she filed for divorce to demonstrate to our mother that they can both liberate themselves from their toxic marriages. She was willing to go above and beyond to become a springboard for our mother’s divorce. She believed what was holding out mother back was her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being divorced by her first husband, my sister’s father.
But it isn’t easy to get our mother to move on. She is traumatized from being divorced without prior notice, being cheated on, and barely has any stable income as a homemaker.
She is convinced that my younger brother and I will spiral downwards just like our older half-siblings should a divorce happen. She is only staying put for the “financial safety net,” because a few hundred dollars does make a difference in running a household and supporting us for our survival.
My mother plans for a divorce once my younger brother and I are rich enough to get her a lawyer so that she doesn’t have to bear the humiliation of going to court a second time. She is still very traumatized by her first divorce.
My father threatened to hit me last year. I quickly shut him up by threatening to record his threats on video and hand it over to the police. He now knows that I won’t hesitate to take him down, so the abuse trickles down to my younger brother. I think my brother still has a soft spot for him. Perhaps he feels sorry for our father, because of how cold and hostile I am. My father gets my younger brother’s hopes up and promises to change, but he doesn’t.
My brother slut-shames his mistresses when they argue. It feels as though he is still coddling our father. If he stops “delegating” the blame, our father will definitely get the message that he doesn’t buy into his nonsense anymore. Because then, he’d be forcing our father to take full responsibility for his choices.
Because my mother was divorced, my father sees him marrying my mother as “selamatkan kau dari jadi janda” – saving her from the embarrassment of being a divorced widow. Therefore, he feels entitled to her and to degrade her.
A pattern of abuse I noticed in my father is how he picks fights after midnight up till 6am. That’s when everyone is home and he can show off his “power”. In that time period, the neighbours can hear him play the victim: how he is supposedly disrespected as the man of the household.
My father is strategic in his abuse. I don’t believe that every instance of his abuse is done out of blind anger. He does stop to consider if something can be used against him.
I told my ustazah at 15 that I stopped believing in marriage. She asked why — Well, my father cheated on my mother. She said that it was no excuse to denounce the sanctity of marriage. She was someone I trusted and respected. For a while, I tried reconciling with the idea. But whether I was 15 or 22, I still feel the same way.
Why is god on my father’s side? Why does my own community not care about their women being abused? Why don’t they support vulnerable women who want a way out?
Why did my ustazah place a greater importance on the acceptance from the prophet in the hereafter more than my feelings of hurt and heartbreak? Why do religious leaders endorse spousal violence on state newspapers, not caring that they are putting our lives in danger?
Why does the justice system make it so difficult and tedious for victims and their families to demand help? Why do they pretend to care but stab us in the back by allowing our abusers bail? With a PPO! Who were you to decide that wasn’t our best shot at a way out?
Where were you when we cried out for help?
My anger is justified. I don’t buy into the idea of abuse happens for a reason or people experience abuse because it will make them stronger and wiser. No. Abuse happens because abusers are messed up. It is unfortunate that some people experience abuse.
I had a rough childhood. I had difficulty expressing myself. I skipped school because I felt like I couldn’t face the world. I felt my entire physical-self was transparent when people glanced at me as though they could see through my problems. Because I wasn’t fluent in English, I was viewed as unintelligent and adults found it easier to invalidate my experiences and feelings. None thought to help me get support to deal with whatever issues I had trouble communicating. That has contributed significantly to my self-esteem issues.
After the ordeal, I packed our bags and dragged my brother with me to stay over our sister’s for a week. If my mother had to deal with my father on her own, so be it. I can only protect myself and my brother. I can do that much as a 15-year-old child.
It was refreshing to just focus on myself and one child sibling. My mother can deal with her adult feelings and issues on her own. I was so overdependent on my mother, emotionally, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have any qualms or guilt about leaving home. It was liberating yet the most selfish thing I’ve done. We weren’t coming home till she deals with her humiliation of going to court and applied for our PPOs.
That was also the period when my brother and I cried together and shared our fears. We contemplated what home meant to us. We bonded over shared history.
One Raya, sometime after the PPO ordeal, I told my mother I have forgiven her for not protecting us. She seemed very confused. I became distraught that she didn’t want to admit she was also abusive, though passively. She sees herself as the victim in all situations. That confrontation was not something she had expected.
I held it together by focusing on school and did well for myself. But the year I sat for my O’ levels was the year I finally spiralled downwards. I stopped journaling. I stopped going to therapy in school. I stopped dealing with my feelings. I was tired.
Now, at 22 years old, I have a love-hate relationship with my mother. She thought that by staying put, she was protecting us. I thought she was being selfish and only wanted to protect herself. But the truth is, she wasn’t even protecting herself.
Now that I volunteer for an NGO championing women’s rights, she gets quiet whenever I mention it. I think she feels somewhat attacked because it relates back to our experiences of domestic violence. It is very hard to bounce back from something like this.
I don’t want to end this off on a depressing note. I don’t consider myself to be a victim anymore, but a survivor despite living under the same roof with my abusers. Certain factors have helped me survive and empower myself, such as education, financial safety nets from extended family, affiliations to certain organisations and the opportunities I receive.
But also, I can’t guarantee that if you follow a certain path, for instance, that you can dig your way out of abuse. You can’t blame the victims for their experiences of abuse and their current state.
Empowering victims means the justice system needs to put them first, and not their abusers. Religious communities need to stop using religion against victims. Don’t tell them to “jaga aib suami” and guilt trip them into staying, endangering their lives and the children. When abuse happens at home, it’s not just an individual’s problem. It’s everyone’s.
If you or someone you know is facing partner/domestic violence don’t hesitate to call the Women’s Helpline at 1800 777 5555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are facing any kind of sexual violence, call the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) hotline at 6779 0282 or email email@example.com.
Some organizations you can turn to:
Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE)
Blk 211 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, #01-1446
Tel: 6555 0390
SAFE Programme (Stop Abuse in Families)
Address: Blk 411 Bedok North Avenue 2,
#01-106, Singapore 460411
Telephone: 6449 0762
Syariah Court of Singapore
Address: Family Link@ Lengkok Bahru,
8 Lengkok Bahru #03-01,
Telephone: 63548371, Monday to Friday, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
A PPO can be applied for at:
Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE)
Blk 211 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, #01-1446
Tel: 6555 0390
TRANS SAFE Centre
Blk 410 Bedok North Avenue 2, #01-58
Tel: 6449 9088
Care Corner Project StART
Blk 7A Commonwealth Ave, 01-672
Ayla Suraya just graduated from school and she is unsure of what is next. When she is not talking to herself, she watches videos of cute korean cats and kids trying out different food.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu