I was sitting on my bed doing my homework when my sister opened the door and silently crept into the room, as though walking on eggshells. I warily watched her progress across the room and raised an eyebrow in a silent question when she plopped down onto the bed next to me. She shrugged in reply and grabbed the TV remote, ignoring me. I went back to the words I was writing on my notebook for school. It was a normal day at the Ahmed household… if you ignored the constant voices in the background yelling at one another.
Our eldest sibling, Sarah, was fighting with our father for hurting our mother. Again. Our 15-year-old sibling had unconsciously stepped into the role of ‘savior’ ever since she was old enough to defend the woman who gave birth to us all. It did not matter how rich our father was, it did not matter how much bigger or stronger he was, it did not matter how many times he would lock her in the cupboard before leaving for work only to let her out in the evening, it did not matter how much his voice made the rest of us quake in our shoes; Sarah was always there to the rescue. She was the only one he could not control; and he hated it.
Two years on Sarah would leave for the States to pursue her studies, and would grow into a self-made businesswoman the likes of which our family had never seen. My other siblings and I would follow suit, taking our mother with us. Our father would be left behind, unable to understand that we had all finally left him; gone as far away as money and talent could take us, never to look back again.
My mother had always been the meek, stereotypical housewife who would bend backwards in order to please her husband and in-laws. Maybe that is the reason why they almost killed her for it. Domestic violence does not necessarily have to be physical. My father was quite adept at manipulating us as a family, making my mother feel cornered and helpless on more than one occasion when his sisters would ridicule and bully her endlessly; he would keep us all entirely dependent on him for the smallest amount of money, making us feel completely worthless as our mother begged for enough to scrape by the next day; he would constantly throw tantrums about the slightest of things, whether it was a dirty cup in the kitchen sink or a phone call with my maternal grandfather which lasted more than a few minutes; we were always walking on eggshells inside the house. One never knew what action or word would set him off.
Stress and tension caused my mother to gain an inordinate amount of weight. Her own family would ridicule her for it and before my father, no less. When we would reach home after attending a family dawat he would continue the insults from where they had left off, carrying them forward way into the night. Sometimes we would hear sounds of a scuffle coming from their bedroom at odd hours, a scream quickly stifled followed by a thud. All would be completely quiet as we would all collectively hold our breath under our blankets; afraid to go back to sleep until the sun rose over the horizon the next day and it was time for school again.
We would find our mother in the kitchen, already cooking our breakfast when we would go down early morning; the smile on her face making us question what we had heard during the night. Our father would enter just as we would sit down at the table, loudly making a comment about how beautiful the morning was, and engaging each and everyone into conversation until we would unconsciously relax. As we would leave for school, my siblings and I would notice tell-tale signs about our mother’s pain: a slight limp that was becoming more pronounced with each passing minute, a grimace as one of us accidentally touched her on her arm or back, a small bruise on the side of her face that she had deftly hidden behind her hair…
By the end of the day, she would find it difficult to walk down the stairs so we would be obliged to lay the dinner table and Sarah take her dinner upstairs to her room. None of us would have the courage to confront our father. In a few days, all would be back to normal; until the cycle would repeat again.
Eight years on, when I look at our mother now, I see a different woman. Gone is the meek, frightened girl who got married at the age of eighteen into a family that was too rich for comfort. Now, she is a strong, independent woman with a small business of her own in the States. She is a woman to reckon with, who gives others as good as she gets. We visit Pakistan every year; and each visit is more amusing than the next. The people of this country are not used to being faced with strong women; they do not know how to handle a woman who knows what she wants and is able to support herself without a man by her side.
If it were not so amusing, it would be sad. Each time my mother and I visit Pakistan, we are faced with at least one family member who can’t resist sending a jibe about our “broken” family our way, trying to make my mother feel guilty about leaving my father. It is almost comical to see the expression on their faces when my mother responds with the truth, leaving the person red-faced with anger and embarrassment.
“If you’re so worried about my husband, why don’t you move in with him?” I remember her flippantly asking a “concerned” female relative at a family gathering. The blustering comeback almost made me burst out into peals of laughter.
Our society is so used to gossiping about other people’s woes, that they cannot handle it when those same people turn around and show them the mirror. Where were these same “concerned” family members when my mother was being abused over the years? Where were these same well-wishers when my siblings and I were beaten to within an inch of our lives for not doing the homework correctly or for being five minutes late to study practice at six o’clock in the morning, every morning? Where were these same relatives when my eldest sibling was locked in the cupboard for an entire day as a “punishment”, every other week?
Please do not bother to fake your interest in my family now, when you could never be bothered to show any real interest when we were falling apart at the seams. The only regret my mother and siblings have is that we never dared to bare the cruelty that was present in every corner of our home; we hid it from the world, naively believing that it would end or that the world could not see what was happening, even as we hid our bruises underneath our sleeves. The world knows everything; it just pretends otherwise. There is no wisdom in hiding behind false hopes; speak out against violence, whether within the home or out of it. The world may not instantly jump up and snatch you away from all your problems; but speaking out against battery and other forms of abuse is always the first step towards healing. Accept it. Confront it. Take action against it. You can change your life one step at a time.
The author of this narrative has requested anonymity.*