by Sutera Merah
[Content warning for descriptions of domestic violence]
“Alice, Can you help me cross the road, please? I don’t know how to do it with the girls.” It was a call of help to my counsellor.
I was at the crossroads of my life and literally standing at the intersection of small roads near the Henderson Waves Bridge. I felt hopeless and angry with myself. Why can’t I even cross the road safely with my girls? What type of mother am I? I have never done that before! I never had the chance to be a mother to my two girls.
Ajele was 7 and Niell was 4 at that time and their upturned faces look puzzled as they turned to look at my panicked face and the speeding traffic.
As a mother, I have never had the chance take them for walks or to push the Britax and MacLaren pram or prepare their milk in the expensive Dr Brown baby bottles from the Baby espresso milk dispenser. As a working mother, everything was paid for by me but motherhood was something I never got to experience.
February 2015 was the start of a new chapter of my life. That was the day when I walked out of my expensively renovated matrimonial home with my two girls. We had nothing but the clothes that we were wearing. It was the most difficult decision I had to make at that time but I remember thinking it is now or never.
I have always been there physically for my daughters. The only time I had to leave my kids were for same-day business trips to Jakarta which I normally did once or twice a month. Every time before I left the house to catch the first-morning flight, I will try to kiss the girls while they were sleeping but their father will get angry and I have to obey him to avoid any unnecessary rage. I will try to call them after my meeting before heading to the airport to catch the last flight back to Singapore but their father will ignore my calls and when I reached home at the wee hours of the night and missing them so much, all I could do was look at them from a distance and go to sleep. I am not allowed to have any emotional or physical contact with them like a mother usually does.
He gets angry very easily. I felt like I was in a competitive race in our own marriage. He had to be the champion in everything and he controls everything. My only responsibility was to go to work and bring back the money so that he can spend it for the kids or have expensive meals with his friends and boast about how much he had spent on the house renovation, how expensive the girls’ school fees and stuff were, how much money he spent on his hobby and the things he bought online.
Anytime he didn’t get his way, I will be punished and beaten up. Every conversation with him will end up with bashing, verbal and sometimes leading to physical abuse. I had scars on my forehead, cuts on my lips and near my eyebrows. Today I have scars and pain physically and emotionally. One particular bad incident was being kicked hard on my back because I refused to have sex with him. I still suffer from backache and cannot sit or stand still too long because of the pain.
I was called fat and ugly throughout most of the 12 years of marriage. I do not remember a moment of happiness at all. I was beaten even while pregnant with my eldest daughter, Ajele. It was with a 1.5-litre bottle filled with mineral water at my workplace. He took it and hit my head hard with it, I was eight months pregnant then. His rage was uncontrollable and I was constantly afraid of him.
“Mommy, the milk doesn’t taste the same like how daddy makes it…” Ajele will cry out. I did not even know how many scoops of milk powder should go into the cheap milk bottle that I bought after we left home.
I did not even know how to cook their brown rice and iron their school uniform the way he did it. There were many things about taking care of my children that I did not know.
I wish I had the strength to stand up to my husband and do it all but I just walked out from my abusive husband and everything was new to me.
My heart broke so often as I asked the difficult questions. Did I make the right decision? Who am I to decide what is right and what is wrong? Do I have the right to take away the children from their father who had been taking care of them since they were born? Do they deserve this separation? Will they blame me for doing this? Why must I take away their privileges…their clothes, books, toys and their father, grandfather and grandmother who stayed a few blocks away from us? It was an exhausting mental conflict of emotions that I had to face then.
Shit!! Guilt!! I don’t like it! Even recounting these memories are inviting triggers of my traumatic experiences. I could feel my mind and body going through a turmoil of emotions and physical sensations.
Marriage was hell from the start but I chose to be in it because I felt that I was expected to stay. Once you are married you are deemed to be in it for life.
I was always planning to run away safely even before the girls were born, but I was worried about what society would think of me. How will my friends and clients think? How will my religion judge me? I am a Muslim and Allah does not like divorce. No one will believe my story because I never told anyone before. The only one who knew was my late brother and I am sure he and my late dad will not let this abuse happen if they were around.
I am a bad Muslim!! I was so worried about everyone’s thoughts except my own.
Shit! Another trigger moment as my mind went back to that time.
And I tried to make things right….
“I will give you a year to change and make things better. I will try to be a better wife and mother too… If not I will leave!!!”
It wasn’t a threat at all. I was calm and tactful so as not to cause any sparks of violence.
“Fuck you!! Trust me you will never leave this marriage, you takut (scared) with the title Mak Janda (divorcee). Your family, especially your sister, will be so malu (ashamed), your so high-class image is so important to your family. You will never do that or you will see me cutting the children into halves!! I won’t give you what you want. Never!!”
At that time, me, my family, my society, my people, my religion believe that as a Muslim, I should not initiate a divorce. Instead, I should learn how to cope and be patient, no matter how tough the situation is. I am supposed to stay in this abusive marriage and learn to survive. I must learn to be a better wife so that he will be a better man and will not be violent.
The next day after I left the marriage, my father in law came to my workplace and told me that I should stay in the marriage. As a Muslim wife, it was wrong to walk out.
“…dosa besar seorang isteri keluar rumah tanpa izin suami…”
(“…it’s a big sin for a wife to leave the home without the husband’s permission…”)
Really? You want to talk to me about rights? My rights as a Muslim woman?
What about him? His responsibility as a husband? A Muslim Husband?
Does he have the right to hit his wife and daughter? Does Islam allow that?
And what about my father in law?
Does he know of his responsibility towards his grandchildren, if not towards me?
My father in law is a good man who practices everything based on being a good Muslim. He is at the mosque every day volunteering his time and people will go to him for advice but unfortunately, his son was a rebel and hates being a Muslim and does not practise at all. And yet, he uses religion against me! He would always say that as a Muslim woman, I should do this and not this…As a Muslim woman, I will go to hell for everything I do against him.
Why do you use religion to attack me?
I feel sad at how my society often uses religion to back up their unreasonable statements or bring someone down as if my children and I are actually asking to be abused.
Religion is the reason for everything. When you go through a tough time it is not just because you are not religious enough.
“Tu la, kau tak sembahyang, pasal tu semua ni jadi kat kau, kau tengok cik so and so, rezeki tak putus putus…” my older aunts will say.
(“That’s why la… you don’t pray, that’s why all of this happened to you, you look at aunt so and so, her fortune has never ceased,”)
Damn It !!
Why must you use faith as a reason for everything?
What about my friends of other faith traditions? They are happy that their God did not punish them.
Allah must be punishing your daughter who lost a baby and another daughter that had emergency surgery because of unexplained pain. Is that Allah’s punishment? But they pray five times a day and wear the hijab and recite the Quran. They are so religious but why are they having difficult moments too?
I might not wear the hijab but I read the Quran and understand the fundamentals of being a Muslim. My Dad taught me how to be a better person, not because of religion, but as a human being and from a cultural perspective I am expected to be well-mannered.
My dad prayed and is a religious man but he never restricted us becoming friends with people of different faith traditions. In fact, I was given other religious books on my 18th birthday to read and understand other religions. Because he had given me a strong foundation of being a Muslim, I am not shaken by other religions. I have a better understanding of my friends with different faiths than a lot of people I know.
Festive occasions like Hari Raya became the most difficult time for a homeless single mom like me. For two years I was not allowed to announce to the visitors who came to my sister’s home that I was going through a divorce and that I am staying with my mother and her at the house. I had to cover up the shame that I brought to the family and went along with the sham. On one occasion my girls and I were asked to stay away from her house and only returned after her guests had already left.
“Kak, my friends all don’t know that you are separated, if they know, my whole office will gossip…” was her excuse.
It happened on a weekday night and my kids normally go to bed by 7pm. But because they think that me coming out from an abusive marriage is embarrassing to them, it was more important that the kids and I have to stay up at the library until it closes. It was one of the lowest points of my life.
I would have thought that my family would be proud of me for walking out of that abusive marriage. The truth dawned on me then. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are for you to leave a marriage. It is embarrassing for them.
I always feel that I did the right thing for me and my children by walking out of the marriage, even if I truly saw how our society judges us.
“Kalau kita dulu dulu, mana nak cerai berai, kita sabar aje sampai ke tua .. Budak budak sekarang salah sikit aje nak cerai.. tak kuat iman!”
(“In the past, we wouldn’t just get a divorce, we would be patient till our old age… Kids these days, just a little problem and they want to get a divorce.. their faith is not strong!”
That came from my late dad’s best friend when he came to visit my mom and I was there. Give me a break! At this point, I am already so furious with this society for judging and bad mouthing me, even in front of me.
The trauma that my children and I went through for the last 4 years was enough for us. What we need is more support and understanding and not any more judgements and punishment.
The stigma that has been formed by people around us, from the social service sector that thinks that we are lazy and bad for the society, to a legal system based on laws that put single mothers at a disadvantage. Even while working at a major company with no one to help me with childcare, was a huge struggle. I could not share with my employer my problems and eventually quit.
It took me years but eventually, I met and got in touch with organisations and people who could help. I started opening up to the right people and learnt how to ask for help. My children and I rebuilt our lives. I am glad that my path now leads to a different journey.
I am thankful that I went on to cross that road and opened another door where I could see that there is another world that I could create for myself.
A door that opens up to a beautiful view of positive and supportive friends and allies. It is still difficult but the future looks bright from where I stand.
Sutera Merah loves life to the fullest
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu