The image in the mirror was "me," covered in fake golden jewelry that was itchy on my neck and heavy on my ear lobes. My mother had ordered my cousins to do my hair. The tight oily braid clawed my skull in a paralysing headache. Pins held together the veiled dupatta with golden borders on my head. Hands on my lap, I dreaded the moment the voices outside would stop and I would be asked to step out. The mirror reflected someone else, with bright lips and makeup; it looked like me, yet not me.
My name is Hiba and this is my story. The story of a small-town girl with small dreams trapped in a reality that never belonged to me in the first place.
With each step I took, the tea tray threatened to fall from my shaking, sweaty palms. The flimsy dupatta was the only barrier between us, when I offered him tea that first day. His eyes intimidated me as I lowered mine and I refused to look up when I sat down in front of him. My mother giggled like a teenager when she lifted the dupatta from my face and my dad nervously looked at him for approval. He nodded with a sinful smile and the room suddenly filled with excitement. My heartbeat did not stop. Nobody showed concern to whether I was happy or not. But honestly, looking back, it doesn’t matter, because I see things differently now. I know that my mother had passed down all her fears and insecurities to me and my sister, growing up. That was the culture. My grandma did the same to my mother and all seven of her sisters.
I remember growing up afraid of my own thoughts. Thoughts that I was taught were satanic, but they were normal questions everyone ask themselves growing up. I remember how my mother would taunt us about showering naked.
“A woman,” she always said, “should always cover her body, even in the shower.” From that day on, I had always showered with my clothes on. I remember the first day I had dared to shower naked, I almost died of shame. I had never seen my body before. I remember praying extra forgiveness to Allah.
The Nikah was decided to be held on the next day—“a very good day,” my dad had said—Friday after the afternoon prayer. Why so fast? Because he had to get back to his country for his business. Where was that? From conversation behind the closed door, I heard Canada. Such a cold and lonely word, I thought. My cousins had started teasing me. They said I was lucky that I was going to be getting on a plane with a charming foreigner who spoke English. They said he was very good looking and that I was going to live like a queen in his house. I hadn’t dared to look at him, so I couldn’t tell.
He, of course, was, Ashfaq Al-Abas. He came a very long way, they said, to marry me.
The Nikah was a quiet ceremony with our relatives and neighbours. From his side was only a friend, but it was okay; his family was settled abroad and this marriage had been a quick affair. I wore my mother’s white wedding kurta that had stained over time and smelled of long ago.
In a faint murmur, I had repeated “kubool” three times to the imam and the small crowd cheered and congratulated each other. The mirror was placed between us to look at each other. He was fair skinned with light brown eyes and an approving smile. I shied away.
My mother cried a lot when I was leaving. My cousins teased me in between sobs and hugs.
The driver had a hard time on the road because the car was overly decked with flowers.
We had stopped at a hotel that night and when he came into the room, his breath smelled like alcohol, forbidden in our religion. He bent over me on the bed, lifted the veil and groaned. To my twenty-year-old self, that sounded much like confusion and shame. Everything after that went in a flash, he turned away and slept, leaving me sore and confused to what had just happened.
I was taught to not ask question and to accept in silence everything that was thrown my way.
My mother had told me the night before, after marriage a girl becomes a woman and a woman’s body only belongs to her husband; that I should never say no and never refuse him anything.
From the airport that day I had returned to my parents’ house. I stayed there for 9 months while I sent the paperwork for completion as he had said. Nothing had changed, except for my mother, who grew stricter. My dupatta should always cover my head and I was not to talk to strangers—men. Not even the fruit vendor for the price of mangoes and I was not allowed to come in front of men in our own house. I was to stay in the kitchen or lock myself in my room. My mother would slap me if I dared venture out even if to just use the washroom.
The flight was long and the food was disgusting. I was tired with a lingering headache from the motion when the taxi driver drove me home.
I dragged my stuff to a small room at the end of the house. The house was small and lonely. Nothing like the way everyone had said. I opened the window and stared at this strange landscape, where everything was clean and organised. Houses in a row. Cars in the driveway. I remember thinking they were all rich because they all had cars. The grass was green everywhere. There were trees orderly planted in each yard. The houses were the same height and width. Same size. Same colour. My eyes started to close.
“Who are you?” A woman’s voice startled me out of my drowsiness. “What the hell are you doing in my house?”
She looked at me from head to toe in disgust. She had no dupatta on, no sleeves, her kurta was up to her waist, and her salwar was so tight. But she smelled good.
“Salaam, my name is Hiba. I am the wife of Ashfaq Al-Abas.” My voice quivered on his name. It was the first time I had said it.
“Do you know him? Are you his sister?” I said excitedly, feeling proud of myself.
She stared at me with contempt. “I hope this is a joke.”
“No, sister, mother says girls shouldn’t joke because laughter is the second form of the Devil.”
“Don’t you call me sister, you bloody illiterate!”
That’s when he came in, Ashfaq. The woman exchanged rapid English words with him, leaving me more in wonder than understanding. When the yelling stopped, he marched angrily towards me, grabbing my arms and dragging me out of the house.
“What are you doing? Let me go. It hurts.”
“Not a word,” he said, and I dutifully obeyed.
If you are wondering, yes, that was my first mistake.
“Go away,” he said, once outside.
I had begged and cried but he shut the door anyway. I had stayed there on the doorstep the whole night, cold and hungry, but he never showed compassion. I should have run then, but I was never taught how to walk away when being wronged, and mother had clearly said that home was with him now. After day two, the neighbours started showing concern and that’s when he let me in again. But it hadn’t been for me, it was for himself. He didn’t want the police involved.
That’s when the nightmare began.
He had his wife and three kids: two girls and a boy. Why did he marry me, then? For the dowry. Now all the monthly excuses for money made sense. He just wanted my father’s money. My father didn’t have a lot but he had more than anybody else in our neighbourhood. I was given the garage to sleep in on a thin blanket that smelled; some nights it was so cold that I thought my limbs would snap if I moved. And in the middle of the night, he would use me, then beat me until he couldn’t catch his breath. For three years, I watched someone else live the life promised to me.
I never went out. His wife, Khadijah, was no less than him. The house should be spotless, kids fed, taken care of, and food cooked. Still every day there was a new complaint, punished in beatings that I was not allowed expressing, not even in sobs as my skin scarred for life.
As a woman, brought up like I was, questions were never an option. Mother said to accept everything in silence. Being a daughter, I should never disobey my mother. I never questioned my situation. I couldn’t complain, grieve, or feel pain. Pain was only truly expressed at a funeral or at the farewell bidding of a bride, where a woman is to express weakness in tears. In any other situation, the voice of a woman would storm outrage in the whole community and lead to labels.
I was sitting on a bed; it was hard on my bruised and wounded body. The way the mattress cupped my body was suffocating and terrifying. The room was lit, and I had to turn it off out of habit. Expecting a slap or the clap of the belt, I flinched.
“Why are you sitting in the dark?” Officer Price asked, poking his head through the open door.
“Habit,” I said in a heavy accent.
“Then we’ll change that,” he said, moving towards me.
I backed away slightly and he stopped.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you,” he said, choosing the chair at the other end of the room to sit.
I can never thank Allah enough that three-year-old Zara played with the phone, resulting in Officer Price showing up at the door and seeing me, bleeding from fresh blows. The street was illuminated with sirens in the minutes that followed. Ashfaq and Khadijah were taken and arrested, and the kids entrusted to social services.
After the ambulance treated my wounds, Officer Price drove me along these foreign roads I had only seen from the window.
“Would you please take me back?” I said, my voice weighing on this strange silence.
“No, to the house.”
“You don’t understand, I have to go back. He is my husband. What will I do without him?”
“Are you serious?”
“He is going to be angry and hit me again because I am out of the house without him. He is my husband and I belong to him.”
He walked out without a word and didn’t let me go back even when I withdrew the case against them. Part of me will always be happy I never did.
Years down the road, all of this seems like a bad dream, one you can’t remember much because things got better and happier.
Trust doesn’t ever come easier, and the farther people remain, the safer I feel. No one knows about my past, and it’s better this way; the past has no place in the present, and the present will only be the part you want it to be in your future.
I talked to my mother sometime in between and told her everything that happened. Her response was to “go back to your husband.”
I respected her advice and accepted that she could never understand. She never talked to me again after I refused.
And I never went back.
Yushra Khodabocus is a second-year Professional Writing student at Algonquin College. She is originally from the tropical island of Mauritius, where her love of words was inspired by the various languages she grew up speaking. She is passionate about writing and reading and strongly believes in the right to speak and be heard.